Rob Kostich interview: After 400 million Call of Duty games sold, Activision still has big plans ahead

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The Call of Duty franchise is one of the strongest in video games, with more than 400 million copies sold to date.

Call of Duty: Warzone and Call of Duty: Black Ops — Cold War are moving to Season 3‘s new content today, and that gave us a reason to catch up with the boss, Rob Kostich. He’s the president of Activision Publishing and the head of the Call of Duty franchise.

There have been 19 different Call of Duty games since 2003, if you count both the free-to-play battle royale Warzone, which has been downloaded 100 million times, and Call of Duty: Mobile, which has been downloaded 300 million times. The franchise isn’t fatigued yet, and it has made it through some difficult times, such as the departure of its founding developers as Call of Duty went multi-studio development. It made the leap to free-to-play and its premium version is still selling extraordinarily well.

I’ve long wondered what Activision’s vision and strategy are for the franchise. I got some answers from Kostich. He’s been thinking about the metaverse, the universe of virtual worlds that are all interconnected, like in novels such as Snow Crash and Ready Player One. And he’s been contemplating how to get us to come back to some part of Call of Duty, whether it’s Warzone or a mobile platform, every day of the year.

Next week, I’ll be interviewing his boss, Activision Blizzard CEO Bobby Kotick onstage at our GamesBeat Summit 2021 event.

Here’s an edited transcript of our interview.

Above: Rob Kostich is president of Activion and head of Call of Duty.

Image Credit: Activision

GamesBeat: It seems like there’s been both deliberate and accidental steps in the evolution of Call of Duty. Zombies became this second or third experience that comes with the game. You had multiple studios launching the game, alternating every year. Then you had Warzone running year-round, and Call of Duty Mobile. How do you look at what’s deliberate and what’s opportunistic in that evolution?

Rob Kostich: We’ve been planning this a lot over the last few years. The one thing we started with, we had the premium business coming out every fall with Call of Duty. We wanted to do a lot of things, and one thing we saw was continuing to pull our community closer together. That happened when, before Modern Warfare launched, we started announcing cross-progression, crossplay, new season pass, changing our monetization system. Everything we can do to bring everyone together and provide free content to our fans at the same time. The big thing we wanted to do was get the community together and get them having fun.

Warzone was the thing that was transformational to all of it. Certainly not everyone on the planet has the ability to pay $60 or the equivalent to play Call of Duty. For my money, Call of Duty is the best moment-to-moment action experience there is. Warzone has allowed everyone to come in and experience Call of Duty. Now it’s become the focal point, the central point, the welcome mat if you will for the franchise as we go forward.

What’s important to us is we give all of our fans an incredible fun experience with Call of Duty, whether you’re free-to-play or premium, whoever you are. In Warzone that’s the first entry point, where you’ll experience the latest and greatest the franchise has to offer. You’ll go on a narrative journey with us through time. It’s the thing that’s transformed our business. It’s made our players more excited about our premium offerings as well. They get engaged in Call of Duty, all it has to offer across Zombies and everything else.

You mentioned mobile as well. Mobile’s been an incredible way — you’ve seen the headlines, where we’ve scaled to more than 300 million downloads. We have a nice scale on that business, and now we’re also launching in China. We’ve been able to tap into new audiences unlike ever before with the franchise. What’s fascinating is — I’ve certainly been around a long time, and it’s crazy. We launched the first Call of Duty in 2003. The franchise has never been bigger, been more relevant, and impacted more people in a positive way. We’re thrilled and excited about the prospects ahead of us as we continue to evolve the franchise for our community.

GamesBeat: What else is there to do for the franchise, and how do you structure the teams going forward to do that? It seems a lot more complex than just three studios trading off each year now. You have different studios doing different pieces, like multiplayer or Zombies. How does that structure look now?

Kostich: From a structure standpoint, one of the most important things for us — we have incredible development teams. As you know, in the creative process, wanting to keep these guys accountable and passionate about the things they work on — I can tell you one thing: They’re so passionate, whether they’re working on the premium games or Warzone, and how that’s impacted the community in such a positive way.

When we launched Warzone, that was launched in partnership with Infinity Ward and Raven. Raven is now taking over Warzone in terms of live ops as we move this thing forward into the future. They’ve done an amazing job. All of our studios are collaborating and participating in that process to make sure we do this in the right way going forward, integrating our offerings together in a way that the community is excited about.

