The television ad accompanying the launch of Call of Duty: Black Ops opens with a woman in a suit walking through a war zone and blasting away with an automatic rifle. Over the next 60 seconds it shows adults from all walks off life - a university student, a balding concierge, a uniformed short order cook - smiling broadly and firing rocket launchers, shotguns, and pistols at one another. It ends with a bold and potentially controversial statement: "There's a soldier in all of us."
Or at least it would be bold and controversial if Call of Duty's success didn't make such a good argument for its validity.
Last year's Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 sold in excess of 20 million copies, placing its revenue north of $1-billion (U.S.). Call of Duty: Black Ops is on track to beat that mark. It sold 5.6 million copies in just 24 hours in North America and Britain, besting Modern Warfare 2's one-day tally of 4.9 million copies and racking up $360-million in the process.
Simply put, Call of Duty is a juggernaut, a franchise of games for grown-ups the likes of which hasn't been seen since, well, ever. Other franchises have ups and downs, but for Call of Duty it's been a steady stream of ups. It has yet to deliver a critical disappointment; each of its seven entries has earned average reviews in the 80- to 90-per-cent range, according to aggregation site Metacritic.
But game store shelves are filled with military-themed first person shooters. What makes Call of Duty so special?
According to Mark Lamia, head of Treyarch, the Santa Monica, Calif.-based studio that developed the franchise's latest entry for publisher Activision, Call of Duty's mojo boils down to dedication and toil "year after year to make great games." His team of 200 developers - one of two large studios that takes turns releasing Call of Duty games every other year in order to keep up the franchise's ambitious goal of releasing a new game each fall - dropped all of their other projects a few years ago and are now focused solely on making Call of Duty games.
For its part, Activision provides Treyarch with the resources to invest in Hollywood voice talent, to carry out performance capture in a high-tech studio originally constructed for the movie Avatar, to bring in real-life American special forces operatives and Russian spetsnaz as consultants and to permanently employ a massive team of testers.
"I have over 80 quality assurance testers employed at my studio," Lamia says. "Even Activision, our publisher, doesn't have that kind of internal quality assurance team."
Then there are the fans. Movie studios have test screenings to get feedback prior to a film's release, but game developers have something even better: online communities. Treyarch taps them through community managers, who work directly with the thousands of gamers who are more than willing to offer recommendations on how to make current and future games better.
"We have a huge, active and vocal community," Lamia says. "It's not difficult for us to find out what people think of our games once they're live and in the wild. We take these suggestions in, and they get mixed into our own creative process."
But while publisher investment and developer dedication can explain the series' continued quality, it doesn't answer the question of why this particular franchise resonates with so many players.
It's tempting to think that it acts as some sort of cathartic release for a society currently at war, but that can't be the only reason. Electronic Arts' recent Medal of Honor reboot, a game set in modern day Afghanistan and part of another well-established franchise, has in one month failed to sell half the copies that Black Ops moved its first day.
Maybe we need look no further than that TV commercial, which so cleverly captures and contrasts what we do in the game with who we really are. Regardless of gender, class, race or profession, maybe there really is a warrior in all of us aching for expression.
Clearly, Call of Duty's makers believe and understand this. Perhaps that's why their games allow us to channel our inner jarhead to such satisfaction.
Special to The Globe and Mail