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Interview: What Elite's Beta Taught Beachhead

Interview: What Elite's Beta Taught Beachhead Exclusive

September 9, 2011 | By Leigh Alexander

In many ways, Activision's attempting some industry firsts with the Elite platform that wraps its Call of Duty brand beginning with Modern Warfare 3 this year.

And the company was faced with a tricky proposition: On one hand, a subscription-based content offering must be unveiled very carefully to a core audience hostile toward the concept and unused to the implementation.

On the other, a beta was crucial to refine and balance the service and understand how players would use it. Two million people signed up to try their hand at Elite before they knew how much it would cost. Getting players to see and play with Elite is the best way for them to understand what's being offered in the subscription experience, says Chacko Sonny, head of the Beachhead studio at Activision that developed the service.

"We don't really get the full benefit until we're seeing people out there using it," he says.

Activision digital VP Jamie Berger said he was surprised by how kindly online users treated one another within the more robust community of a social network versus the anonymity of Live play. But Sonny says he had a bigger surprise, one the team would not have learned how to prepare for if not for the extended beta.

"The most surprising result for me was how quickly people would try to find exploits," he said. "It was astonishing for me, how important it is for us to make sure that people are not cheating in competitions."

That's an interesting takeaway in the context of debate about how valuable extrinsic, intangible rewards are on social networks. Some argue that things like badges, titles and where one sits on a list are deceptive, of minimal or hollow value to users. But in Elite -- a network for a game that aims to entertain and reward the competitive and skilled -- plenty were ready to cheat to make their statistics look better, and the studio had to apply extra effort to head off exploits.

Elite's beta also yielded interesting insights about how players use the Groups features. "The infrastructures that we have created for discovering new groups probably won't be sufficient in the long run," Sonny reflects. "We want to iterate on that, and provide new facilities for people to find new players."

But it feels very much like exploratory, inventive territory, Sonny suggests. "What's interesting is there's nobody in the same space. There are people from other spaces doing similar things that we're trying to pull best practices from; we know that companies like Netflix, Google and Amazon manage server deployments that are massive, and we're trying to learn what they do."

"We know that there are companies that do interface and user experience really well, and other places that know a lot of stuff about user interface, or user experience, and we're trying to learn from them."

Customer service is another arena that will be crucial to Elite's success, he says. During the beta the team implemented live chat support for users who got lost, had questions or problems. "We're hoping to have that live when we launch with Modern Warfare 3," Sonny says.

Most importantly, all the work Beachhead does with Elite must remain closely tied to the development of Modern Warfare 3, says Sonny. The collaboration with Treyarch and Infinity Ward "has been pretty detailed, down to a feature-by-feature collaboration," he explains. "There's day to day communication; there are people over there reviewing stuff we're doing, with us looking at the way the features would be used in the game and making sure our guys understood it. I've been really pleased with how well we've integrated."

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