Any discussion on the possibility of monetising Call of Duty's online multiplayer component has typically met with a collective wail of indignation from fans and detractors alike. It's not hard to see why – the thought of paying for something that has previously been available for free is hardly anything to get excited about.
Activision, therefore, was at great pains last week in its pre-E3 reveal to stress that Call of Duty Elite takes nothing away from the free-to-play component currently enjoyed by millions of gamers worldwide.
Essentially, Elite is a worldwide hub designed to allow matchmaking and statistics comparisons with the entire Call of Duty Black Ops and Modern Warfare 3 install base. Players will have the ability to review extensive post-match information, compare weapon statistics, receive tactical video tutorials, compete in competitions to win prizes, and create their own in-game video collections. Elite will be widely accessible on a number of platforms: web browsers, game consoles, within the game interface itself, and even mobile devices.
To facilitate this undertaking Activision has created Beachhead Studios, an entirely new team comprised of both service and development divisions. According to studio head Chacko Sonny, Beachhead has worked for over two years on Elite.
"It really started as almost like a 'skunkworks' project, people were realising that there was this need for a service that would essentially serve the Call of Duty community, give them what they needed on a franchise basis. But it was only recently that we had this 'ahah' moment. It was the point where we finally understood that for every Call of Duty game, people were not abandoning the prior ones. As the franchise continued to move forward, people were continuing to play those old games in massive, massive numbers. We looked at it and we said that each time we fragment the community, we have all these different communities that we're not unifying. We're not giving them any way that they can continue to interact with each other.
"So at that moment we decided to figure out how to do that appropriately, and that's the genesis of Elite."
What has previously been available for free – that is, that ability to go online and play against anyone on any available server – will remain free. Likewise the ability to join groups and participate in the wider social networking aspects will be free as well. The subscription service will cover downloadable content and additional services which Activision is yet to reveal. No pricing structure has been revealed at this time, although Activision has stated that Elite will cost "less than any comparable online gaming or entertainment service."
Acknowledging that a subscription service may polarise fans, Chacko is quick to point out that Elite is an initiative within Activision with a large amount of time, effort and resources behind it.
"There's a tremendous number of people working on this, the service organisation alone rivals a lot of games studios, and this is because they have to be providing a constant stream. Literally every day of every month you'll find new operations that people are running, and it's not a small task to administer those competitions, make sure they're set up correctly, make sure people are winning correctly, make sure we have prizes in place for them, so that organisation alone is big."
The participation in competitions with real-world prizes will almost certainly require a subscription to the service. At this early stage, only prizes from Apple have been mooted, such as iPhone and iPad devices. When pressed on additional competition partners, Chacko refused to comment. Fortunately however, the regional nature of the competition service will allow Kiwi gamers to pick up some kind of material award for gaming excellence:
"We're planning on doing stuff with featured groups, so we want to do stuff that drives people towards more interesting groups, more dynamic groups, groups that might get much much bigger. Let's say it's the NBA play-offs, we might want to do a Lakers vs. Knicks type group. Again, not going to have much appeal in Australia or New Zealand, so we might do something with Rugby there, or we might do Premier League in England, that sort of thing is really how we get people locally to get engaged.
"From an organisational standpoint, we are committed to making sure that this service stands up in a way that is compelling and interesting for all the regions that we're going to support."
In addition to the inclusive matchmaking and group creation tools, Elite plans to tap traditional social networking to expand its player base. Confirming a strong association with Facebook, Chacko revealed a determination to shift data between both platforms:
"If you have linked your Facebook profile to your Elite identity, and provide the correct permissions, you'll be able to import friends who have linked to your gamer tag and have played a Call of Duty title. So the idea is that when you come to Elite you'll be able to see people you didn't even know played. Whether that's on Black Ops or Modern Warfare 3, you have this other way of being able to create a connection with other people in your world. Some other way of getting people to play Call of Duty.
"Another potential angle we're investigating is taking some of your interests from Facebook and using those to populate groups, a kind of loose affiliation. So let's say you might have been a UCLA graduate, you can create a UCLA group, and if you've given permission we can drive you towards some of the new connection features we have on the service."
Whether or not the subscription services will prove popular in New Zealand, the additional free-to-play content allowing gamers to compare their abilities with those of their competitors shows a desire by Activision to consolidate their user base. Gaining a critical mass online with active participants across multiple titles may provide the kind of security needed to round out this console generation without major gameplay changes. Any Call of Duty title following Modern Warfare 3 will need to adhere to the same kind of statistics aggregation that exists within Elite, or risk segregating the community which Beachhead has been at pains to consolidate.
It's a tall order, and Chacko has hired accordingly:
"Beachhead, as a studio, is an amazing challenge because we have people with traditional games backgrounds. My Tech Director comes from Google, but also has a gaming background. I have operations guys that have worked on Expedia, and Xbox Live. I have guys from the web agency world, people who come from a mobile background. All that brings through this unique perspective on how we can take Call of Duty content, and the experience of Call of Duty and bring it to the other platforms we're working on.
"It's a really neat challenge, and that's something that attracted me."
We'll hear more from Activision over the coming months, including additional details surrounding pricing, and the PC release of Modern Warfare 3. Activision is also planning a public beta using the Black Ops community, more information about which can be found at the COD Elite website.
The video below explains what we can expect when Elite launches with Modern Warfare 3 in November this year.