Next year’s Call of Duty has gone through a major upheaval, as publisher Activision informed developers this week that studios Raven and Sledgehammer, which had until now led the project, will no longer be in charge. Instead, according to three people familiar with goings-on at the companies, Treyarch will lead development on a new Black Ops for 2020.
It’s a significant shift for Activision’s massive first-person shooter franchise, which is one of the most lucrative video game series on the planet. Every year for the past 15 years, Activision has put out a new Call of Duty game, supported by a stable of different developers who rotated duties as required. Since 2012, Activision has followed a three-year cycle for its three lead studios: Infinity Ward, Treyarch, and Sledgehammer. The results have looked like this:
2012 - Treyarch - Call of Duty: Black Ops II
2013 - Infinity Ward - Call of Duty: Ghosts
2014 - Sledgehammer - Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare
2015 - Treyarch - Call of Duty: Black Ops III
2016 - Infinity Ward - Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare
2017 - Sledgehammer - Call of Duty: WWII
2018 - Treyarch - Call of Duty: Black Ops IIII
2019 - Infinity Ward - Unannounced (but at this point it’s basically an open secret that it’s a new Modern Warfare)
For 2020, Activision had originally switched things up, assigning the Minnesota-based support studio Raven to take a leadership role alongside Sledgehammer to make a Call of Duty game set during the Cold War (likely involving Vietnam). As of very recently, that’s changed. Now Treyarch, based in Santa Monica, California, is in charge of leading Call of Duty: Black Ops 5 for 2020.
According to those briefed on the overhaul, Treyarch will take creative leadership on this new Black Ops while Raven and Sledgehammer will serve as support studios for the game, transforming the work they’ve done on their own single-player story mode into a campaign for Black Ops 5, which will also be set during the Cold War. (This may be a welcome return for fans, who criticised the lack of campaign in Black Ops 4.) It will likely be a cross-gen game, to coincide with the launch of the next PlayStation and Xbox, which are also expected in the fall of 2020.
What this means is that rather than getting three years to make their next game after Black Ops 4, Treyarch will have just two. Some at the company say they’re not pleased about that, and are already bracing for brutal overtime hours like they faced last year on Black Ops 4. Others have told Kotaku they’re excited about the change, as they have a solid game plan that isn’t likely to change drastically, unlike their last two projects. (We’ll have more to share about Treyarch and the development of Black Ops 4 in the coming weeks.)
This news comes during a strange time for Activision and Call of Duty. Although Black Ops 4 sold well at first, we’ve heard that it hasn’t had quite the revenue tail that Activision’s bean-counters were hoping to see. Internally, Activision executives have started to talk about embracing free-to-play as a revenue model—once anathema to the publisher—and, three sources say, are looking into offering a free-to-play component for this year’s new Modern Warfare, although the specifics may not be finalised yet. Some within Activision have remained resistant to the idea.
The past year has also been rough for the San Francisco-based Sledgehammer. In February 2018, Kotaku broke the news that Sledgehammer’s co-founders, Michael Condrey and Glen Schofield, had left the studio. Although Activision spun it as a promotion, saying they’d take on “new executive duties,” it was very clearly an ousting, and the two quietly exited shortly afterwards. Earlier this year, Condrey started a new Silicon Valley studio with the publisher 2K, where he’s recruited dozens of Sledgehammer staff. The studio has been hemorrhaging employees over the past few months, much to the dismay of those who remain.
One primary reason behind this Call of Duty upheaval, according to two people familiar with happenings at Activision, is the tension between Sledgehammer and Raven, whose staff are said to have argued frequently during the past year of development on Call of Duty 2020. Two people familiar with the project described it as a mess. Now, both studios will serve as support for Treyarch as the publisher prepares to release Black Ops 5.