Enrico was VP of Product at Activision Publishing running the Free to Play game portfolio and is currently a VP of Product at Roblox. Thoughts and opinions shared in this analysis are strictly his own and do not represent those of his past or present employers.
Activision shut down Call of Duty: Online’s servers at the end of August 2021. I can’t think of a better time to reflect back on this project’s history and its legacy, as arguably one of the most influential Call of Duty products ever made.
Most people in the western hemisphere may not be familiar with Call of Duty: Online (CoDO), a project kicked off in 2010 and announced in 2012 as a partnership between Activision and Tencent, with Activision in charge of development and Tencent as the Chinese publisher of record. The game was developed by Raven, one of the historical CoD mainline studios, and Activision Shanghai, a local team assembled for the project. The mandate was simple, if daunting: to replicate Call of Duty’s worldwide success in China. In order to achieve that goal, the game had to overcome two major challenges: it had to be free-to-play and it had to appeal to the Chinese audience.
Making Call of Duty free
Back when CoDO was conceived, consoles didn’t officially exist in China, AAA Mobile gaming was not yet a ‘thing’ and PC gaming mostly happened at Internet Cafes, where gamers paid to sit in front of computers to play, watch videos, eat, smoke and chat. Given the lack of copyright enforcement, all western games were pirated, making premium games a losing proposition. However, even back then, Chinese players would spend a substantial amount of money in microtransactions which, thanks to a massive gamer population, were driving multiple franchises above the annual billion dollar revenue mark, making the free-to-play model the only way to build a viable business.
When CoDO development started, there was barely any successful 3D free-to-play shooter in the west and free-to-play design as a whole was fairly unexplored outside of Facebook games. The only examples of F2P shooters at scale were Korean (Crossfire) and Chinese (Assault Fire/Ni-Zhan), both focused on pay-to-win mechanics. Although CoD’s multiplayer progression framework introduced by MW in 2007 was somewhat deep and had RPG qualities that could appeal to Chinese players, building a compelling economy around it while maintaining CoD’s skill-based ethos and fairness was a real conundrum.
The first question around non-PVP content (single player campaign, Zombies) was resourcing: non-PVP content required the most development heads and was the least retentive in the long term, since players tended to not return after completing it.
The second question had to do with the in-game economy and how to make purchased (or unlocked) content valuable across all modes while avoiding the creation of sub-scale economies tied to individual modes: historically, CoD modes had been independent games characterized by stand alone progression, currencies, characters, and in-game items, with little to no connecting tissue.
Also, since CoD players tended to gravitate towards one mode (most CoD players self-identified as MP, Zombies, or Campaign players), the traditional CoD content model was inefficient as it had to continue feeding multiple content pillars to equally engage all players.
Appealing to Chinese gamers
The CoD brand problem
In the late 2000’s, Call of Duty had decent brand recognition in China although no CoD product had ever been officially released in the territory. Unsurprisingly, that popularity was mostly driven by the availability of pirated copies in internet cafes and online.
As a consequence, most Chinese players had only played CoD offline campaigns, since there were no official servers running in China, and their experience of the franchise was less around the twitch-y FPS brand CoD was known for, and more about cinematic single player missions. Therefore, although CoD had brand recognition in the country, it didn’t mean the broad Chinese player community was ready to engage with CoD’s core PVP experience.
This meant that CoDO still had to prove its appeal to the Chinese audience. One of the biggest issues was that, at the time, Chinese players did not have an ‘FPS DNA’: they grew up mostly playing MMORPGs and were attracted to their complex meta systems vs. western shooters’ core gameplay. Another MMORPG-related bias was the expectation of continuous content updates, visually different challenges/upgrades and a metagame focused on progression and cosmetic rarity.
