The Secret to Call of Duty's Multimillion Multiplayer Success

Mar 22, 2021By Subspace Team

“Times change, tastes evolve, and games must move forward to meet these new expectations.”

So began IGN’s October 2003 review of the original Call of Duty.

For over 17 years, Infinity Ward’s CoD franchise has pushed the boundaries of the online play experience. That first title, steeped in viscerally immersive World War II settings, delivered a breakthrough audio experience, AI implementation, and multiplayer features.

With the arrival of Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare in 2007, the franchise stepped beyond the 1940s and into modern milieus, helping to broaden the game’s appeal while also significantly advancing the multiplayer experience. Modern Warfare emphasized telling a continuous story, introduced attack dogs, improved the world’s physics, and made existing class-based roles far more dynamic and growth-oriented. For many franchise devotees, Modern Warfare stands out as a life-changing experience that set a new bar in gaming. Yet Infinity Ward delivered an encore performance with 2019’s Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, which elevated the MW game to a new level with new mid-match loadout changes, new multiplayer match types, the replacement of Zombies with Special Ops cooperative multiplayer, and, perhaps most importantly, cross-platform play between PCs and consoles.

And so on. Seventeen years (so far) of annual releases have kept the series fresh for long-time players while helping to recruit a new generation of fans. One can even find Call of Duty in pop culture call-outs, including iconic TV shows such as Breaking Bad, Chuck, The Daily Show, Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., and NCIS. All this success can’t help but lead to one inevitable question:

How can publisher Activision significantly boost the reach and success of an already stellar franchise?

How Call Of Duty Generates Billions In Revenue Each Year

Call of Duty remains the flagship franchise for Activision, which provides 45% of parent company Activision Blizzard’s (ATVI) revenue. Modern Warfare added fresh adrenaline to CoD’s trajectory in 2020, as did growth from Activision’s eSports endeavor, the Call of Duty League. While Activision Blizzard represents a small fraction of the total video games market, Call of Duty’s powerhouse impact remains hard to overstate.

Activision’s recent ascent has been fueled by a range of factors, only one of which is compelling new titles. The elephant in the room, of course, is the COVID-19 pandemic. With hundreds of millions of people suddenly staying home from work and school, digital entertainment skyrocketed. In the early weeks of lockdown, Venturebeat reported that Comcast’s overall Internet traffic had ballooned by 32%, but gaming downloads were up by 50 to 80%. The source specifically mentioned that Call of Duty: Warzone contributed to the high end of that gaming spike.

Mobile gaming has steadily gained popularity for years, but 2020’s Warzone illustrates exactly why the mobile platform is so powerful. The free-to-play battle royale title brought in “over 50 million players in its first month” alone. Warzone provided a pocket-sized, irresistible fraction of the full CoD experience, and players were anxious for more. There, fresh on the retail shelf, was Modern Warfare, and the two together pushed the franchise to record-setting highs.

There’s no denying that the gaming industry has boomed recently.

Newzoo analysis shows that the 2020 gaming market is up 20% year over year. However, between the start of 2019 and 2021, ATVI’s valuation doubled, driven significantly by CoD’s success. A rising tide may lift all boats, but Activision has been standing atop a lighthouse.

The Three Key Factors Leading To Call Of Duty’s Phenomenal Success

Success in gaming is not magic, nor is it guaranteed to last. Many years of experience in the industry have shown us that ongoing, outsized success in this field relies on three key factors.

1. Healthy Matchmaking

Even before the pandemic, ours had become a world of online social experiences. The excitement and teamwork inherent in multiplayer campaigns forges new friendships and strengthens existing ones. However, the quality of the multiplayer experience depends in large part on games’ matchmaking algorithms and geographic reach. Let’s examine how these two factors intertwine.

First, healthy matchmaking requires very large player pools. A blog post by game coder Joost van Dongen lays out a mathematically persuasive case for why it can take nearly seven minutes to find just one suitable player match from a pool of 1,000 players. Extrapolated out, van Dongen concludes that “we would need 58,000 concurrent players at peak for good matchmaking. That probably equals over five million unique players each month.” One of the most important limiters in this computation is inter-player connection quality, especially as impacted by network latency and ping time. This fits with an earlier study by Microsoft, which defined matchmaking’s two core problems as “latency requirements for an enjoyable game” and “quickly group[ing] players into viable game sessions.”