Probably the greatest news for me is I’ve never seen our studios working together better than at this point in time. They’re super collaborative. They love the opportunity. They see how people are enjoying Warzone and everything we’re doing with Call of Duty. It’s been an awesome experience for the last 12 to 18 months, how our studios have come together and are charting the course for the future of Call of Duty right now.

GamesBeat: I hear there’s something like 2,000 people working on Call of Duty. That sounds very impressive, but it also sounds like you need more.

Kostich: I don’t know if we’ve actually disclosed a total number. But we have a very big team on this. What I’ll say is that we are hiring as we move into the future. We have so many opportunities in front of us. Most of our studios are hiring very aggressively right now. In particular, we’re hiring on the mobile front. As you know, on the world’s biggest platform, I think we have incredible opportunities to expand our franchise in even greater ways. We’re hiring across console and PC development. We’re hiring across mobile development. Our opportunities are bigger than they’ve ever been, and I mean that in terms of the community and the great experiences that we can provide them as we move forward.

Dean Takahashi's Warzone report: Not very impressive, but points for persevering.

Above: Dean Takahashi’s Warzone report: Not very impressive, but points for persevering.

Image Credit: Activision/Twitter

GamesBeat: When you think about the most successful games in the past, people talk about market share, but it seems like what’s happening here is you’re getting a bigger share of time. How do you get people to come back to Call of Duty every day, rather than just every fall?

Kostich: We’ve gotten a bit of a crash course in that the last year, year-and-a-half or so, across what we’re doing in mobile, what we’re doing in console and PC as well. It’s pretty simple. We need to surprise and delight our community. We have to provide them with new ways to play, new experiences. With season three I think we’re doing a fun thing right now as we transition out of season two, into Rebirth Island in the middle as launch into season three. We’re providing new play spaces, new ways to play.

Our focus is continuing, in terms of Warzone, to push the battle royale genre forward in every way possible for our community. That’s what’s going to keep them coming back. Across our free-to-play and premium experiences, we need to keep pushing forward for our community. They deserve it. That’s what our development team is 100 percent committed to doing. For Warzone in particular we have plans years into the future now for the things we have to do. We’ve been thinking hard about this. We know how important it is to our fans. Our team is super excited to deliver on that for the community.

GamesBeat: Do you think fans would go for a Call of Duty metaverse?

Kostich: The opportunity is there for sure. Within Warzone we probably have more flexibility to explore things like that than ever before. We’re already starting to mix universes a bit. Most important, at its core, is that we provide an incredible Call of Duty experience to our fans, which we will absolutely do. There’s a lot of fun narrative things we can do over time now in the Call of Duty metaverse and how that evolves over the next few years.

GamesBeat: You’ve been quiet about the next Call of Duty. Are you shifting toward announcements later in the year for the new games? Last year was also fairly late in the cycle as far as revelations go.

Kostich: We’re probably shifting a bit more in that direction. Most of the reason is — you’ve seen what we have in Season 3 this week. We have so much to talk about and so much going on that’s happening this week. We want to focus on that with the community, focus on the journey with them. Also, as you saw last year, we did some cool things in terms of integrating the reveal of Black Ops into Warzone. Those are the things we want to orchestrate and provide to our community, letting them discover Call of Duty themselves in their play experience. That part’s been fun for us and our development teams. Marketing is changing within Call of Duty, how we get the community to participate and uncover things for us. It might be happening later, but it’s all part of a broader agenda to bring the community along on a fun journey.

Action in Call of Duty: Black Ops -- Cold War multiplayer.

Above: Action in Call of Duty: Black Ops — Cold War multiplayer.

Image Credit: Activision

GamesBeat: Can you explain a bit of what it’s like behind the scenes in responding to something like Warzone’s success? It seems like there’s a period of time when the success is so surprising that you have to come up with contingency plans, changing the direction to take advantage of opportunities. At some point you become caught up with it. How has that process happened in the past year? Do you feel like you’re caught up now?

Kostich: I don’t think anyone’s going to ever rest on their laurels or feel caught up. For us it’s just always the pursuit of what else we can do for our fans. To your question, I think we have a good sense of how to operate. When we first launched this thing, we launched seasons. We’re getting smarter with seasons. You’ll see that evolve for us even further in terms of how we navigate through seasons, how we end one and begin another, what we do in the midseason, how we surprise people throughout. We’re going to get even better on that front for the fans.

That part feels good. We need to hire more resources, but we’re just continuing to focus on innovating, pushing the genre forward, and providing incredible new play experiences for the community.

GamesBeat: How do you deal with things like the differences between the studios? Different game engines, different time frames they focus on. Then all of a sudden in Warzone, you’re going to put everything in there. It seems like you may have to shoehorn things that may or may not fit.