The Counter-Strike Legacy
Counter-Strike was the one shooter that Chinese players had practice with in the mid 2000s, a time when access to worldwide products was more limited. It laid the FPS blueprint in the country and shaped the collective expectation of what an FPS was supposed to look and play like, similarly to what World of Warcraft did for MMORPGs. That caused, among other things, a general bias towards streamlined controls (no aiming down sight, always running, no proning), simpler and smaller maps and a big focus on Bomb/ Search & Destroy as the default mode, with its slower, more strategic pace.
The most successful PC shooters in China embodied these ideas and delivered on both fronts: Crossfire by Korean developer Smilegate started as a Counter-Strike clone with a China-friendly aesthetic. It launched to little fanfare in Korea but it became the de facto FPS standard in China thanks to a massive focus on continuous releases of new (and often left-field) modes (ranging from bike racing to ‘soccer with knives’) and extravagant, overpowered, expensive weapons and outfits catering to local taste.
Ni-Zhan was the local competitor to Crossfire and the first FPS developed by a then unknown internal Studio called TiMi. Although it never reached the scale of Crossfire, it was a more modern product with better monetization hooks and clever differentiation through strong focus on PVE, progression and customization, and the objective of attracting non-FPS gamers to playing a FPS-looking, RPG-feeling product: the core experience was comparable to a dungeon crawler with in-game progression, maps full of bottlenecks, hundreds of brainless monsters, and massive bullet-spongy bosses. Ni-Zhan was often described as a ‘one-handed’ FPS, since players would stand in front of choke points and decimate enemies with one hand on the mouse, while holding a cigarette in the other.
Both games were incredibly successful and powered by humongous content machines that could deliver maps, weapons, modes, and items at a regular cadence, thanks to a combination of large teams and a low bar for asset fidelity and design complexity.
Development and Launch
These challenges made CoDO’s development more complex and longer than initially expected. Development started around 2010 with the game announced in 2012 and shipped to the public in January of 2015, after undergoing multiple design iterations.
By the end of 2013, the game’s design was still rooted in classic CoD, but with paid cosmetics; at that point, the team decided to take a step back and put the game through several controversial changes which broke many of Call of Duty’s traditional design tenets, necessary for an effective transition to free-to-play.
From a structural standpoint, CoDO didn’t veer too far from the traditional Black Ops framework: there was a single player ‘campaign’ with a loose story told through a few short linear missions (played on MP maps), an MP experience with traditional progression over classic (mostly Modern Warfare 1 and 2) maps, and a PVE offering with a revised version of World at War’s iconic “Nacht Der Untertoten,” taking place in a dystopian Cyborgs-ridden future (Zombies had been replaced due to cultural sensitivities around showing the undead and body dismemberment).
Although the design was close in spirit to a traditional CoD game, the engagement model was fundamentally broken. The single player missions didn’t capture the scale and spectacle of traditional CoD campaigns and were too simplistic to offer replayability; MP was serviceable but the economy felt tacked on; and the PVE offering was completely segregated with separate weapon and character systems and shallow monetization. Additionally, the PVE experience tested poorly with Chinese players as the difficulty was considered too punishing and its gameplay hard to understand, compared to the streamlined MMORPG-like Ni-Zhan experience.
At that point, the team pushed for a deep redesign that, in under a year, fundamentally transformed the game’s core and established the free-to-play foundation the game ran on for the rest of its life.
At the core of this redesign was the ‘Universal loadout”, introduced to create a game-wide player identity. Whereas CoD traditionally ran on separate PVP and PVE progressions, CoDO introduced the idea that a player could use any character, weapon, attachment and perk in any mode. It was an elegant and intuitive solution, allowing players to invest in their character inventory and be able to leverage it in the entirety of the game (down the line, CoDO introduced weapons with mode-specific perks to incentivize cross-mode play). This had deep implications on the entire foundation of the game
PVE had to be redesigned at a fundamental level. Since the traditional Zombies experience was not popular, the team decided to create a brand new PVE experience (“Evacuation”) that was still wave-based but more streamlined and based on understandable objectives (rescue survivors) in an open map, allowing players to bring in their pre-existing loadouts.
