By now, you’ve probably heard the latest about Activision’s Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War. The publisher confirmed that the PS5 and Xbox Series X versions would cost $70. The current-gen versions were initially believed to cost $60 while the Cross Gen Bundle, which included both a current and next-gen copy, would retail for $70. Couple this with a lack of next-gen upgrades for current gen owners, forcing them to put down more money for a next-gen version, and it’s easy to predict the general public response.
However, there are several questions one could still ask in the midst of all of this. Why isn’t the PC version, which will also likely to benefit from features like 4K and ray-tracing, priced at $70? Why is the Cross Gen Bundle, which technically includes two copies of the game, only priced at $70?
To answer these questions, it’s important to look back on Activision’s history of both chasing and setting trends. Take loot boxes, for example. As much hate as Star Wars Battlefront 2 got for introducing gameplay-affecting Star Cards in RNG crates purchasable with real money, Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare in 2014 did this a lot sooner. Its Supply Drops contained weapon variants with different stats, some which offered substantial gameplay advantages. As you’d expect, these were divided into different rarities, with the better ones have less frequent drop chances and they could be purchased with real money.
Unlike the Season Pass model, which Activision was already well-versed in, Supply Drops and RNG loot boxes in general were a new beast. Sales for Advanced Warfare declined by 27 percent over the previous year’s iteration, that too despite more positive critical acclaim. But it wasn’t simply back to the drawing board to come up with a more consumer-friendly approach. Instead, 2015’s Call of Duty: Black Ops 3 took to including more cosmetic options like gestures, taunts and weapon skins. Supply Drops still provided weapon variants but the cosmetic range was significantly expanded over Advanced Warfare (which did have different “gear” that could be unlocked but still). Of course, the typical loot box pool diluting was apparent, like unlocking the same gesture on a per Specialist basis. It didn’t matter if they were exactly the same animations – you had to unlock them multiple times to use them for everyone.
Several months later, Blizzard Entertainment’s Overwatch released and featured a loot box system that would catapult the model into popularity. Its emphasis was on cosmetics only, though it provided these at a much faster clip that Black Ops 3’s Supply Drops. Nevertheless, Black Ops 3 would become the most successful title in the US for 2015 and Supply Drops would continue to be implemented in subsequent follow-ups, from Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare in 2016 to Call of Duty: Black Ops 4 in 2018. The trend was broken in 2019 with Call of Duty: Modern Warfare which opted for a Season Pass approach and paid cosmetics akin to Fortnite instead of RNG loot boxes.
By this point, the global backlash and litigation over the legality of loot boxes was fairly strong so it made sense why Activision would change its tune. However, what the company probably didn’t expect is that over $1 billion revenue would be generated by December 18th. While the Season 1 Battle Pass doubtlessly helped with this, the Modern Warfare brand and return to a more gritty, contemporary shooter also played a part. Regardless, the onus has since been on seasonal battle passes with Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War adopting the same approach.
From what we’ve seen, adopting a $70 price point is about three intertwining points: (1) pursuing a trend that will pay off lucrative dividends in the short term, (2) using next-gen marketing terms like 4K, ray-tracing and instantaneous load times to make the next-gen version look like it warrants this price increase, and (3) taking advantage of an influx of next-gen console sales. The third point would explain why there’s a Cross Gen Bundle but not a free upgrade – it’s because Activision is aware that many consumers will purchase either an Xbox Series X or PS5 in the first six months of their respective launches (at least, according to this survey of UK customers by Experience 12).
This “bundle” is their idea of charity but it also spurs consumers to take advantage of what they see as the “best deal,” especially to future-proof themselves if the next-gen consoles aren’t immediately available. And in case this strategy fails, a “generous” $10 upgrade option for physical and digital PS4 owners is still available. Funnily enough, if you’re playing on Xbox One, then you need to pay $70 for the Xbox Series X version since the Xbox One disc version can’t be upgraded for $10. Yes, it is dumb.
As to the second point: The use of terms like 4K, ray-tracing and instantaneous load times is a very safe bet for Activision. Not only does it allow the publisher to advertise Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War as being superior on next-gen but it does so in a language that Sony and Microsoft have both made accepted over the past year. These features have gone from being a given to expected from next-gen versions of games but will still be used to advertise them as superior. Furthermore, it allows Activision to avoid the uncomfortable topic of what’s different in terms of gameplay content, something that will no doubt come up near launch.
Unlike with loot boxes or season passes, this trend of raising game prices to $70 for the next generation of consoles isn’t strongly established. Only one other company, 2K Games, is doing it and even with all the assurances of NBA 2K21 having way more content, it’s being done because the publishing label knows it can get away with it. After all, despite having heaps of monetization and gambling mechanics in NBA 2K20, it had the best debut month for a sports game in US history as per The NPD Group. The company knows that consumers will line up to purchase the next game despite its predecessor being plagued with issues.
For Activision, adopting the same price point is more about identifying the next-gen gold rush that’s about to occur. Both consoles are expected to sell millions at launch and those millions of customers will want games to play. Why else would it be launching in mid-November and compete with other high-profile titles like Assassin’s Creed Valhalla and Cyberpunk 2077? It’s to cash in on the launch of next-gen consoles at the earliest possible opportunity, especially since both the Xbox Series X and PS5 are expected by then.
The best part of this whole deal, at least for Activision, is that not only will it bring in additional revenue but also leverage more “new” users with the next-gen consoles. By the time the next Call of Duty releases in 2021, Activision can quietly drop this trend and go back to a $60 price point while being exclusive to next-gen, comfortable in the fact that it has a larger next-gen user base to exploit. And if the trend is more widely accepted across the industry, then it can continue with this price and justify it by the inevitable success that Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War will have. It’s a win-win situation and regardless of how the company is judged in the long run, it can always spin things in a positive way.
To clarify: Despite how expensive development can be, I don’t condone this approach of charging $70 for a game with hefty microtransactions (because even with a battle pass model, which isn’t free by the way, tier skips can still be purchased, to say nothing of the prices for skins). That’s especially when the company is reportedly under-paying contractors and temps while its executives continue to rake in the big bucks. The economics benefit those at the very top, regardless of how much or how little development costs, and the goal is always to pursue the highest profit margin while still maintaining the illusion of ethical practice.
The more things change, the more they stay the same and Activision understands this very well when money is involved. Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War will make a killing and help justify a price increase for PS5 and Xbox Series X versions. While it’s not indicative of the industry at large adopting this, it does go to show what some publishers will do for that extra bit of revenue.
Read our alternate take on this matter by clicking here.
Note: The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, GamingBolt as an organization.