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When a video game like Call of Duty Black Ops debuts, it’s hard to measure its true impact. The latest installment of the modern combat game series has sold more than 5.6 million copies and could very well top 20 million units sold by the end of January or so. With the game selling at $60 each or more, those unit sales generated revenues of $360 million on the first day and could yield $1.2 billion in revenues in the first three months.

Those are record-breaking numbers. But they could actually lead people to underestimate the impact of the game, published by Activision Blizzard and created by Treyarch. While social games on Facebook such as FarmVille command much higher user numbers, they don’t come anywhere close in terms of engagement, a key buzzword in social games that is defined as the amount of time players spend with a game. The comparative numbers show that, while casual social games are extremely popular, they have a long way to go before they can close in on the enthusiasm that users have for hardcore online games.

And the engagement numbers in this story also offer a fascinating look into just how much can be measured when a game is played online for enormous amounts of time by millions of people. The lesson of these numbers isn’t to simply make a game that yields similar metrics. These results can only be achieved when a game rises from being just a product to achieving status as a cultural phenomenon. The game spreads in a viral way because it’s cool, not nerdy, to be playing it. Activision Blizzard could probably charge subscription fees for Call of Duty multiplayer, but it has chosen not to do so, much to the chagrin of analysts such as Michael Pachter of Wedbush Securities.

Social game maker Zynga
has won great praise for the fact that FarmVille is still being played by tens of millions of people, even though the simple farm simulation launched in June, 2009. FarmVille has more than 53 million monthly active users, or users who log into the game on Facebook at least once a month, according to AppData. But according to the social game service Raptr, players have logged more than 3,418,268 hours playing Black Ops in the past month, making it the No. 1 game by far. And that’s only counting since Nov. 9, when the game went on sale and broke records around the world. World of Warcraft comes in second at 1,127,843 hours, while Halo Reach comes in at 714,121 hours. FarmVille actually comes in eighth place with 260,029 hours.

Electronic Arts’ Medal of Honor was the biggest challenger to the Call of Duty series this fall. But the EA game was rated poorly, at 75 out of 100 points. Black Ops was rated at 89 out of 100. Moreover, in its first week, the average play time for Black Ops was 2.54 hours per session, according to Raptr. Medal of Honor players logged only 1.95 hours per session. FarmVille typically generates about 10 minutes per session. The average session length tells you just how addicted people are to a game.


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My own play time is instructive when it comes to understanding the appeal of this game. Now in its seventh iteration, the game has been designed like a Las Vegas slot machine, where the key is to keep you playing. It’s a fast-action combat game where split-second timing matters. Typical multiplayer matches last maybe 10 minutes, which is actually a short enough time to play the game when you only have a short amount of time available. The mature-rated game is very violent and bloody, but it isn’t exactly realistic in the way it plays and looks. Players can move much faster than they can in real life.

The goal is to protect your friends and shoot the enemies, toss grenades, or stab unsuspecting enemies in the back. You start with relatively weak weapons and then can use your Call of Duty points — a virtual currency that you earn with every new match — to buy better weapons. You can buy assault rifles, shotguns, pistols, submachine guns, and special weapons. As you play more, you can buy better stuff and you can even decorate your gear. If you get multiple kills in a row, you can earn a Killstreak reward. That means you can send off a special attack, such as a remote-controlled car bomb, a mortar strike, or an attack helicopter. But that’s hard to do. Usually, I survive a minute before I get killed. At the end of the round, you see how many Call of Duty points you’ve earned and how many experience points. The experience points allow you to level up. In the early levels, it takes only a few thousand points to move up. But later in the game, it could take 40,000 points or more to reach the next level. The top experience level is 50, but once you hit that, you can start over and get up to level 50 again, earning what is called Prestige levels. You can do that 15 times. I’m not sure how many people have done that.