With a suitably large player pool, matchmaking algorithms can get to work. In 2016, Activision senior systems designer Dr. Josh Menke offered a deep-dive speech on “Skill, Matchmaking, and Ranking,” in which he discussed how matchmaking could be based on player skill but might also use ranking or other factors. Menke pointed out many matchmaking pitfalls. Overestimating player skill can lead to players waiting too long for matches while underestimating throws players into games they can’t win. That makes accurate algorithm calibration (which Activision feels it has) essential. Games should avoid pairing players who just mastered a new ability with those who haven’t. Importantly, high latency can squash the benefits of players’ hard-earned skills and render them useless.

Menke also pointed out that designers shouldn’t be too rigid with their matchmaking rules. He discussed how an even (50/50) kill:death ratio is often described as ideal, but an endless string of 50/50 matches becomes boring. The better route may be for algorithms to mix things up, with some games being hard and some easy. That said, player skill levels range across an entire spectrum while having skill ratings fall into a bell curve in which most players fall one standard deviation from the mean tends to yield a happy player base. It also makes it easier to have a “healthy” matchmaking system in which players can have a varied, rewarding ongoing experience. Skill-based matchmaking (SBMM) remains controversial. Some feel that it punishes high-skill players, forcing them to always play other high-skill competitors, thereby making every game a “sweat” and keeping them from showing off their talents. This doesn’t mean SBMM is inherently bad, only that it may need a balanced application, such as being used within ranked modes or not used at all in public matches unless requested by players. High-skill players make a lot of noise about disliking SBMM, but developers may prioritize the happiness of the many over the few — again, aiming for the middle of that bell curve.

In early 2021, PC Gamer examined matchmaking in Warzone and, by extension, other recent CoD titles. The article’s author concluded that Warzone prioritizes kill:death ratio “before considering ping and time waited.” The piece makes a critical point:

“From the evidence available, it's fair to say that your chances of finding unevenly skilled lobbies is greatly affected by the number of people playing in your region. If there are fewer people online, the game gets less picky about skill levels and mainly focuses on building a full match of 150 at a low ping.”

This is why it’s so important that Modern Warfare’s multiplayer experience now spans different gaming platforms. By making this change, Activision greatly expanded the potential size of player matchmaking pools within a given area. Nevertheless, the size of this pool area remains bounded by latency increases as geographic distances grow. Beyond certain latency thresholds, the player experience may be adversely impacted. The speed of light — meaning, in this context, the transmission rate of signals passing through internet backbone fiber-optic cables — places a floor under possible latency performance. There’s no improving on the laws of physics. However, the specific infrastructure used at each network node and the algorithms used to route network traffic through those nodes efficiently can be improved, sometimes dramatically. Such improvements can expand matchmaking pools’ geographic reach because players inside the expanded area can still enjoy ping times within a game’s acceptable latency threshold.

Moreover, expansion of matchmaking pools can prove critical in developing markets, where there may not be sufficient player density to create satisfactory pool populations within even large geographic areas. Similarly, some players will want multiplayer experiences with people outside their matchmaking region. This may result in the target region having slower infrastructure, or the communications may have to pass through areas with slower infrastructure.

Joshua Lucas, a 27-year-old photographer and long-time CoD player, told us, “I normally get pings under 50 ms here in Oregon and into neighbor states. That jumps to 70 to 90 when I go to the East Coast. And if I want to play friends and family in Brazil, I’m stuck with 200 to 250. That’s when I get rubber banding and all that. It sucks. I would love to have lower ping.”

Dr. Menke and millions of satisfied Activision customers make it clear that player happiness remains the real top design priority in CoD matchmaking. With greater matchmaking pool reach, Activision could improve how, for example, a party of friends gets matched with non-friends, which tends to extend lobby wait times significantly. Activision counters this delay by assessing skill by party rather than individual players, but broadening the player pool through an improved network would give the matchmaking algorithm more options for a better, faster overall experience.

