Tencent and Activision’s Call of Duty Mobile is taking the world by storm, racking up 35 million downloads in just three days. But the two worked together on a Call of Duty game before… with considerably worse results.

In 2015, the companies launched Call of Duty Online. This version was completely developed by Activision and run by Tencent, which would later develop the mobile game. But not even a huge marketing budget and hiring Chris Evans as the spokesperson was enough to get people to appreciate it.

Despite some positive early reviews, gamers lambasted it. Ultimately, Chinese fans felt like Call of Duty Online abused microtransactions and let cheaters run rampant, two problems common with free-to-play shooters.

Call of Duty Online’s engine and graphics are often likened to those of Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare. It’s optimized to work with lower-end PCs. (Picture: Tencent)

“When I saw Call of Duty Online put out its first [pay-to-win] gun, I decided to leave the game,” one Zhihu user complained. “Not only did it come with an armor-piercing bullet, but it’s also compatible with other mags. Other [non-pay-to-win] guns can only hold one attachment. If you put in armor-piercing bullets, it won’t work with another mag.”

Free-to-play mechanics are an important means of making games profitable in China, where many gamers can’t afford or are unwilling to buy big games like the main Call of Duty titles. Instead, players can download the game for free and get sold add-ons while they play. Games with add-ons that give players an advantage are often derided as pay-to-win.

Both Call of Duty Mobile and Call of Duty Online are live-service games that are rife with microtransactions. But unlike Tencent, Activision isn’t known for its free-to-play games. As a result, Call of Duty Online remains a cautionary tale of how a brand can squander fans’ goodwill.

Some gamers said that Call of Duty Online originally ensured players could earn better guns over time if they were unwilling to pay for them, but that promise fell apart over the years.

“Tencent promised a dual-currency system… It means you can buy weapons with either your own renminbi or in-game currency,” someone wrote on Zhihu. “Not sure if Tencent was forgetful or did it on purpose. Some weapons ended up becoming only purchasable with renminbi.”

Some players also said the game saw a proliferation of cheaters.

“Even if we don’t talk about those pay-to-win guns, how many autoclickers are in this game?” one Zhihu user asked. Autoclick software emulates mouse clicking at an absurdly fast rate, possibly as much as 100 clicks per second.

Fans said guns that you can purchase in Call of Duty Online also come with funky shot effects that don’t fit with the overall aesthetic of the game. (Picture: 3dmgame)

Perhaps because of its execution, Call of Duty Online always lived in the shadow of the main Call of Duty games. Now it seems Call of Duty Mobile has a chance to rectify this.

Tencent already has other successful free-to-play mobile shooters, including the wildly popular PUBG Mobile -- or Game for Peace in China -- which has grossed more than US$1 billion in revenue.

Even though the games have different developers, some gamers worry Call of Duty Mobile could eventually see the same fate as its predecessor. Chinese gamers have pointed to similar UIs and game modes as proof of the games’ close connection.

“Judging by Tencent’s nature, [Call of Duty Mobile] might go down the same path as Call of Duty Online,” another Zhihu user wrote when the mobile game was beta testing a few months ago. “Transformable guns, girls with huge boobs -- it’s just a matter of time before these in-game items hit the shelf.”

“Don’t ruin it when it goes public,” the person added. “We are keeping our eyes peeled.”