Progression had to be redesigned as well, to cover all modes in the game: since all items had to be usable in all modes, the progression to unlock those items had to be accessible from all modes.
The game launched in its new form in January 2015, accompanied by a CoD style celebrity-led marketing campaign starring Chris Evans. Content was added at a constant clip: new weapons, new rule-based modes and maps were dropped every month, and new modes came in every quarter with major content beats during Chinese New Year and in the summer (when engagement peaks).
Quickly the game’s operations ramped up to embrace thematic drops including characters, weapons, maps, and modes pulled together by a cohesive look or storyline. Although initially characters, weapons, and cosmetics were pulled mostly from mainline CoD to maintain a consistent look and feel for the entire franchise, it quickly became apparent that the Chinese audience was looking for something different. Rather than grizzled American soldiers and realistic weapons, they wanted over-the-top, flashy items, characters and weapons. That’s how the Monkey King, ninja cyborgs, a high school student, a cowgirl, a puppy backpack or a backpack with a diamond studded teddy bear, and transformable guns made their way into CoDO.
Following the pattern established by other FPS games in China, mode experimentation was wild, both on the PVP and PVE side. On the PVP front, the team launched modes like ‘Little Dark Room,’ a free-for-all gunfight born out of a game glitch, where players were placed in a small, pitch black map where the light was only generated by muzzle flashes, or Machine Battlefield, an asymmetric mode with humans battling mechs with different powers. Prop Hunt mode was developed by Raven for CoDO as a novelty mode inspired by the same mode in Ni-Zhan and Crossfire (inspired by Garry’s mod’s Prop Hunt experience) and then made its way (also courtesy of Raven) into MW Remaster in 2017. The team also experimented with a third person-only melee mode. PVE experimentation was also constant to figure out ways to expand the game’s appeal with a less core audience, with several Cyborg-centric modes, including Death March, a wave-based arena ‘game show’ and even an on-rail shooter mode where players were mowing down Cyborgs from a helicopter (!!).
CoDO’s unique brand of FPS with its twitch-based action and unique visuals was different from the competition; on one hand, it attracted a certain core segment of the FPS audience in China who appreciated the more realistic looks and nuanced gameplay the game offered: that meant an incredibly loyal set of players and meaningful per-user monetization. On the other hand, the faster action, complex controls and slower content cadence compared to the competition limited CoDO’s mass market appeal. Because of that, the game failed to reach critical scale vis a vis its initial gargantuan aspirations, in a market with entrenched incumbents armed with endless resources to create new content.
The emergence of mobile shooters starting with Crossfire Mobile (one of the top grossing mobile shooters in China), releasing at the end of 2015 and reaching critical scale by end of 2016 also contributed to hampering CoDO’s growth.
However, the development of CoDO was a rich bootcamp in F2P FPS development and western IP localization.
From AAA to F2P
Onboarding is critical
The team spent a lot of time focusing on onboarding since, unlike any traditional premium product where users are locked in by the upfront price, the barriers to exit CoDO were non-existent and users only gave the game a few minutes to impress them.
CoDO was facing two unique onboarding challenges. First, how to immediately convey CoD’s uniqueness as far as action, visuals and lore and clearly spell out why it was superior compared to other FPS offerings in the market. Second, how to address Chinese players’ lack of familiarity with the nuanced CoD control scheme and their bias to shoot from the hip (the only choice in Counter-Strike and all its clones, but a generally ineffective tactic in CoD).
At launch, the team leveraged a few simple single player missions (initially developed as a standalone mode) as training sessions focusing each on different aspects of the control scheme. Post launch, those were replaced by a re-engineered version of “Crew Expendable” from the original MW. The mission started with an on-rail shooting section not present in the original to kick off the game with an easy, satisfying experience; it then transitioned to an on foot mission mirroring the original campaign, but with a more explicit focus on movement and shooting mechanics, including on-screen prompts and added shooting galleries to practice aiming down sight. This was driven by the desire to make a big first impression and match the expectations of fans looking for authentic ‘CoD moments’.