2. Optimal Player Experience

Successful franchises doggedly pursue perpetual improvement to the user’s gaming enjoyment. As noted above, better matchmaking is one path to this end, but there are many more, not least of which is deepening immersion through technical excellence. Go back to reviews of the original Call of Duty in 2003, such as this one from GameSpot, to find comments that describe the game as “at least as good as, and in several ways is simply better than, any similar game.” Watch for mentions of the impressively diverse and authentic weapons arsenals. Graphics quality is cutting edge, and audio is even better. As the GameSpot review noted, “You'll learn to tell most every weapon apart by its own loud and clear roar.” The franchise’s devotion to such technicalities has only magnified over time. For example, read Activision’s blog to learn how the Modern Warfare team learned and mastered photogrammetry technology (combining many 2D photographs to create an incredibly detailed 3D environment) to integrate utterly realistic depictions of everything from forests to the underside of a Russian tank.

The CoD franchise has always been about immersive war action, but it also emphasizes bringing this blood-pounding experience to everyday people. The apex of this theme came in November 2010 with the release of Call of Duty: Black Ops and a 60-second commercial titled “There’s a Soldier in All of Us.” Allegedly, every actor in the explosion-laden spot, including Kobe Bryant, was a self-proclaimed CoD fan. No wonder CoD matchmaking targets the center of the bell curve. The franchise aims for the average Joe/Jane with the precision and power of a Barrett M82 sniper rifle.

Activision has never been afraid to reinvent Call of Duty. By its fourth title, the franchise broke ranks with WWII to develop modern environments. World at War (2008) delivered zombies. Advanced Warfare (2014) took a chance on stepping into the future and did so with an overhauled game engine. Activision detailed how Modern Warfare required yet another engine, five years of development, and a new studio in Poland. (And read that Activision post to learn some inside details on how Modern Warfare treats elements such as lighting and generations of military equipment. It’s mind-boggling.)

In short, the CoD franchise is about unrelenting dedication to excellence. That’s not to say that there haven’t been missteps or course corrections. But the continual pursuit of a perfect play experience stands at the heart of why CoD remains one of today’s biggest gaming franchises. Achieving technical supremacy is arduous but necessary. In that pursuit, the last thing anyone needs is network limitations hampering user satisfaction or causing users to blame the publisher for issues in which it had no fault.

Call of Duty’s recent renewed success speaks to how well Activision has done in providing players with an outstanding user experience and ongoing satisfaction. Still, there is always room to improve, expand market share, and deepen per-user involvement and investment. Reducing friction and frustration points for users is key in this regard, especially in such a vast, incredibly competitive market.

3. Community Investment and Extension

Successful gaming companies understand that the game itself is just a starting point. Fans want more. They identify with their passion and want it to play an ever-larger part in their lives.

Sometimes, this desire can grow into organized competitions. The global esports industry is expected to maintain a 9% compounding annual growth rate through 2023 and be a $1.6 billion business by that year, with a viewership of over 600 million. Activision Blizzard first tapped into this market in 2018 with the launch of the Overwatch League. That effort succeeded so well that the company replicated it in 2020 with the Call of Duty League’s launch. Activision created a total prize pool that year of $4.6 million, of which $2.0 million went to the first-place champion. The championship match shattered esports records, logging an average minute audience of 206,000 and peak concurrent viewership of 330,000.

Community-centric experiences reach off-screen, as well. There were plans in 2008 for a Call of Duty real-time card game. Call of Duty: Black Ops 4 had its own 10-issue comic book. The Call of Duty League has its own merchandise store, and other official CoD merch outlets abound—even for ugly Christmas sweaters. Nothing says community like wearing one’s favorite game imagery in the real world.

The Call Of Duty League Shop reportedly generated more than 780,000 visits from around the globe. In August alone, more than 200,000 people visited the CoD League shop. The big weekend traffic spike in August came from the Call Of Duty League’s equivalent of the Super Bowl.

Not surprisingly, improved matchmaking can play an important role in building community experiences. Some people go into a game as friends, but many others become friends within the play world. Better matchmaking leads to more positive relationships, which leads to expanding community, which leads to things like teams being formed. This momentum ultimately leads to esports and influencers, merch sales, and ever greater engagement. A lack of good matchmaking ends up with wide player disparities in areas like skill and age. These mismatches can lead to toxicity, trolling, and very unpleasant interactions. Matchmaking should enable community building, not breakdown.

