It’s August, typically only three months out from the annual Call of Duty release, and we still don’t have an official reveal for Call of Duty 2020. What we do have is a series of drawn out puzzles, viral marketing campaigns and hidden Easter eggs, which some appear to be gobbling up but most in the gaming community are treating like nothing more than an afterthought, a distraction while Activision draws out and maximises Warzone’s potential as much as is feasible.
It’s all a bit tiring: it’s a reached a point through leaks and industry chatter that we pretty much know Call of Duty 2020 will be another Black Ops entry, this time predictably set in the Cold War era with obvious focus on the Vietnam War. The back-and-forth cryptic nature of the marketing campaign screams ”Black Ops”, and you do have to give it to Activision for the sheer level of detail and depth gone into this campaign. But reading between the lines makes it increasingly difficult to ignore the obvious challenges that have faced the famed franchise over the past 12 months.
We first reported on the Cold War-era Black Ops setting twelve months ago (!!!) after reports of division and developer troubles at Sledgehammer Games. At the time, the word was that Sledgehammer had teamed up with Raven Studios (developer of Modern Warfare Remastered) to develop a Cold War-era Call of Duty, before that was ditched completely.
This year stood to put an end to the three-pronged developer cycle for Call of Duty games, which has been in place since 2013’s Call of Duty: Ghosts. With Infinity Ward having taken the reigns with last year’s Modern Warfare, Sledgehammer was expected to lead Call of Duty 2020, with Black Ops 4 developer, Treyarch, leading 2021’s entry. That philosophy appears to be out the window, with Treyarch now leading development on the still-unnamed and unannounced Call of Duty 2020, alongside Raven.
Sound familiar? Sledgehammer Games is really no stranger to this sort of developer shuffle. At the height of Modern Warfare’s success, Sledgehammer swept in to save Modern Warfare 3’s development in 2011. Working alongside a fractured Infinity Ward — which was having well-publicised clashes with Activision at an executive level — Sledgehammer seemed to essentially lead the vision and design of the game, establishing itself as one of the industry’s premier developers.
In developed the solid albeit divisive Advanced Warfare in 2014, before the franchise’s welcomed return to World War 2 with Call of Duty: WWII in 2017. The studio teamed up once again with Infinity Ward for last year’s Modern Warfare, and all things seemed a-go for Call of Duty 2020 until those reports surfaced.
Little has been said or dug up regarding the current and unexplained switch of developers, and we’re probably unlikely to hear more, certainly not prior to launch. One has to wonder, however, if the success of Blackout and Warzone in Black Ops 4 and Modern Warfare, respectively, has forced a sudden change in approach and philosophy for Activision. Black Ops 4 famously ditched a campaign mode, whilst Modern Warfare brought it back in stunning fashion. However, as we’ve seen with the likes of NBA 2K and Grand Theft Auto, the lucrative growth of online mechanisms can often drive sudden and unexpected changes in development approach.
Infinity Ward is not as it was founded. It’s founding partners in Vince Zampella and Jason West went on to form Titanfall and Apex Legends developer, Respawn Entertainment, but it’s difficult to ignore similar circumstances here when it comes to Sledgehammer Games. Co-founder Michael Condrey, for example, left Sledgehammer in 2018 and stayed on at Activision temporarily before joining 2K Games. In early 2019, Condrey effectively criticised the cost of microtransactions in Black Ops 4, but little has been expressed beyond that.
That’s not to say that Condrey’s comments are a reflection of what caused the demotion of Sledgehammer Games from Call of Duty 2020, but it is in my mind symbolic of both the studio’s intentions, and the direction of Call of Duty. If Condrey’s comments regarding microtransactions were a reflection of thoughts at Sledgehammer, it’s unsurprising that development was handed over to Treyarch, a studio familiar with that financial model. Reports claim that there were disagreements between Sledgehammer and Raven, with the latter eventually working alongside Treyarch.
This all says more about Call of Duty and Activision than it does about Sledgehammer. The studio is hiring heavily as per its Linkedin and Twitter profiles, and recently opened a Melbourne, Australia studio. It’s clearly working on something, perhaps more in line with the philosophy it initially had in mind for Call of Duty 2020.
As for Call of Duty 2020 as it stands now, we’re clearly staring down the barrel of a Raven-developed entry with a Treyarch Black Ops skin. If I absolutely had to predict what it will be like, I’d guess a campaign-less, multiplayer focused outing, with enhanced focus on the open-world battle royale component. This has proven to be a big winner for Activision, and may ultimately be what drove the division between itself and Sledgehammer’s progress on the game.
Regardless of the direction or intent, it seems all a little rushed and predictable, without much innovation and risk, much like Modern Warfare 3. Whilst that game’s development was impacted more by what appeared to be boardroom bickering rather than creative differences, it’s difficult to ignore the impact such a sudden change in creative vision can have on a final product.
Here’s hoping Call of Duty 2020 bucks that trend.