Content production is expensive
In the early phases of CoDO development it became immediately clear that Call of Duty’s traditional production framework would not apply to a free-to-play game.
Production costs per hour played is a good metric to evaluate development costs trade-offs in F2P. It is calculated, for mode X, as:
game budget * % of resources working on mode X
number of player hours spent in mode X
The objective is to have the bulk of the team work on content that lowers the numerator (cheap) and increases the denominator (generates as many player hours as possible).
CoD’s single player linear campaigns had no meta or collectables systems (very low denominator), but drove extravagant production costs for set pieces, live actors, etc (high numerator). In mainline games, single player content served as general context setting, inspiration for some of the lore, locales and weapons across all modes, the foundation for all marketing campaigns and, most of all, to justify a hefty upfront premium price. However, in a Free to Play experience, that content turns out to be very inefficient, since players sink hundreds to thousands of hours (of which a single player experience would represent a microscopic percentage) and marketing is mostly performance-driven. Even Zombies, the traditional CoD PVE offering, albeit way more efficient in terms of cost / played hour, would still pale in comparison to the ROI of PVP content.
PVP content was the obvious choice.
However, translating a high production experience like Call of Duty to free-to-play was not as simple as cutting everything else and focusing on PVP. Boombastic, high production campaign experiences and Zombie PVE were integral parts of the CoD franchise so simply eliminating them felt inauthentic to the brand and could hurt the game’s ability to succeed.
As a consequence, the solution was not to cut, but to re-think these experiences in a ‘cost/ player hour’ efficient way.
Single player was retained in the form of one CoD-authentic onboarding mission to create the right first impression of a CoD-authentic experience, plus shorter story snippets, scripted on MP maps. In an attempt to make content more scalable, PVE design borrowed a page from PVP and the team built new PVE modes as rule-sets that could be applied to any map by a game designer through simple tooling vs. baked in-experiences on custom maps. “Evacuation”, a mode where players had to fend off increasingly aggressive hordes of enemies while finding survivors on a map and taking them to an extraction point, could be easily ported to any mid to large PVP map, by moving enemy spawn points, survivors and extraction locations. Weather conditions, lighting and environmental hazards were added as further modifiers to increase variety.
Even PVP, which naturally lent itself to free-to-play, had to be rethought, not in terms of its moment-to-moment action and core gameplay loop (play-unlock-upgrade) but in the depth of its item chase. This turned out to be one of the biggest multipliers in the cost/ player hour metric, as adding a fancy-looking weapon (way cheaper to build vs. a new map or mode) in the core progression would drive many additional hours of gameplay with all the rest of the content staying the same.
Making a free-to-play shooter is hard
In order to generate meaningful microtransaction (MTX) revenues, players need to have a reason to spend money, which often translates into item utility. Although purely cosmetic economies can work at scale, they are a tricky bet since it’s hard to predict a game’s success before launch, which is when many foundational Economy design decisions happen. Roughly a year before launch, CoDO’s economy was fairly shallow and split between MP (weapon skins) and Zombies (revive tokens) with individual soft currencies.
In order to create a larger, more dynamic Economy, the currency system was redesigned from scratch with the introduction of a hard and a soft currency, both working everywhere in the game. The general item design rubric moved from ‘cosmetics only’ to weapons and character variants with slight stat changes (some universal, some mode-specific), with a few general rules:
- The general functional item design philosophy stayed true to traditional CoD: no weapon was overpowered, no matter how it was obtained or how long it took. It was important to maintain CoD’s brand of skill-based gameplay regardless of the underlying business model.
- The core progression remained untouched, could not be sped up by spending and would provide weapons, attachments and perks allowing any player to be competitive just by playing the game.
