‘Call of Duty Online’ Invades China as Activision Franchise Looks to Conquer Major New Market

Activision is ready to find out whether its $10 billion 'Call of Duty' franchise can succeed as a free-to-play game

Already one of the videogame industry’s biggest franchises, “Call of Duty” is about to prove whether it can conquer the world’s largest gaming market, China.

After years of development and beta testing, Activision Publishing, a division of Activision Blizzard, has officially launched “Call of Duty Online” as a version of the military actioner designed exclusively for Chinese gamers.

How “Call of Duty” performs in China — especially in its new form as a free-to-play game — could have major implications for other gaming franchises that have long been unavailable in the region, at least legally.

Chinese Internet giant Tencent helped Activision launch “Call of Duty Online” and was instrumental in coming up with a version that met government regulations. That included meeting cultural standards, as well as regulations governing how the game gets into the hands of Chinese consumers through digital platforms.

The Chinese government has only recently started loosening up regulations over the videogame industry, with console makers like Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo now able to start selling their PlayStations, Xboxes and Wii Us in the country.

Until now, companies like Santa Monica, Calif.-based Activision have had to focus on getting their games into Chinese Internet cafes. But over the past year, high-speed broadband has become more readily available at home, opening the door for an online version of “Call of Duty” to break out.

If it does, it could provide a major windfall to Activision Publishing and Tencent, given just how big the potential gaming audience is in China.

In Tencent, Activision has a well-respected partner through which it can promote the game but also collect the revenue that will be generated through in-game purchases — one major difference from “Call of Duty’s” console-based version in the rest of the world.

Some of the changes are tonal, while some are cultural, including the level of violence on display, said Activision Publishing president and CEO Eric Hirshberg. “The main one is the way the game plays because it’s free-to-play. It’s unfolding piece by piece and as more content becomes available.”

“The biggest thing is we’re taking a game that many people compare to an interactive movie and making sure we keep that scope” through the free-to-play model, Hirshberg said.

Another difference: a popular mode in which gamers fight off zombie soldiers has now been turned into one that features cyborgs because of the country’s view of the undead.

“There are some cultural sensitivities that we had to be mindful of,” Hirshberg said. “Our partners at Tencent were great guides in that capacity.”

Last year’s release of “Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare” pushed the franchise past the $10 billion mark in lifetime revenue, Activision has said. The game also became “the biggest entertainment launch of 2014,” in terms of revenue, according to company chief Bobby Kotick.

Still the launch of “Call of Duty Online” comes as Activision’s top franchise is seeing signs of a decline.

Launch sales of “Advanced Warfare” were off 27% in November compared to 2013’s “Call of Duty: Ghosts,” according to the NPD Group, marking the third year that the series has seen declines. “Advanced Warfare’s” first-month sales were off 49% compared to 2011’s “Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3.”

Making the franchise available to hundreds of millions of Chinese gamers could now make up for any of that lost revenue. And in a short time.

Developed by Raven Software, “Call of Duty Online” essentially borrows from “Call of Duty: Modern Warfare” and “Call of Duty: Black Ops.” Like other free-to-play games, gamers will be able to upgrade their characters with new weapons and add new levels depending on just how much money they want to invest.

The strategy has proved a major draw for mobile gamers, turning titles like “World of Tanks,” “League of Legends,” and the more casual “Candy Crush” into megahits.

The Chinese version of “Call of Duty” will offer single player campaign missions, cooperative experiences and multiplayer modes.

Tencent, founded in 1998, has quickly grown into China’s largest Internet service portal. It started trading publicly in 2004, on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange. The company’s leading Internet platforms include QQ, WeChat, SoSo, PaiPai and Tenpay.

With “Call of Duty Online” in development for three years, Activision built a studio from the ground up in Shanghai. Activision and Tencent started offering a beta version of “Call of Duty Online” last June, and closed versions before then.

When it was being developed, most of the online traffic was happening in Internet cafes. Around 70% of that is now happening in the home, with most gamers playing on a PC, not a console.

