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Interview: Creating A Healthier Social Game Through Call Of Duty Elite

Interview: Creating A Healthier Social Game Through Call Of Duty Elite

September 8, 2011 | By Leigh Alexander

September 8, 2011 | By Leigh Alexander
More: Console/PC, Design

Activision knew that when it was time to unveil its Elite premium subscription service for Call of Duty, it had a steep battle to fight against core gamer prejudices -- and that it had to reveal what it saw as a major value proposition slowly and carefully.

"To announce it without being able to tell what the price is... we made that decision knowingly," Activision digital VP Jamie Berger told Gamasutra during the Call of Duty XP fan festival in Los Angeles this past weekend.

"We can't explain the entire value until we can show it with the game," Berger added, shedding light on the unique process surrounding Elite's reveal. "So we're going to suck it up and deal with some of the confusion -- but it's better to get it out into consumer hands and have them hammering away with it, and that was the right decision."

The company invited select media for an in-depth look at Elite, but was mum on numerous features -- most specifically, the fact that the service would cost $49.99 a year, or $10 less than it would cost to purchase all the available DLC for Black Ops a la carte.

The company also opened a beta for the multiplayer stats management, social networking and community features service just after E3, attracting 2 million users.

Berger hopes that early Elite users have noticed these positive aspects and gradually come to appreciate the value proposition the company says it's trying to provide.

"We're living in a changing ecosystem right now," he says. "We'd all be foolish not to admit it. Especially console consumers who've been living in a very specific world, they see that change, and they're saying, 'what's in it for me?'"

"They're very justifiably leery of these changes as something that's not intended to make the experience any better, but is simply to make them pay more for it. There's a lot of natural cynicism and we understand that," he adds.

"For every ounce of frustration we created by not being able to completely explain everything, we got a pound worth of value back on the beta," Berger says. "In aggregate, it's been well worth it."

Among the interesting lessons from Elite's beta, in Berger's view, is that you inherently provide users with a deeper social network when you provide them with features to connect around that go further than the fact of simple acquaintance. The service lets users find other Call of Duty players to play with not by anonymous metrics, but through any common interest that they may choose.

"I think that's where it gets pretty exciting -- where a social network becomes a network that actually lets you go out and participate in something together," says Berger.

That may be a way for the company to address some of the commonly-presumed hostility that takes place on Xbox Live in the first-person shooter community. Many users have the impression that they'll encounter a male-dominated environment of highly-competitive, trash-talking pro players where casual gamers, newcomers and female players will be made to feel unwelcome.

In Berger's view, the community around Elite has been unprecedentedly collaborative. "One of the most interesting things to me is how positive people are in the service," he says of the beta users. "I'm most excited that within it, people are being supportive; they're actually talking to each other, and amongst each other."

"They're so happy to actually have a place to be part of a community, not a message board... they're actually behaving very much like people who just want to be social and have fun, not people who want to flame each other," Berger adds.

That hostility is more about internet anonymity and not some trait inherent in Call of Duty or in the first-person shooter genre at large, Berger believes. Nonetheless, that Elite gives users ways to connect on more individual personal metrics helps create a more holistic community, he says.

"It creates a social contract," he suggests: "How can we start behaving as if we live in a neighborhood? You try to treat your neighbors with respect. When you create a true community, that, to me, is the difference between 'social gaming' and a community."

"I'm really excited about that aspect," he continues. "It starts breaking a lot of the bad assumptions about what a shooter is. It breaks down those anonymous walls and turns it into something where you start knowing each other."

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