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New 'Call of Duty' Continues to Shred Sales Records

Thursday, 18 Nov 2010 | 2:14 PM ET

Activision’s latest “Call of Duty” game continues to set records for the company. The video game publisher announced Thursday that in its first five days on store shelves, “Call of Duty: Black Ops” has generated sales of $650 million.

Call of Duty Black Ops
Source: Activision
Call of Duty Black Ops

That’s $100 million better than last year’s “Modern Warfare 2,” which set a new bar for the video game industry — as well as the entertainment industry at large. Activision claims the opening is the biggest ever for any movie, book or video game.

It’s the second record in a week for the game, which raked in $360 million in its first 24 hours on sale, moving 5.6 million copies. With those numbers, “Call of Duty” has become one of the top entertainment properties of all time and this latest installment is now expected to generate over $1 billion in retail sales worldwide over the holiday period.

GameStop, Amazon and Target have indicated that “Black Ops” was the largest video game launch in their history. Colin Sebastian, an analyst with Lazard Capital Markets, estimates the game has sold 10 million retail copies in its first week — and now believes it will exceed his initial estimate of 16 million copies sold during the fourth quarter.

Activision’s not ready to up its forecasts yet, however. “We remain cautiously optimistic,” says Eric Hirshberg, CEO of Activision Publishing. “It’s great that we’re shattering the five-day record, but we’re still at the very early days of the holiday season. … And we need to keep our foot on the gas.”

The five-day numbers are more significant that the opening day figures. Pre-orders for “Black Ops” were tracking ahead of “Modern Warfare 2,” so it was a foregone conclusion it would beat that title’s day one figures. By increasing its lead over its predecessor in the subsequent days, though, “Black Ops” is beginning to stand on its own.

The performance is a vindication for Activision and developer Treyarch, as many gamers and industry observers were doubtful earlier this year that the company would be able to match the quality or sales of “Modern Warfare 2”. Many, in fact, saw this game as a pivotal one for the series.

That’s chiefly because of the abrupt February firings of Jason West and Vince Zampella, studio heads of Infinity Ward (the creator of “Modern Warfare 2”) and the creators of the “Call of Duty” series. A series of particularly ugly lawsuits between the parties soon followed.

Reviews for “Black Ops” have been in the 90s, however. And fans don’t seem concerned about the company’s internal politics.

"This isn't a situation where it's a company employing children making shoes in Indonesia,” says Sebastian. “It's about executives asking for millions of dollars. I don't know if there's any sympathy for Infinity Ward in terms of the mass market."

Beyond the sales achievements, “Black Ops” has also set a pair of records on Microsoft’s Xbox Live — the preferred platform for the game by players.

By the end of Nov. 9 — the game’s launch day — more than 2.6 million players had played “Black Ops”. And cumulatively they had logged more than 5.9 million hours in the multiplayer portion of the game – the equivalent of more than 673 years.

Activision hopes to keep that level of engagement high in the months to come, too.

“You’ll see a steady stream of digital content from us, probably more than we’ve ever had before,” says Hirshberg.

“Call of Duty” isn’t Activision’s only projected big hit this holiday, either. On Dec. 7, the company will release “Cataclysm,” the latest expansion pack for its online game “World of Warcraft”. Analysts note that the release of these expansions tend to drive up subscription numbers for the game, which currently stand at 12 million active players worldwide.

Between that steady stream of subscription income and the long legs of titles with rich multiplayer experiences, like “Black Ops,” it’s not a surprise that Activision plans to stay focused on the online experience.

“If you look at the top 10 games this year, the vast majority are part of established franchises,” says Hirshberg. “I think because gaming is becoming such an online media, there is a real advantage for games that have a built-in community of engaged players.”

Questions? Comments? TechCheck@cnbc.com

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