The Opportunity in Lower Latency

Earlier, we mentioned several of the gameplay features that helped propel Call of Duty’s success, such as new multiplayer match types and cross-platform play. Such features often rely heavily on network performance. Poor performance, especially excessive latency/lag, can have a serious negative impact on a title’s reception. Similar to most games, an improvement in the latency associated with Call Of Duty presents a massive opportunity for Activision to unlock additional revenue and build a stronger global community surrounding their most influential game title. Let’s discuss it.

When lag impacts gameplay

Every game has encountered latency issues at some point.

It’s something that game publishers hate. It’s something that gamers hate. In a recent study, we found that 74% of gamers will actually stop playing a game entirely if they’re met with lag related issues.

Unfortunately, but perhaps inescapably, Activision has had its own share of network-related CoD issues.

Amidst surging popularity in the summer of 2020, Modern Warfare and Warzone players experienced widespread login and connection issues. And it wouldn’t be a public issue without a subreddit for discussion. With over 900,000 members, the /r/ModernWarfare group spawned a thread titled “Why is the latency so high?” Choice comments included:

“The game is extremely laggy. My latency is like 350-500 ms all the time. It's the same for everyone I've played with so far. This is the only game that does this, and it is ruining the gameplay. This is by far the laggiest experience I've had in any game I've ever played.”

“On Xbox, I'm getting 1,000 MS now, 750 to 1000 on release, I was getting from 350 to 450 game was still unplayable now it's just even more unplayable.”

“My internet is 50Mbps wireless and 80Mbps with ethernet, and my ping sits at 200 and spikes to 999 i cant even walk up stairs without rubber banding all over the place. Only game I have any lag in at all and its BAD”

“Just recently started happening to me. I can't get a game without latency above 2-3k and it's just brutal. I'll test it in any other game without issue. But this game is just unplayable.”

Another thread in the group, “Call of Duty MW latency issues,” offers similar feedback, as does the even more recent thread, “Is it just me or is the latency getting alot worse.”

Some games try to address high latency with a feature called lag compensation. It’s akin to the concept of a DVR for gaming. Valve defines it as “the notion of the server using a player's latency to rewind time when processing a usercmd, in order to see what the player saw when the command was sent. In combination with prediction, lag compensation can help to combat network latency to the point of almost eliminating it from the perspective of an attacker.” However, lag compensation may yield erratic results, with high-latency connections possibly being over-rewarded to compensate, leading some players to simulate high lag to gain an unfair advantage. And whether or not lag compensation actually impacts Modern Warfare users, some users think it does, as shown in this Activision support thread.

Yet another Reddit thread title states the fundamental problem: “Crap lag compensation is ruining this game.” As the original post notes, “It's 2020 and I can’t play a cod game without being punished for having good internet.”

These are not lone, isolated voices. These threads appear in high-visibility forums, gather upvotes, and appear in Web search results. Their negativity ripples outward, potentially damaging the franchise and undermining the community. The more the need for lag compensation can be eliminated, the happier everyone will be.

Is there help available for these users? So far, not much. Most of them are technically savvy and experienced players already well-versed in such feeble advice as Newsweek’s “Try restarting your router and console and hope for the best.” They have seen Activision’s guidance to play on a wired connection and enable QoS repeated year after year. For these frustrated players, such encouragement only leads to greater resentment. They need lower latency, and they know the problem is not on their end.

More reach for less griping

Earlier, we discussed how lower latency could extend matchmaking pools’ geographic reach, thus expanding the population availability for match filtering. With more filtering options, a significant amount of user unhappiness might be avoided. With a higher-population pool, a game could potentially implement both skill-based matchmaking (SBMM) and a casual matchmaking environment, depending on the user’s preference. This would help avoid rants such as Twitch streamer Timothy Betar’s diatribe against the SMBB in Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War.

Deeper matchmaking pools might also help allow for more granular match filtering to help avoid interactions with highly mismatched personalities, often associated with age. These interactions can result in the “toxic” in-game commentary that so starkly contrasts with the pro-community comments from our discussion on diversity, equality, and inclusion. With broader, deeper matchmaking pools, there is a greater ability to expand and strengthen friend groups. However, if those larger pools are not available or they are not implemented and filtered well, the opposite effect can dominate.