Of course, there are a lot of people who would be horrified of such a celebration of violence. It is a gruesome game, with everything from flamethrowers to slow-motion kill shots. I can tell you that gamers don’t look at it as if it is training for real life. They appreciate the realism, but they consider it to be a fun game. It isn’t just a representation of a real war; it’s more like a tournament game, akin to poker, where you have to anticipate your opponents’ moves and head them off before they take you out. The size of the audience is limited to the people who don’t mind the violence.

I’ve been immersed in Call of Duty Black Ops multiplayer ever since the game debuted. I play for a half hour or an hour a day. To date, I have played 20.54 hours and climbed to the rank of 37, or Colonel, mostly by playing the Ground War battles that pit eight soldiers against eight enemies. The games rotate between various maps and different types of games, from Team Deathmatch, where you eliminate the enemy players, to Domination, where your team has to capture and control three flags on the map. My favorite game is Domination and my favorite maps are WMD and Jungle.

If I hadn’t played multiplayer, the single-player game would have tied me up about 10 hours. The 20 hours I’ve already put into multiplayer is thus the equivalent of two games that I might have otherwise played if I were not immersed in Black Ops. So you can see why it pays for other game publishers to avoid the same launch window as a Call of Duty game. I was motivated to play the 20 hours in part because I wanted to get one of the coolest weapons in the game, a crossbow with explosive bolts. That made the game much more fun. Once I had it, I could undertake new wagers, such as betting that I could get five kills with the crossbow gun in 40 minutes of game play. To date, I’ve earned 119,917 Call of Duty points and I have spent most of that on new weapons. If I wanted to, I could play private matches against players and wager Call of Duty points in the matches. So far, 35,615,375,417 wagers have been won in Call of Duty points.

If I wanted to, I could brag to my friends about my record, showing them videos of my exploits and uploading them to YouTube. The detail captured in the game metrics is astounding. I have gotten 1,325 kills in the multiplayer matches and died 1,934 times. That gives me a kill/death ratio of 0.69, which is almost as good as my record in last year’s Call of Duty Modern Warfare 2 game. I’ve gotten extra points by helping assist in kills (wounding an enemy) 266 times. My shot accuracy is 16 percent and I’ve gotten 133 head shots. My best Killstreak is 9 and I’ve gotten 414 kills with the AUG assault rifle. I’ve gotten 169 kills with the RC-XD remote-control car bomb, launched 13 napalm air strikes, and fielded 4 attack helicopters. All in all, my record is pretty lame when measured against the hardcore fans.

When I logged into the game at 5 pm Pacific time yesterday, I saw there were 725,194 players online. The player map showed there were players online in Africa, Iceland, New Zealand, the middle of the ocean, and many other places. The game showed that my friend Chunky Death had achieved level 20. It also scrolled stats by while I waited to join games. Some of these stats are pointless. But they’re entertaining when you’re waiting.

The stat counter showed:

98,739,226 players have been shot in the head while they’ve been lying on the ground wounded.
1,029,852,723 players have been killed by the special weapons during Killstreak attacks alone
25,136,920 bombs have been planted in the Search and Destroy game matches
145426 metric tons of plastic explosives have been planted
1,619,499,217 assists have been made
334,109 objectives have been destroyed by Communist players in Sabotage
16,072,705 clans have been created (a clan is a group of friends)
72,910,420 gun camouflage items have been purchased
7,891,365 bombs have been defused

And these stats are from last week:
15,232 man-years spent playing Black Ops
218 billion rounds of ammunition fired by players
The death toll in Black Ops multiplayer games has exceeded 4.7 billion
Black Ops players have run around the world 25,700 times

Some of those numbers may seem pointless. But when you think about the potential economy of the game, it’s staggering. Activision Blizzard has said that it’s never going to charge for Call of Duty multiplayer combat, since it makes so much money upfront with the purchase of each game. But it probably could start charging for items, converting the Call of Duty points into a virtual currency that you could buy with real money. If it did so, the game would likely rack up enormous sums of money, beyond what it already does. It’s something to consider, and it gives the social game companies an idea of how far they really have to go to catch up with the engagement levels of the hardcore game company leaders. Here’s a video of Black Ops multiplayer below.


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