Activision Blizzard is announcing Call of Duty Elite today, a social network for players of the most popular video game franchise in the world.
The subscription-based service has been in the works for two years and represents a way to get hardcore players even more engaged in the popular combat game, which draws more than 7 million players a day for multiplayer online battles. The move shows that innovating at the social layer of video games is becoming essential to success, even for hardcore video game companies.
“Games as an entertainment form are better than ever,” said Jamie Berger, vice president of digital at Activision Blizzard. “The world is changing and our competitive set has morphed dramatically. Now we compete with blockbuster movies, social networking, mobile apps — all of them vying for the player’s attention.”
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The network will launch in beta form this summer with the Call of Duty Black Ops game that debuted last November. But it will launch as an integrated part of the Call of Duty Modern Warfare 3 game that debuts on Nov. 8. Call of Duty Elite could prove to be a strategic asset in the coming battle with Electronic Arts, which is launching Battlefield 3 this fall.
[Activision Blizzard briefed journalists on the Call of Duty Elite launch and asked everyone to honor an agreed-upon embargo for 6 am. But the company allowed the Wall Street Journal to publish the story yesterday evening].
The whole idea is to enrich the multiplayer experience and establish a tighter community than was possible before through ordinary online services such as Xbox Live and the PlayStation Network. Call of Duty warriors will be able to log into the online service via the web or their consoles to check their multiplayer stats that are updated in real time. They can connect with other friends with the same interests, form their own groups or clans, and enter tournaments with daily prizes. Players can upload videos or screen shots from their best matches, and users can vote on which ones are the best.
Furthermore, the players can tap into the wealth of statistics that Activision Blizzard collects on player performance so that they can study their results and improve their game play. For instance, I tried it out and I could see exactly where I was shot in the game map and from what distance. A “heat map” showed the place where most of the deaths occurred in the match. I could move a slider to see the minute by minute time progression of the match and see where I shot someone or where they shot me and from what direction and distance.
You can also pull back to see aggregate data, such as the weapon that is most successfully used on the map. That kind of detail is useful to improve your game play — it helps you figure out the right kind of weapon to use on a map, which areas to avoid, and which places you can safely perch and pick off rivals.
In one match, I noticed that most of the deaths that occurred on the map were in the middle, where one of the flags you had to dominate was placed. Relatively few people died on the outskirts. Clearly, if you went to grab for the flag, you were vulnerable, whereas if you stayed on the outskirts, you were safe but didn’t get much action. I put more than 60 hours into the multiplayer version of the game, but I never had this kind of view of the data. Call of Duty Elite is the only way for players to see this kind of feedback.
Previously, that kind of detail was available only to the game developers. It helped them create multiplayer maps that were balanced so that no side had an advantage and no single type of player ruled.
The social network is exciting because at some point in the future, players will be able to use that data to create their own maps. I suggested that idea, and Jamie Berger, vice president of digital games at Activision Blizzard, said it was a good one. The company can thus tap the collective wisdom of its players.
Multiplayer combat will be included for free with the purchase of the game (although Microsoft charges a fee for multiplayer play on Xbox Live). The company will announce the subscription price later this year, but it will be cheaper than most other subscription services, Berger said. The monthly subscription will entitle players to download map packs, which are extensions of the game for multiplayer purposes, for free. After the service launches, players of the different games, such as Black Ops and Modern Warfare 3, will be united in the same community for the first time. Going forward, new versions of the game will also be integrated with Call of Duty Elite.
“We are thinking about this franchise as more than just a packaged good,” Berger said. “For many of our players, it’s a lifestyle.”
The network is the work of Beachhead Studios, a division created two years ago to build the social experience, said Chacko Sonny, head of the studio. That represents a major investment for Activision Blizzard, which dedicated a full team to the social project rather than have it create a brand new version of the game.
“This is a new vector for innovation in the Call of Duty franchise, which we call social innovation,” Berger said. “It is of equal importance to innovations such as graphics and game play mechanics.”
Sonny said that the initial service will roll out some of the features for Black Ops fans. But the full service launching with Modern Warfare 3, which is expected to be one of the biggest video game launches of the year, will have even more features.
“This is just a hint of where we will go with this,” Berger said. Adds Sonny, “This is about getting in front of players and leading them to the future of connected entertainment.”
The Call of Duty community is already one of the strongest there is. More than 30 million people have played online this year and 20 million players play each month. On average, the Call of Duty player plays 170 hours of the game per year. That’s as much time spent as watching the full series of the Sopranos and Lost, combined.
“If you look at the hours, Call of Duty is already a pretty engaged social network,” said Eric Hirshberg, president of Activision Publishing, which is in charge of the Call of Duty business. “Now we can give the player much more control of their own choices. We can now give them a tremendous suite of tools to amplify their experience.”
The new network is aimed at hanging onto those players year round, not just capturing them when a new game launches. The other goal is to make money from them. Right now, users upload their best antics, home-made movies, and accomplishments in the game to YouTube. Those videos have been viewed 75 million times already. You can see things such as the “Tomahawk kill of the day.” Now the social network will be able to draw attention to those videos far more easily.
The service’s menus focus on four main concepts: career, connect, compete, and improve. With the “career” tab, you can see your own aggregate performance stats. You can see each player’s “kill/death ratio,” or the number of times the player has killed another or been killed. You can browse through the data from every match you have played. There are metrics on everything, such as your accuracy rate firing the Famas assault rifle on a particular map.
Under “connect,” players will be able to form their own groups based on interests. Players can join up to 64 groups, such as a group dedicated to Bay Area fans of the San Francisco Giants. The groups allow you to compete in a smaller social circle rather than try to beat people who have superstar status on overall leaderboards. In the groups, you can keep tabs on the stats of your friends and do a direct comparison between your own stats and your friend’s.
Players can only play in one clan, which is a single team dedicated to multiplayer combat. There can be as many as 128 players in a clan.
Within the “compete” menu, players can compete in leagues or “operations.” The latter are events where players try to be the first to do something like get five long-distance kills with a ballistic knife. You can also compete by uploading the funniest screen shot. In these kinds of competitions, even casual players like me stand a chance of winning a prize. Prizes will include new Jeep vehicles.
“It’s like organized sports with automatic weapons,” Sonny said.
Players will be able to access Call of Duty Elite from any screen: the web, mobile devices, the TV and from inside the games themselves.
“We can’t wait to be astounded by how the player base uses these features,” said Hirshberg. “This investment is part of our philosophy of putting money into games where we have a competitive advantage. We can make our games deeper and more robust so that we exceed our consumers’ expectations.”
He added, “The innovations and breakthroughs that we are developing inside Elite are as meaningful as any we develop inside a stand-alone game.”