Lower lag, higher revenue

It should be clear by now that happier players are more inclined to continue in a game franchise. They will also more readily buy in-game/DLC content and invest in adjacent community offerings, including esports participation and physical merchandise. Activision has proven that it listens to player dissatisfaction. To point out just one example, examine the angst around “pay-to-win” supply drops a few years ago. With Modern Warfare, Activision listened to its customers, dropped this feature, and instead implemented a clear line between experience-based rewards and paid-for cosmetic enhancements. Modern Warfare’s aforementioned success should spotlight players’ satisfaction with these changes.

Imagine if the latency-driven issues with gameplay and matchmaking detailed above could be similarly addressed. Yes, Call of Duty is a gaming market juggernaut with nine-figure revenue. But perhaps millions, and potentially tens of millions, of dollars are still being left on the table due to network issues that could be quickly remedied.

The Best Way to Improve Latency For Call Of Duty

A few years ago, Riot Games detailed how it faces its own latency concerns with League of Legends: “We build our own internet.” Riot discussed how it took over a year to procure routers, lease infrastructure space, install its systems into the ten largest U.S. markets, lease dark fiber and other backbone connectivity, and peer with every possible internet provider. It was a Herculean effort. As Riot’s post author notes, “Given the difficulties I’ve outlined, you might ask why we didn’t just pursue a contract with major carriers like AT&T, Comcast, or Level 3 to do this for us. The simple answer is that we tried, and it didn’t work.”

Was the effort worth the formidable cost and trouble?

According to Forbes, League of Legends has generated over $20 billion in revenue and boasts 13 leagues in its esports branch. The 2019 League of Legends World Championship saw a peak concurrent viewership of 44 million. And as Riot co-founder Marc Merrill told Forbes,

“We’re just scratching the surface.”

When Riot embarked on its bold plan in 2015, there were no other viable options. Today that is no longer the case. At Subspace, we now offer a market-leading, turnkey “parallel gaming internet” approach like the path Riot pursued, only with several enhancements.

On the software side, Subspace collects weather-mapped data on internet traffic. As with conventional street navigation software, this data allows Subspace to monitor real-time network conditions and calculate the fastest possible route for gaming packets between any two points. Note that this is not how the conventional internet routes traffic. In contrast, while Subspace routes solely to prioritize performance, conventional traffic is routed to prioritize eventual delivery at the lowest price, which can incur considerable delays. Often, Subspace targets the straightest path for optical fiber-carried signals, trying to shave communications as close as possible to those previously mentioned speed-of-light limits.

For hardware, Subspace continues to innovate, providing its own application-optimized, rack-mounted systems. These are designed for convenient palletized travel, making them easy to install directly onto dark fiber resources. Subspace now has infrastructure deployed into hundreds of cities worldwide, including in markets underdeveloped for gaming. In essence, Subspace has started to transform the world’s gaming industry by building out a speed-of-light, parallel internet devoted specifically to gaming traffic. Think of it as a parallel Autobahn made just for driving enthusiasts.

So, What’s Next For Call Of Duty?

Activision’s 2019 annual report notes Activision’s mission for Call of Duty:

“To create a single, large, highly-engaged community, delivering an even better experience for our players while also creating more opportunity for investment in in-game items.”

By now, we hope the role that lower latency can play in enabling this mission is clear.

Lower latency enlarges community, increases community satisfaction, and inspires greater community investment in the games they love.

A groundbreaking solution like Subspace—which remedies localized network deficiencies for gaming traffic, and reduces latency with Subspace PacketAccelerator—can radically expand the total addressable market for a game. (That includes the 25% of gamers in the U.S. who still lack acceptable network performance.) By expanding Call of Duty’s community through improved gaming connectivity, both in current primary markets and in underdeveloped markets abroad, Activision will expand its player base, transform gameplay experiences for the better, and breathe fresh profitability into an already mature gaming franchise for another generation.

Every Millisecond Counts

Check out our COD episode in our Every Millisecond Counts series for a look at how much lag affects the average gamer.

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