Activision, which is known for its big-budget marketing campaigns for its game launches, isn’t veering away from the high-profile promotion in China.

The company recently rolled out a live-action short in which Chris Evans blasts away enemy troops in full soldier mode in sequences that look like they come straight out of a Hollywood action movie.

That kind of campaign “is unheard of in how games are launched in that market,” Hirshberg said. “Tencent felt strongly that the way ‘Call of Duty’ is marketed in the West is as important in how the game is made. Treating a game like blockbuster pieces of entertainment is something that is new for the market and something (Tencent) wanted to embrace.”

The video featuring Evans, however, will be shown only online in China, with the rest of “Call of Duty’s” campaign also unfolding mostly through Tencent’s social-media channels.

Now, it’s all about whether China will find “Call of Duty” as compelling as Western audiences.

“We wanted to take the time to get it right, and deliver something really special for that market,” Hirshberg said. “We didn’t want to take the Western game and just translate it.”

More Biz

  • DOJ Indicts Five in Piracy Ring

    Department of Justice Indicts Five in International Piracy Ring

    Five men were indicted Wednesday on charges that they hacked into the servers of production companies, and stole hundreds of films and TV shows, including “50 Shades of Grey” and “The Walking Dead.” The men are based in four countries — the United Kingdom, the United Arab Emirates, Malaysia, and India. Only one has been [...]

  • Endeavor Sued Over Idaho Country Music

    Endeavor Sued Over Idaho Country Music Festival

    A former county official in rural Idaho sued Endeavor on Wednesday, alleging she is owed more than $190,000 in unpaid loans arising from a troubled country music festival. According to her complaint, Bonnie Layton was the economic development director for Elmore County, Idaho, when she came in contact with the organizers of the Mountain Home [...]

  • Former movie producer Harvey Weinstein (L)

    Weinstein Attorney: 'Many of These Women Have Lied'

    Harvey Weinstein’s attorney blasted the Manhattan D.A.’s office on Wednesday, arguing that prosecutors brought a flawed case in haste due to public pressure. Ben Brafman sent a letter to Judge James Burke, who is scheduled to hear a motion to dismiss the case next week. In it, he responded to Assistant D.A. Kevin Wilson, who [...]

  • 2019 Variety Predictions

    2019 Predictions: What's in Store for Film, TV and Music Next Year?

    It would be hard to top the drama of 2018. From media mega-mergers to the rise of Time’s Up, it was a year that had more than its fair share of twists and turns. Leslie Moonves resigned in disgrace, AT&T snapped up Time Warner, Disney inched closer to subsuming Fox and “Black Panther” shattered box [...]

  • Tencent Music Raises $1.1 Billion for

    Tencent Music Raises $1.1 Billion for IPO, Much Less Than Expected

    China-based music streaming company Tencent Music Entertainment Group said it raised nearly $1.1 billion in its U.S. initial public offering, according to Reuters. Earlier this year, the company was expected to be valued at as much as $30 billion and raise $4 billion for its IPO, but those estimates were slashed in September. he IPO [...]

  • Justin Tranter and Katie Vinten Partner

    Justin Tranter and Katie Vinten Partner With Warner Bros. for New Label

    As previously reported, hit songwriter Justin Tranter and Warner/Chappell Publishing’s Katie Vinten are launching a new label in partnership with Warner Bros. Records, the company announced officially today. In her new role, Vinten, most recently the company’s co-head of A&R, will also serve as an A&R Consultant to Warner Bros. Records and will continue with [...]

  • Ella Mai

    Ella Mai Signs Worldwide Deal With Sony/ATV Music Publishing

    Singer Ella Mai, who is enjoying a worldwide smash with her song “Boo’d Up” and was nominated for two Grammy Awards last week, has signed a worldwide deal with Sony/ATV Music Publishing. The song peaked at No. 5 on the Billboard Hot 100 and has been streamed more than 650 million times in the U.S. [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content