Various reputable sources have reported that when Call of Duty: Black Ops 4 is revealed tomorrow Activision won't have a story mode to share, nor will there be one in the game's final build when it launches this October. Much has been made of these reports in the weeks since they came to light, and be it here on TA or elsewhere across gaming outlets and social media, the resounding opinion seemed to be one of frustration. "Why would they do that?" It seems Activision's apparent decision to forego a single player campaign in favor of other multiplayer modes, like a battle royale, may only have been popular in board meetings.
It's fascinating, then, to compare that general reaction with the cold, hard facts of the matter: few players even touch Call of Duty stories annually and far fewer ever get to the end of a campaign. It's certainly unpopular, around TA especially, but the truth is campaign modes within games like Call of Duty are largely ignored and Activision is gambling that most people will hardly notice or care that Black Ops 4 offers no traditional story mode.
Will Activision release Call of Duty without a campaign? If they do, will there be any consequence?
As we did with our recent coverage of the grindiest achievement list in the history of achievements, we collected a ton of stats to look at this trend, not just as it applies to Call of Duty but also to see how story modes fare in other games as well. Let's start with Activision's flagship franchise.
Using data we have on site, we were able to graph the average rarity of story achievements in each game in the entire Call of Duty history since they began using achievements in Call of Duty 2. The near uniformity of the series' single player-related achievements helps tell the story. Most of the games dole out one achievement per level, though there are some exceptions. The most played story in the series based on average percentage of story achievements unlocked by the full Xbox community is, perhaps surprisingly, Call of Duty 3 with an average of 35.91%. Looking closer, 74.01% of players completed basic training while only 25.67% finished the campaign. That's a massive dropoff from start to finish and it's indicative of a series-long trend that's mostly gotten worse as time has gone on.
Looking at the graph below, you can see the story modes in Call of Duty are being played less and less with few annual installments successfully reversing that trend to a substantial degree. The graph is one of modest peaks and frequent valleys. Last year's Call of Duty: WWII invited players to return to the series' roots after many experienced future-fatigue with games like 2016's Infinite Warfare. That meant the story mode did receive a noticeable bump allowing for an average story achievement unlock percentage of 28.65%, but even then it couldn't clear 30% — something the series has only done three times and never since 2014. If we look at just the story completion statistics, the numbers are, of course, even more telling. Just 22% of all Xbox players finished the WWII story on any difficulty even as we heard about how excited players were to go back to that era.
The Story Participation Average is defined as the average percentage of unlocked story-line achievements for gamers that have started the game.While some combination of the name recognition and legitimate interest in the trilogy kept the Modern Warfare story participation stats pretty high (24, 27, and 31% respectively for each game chronologically), the same can't be said for the Black Ops series, which is now the longest-running subseries in the Call of Duty franchise at four games. The participation for the original Black Ops averaged 25.44% with the second game peaking at 27.13%. The third game averaged a paltry 4.14%, though to be fair this game's achievements are a bit different and require you play on higher than regular difficulty to unlock most of them. Still, the story completion achievement, which pops regardless of difficulty, sits at under 9%. Not even one in ten players saw that story through to the end. It's as though the frustrations with the series moving away from single player are coming from a very vocal minority, or perhaps just a bunch of people fooling themselves, expressing one opinion but behaving a different way. Despite these stats, Black Ops III was the top-selling game in 2015, as it pretty much is every year in recent history. It should be no wonder why Black Ops 4 appears poised to skip out entirely on offering a solo campaign. It's a ton of resources for little payoff, both figurative and literal compared to the loot boxes found all over multiplayer modes.
Numbers like these can be found not just in Call of Duty. Looking at similar games where both single player and multiplayer modes are on offer but the multiplayer is really the focus, similar trends emerge. The Battlefield series, since achievements were enabled, has never climbed past a story participation average (let's just call this stat SPA from now on) of 42.57% for the Xbox 360 version of Battlefield Hardline. That stat drops to just over 30% if you only look at who actually finished the story. The series as a whole has been trending downward in terms of story engagement too. The SPA across three consecutive mainline games, Battlefield 3 (30.75%), Battlefield 4 (21.11%), and Battlefield 1 (18.68%) shows a year over year plummet as well.
Meanwhile, the Gears of War series has held pretty consistently across its lifespan and even then the numbers have hardly surpassed one-third of all players and still falls with the newest game, Gears of War 4, marking a series low SPA since the first game at just 35.35%. Even the beloved Halo series, the mascot for the entire Xbox brand, peaked at a SPA of just 38% and though its most recent entry, Halo 5: Guardians actually did show a slight bump in that statistic over its most recent predecessor, the difference was just four-tenths of a percent. It would be a stretch to use the word "growth." Other recent story modes in mainly multiplayer affairs keep pace with the rest. Star Wars Battlefront II includes an average of just under 38% while Titanfall 2 falls even shy of that despite its acclaim at 34.71%.
Time after time after time, the numbers bear out. Those who even start the story modes in multiplayer-heavy games are in the minority, often by a two-to-one ratio, and those who actually see the story to completion are much rarer yet. Whether or not you believe Call of Duty: Black Ops 4 will launch without a single player story mode this year, it seems such a move has certainly been discussed and will be implemented by many such franchises at some point. Some have already done that, like Tom Clancy's Rainbow Six Siege. We've seen other series, like EA's Battlefront and Titanfall revert to adding story modes, and then those stories are still seldom played. The gamble for Activision, EA, Microsoft, and so many more is to determine if the goodwill of having a story mode is more valuable than the time and resources saved from just skipping it entirely. Because for certain franchises, that's all these story modes appear to be — a formality.
Battlefield: Hardline was a rare mutliplayer-centric game that averaged over 40% story participation among its players.
What's maybe more surprising is these numbers spanning many multiplayer-centric games are not so different from games that are single player-only titles. Some series, like Batman Arkham have not surpassed an average of 50% save for the very first game (58.14%). The most recent entry, Batman: Arkham Knight, shows a Call of Duty-like 28.77% SPA. Similarly, the Dead Space series has never eclipsed 42% and across the whole BioShock series, only the original had a SPA of more than 38%. These are mostly linear games with few distractions. More than half the players are starting them and then stopping short of playing them to completion. Across the entire landscape, numbers like these are seen consistently, so much so that it becomes redundant to list them all.
For Activision to decide to drop single player entirely is a gamble, but it doesn't seem like an especially risky one. For one, they already did exactly this in 2015 with the last-gen version of Black Ops III. That was seemingly due to technical constraints, but it didn't appear to do any lasting damage to their brand or even that game. Assuming the rumors are true, which you should do given the reporting outlets, the most interesting part of this saga won't be when Call of Duty sans single player campaign is revealed, nor will it be when it's met with some backlash. The most interesting moment will come after the game's October release and into the subsequent weeks and months. If Black Ops 4 does considerably worse than the usual or projected numbers, Activision will be forced to quantify how many sales they scared off when they went ahead without a story mode. 20% of a gaming audience is still a lot of people when you're selling millions of copies in just a few weeks. But does the money saved from ignoring a campaign work in their favor, and how many of those story-first gamers won't just give in and buy it anyway?
If it comes out and leads the charts for yet another year despite the changes, the multiplayer is still popular and selling lootboxes all while they didn't have to pay to develop a story, pay actors, and build story levels, then the publisher will have wagered correctly, much to the dismay of the single player community. There may be no consequence, and no future for Call of Duty campaigns.
If this is goodbye to story mode in Call of Duty, now is a great time to revisit our top five campaigns in franchise history.