- Most functional items that could be purchased with hard currency could also be purchased with soft currency.
- Anything functional not in the core progression would be slightly different, not better, than items in the progression. It would provide more variety, not more power.
- Hard currency-only items would be limited to cosmetically extravagant versions of items available either through progression or for purchase with hard/soft currency.
Running a game as a service
Chinese and Korean teams have created some of the original live ops playbooks years before any of these ideas were implemented in the west. Concepts like seasonal content, the introduction of event-based currencies, VIP stores are only a few examples of common practices in China in the mid to late 2000s, way before any western game started to adopt them.
It took time for the CoDO team to warm up to some of these ideas. In some instances, there was skepticism: was it really necessary to create a unique theme to tie together maps, weapons and modes in a seasonal drop, as opposed to just drop them when they were ready? In others, straight up rejection: some of the proposed monetization tactics like item rentals or the pricing for premium weapons felt overly aggressive. In both instances, the team learned the importance of understanding the local audience’s sensitivities. While content frequency and consistency was par for the course to operate in China, Chinese players had milder than expected reactions to more aggressive monetization schemes.
The team also underestimated the frequency at which content had to be released and the variety and depth required for each drop, while overestimating the quality and polish required. It was not uncommon to assume that a better designed map or finely balanced mode that took three times as long as competition would eventually win the day... while competition would ship 3x the features and find success with at least some of them.
Finally, it took time to fully appreciate to what extent content production and product marketing were intertwined. While CoD marketing was traditionally focused on one major launch every year, marketing a live game was rarely brand-related and mostly feature-related and meant to acquire users. Marketing required features and game content to exist: slow content cadence and lack of a theme meant slow marketing cadence and an inconsistent message.
Succeeding in China with a western Product
Local content is king… or is it?
It is no secret that western IP has historically struggled to find its footing in Asia and China in particular, and games are no exception. There is a small group of products that have proven to be a natural fit for the market: most of Blizzard’s games, League of Legends, PUBG (although, arguably, it is a Korean product). For everybody else, culturalization is the name of the game.
Culturalization exists on a broad spectrum, from simple translation to voice over (localization), to adding locally relevant cosmetics and events, to introducing entirely new game modes, characters, items and settings, essentially turning the game into a native looking and feeling experience.
In retrospect, CoD was a bit of an awkward fit for the Chinese market: visually it didn’t necessary hit all the right notes (from the muted color palette MW was known for, to the lack of aspirational protagonists and extravagant outfits) and gameplay wise it was more punishing, fast paced and complex than any shooter Chinese players had experienced up to that point. Another major hurdle was CoD’s shooting paradigm revolving around Aiming-Down-Sight (ADS), a concept that was completely new to Chinese players who grew up playing Counterstrike and Crossfire, both allowing precise aiming by just shooting from the hip. On one hand, ADS was considered a CoD-defining feature and the team did not feel comfortable dropping it. On the other hand, most Chinese players perceived it as an unnecessary extra step that was slowing down the game, making it clunkier for no real reason. Last but not least, early playtests revealed that the excessive camera shake, slams and blur FX that had become a staple of CoD made Chinese players nauseous at a shockingly high rate, compared to gaming experiences they were accustomed to.
The extent of CoDO’s culturalization process cannot be overstated, especially in the later stages of its lifecycle. Although some classic maps were still ported from CoD mainline, almost everything else was custom-made for China: characters (younger and more attractive), weapons (covered in gold and diamonds, with blinding saturated colors), modes (leaning more casual, slow paced and PVE).
The extent to which going deep down the culturalization route is necessary highly depends on the game. This is one of the hardest decisions for a game team: although it’s easy to assume that the more culturally specific a product becomes, the more successful it will be, a product needing massive changes to succeed in a certain market might not be the best fit for that market after all. The success of a game is not just driven by the sum of its content and features, but by the synergy and affinity of the content and features that make it unique. It is not unlike cooking a meal: whenever you start replacing some of the ingredients while keeping the same general recipe, you might end up with something that is neither authentically local nor tasting like the original dish. Which means you will alienate both local players that were fans of the original game but struggle to find it in a highly culturalized version of it, and local players who want to play truly local games, which a culturalized game will never be.
