Everything you need to know about Call of Duty's new online service, plus quotes from Activision's Jamie Berger and Beachhead's Chacko Sonny.
It's no secret that Activision has been looking for a way to monetise its vast, vast multiplayer userbase for Call of Duty. And thanks to the nature of the Internet, Call of Duty Elite is no secret either, now. It's a service for players of Black Ops and the forthcoming Modern Warfare 3 that offers social networking and a vast wealth of information and analysis of your play performance, as well as strategy tips, maps, weapon breakdowns and competitions. It's available both as a free version, and a paid subscription service. It gives you one account that will evolve across current and future COD games.
Elite isn't obligatory, and non-paying customers will still have access to a lot of the features (exactly what content will be premium-only hasn't been made clear yet). Paid subscribers will automatically get DLC and map packs without having to pay extra for them, but non-paid users can still purchase it separately. They won't be locked out. And nobody at all will be locked out of multiplayer. You will never have to pay to play Call of Duty online, Activision assures us. We can hear 30 million people exhaling in relief.
“The genesis of the idea was in the fragmentation of the consumer base,” said a spokesperson from Beachhead, Chacko Sonny. “There was a moment when people at Activision realised that there were these tremendous numbers of people who weren't abandoning prior games when a new Call of Duty came out. Every time we released a new game we were leaving that consumer base behind, and we wanted to find a way to unify them across the whole franchise.”
Elite can be accessed both in-game and online on a separate site, as well as on mobile apps, and it's best summarised as an enormous, nicely presented collection of data. Your own summary page has a wealth of information about your recent play – you total XP, recent matches with detailed breakdowns, a heat map of your latest match showing where your kills and deaths occurred, your overall kill to death ratio, even an XP calculator that figures out how long it will take you to get to the next rank based on your current play performance.
It also offers social networking, letting you form groups with other players based on anything from a postcode to an interest to a food allergy. The idea is that it makes it easier to socialise, and easier to find others in CODBlops' 30-million strong player base who share your interests and your attitudes. The Theatre gameplay video cinema is present and correct, too. You can also track other players, comparing every imaginable facet of your gameplay performance.
As for the competitions, there'll be everything from straightforward “who can kill the most dudes this week” face-offs to screenshot competitions. A tab labelled Improve houses detailed maps of every arena, with weapon locations and choke points marked, and videos on how to best use each weapon, perk or killstreak bonus.
With all this social interaction, the obvious question is how on earth Infinity Ward expects to moderate it – as anyone who's ever played online for more than about 30 seconds can tell you, Call of Duty players aren't always the kind of polite, interesting people you'd like to form a social network around.
“From the service side, the good news is that we have these partners down the road called Blizzard, who have been tremendous in sharing thoughts on how they deal with this very issue.,” says Activision's Jamie Berger. “You can't just build a platform, turn it on and hope it goes well. There have to be real human beings managing it, and that has to scale with the community.
“The premium membership helps here. There's no restriction on groups, everybody can join them, but at a premium level I think people expect a different level of behaviour. At a country club, you pay your money and you expect everyone to behave to a certain norm. We're going to treat it that way. When you're signing on, you're signing on to expectations of behaviour that we're going to take very seriously. We don't want to be nannies, but if people are making the experience bad for others then they shouldn't be part of it.”
At the moment COD Elite only applies to Black Ops, but neither Infinity Ward nor Activision has ruled out incorporating Modern Warfare 2 at a later date, assuming the can overcome the technical difficulties inherent in backwards-engineering a service onto a game that wasn't build around it.
Sonny seems optimistic that Elite will change the way that people form player communities in COD, hoping for a 100% subscription rate to the free features. “The COD consumer is a tremendously diverse userbase,” he says. “Far and away the single biggest thing that makes people want to play this game is being able to play with their friends, and Elite enables people to find that group of people who are suitable for them to play with, whether that's based on a zip code of an affinity or leaderboards or just who are interesting folk. It enables that connection in a way that we simply have not been able to do up until this point.”
COD Elite is going into public beta this summer, with a launch planned for later this year – just ahead of Modern Warfare 3, we're guessing. Expect more details on what paid subscribers will get that everybody else won't at E3.