Kostich: We’ve been very focused on that in particular. One of the most important concepts for us is to make sure we limit any friction for our community as we go forward. What that means behind the scenes is making sure that from a technology perspective, everything feels seamless to the player. That’s a big focus for us as we move forward, so that as you transition from one experience to the next, as new weapons come in and out of the game, it feels like a solid, continuous play experience that evolves into the future. That’s also come from our development teams working together to make that — as you swap in and out from Warzone or a premium experience in the future, it’s seamless for our community. It’s been another passionate point for our team, to make sure we can provide the best experience possible for our fans as we go forward.

On the narrative front, the Call of Duty universe is super rich with everything we can do. That’s the fun part, taking people on that journey as we move it into the future.

Season Three for Warzone and Black Ops Cold War multiplayer is upon us.

Above: Season Three for Warzone and Black Ops Cold War multiplayer is upon us.

Image Credit: Activision

GamesBeat: It feels like putting Zombies into Warzone — it does tie narratives together. It seems like it might be tough to do that every year, though, to tie narratives together so closely that it’s almost one game with one narrative. Whereas before, some of the freshness came to the franchise because there were different branches going in very different directions. How do you balance some of that? Some players might want something totally different, like World War II or Infinite Warfare, those very different directions.

Kostich: They can be very different. The interesting part about Warzone is that we can, from an event perspective, bring stuff in and out of Warzone to keep it fresh, provide a new experience, and transition to new things. There’s no rule set that says we have to transition to Zombies once and they forever stay. Zombies may come in and out of Warzone. Other events might come in and out of Warzone. We might have special play experiences for our fans as we transition from one place to the other. That’s the real fun part. That’s where the flexibility is for us. The Call of Duty universe is so rich in content and its history of eras and stories and things we do. We think that provides an incredible platform for new, fresh experiences within the Warzone environment for our players.

As I mentioned before, Warzone being the central point of things going on, people understand all the great things that are happening in the franchise. If they want to get a deeper experience with a certain aspect of Call of Duty, we have those premium experiences, which will differ. You’re very familiar with the franchise. You know how they differ very well. They tug a lot of different strings, whether you’re playing Modern Warfare or Black Ops or something historical. It’s great to get those experiences, but we can take parts of those and fuse them into Warzone in the longer term or for a limited time, making that fun and interesting for the community.

GamesBeat: You have a very strong rumor community. There’s a certain group that trades and thrives on that process. What can you do about setting the record straight or otherwise communicating more in that kind of environment? I’ve heard things like, “The guns come out overpowered and then they get nerfed, because that causes people to come back to the new season and pay more.” “Activision doesn’t care about stopping cheaters.” “Activision doesn’t care about file size.” There’s almost a conspiracy theory approach to everything that happens around the game. How do you channel that in a better direction?

Verdansk, the home of Warzone, has been visited by 100 million players. Not so many have come out alive.

Above: Verdansk, the home of Warzone, has been visited by 100 million players. Not so many have come out alive.

Image Credit: Activision

Kostich: There’s two parts to that. One is communication, and the other is action. We’ll continue to do a better and better job of communicating with the community very frequently. In terms of action, to some of our points, you talk about the cheating. You’re familiar with this space. Any large-scale free-to-play game gets attacked about those not-good actors who are out there. You’ve probably seen that we’ve banned more than 475,000 accounts now. We have a dedicated security team. We’re investing more resources there to make sure we provide the best possible experience for our fans. We have to take action, and also communicate about that, which we’re going to do.

As far as other aspects of the business, it’s the same way. You talked about file size, for example. That’s an interesting one. When we launched Warzone, our goal was to make the best-looking, best-playing battle royale experience on the planet. I think we accomplished that. With that, though, there’s a bit of a file size that we recognize. We also have a team that’s continuously focused on taking down that footprint for our fans so they can better manage their inventory of games. We’re working on all the things you mentioned very aggressively on behalf of the community, and we’ll continue to do a better job of communicating with them.

As you know, it’s a very small world nowadays. News travels very fast. Sometimes it goes in weird directions, for whatever reason. For us it’s about communication and action. At the bottom line, providing the best possible game imaginable for our fans. Across what we’re doing, across console and PC, across mobile, I mentioned this at the beginning, but the franchise has never been better, frankly. We’ve never had more opportunity in front of us. We’re excited, and more than anything we’re thankful for our community and their support. We’re more passionate than ever to surprise and delight them in the future.

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