The importance of a Global Product
The biggest lesson of taking a massive AAA franchise to China is that Chinese players want to feel part of a global community: they are excited about a game’s hype and want to experience what everybody else is experiencing. In the eyes of the Chinese audience, CoDO was never able to to deliver a truly authentic CoD experience: CoD was mostly known in China for its single-player campaigns but CoDO was entirely multiplayer, missing out on what the Chinese audience thought of as an essential part of the CoD experience. The feeling that players were playing a custom CoD “branch” made for China, with old content, little cinematic flare, and lackluster visuals compared to the newest iterations of the mainline product was hard to shake off.
CoDO was never brought to a western audience and almost nobody outside of China has been exposed to it and it will be remembered as a footnote in the long history of the CoD franchise. However, many of CoDO’s ideas, designs, and frameworks found their way into the rest of the CoD franchise and, in some cases, gave a massive contribution to it.
CoDO first designs
CoDO was the first CoD game conceived as a platform
CoDO was launched in 2015 as the first true live-operated platform in the CoD franchise: for the first time all CoD sub-franchises were blended under one umbrella, serving the game’s business model vs. driving it. As a free-to-play game, content freshness was the number one priority, and CoD’s history and variety of stories, characters, weapons and locales were instrumental in keeping up with the frequency of updates.
The CoD franchise has since embraced some platform aspects with CoD points as a franchise-wide (minus mobile) wallet and Warzone delivering a true game as a service experience using the annual franchise refresh as an engagement lever.
However, the core CoD experience still remains largely segregated, with siloed modes for single player, PVP and Zombies, all locked behind a paywall and with progression and inventory resetting every year.
CoDO was the first CoD to introduce a Battle Royale experience
CoDO introduced the first of its two Battle Royale maps months before BO4’s Blackout came out. Granted, it was a smaller, 18 v 18 experience (CoDO was built on Modern Warfare 2 tech, which would have to be deeply overhauled to support a higher player count) but all the trappings of the genre were there. Raven developed that mode and proceeded to build Blackout for BO4 and contributed to MW’s Warzone.
Dynamic Lobby and Winners Circle were CoDO firsts
The idea of showing off your character pre- and post-match is not new nowadays, but it was first introduced in CoDO. While CoDO put a strong emphasis on peacocking to drive MTX of expensive extravagant characters, weapons, and accessories, the traditional CoD experience offered no such opportunity. CoDO introduced the ability to see all the characters of the players joining the game in a virtual lobby (not just their name tags) and, after the match, the podium where the top players would brag. Dynamic lobbies were only introduced in 2017’s WW2 while Winner’s Circle became a mainline feature with BO3 in 2015 as characters and character customization started to become more central to CoD mainline experience and economies, in addition to gun skins.
Universal loadout was a CoDO first and its most important design contribution
It’s hard to overstate the level of innovation that the Universal Loadout system introduced and its impact on the franchise. CoD mainline has historically been developed by siloed teams dedicated to individual gameplay pillars (campaign, multiplayer, zombies) and having a core progression system impacting all of them was simply unprecedented and hard to pull off. It was one of the most most disruptive ideas CoDO brought to the table and one that took a long time to trickle down to CoD mainline. The first instance of Universal Loadout in mainline appeared in 2020, with CoD Cold War Zombies.
