Will EA’s Medal of Honor Score Big Again?

When Electronic Arts announced its reboot of its “Medal of Honor” franchise would be set in modern-day Afghanistan, it probably didn’t expect to come under this much fire.

Game industry detractors have skewered the company for its initial decision to make the Taliban playable in the game’s multiplayer portion. And analysts (along with investors) worried that the game’s release date put it squarely between two of the year’s biggest titles, which could have a dramatically negative impact on sales. Now, the game’s fate is in the hands of gamers.

Medal of Honor: Taliban
Source: Electronic Arts
Medal of Honor: Taliban

“Medal of Honor” hit stores at 12:01am Tuesday – and while it’s probably not the most important game of the year for EA , it’s one of the most closely watched.

“The thing that’s most important for them is they’re going to be compared to Activision - and I think it’s important for them to offer strong competition to ‘Call of Duty’,” says Billy Pidgeon, senior analyst of M2 Research.

The “Call of Duty” franchise is the biggest threat to “Medal of Honor” – and it has a lot of analysts worried. Last year’s installment – “Modern Warfare 2” – set launch records for the entire entertainment industry, with sales of $550 million in the first five days. Pre-orders for this year’s game – subtitled “Black Ops” - are tracking ahead of that title, indicating another blockbuster is in the works.

Worse still, Microsoft’s launch of “Halo: Reach” could siphon customers as well. With the game posting $200 million in sales on its first day and offering a rich multiplayer component, analysts worry it could hold gamers’ attentions – and distract them from buying anything until “Call of Duty” hits.

But a new study from Lazard Capital Markets shows those concerns could be off base. The firm surveyed consumers and found a surprising 17 percent of respondents planned to buy “Medal of Honor” – just 8 percent below “Call of Duty’s” strong showing.

“’Call of Duty’ [is] still a juggernaut, but ‘Medal of Honor’ [is] gaining traction,” wrote analyst Colin Sebastian.

That’s obviously good news for EA, but it could be beneficial for Sony as well. While “Medal of Honor” is being released on all major platforms, EA has loosely aligned itself with the PlayStation 3 as it markets the game. (Activision, meanwhile, has closer ties to the Xbox 360.)

Sony’s PlayStation Network has struggled to catch up with Xbox Live’s online user base this generation. If “Medal of Honor” proves to be a major hit, that would give it a much-needed boost.

“This could be very important for Sony, because Sony needs to win market share from Microsoft as far as online game play is concerned,” says Pidgeon. “They’re starting to pick up on the console sales, but it’s also important for them to get core gamers to play online on the PlayStation Network.”

The original Medal of Honor, which was released in 1999, cleared the path for other World War II shooter games. With a story created by legendary director Steven Spielberg, it set new standards of realism in video games and was an overwhelming success.

As the years passed, though, a series of less impressive sequels and similar games from other publishers led to consumer fatigue—and dwindling sales.

The reboot, which comes after a three year hiatus for the game, has sparked enough interest among consumers to boost pre-sales to the highest in the franchise’s history. Those sales won’t be coming from military bases, though.

Despite EA’s decision to reverse course and not allow players to play as the Taliban in the game’s multiplayer mode, the Army & Air Force Exchange Service, the purchasing agent for military, opted to stick by its decision not to allow on-base retailers sell the title.

Soldiers will, however, be able to pick up a copy of “Call of Duty: Black Ops”.