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Two hundred and fifty million. That's how many people played a Call of Duty game in 2020, according to Activision CEO Bobby Kotick. To put that 250 million in some context, the series attracted around 70 million three years earlier. Suffice to say that the free-to-play Call of Duty: Mobile and battle royale Warzone have done the world of CoD a world of good.
Call of Duty, as a first-person shooter, is absolutely not the kind of game that most players will associate with the 'casual' tag. It's not a series like Candy Crush, or Bejeweled, or Angry Birds. You know, the games that gamers so regularly shrug off as not being proper games, as not being hardcore, like a game like Call of Duty. Casual gamers? Not real gamers.
But let's look at Candy Crush player numbers. In the second half of 2020, King's match-three puzzler enjoyed a reach of 271 million monthly unique players. Now scale that up and it means that the freemium success story has enjoyed many more players than Call of Duty in 2020 - but at what point do massive numbers just start to blur together?
At what point does a supposedly hardcore video game - a game that necessitates developed skills to be great at, but that anyone whatever their experience can have some multiplayer laughs with - become so widely played, so adopted by people who only play intermittently, that it should be called a casual experience? Is 250 million players enough to say: Call of Duty is a casual video game?
I don't know. But that's not the point, here. What is: the redundancy of prior parameters regarding what equals a casual game, and therefore a casual gamer. I've long been of the opinion that if you play a video game for any length of time, whatever variety of video game that is, you're as much a gamer as someone who puts several hours per day into a complex real-time strategy title, or online deathmatch supremacy. Your skill sets are not the same; but just as someone who enjoys lightweight comedy movies is no less a cinema-goer than someone else who only watches Danish crime dramas filmed on a budget of peanuts and best wishes, so person A who enjoys video games is no less a video games player than person B.
Back to that 250 million figure, and I want to point out that first-person shooters - team-based first-person shooters - are not all in the same boat here. Counter Strike: Global Offensive peaked with a new concurrent player record in March 2020, of well over one million users on Steam; but Valve's title doesn't have a total player base to rival that of Activision's military shooter. To look elsewhere, we see Overwatch enjoyed 10 million players in late 2020, and in October 2019 Apex Legends had reached 70 million players (after hitting 50 million after just four weeks). Huge numbers, but nowhere close to where CoD finds itself in 2021.
Call of Duty's elevated ubiquity in recent years, propelled by the roll-out of two free-to-play products, in my opinion categorises it as a title, a franchise, that people who don't play often, or actively consider themselves a gamer, dip in and out of, in the same way they would something like Candy Crush. Sessions might last a little longer, but it's the same dynamic: mass market appeal that reaches outside of its niche and crosses into audiences who might not previously have given the game or genre in question much attention.
When we launched GAMINGbible's website in late 2020, we did so with a simple motto: let's all play. When I see a figure like 250 million for a franchise like Call of Duty, that makes me happy because it implies that many people who'd normally not touch a CoD release have done, via Warzone or Mobile. This series that could so easily be regarded as hardcore, in the past, really isn't anymore. And with sales for 2020's Black Ops Cold War coming in lower than 2019's Modern Warfare - at least physically, where it was outpaced by Assassin's Creed Valhalla in its week of release - it's evident that the free-to-play effect has been significant.
And sure, you can argue that premium CoD products remain the preserve of the hardcore - but to that I would counter that Call of Duty releases are so often in that bracket of the four or five games of the year that players who don't buy many games, who don't really follow what's big in the games media, always pick up, alongside the annual FIFA, maybe a Rockstar game or Ubisoft open-worlder, and some retro comeback or other. Black Ops Cold War was the second-highest-selling video game in the UK, in 2020, after FIFA 21 and ahead of Grand Theft Auto V. So mainstream - so, casual?
When the assumed, somewhat outdated definition of a hardcore game is one that appeals to a dedicated hobbyist demographic, is that really something like Call of Duty? Isn't someone who buys the latest celebrated indie game, and invests in hardware across the spectrum of gaming, 'more hardcore' than someone who just aims down some sights on their PlayStation a few nights a week? Is it not more hardcore to play a really wide range of games, of all budgets and ambitions, rather than one or two AAA releases a year?
What's a hardcore game and what's a casual game, then? In 2021, is Call of Duty: Mobile on your phone any less 'casual' than Candy Crush? Is Warzone any more hardcore than a new, indie studio-produced narrative adventure? It doesn't make sense to me, at all, when I see people, gamers, who enjoy titles like Call of Duty belittling people for their preference for less-intense games. It makes no sense to think of Call of Duty as some exceptionally skilful game that only a select few can really get the most out of, when 250 million people have played it in the last year. That's 0.03% of the entire world's population, by the way, that played CoD in 2020. It's around three times the UK's population. Just, a huge number.
So what do you think? What's a casual gamer, really, in the here and now? Is it the person with their phone, tapping away at some jewels at a bus stop. What if they've got their phone held sideways, and they're shooting a rifle? Does it make a difference if that same person plays those same games, but on a home console instead? Casual, hardcore, it's just meaningless, isn't it? Maybe, maybe not. But if we're all playing, and having fun, and not putting others down for their choices... that's enough.
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