CoDO was the first CoD with cross-mode progression
Years before BO4 and MW introduced common progression across modes, CoDO allowed players to accumulate XPs and unlock weapons, attachments and perks across all game modes, PVP and PVE. It was initially just a necessity required by the Universal loadout system, but it also turned out to be an effective way to engage PVP players into PVE and vice versa. By controlling the amount of XPs rewarded in different modes, the game could encourage trial and, especially with casual PVP modes, PVE players would start playing competitively. This was important because PVP gameplay was the most retentive and required the smallest amount of resources to maintain. Hence, cross mode progression and XP reward balancing became one of CoDOs most powerful tools to drive behavior and stickiness in the game.
CoDO was the first CoD to run full content seasons
Although the idea of thematic seasonal content with maps, items, modes and events is a given in today’s live services world, it was unheard of in the CoD franchise when CoDO launched. At the time, CoD was still selling season passes and map packs (they were eliminated in 2019 with the new Modern Warfare) as paid content drops with 2-3 month cadence. There was no concept of events or free/ earnable content. To be fair, this was not particularly uncommon - even though mobile free-to-play was already embracing some of these ideas, no game with high content requirements had really pushed the envelope in this department, because there were no AA/AAA free-to-play games at the time (Fortnite started launching content seasons in late 2017).
This is a lesson CoDO quickly learned from Chinese Live Ops practices. Both Crossfire and Ni-Zhan mastered this both on the production side (plentiful, fully themed content cutting across every aspect of the game, with massive new modes including new assets, characters, enemies) and marketing, with celebrities participating in seasonal promotions and Tencent bending its entire network to push these releases, not only through visibility on its most popular sites, but also cross promotions: for example, a player would get benefits in a game he or she was already playing, in exchange for trying a new content season in a new game. Arguably, many campaigns Tencent was running back in 2012 are still bigger and more nuanced than what most western F2P games do in 2022. CoDO had to quickly reach parity with local competition if it wanted to survive and grow - it was a long and often painful process of ruthless content and feature prioritization, since production costs in China were a fraction of CoDO’s. In the beginning the team just picked a theme (something snowy during the winter season, or festive around Chinese new year) and selected content within the existing CoD catalog to match that theme as closely as possible. That turned out to be insufficient to truly compete, which, overtime, pushed the team to flip its content creation model to be season driven, vs. purely creative-driven. In other words, the team started mapping out seasons in advance and asking, for each one, what amount of content was needed, what type, what was the theme and then started developing content. Seasonality also dictated staffing needs, which affected the entire production schedule (e.g., Chinese new year was such a massive drop that content had to start development 6-9 months prior). This was different from the previous production model, which started with artists and designers creating content in isolation at a regular pace and releasing it at a regular cadence.
There would be no CoD Mobile without CoDO
Back in the summer of 2016 when CoD Mobile was conceived, there was no Fortnite (2017) or PUBG mobile (2018). TiMi and Lightspeed were just two Chinese studios that had launched a couple of successful China-only mobile shooters (Crossfire Mobile and WeFire, respectively).
Nobody believed mobile shooters could be big in the west. All Activision’s CoD studios were busy working on mainline titles, institutional live ops expertise was lackluster and mobile was not a company priority.
We decided to build our vision for a CoD Mobile FPS leveraging the expertise of studios who had ‘done it before,’ albeit not in CoD’s core markets. It was not ideal but at that point there were not many options: no major western mobile studio had been able to meaningfully scale a shooter and several smaller studios were pitching their mobile FPS frameworks, but none of them were proven.
Discussions with our partners at Tencent started and quickly moved to the proposal phase. Their deep understanding of the CoD franchise developed through CoDO and access to their shooter products convinced us they could be the right candidates to develop a Mobile version of Call of Duty. Although there were zero successful mobile shooters at scale in the west, we felt that Tencent would have, at a minimum, built the right product for the Chinese market, giving the CoD brand another shot at scaling overseas.
Little known fact: both TiMi and Lightspeed pitched for the creation of CoD Mobile, developing two incredibly polished prototypes in less than a month. Lightspeed came in with a mobile rendition of a single player campaign mission. TiMi picked the MP route, showing off a faithful recreation of a standard TDM match on the classic Nuketown map. Because of our experience with CoDO, we bet all our chips on doubling down on multiplayer, which is why we picked TiMi.
