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Sons of 2007: How Assassin’s Creed is growing while Call of Duty stagnates

Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 has sat atop the sales charts in both the United States and most of Europe since releasing at the end of November, an unsurprising feat for Activision’s perennially popular shooter series. The game went on to earn $1 billion in sales one day faster than 2011’s Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3, a feat that marks any media release a success, but an indicator that Black Ops 2‘s sales are relatively flat. There are signs, though, that Black Ops 2 is already showing the series in decline. The suggestion is that annual releases are diminishing the power of the brand, calcifying the audience rather than growing it.

If the Call of Duty bubble is bursting, then it isn’t because of annual releases in the franchise. Ubisoft’s Assassin’s Creed series just released its fourth annual installment in November. With 7 million in sales over the course of its first month, Assassin’s Creed III blew previous series sales records out of the water.

Take a look at the historical performance of the series. After debuting with strong sales in 2007, Ubisoft let the series rest on consoles for 2008. Starting in 2009, though, Assassin’s Creed has enjoyed impressive annual growth. Assassin’s Creed II sold 1.6 million copies on Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 during its first week on shelves that year, and an additional 783,000 copies on Xbox 360 alone the following month.

2010’s Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood was the first annualized sequel, but it still managed to build on its predecessor’s success, racking up 6.5 million in sales over the course of its first three months, helping Ubisoft’s revenue pull as an entire company grow over the previous year. Assassin’s Creed: Revelations saw the series grow, but only slightly over the same period. Released in November 2011, Revelations moved 7 million copies over its first three months, suggesting that Ubisoft’s series had saturated its audience.

Assassin’s Creed III obviously disproved that, matching its predecessor’s first quarter sales performance in a third of the time.

It’s possible that Ubisoft’s latest game has such power in the market thanks to branding. Rather than fracture the series into two running franchises as Activision has with Call of Duty, Ubisoft has marketed Assassin’s Creed games as either spinoffs or major numbered releases. The slight growth between Brotherhood and Revelations would suggest that consumers recognized the series’ name but may not have considered them “event” games. Assassin’s Creed III’s title implies it’s a major follow up to a three-year-old hit.

Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare started that series’ meteoric rise to industry dominance, released the same year as the first Assassin’s Creed. Activision will be sure to watch Ubisoft’s strategy with its flagship action series, as the French video game maker seems to have cracked a code for continued growth in a difficult video game market.