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Hit game 'Call of Duty' is showing signs of losing its firepower

  • The game was just the ninth-best-selling title from January-April this year
  • Consumer still spent 2% more on games an consoles compared to the same time last year
People wait in line to play 'Call of Duty, Infinite Warfare' at the Paris Games Week show last October.
Chesnot | Getty Images
People wait in line to play 'Call of Duty, Infinite Warfare' at the Paris Games Week show last October.

There's no denying the power of Activision's "Call of Duty." Since its debut in 2003, the venerable franchise has posted sales in excess of $11 billion and is one of the annual tentpoles of the video game industry.

Typically, it's a game that not only dominates the holidays, but holds a commanding spot on the sales charts through the middle of the following year.

But "Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare," last year's entry in the series, has fallen far short of its predecessors.

The game was just the ninth-best-selling title in the January-April sales charts provided by The NPD Group. And that comes as the total spend on video game software is on the rise. (For comparison, 2015's "Call of Duty: Black Ops III" was the second-best-seller in the 2016 midyear rankings.)

Year to date through April (the most recent figures available), U.S. consumers have spent $1.7 billion on console and PC games. That's 2 percent ahead of the same time frame in 2016.

It is, of course, much too early to write "Call of Duty" off as a dying franchise. Initial feedback to the upcoming installment, "Call of Duty: WWII" has been largely positive. The number of favorable reactions to the game on YouTube outweigh negative ones by a better than 10-1 ratio.

That could bode well for the holidays, but so far this year, the big winner among software publishers is Ubisoft, which has seen a pair of early 2017 releases dominate the sales charts. "For Honor," a new franchise that pits Vikings against samurais against knights in a series of battles, and "Tom Clancy's Ghost Recon: Wildlands," an open world action game, have had remarkably strong debuts.

Also showing renewed sales strength, not surprisingly, is Nintendo. The launch of the Switch, the company's latest console, has gone exceptionally well, with retailers unable to keep the system in stock, even though we're still months away from the peak buying season for video game hardware and software.

Nintendo took a few swipes from critics at Switch's launch, who noted that the only appealing game for the system was "The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild." That didn't slow down consumer interest in the long-awaited (and top-reviewed) game. It has proven so popular, in fact, that sales of the Switch version of the game have outsold the number of Switch units that have sold. (The consensus for that is some super-fans are buying both a version to play and a limited edition version for collector's purposes.)

What's most telling about the midyear best-seller list is the number of new intellectual properties on it. Three of the top five games were new franchises to gamers. Another was a complete reimagination of the series.

That speaks to players' desire for something new and different. Missing from the list completely are several franchises that have made appearances in previous years, including EA's "Madden" and "FIFA" games.

Of course, some franchises are stronger than ever. "Grand Theft Auto V," released Sept. 17, 2013, has been a constant presence on the best-seller charts ever since. Year to date, it's the seventh-best-selling title of the 2017 — its four consecutive year on the midyear sales charts.