Once we selected the studio, several debates happened internally on what the game should actually be. One of the strongest perspectives was that the game should be tied to a major CoD franchise (initially Black Ops). This discussion never really settled and became even more heated in the second and third year of development, when the new MW had hit full production and Activision felt very confident in its potential.
However, our experience running live ops on CoDO made it clear that going sub-franchise agnostic was the way to go:
- Given how time consuming and resource-intensive creating new content for a service-based game was, tying that to only one sub-franchise would have meant we could not have used any of the assets from the other games.
- We would have to create a ton of content from scratch with resources we did not have internally and that, at the time, we were not sure Tencent was ready to commit.
- The other issue was the approval process as anything branded as ‘Modern Warfare’ or ‘Black Ops’ would have had to be approved by Infinity Ward or Treyarch —something that, given the volume of necessary assets, would have likely slowed us down.
- We would be stuck with one ‘theme’ and one that we felt wouldn’t give us enough latitude to experiment with outlandish ideas and create custom content for multiple geographies. That was a big deal as CoDO showed us that the most unexpected, craziest, brightest, non-canonic content tended to be most engaging.
- We also had the vision that, in success, leaving CoD Mobile sub-brand agnostic would allow it to support mainline launches with the ability to promote the newest game through free items, cross-platform unlocks, and marketing materials - an opportunity we would have relinquished by marrying the game to only one sub franchise.
The framework CoD Mobile was built on mirrored CoDO pretty closely: no single-player campaign, focus on multiplayer, Zombies as a palate cleanser (the original Zombie mode in CoD M was much closer to the stripped-down, objective-based one available in CoDO than what CoD M shipped with, which mirrored the traditional BO Zombies), and Battle Royale as a ‘third leg’, which Tencent pitched in mid-production since they had just launched the same mode in CF Mobile and felt porting it over would be doable (both games were built in Unity).
Most importantly, the Universal loadout framework was carried over in its entirety from CoDO: items would work seamlessly across all modes, including Zombies. At that time this was not how CoD mainline worked: Black Ops 4 still had MP and PVE as two separate game modes. MW was the first mainline game to introduce that framework across MP and Warzone in 2020, followed by Cold War that modified the Zombies experience to make it function with ‘external loadouts’ while maintaining some in-game unlocks.
The CoD M economy was also similar to CoDO’s. While mainline CoD products didn’t offer any grind currency, CoD M adopted a dual currency system, in addition to event or systems-specific currencies like the ‘lucky coupons’ (which were abundant in CoDO, but handled through external sites with event rewards).
Last but not least, the majority of CoD Mobile’s launch content (and most maps) came straight from CoDO. Back then, asset repositories for different CoD games were not centralized but instead managed by individual studios - the process of exporting said assets was not trivial and, given how busy everybody was developing for mainline, the team was making very little progress on the content side. The solution was to get assets from the product we had most access to: CoDO. As a result, 7 out of 9 launch maps in CoD M were straight CoDO exports, with the only exception of Hijacked and Takeoff.
Once the CoDO content pipeline was open, the team suggested a way to quickly build a massive Battle Royale map could be to stitch together existing maps. The result was expected to be more interesting than the mundane PUBG maps and a treat for the fans. Out of 11 ‘embedded’ maps in BR, the assets for 8 of them came from CoDO.
Shutting down CoDO was the right business decision as it allowed resources to be allocated to larger, more profitable projects. Moving Chinese players to CoD Mobile, a more modern experience shared with the rest of the world, was an obvious choice to allow the franchise to scale in the territory and deliver the breadth and depth of content a free-to-play product requires to continue engaging its user base.
All great things come to an end. And although CoDO is no more, its legacy, gameplay and innovation live on in all the games that it contributed to and inspired.
CoDO is dead. Long live CoDO!