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Call of Duty EliteSo by now, you've probably already heard of Call of Duty Elite – the pay service that Activision is scheduling to roll out in time for Modern Warfare 3 and which will also have support for Black Ops. Looking back, it also appears that Activision had been thinking about this for awhile.

From what I can tell, Activision started fishing for opinions on “a paid CoD service“ as far back as June, 2009, one that would "enhance the multiplayer experience and provide exclusive access to a group of gameplay enhancements". With Modern Warfare 2 approaching, concerned players immediately voiced their thoughts on Infinity Ward's forums where Creative Strategist, Robert Bowling (aka fourtwozero), responded “Multiplayer will always be equal and free for everyone as always.”

In June, 2010 (almost a year to the day the previous story came out), during an interview with the Wall Street Journal, Activision CEO Bobby Kotick had said “I would have Call of Duty be an online subscription service tomorrow.” in response to a question asking what he would change about the company. In July, Wedbush Morgan Securities analyzt, Michael Pachter, had gone on to say:

"We think that it is incumbent upon Activision, with the most popular multiplayer game, to take the first step to address monetization of multiplayer. It is too early to tell whether that will be a monthly subscription, tournament entry fees, microtransaction fees, or a combination of all three, but we expect to see the company take some action by year-end, when Call of Duty Black Ops launches,"

In February of this year during Activision's earnings call for Q4 of 2010, Kotick announced the formation of Beachhead “which is focused solely on the development of an innovative new digital platform and special services for our Call of Duty community.“ With the announcement of Elite, it's no surprise anymore what those services are. However, Dan Amrich from Activision (Dan Elektro for you old-school Gamepro fans, now known as One of Swords) has said that it's been under development for two years already.

There's no question that Call of Duty continues to be a virtual mint for Activision. Modern Warfare 2 had smashed sales records during the holiday season of 2009. The next year, Black Ops had passed the billion dollar mark in sales in December last year, surpassing the records for Modern Warfare 2's in less time. The fact that a different studio handled it, Treyarch, didn't affect its appetite for wallet cabbage among mainstream fans as it pressed moneyhats (and sparked a legal mess between Activision and two of Infinity Ward's founders).

Kotick and company are likely expecting that trend to continue with Modern Warfare 3 and see it as the perfect opportunity to roll out Elite. After all, there are shareholders to consider.

But more importantly, what about the players? Is Elite's pay model the end of the online world for CoD? After doing a little digging past some of the hyperbole, the short answer is no. The long answer depends on what you want from the experience.

The future COD player
Call of Duty Elite hits you with enough tools to try and make you the
Ivan Drago of Headshots


Just what is this Elite thing anyway?

Think of Elite like a paid version of Halo Waypoint – the free hub service that Bungie created for Halo on the Xbox 360 to aid players in tracking their career stats – only with DLC and a larger set of social tools. For PS3 users, they could consider it PS Plus for Call of Duty on the level of being a paid service on top of the free network they already enjoy. PC players might regard it as a monthly DLC.

Though the price hasn't been set, buying into Elite will give you access to your own CTU-like archive of data through four major categories as described in their online vid:

  • Career – This will track your skills and that of other players that you can tag for comparison, down to a match-by-match basis complete with a timeline. Players will also be able to post trash talk texts via an option called Elite Feed. There are even performance graphs to show things such as how your headshots or kills have scaled over time. It's like all of that stuff attached to Ivan Drago in Rocky IV, only now it's in Elite.
  • Connect – This will probably be the most busy of the panels for Elite especially because of its Groups feature which brings together like minded players. If you hate anchovies on pizza, someone out there might feel the same thing allowing the both of you to fight as allies against anchovies. If a group doesn't exist, you can make one and go from there. Clan support is also included, and post feeds are supported allowing anyone to trash talk or text out strategies to be shared with everyone in a group or the clan. The Theater feature is also where you'll stock vids of your favorite moments and share them with everyone on Elite.
  • Compete – Once you've got a group together, and after poring over your stats to perfect your game, this is where you might find yourself competing in league events or operations for virtual prizes. The Program Guide shows you a calendar of events and ops in which you can enlist with goals that range from captioning zombie pics to making the best C4 trap, all of which are available at all hours of the day.
  • Improve – I guess they couldn't think of a good fourth C and calling this "Corrections" just sounds condescending. Anyway, from here, it looks like you can review map data to see where the hotspots are, weapon and gadgets statistics, and view strategy videos to help sharpen your game and plan ahead better.

While none of these concepts by themselves might sound new, Elite has centralized a lot of scattered pieces into one hub making it a tempting proposition for certain gamers. It likely won't replace things like personalized clan sites on the 'net, but it does build upon the social aspect of competitive gaming to make it an appealing add-on option.

Right now, you can sign up and hope to be picked to be a beta tester for the service. If they pick you, be sure to tell us what it's like.

What about DLC?

Dan Amrich once again has the answer noting that DLC will still be available for non-subscribers – they'll just have to pay for the stuff as they always have. Elite subscribers, though, will apparently get the goodies for free.

So is CoD multiplayer dead?

The answer is still no. From the indications that I've read, Elite exists only as an extra service but it won't be a requirement to get feet on the ground for Modern Warfare 3's core multiplayer.

This represents a big gamble for Activision. It could be a bold experiment that goes nowhere – or a sign of things to come as publishers and developers try to find new ways in curbing costs while trying to avoid infuriating their audience. It'll be interesting to see what the subscription spread will look like across the Xbox 360, PS3, and the PC crowds.

For a casual player like myself, it's not something for me. For someone who might play professionally or wants the convenience of having all of that information at their fingertips, it could be a worthwhile investment.

The choice is still in the player's hands…and their wallet. And that's always a winning proposition.

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