Activision goes after subscription fees with Call of Duty Elite

| May 31, 2011

The new premium service will provide players with additional Call of Duty content at a small extra charge.

In case you haven’t heard, Activision is rolling out a new Call of Duty: Elite monthly subscription service to wring more money out of the franchise. As initially reported by the Wall Street Journal, Elite will give Call of Duty players access to exclusive content that isn’t on any Call of Duty game disc and it could serve as a test case that redefines player tolerance when it comes to the business side of AAA development.

“It’s easy to figure out what Call of Duty players want right now, but what’s difficult is anticipating what players will need in the future,” Activision studio head Choco Sunny told Gamasutra, acknowledging that Activision will be walking a fine line between opportunity and greed. Even though CEO Bobby Kotick calls Elite an “enormous investment,” the publisher will have to convince Call of Duty’s 20 million monthly players and 7 million daily players that the new service represents a greater value than the free online features that they currently enjoy.

Thankfully, Activision has put some fears to rest and confirmed that there will be no pay-to-play model for content that has traditionally been standard Call of Duty fare. Online multiplayer is still free, and while “premium members” will automatically receive all future Modern Warfare 3 DLC, map packs and other expansions will be available on a piecemeal basis.

With that in mind, here’s what we know about Elite: the service will exist primarily as a website that will be accessible through standard web browsers and iOS/Android apps that are currently in the works at Activision’s Beachhead studio. Elite will debut with Modern Warfare 3 for the PS3, Xbox 360, and PC on November 8


, and while this summer’s beta will take advantage of Black Ops, Activision has not yet confirmed last year’s top seller as an official platform for Elite.

The rest of details are a little hazy. Elite appears to be a social networking hub with the usual social networking features. Users can add friends and create playgroups, and there are robust stat tracking features similar to those provided for the Halo series via Bungie.net. Some of the features will be open to everyone, although Activision has not yet separated the free stuff from the paid exclusives.

The service is divided into four main categories – Career, Connect, Improve, and Compete – and the problem is that a lot of the content sounds like stuff you’d usually get for free. Connect is part Facebook, part Twitter, part YouTube, and part World War III, while the Improve tab will provide new players with instructions. The Career section, meanwhile, charts platform-specific leaderboards (there’s still no Xbox/PS3 crossover) while compiling extremely detailed gameplay stats for the player.

The Compete section, however, is legitimately intriguing. The specifics are once again unclear, but Activision apparently plans to run tournaments, challenges, and other competitive events with the promise of real prizes for the winners. Events will be divided into tiers for players of different skill levels and could net players anything from in-game trophies to real-world automobiles (Beachhead says they will be able to crack down on cheaters).

While I have serious doubts about Activision’s overarching intentions (more on that in a minute), the Compete content has the potential to turn into something worthwhile. Professional gaming has existed in some capacity for a while now, but it’s always been limited by the fact that developers need to keep making games. As an annual release, Call of Duty could provide the mainstream stability needed for a successful gaming circuit and add a degree of legitimacy to the hobby.

I also suspect that it’s the feature that’s going to make or break the service from a value perspective. Activision would face a huge backlash if they start charging for nothing more than glorified social networking, but prizes cost money so it wouldn’t be too outrageous if they want to charge entry fees for events and millions of people are already willing to invest a few bucks to make their fantasy football leagues a little more compelling.

Unfortunately, Activision has not yet determined the cost of a premium membership so it’s too early to tell how the service will work and whether or not it’ll be worth the extra coin. The WSJ indicates that the monthly fee will be lower than the monthly $7.99 charge for a service like Netflix, so Elite should at least be more affordable than your typical MMO. I wouldn’t expect the price to dip below $5, but anything less than $7 seems reasonable if Activision is determined to collect subscription fees.

Even so, there’s something troubling about the introduction of Elite. Activision is essentially tailoring content to fit a pricing model regardless of any creative impetus, and while that might be highly lucrative – there certainly seems to be adequate demand – it nonetheless seems as if they’re following Zynga down a path that’s more interested in profits than aesthetic innovation. That’s not exactly a surprise (or even a criticism), and Elite could bridge the gap between video games and sports. I just wouldn’t want the entire industry to abandon artistry for the sake of competition.

Activision will share more Elite details in the months ahead, so we’ll let you know more as the situation develops.

Sources: Wall Street Journal, Kotaku, Gamasutra


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