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In-Depth: Inside Activision's  Call of Duty Elite  'Premium' Platform

In-Depth: Inside Activision's Call of Duty Elite 'Premium' Platform

May 31, 2011 | By Leigh Alexander

Activision has unveiled Elite, a new subscription service that adds an elaborate social layer to its Call of Duty games, to launch with Modern Warfare 3 this fall following a public beta alongside Black Ops in the summer.

Developed by the publisher's Beachhead studio, the interface tracks a broad range of metrics to give players feedback on their own play sessions and those of friends and potential matchups, helps them find and create clans based on mutual interests, and record and share video, among other features.

At a briefing in New York, Gamasutra took a look at a preview of the platform, which will work on Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 and PC, with related mobile apps planned. Two years in the making, it hopes to leverage and reward engagement among the franchise's audience through social features.

30 million people this year have played CoD multiplayer online this year, studio head Choco Sunny told us. 20 million play monthly, and 7 million play daily. The fan base is "unprecedented in the history of console gaming," he added.

"It's easy to figure out what Call of Duty players want right now, but what's difficult is anticipating what players will need in the future," said Sunny. Activision's betting that what players will need is Elite, a service aimed at "leading them into the future of connected entertainment."

The company hasn't yet decided how to set the price of the service, but said a number of the features -- groups and careers, for example -- will now be incorporated into the out-of-the-box retail experience going forward, free for all players. The rest of Elite will be positioned as a fuller-featured "premium experience," and Elite subscribers receive all forthcoming downloadable content and add-ons to Call of Duty games included with their subscription. Non-subscribers can still purchase them a la carte.

"All of the digital content that wil be coming out for Modern Warfare 3 and beyond will be all-inclusive as part of the premium membership," Activision digital VP Jamie Berger said.

EEDAR analyst Jesse Divnich estimated on Twitter that 15 to 20 percent of Call of Duty players would be likely to become paying subscribers to Elite. "Even at 10 percent, that's a lot of profit," said the analyst, estimating based on the widely-reported assumption that Elite's cost would not be more than Netflix's $7.99 point.

"The price is going to be less than any other comparable entertainment or gaming service out there right now," stated Berger.

Activision's presentation aimed to enforce that users who don't subscribe won't be excluded from game features -- the intention is to provide a service that players may want. "There's been a lot of speculation that we were going to try to turn CoD into an MMO, or that we would charge for multiplayer, so we wanted to get that out out of the way right now. The out of the box experience for Call of Duty... remains the same. We made a commitment that we will not charge for multiplayer, and we're continuing with that commitment."

Beachhead's staff has a strong contingency of web developers from companies like Google versus a unified staff of traditional game developers, and that background shows in the design of a clean user interface that reflects, a bit, the web culture's current fascination with infographics and pretty ways of displaying data points.

The studio works closely with both Treyarch and Infinity Ward, and has done throughout the process of developing Elite alongside Modern Warfare 3. The team hopes to iterate further on the product offering with details gained through user feedback from the beta.

Berger says Activision has invested considerable time and effort in creating the Elite platform, and that the service is a long-term investment for the company, with effectively two teams at work on it: Beachhead as well as an additional team for service and support as is common with live services.

"We've created... a stand-alone development team and studio dedicated only to this one thing,The Beachhead team is a fulltime studio now within CoD whose whole focus is to build and launch the Elite service, and then continue to build and iterate post-launch," says Berger, likening it to Blizzard's approach to simultaneously developing and servicing World of Warcraft.

"Everyone talks about community, but how you build a community is a whole different thing... rather than being a collective bunch of strangers playing night after night. We want neighborhoods of people playing night after night, and starting to introduce themselves," says Berger.

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