The people who make Call of Duty keep promising that they won't charge you extra to play their hit game against other people. They shoot down any fears that they're going to turn CoD multiplayer into a pay-per-month subscription service, a la World of Warcraft or HBO.
But starting this fall, series publisher Activision will offer a service you can pay for each month: the premium grade version of something called Call of Duty: Elite (don't panic... there's a free version coming too).
Starting as a beta this summer and then launching on November 8, 2011—the same day as the next Call of Duty, Modern Warfare 3—Call of Duty: Elite will be a PC and mobile service that lets players track their stats, compete for real and virtual prizes, and form both social and gaming groups with players from across multiple CoD games.
Elite will be available in two tiers of service, one for paying and one for non-paying Call of Duty multiplayer fanatics. While all of the perks of membership are yet to be announced, that paying group may never have to pay for a Call of Duty map pack separately again.
At a glance, Elite resembles Bungie.net, the richly-detailed stat tracking service for that other mighty first-person-shooter series, Halo. But the top people behind the Elite project, including the heads of Beachhead Studios, an outfit dedicated exclusively to building and supporting Elite, promise that their service will prove to be the best of its kind, transcending expectations of websites for multiplayer video games.
The Elite service is, at its most basic, a very fancy website. It will primarily be accessed through users' web browsers, though Activision is planning to offer some sort of Elite app for iOS and Android devices.
Elite will include stat-tracking, lots of social-networking options and a bevy of competitions, some of which will be organized like the season of a professional sport. The service's Career stat-tracking and social grouping features will be free for everyone, according to top people who briefed Kotaku on the service at a recent demonstration in New York City.
It's not clear which other Elite elements will be exclusive to the paid version, let alone what a premium membership will cost. The paid version is at least confirmed to include more than just access to Elite. During an unveiling of the service, Jamie Berger, vice president of digital business at Activision, told reporters that a premium Elite membership will give subscribers a constant flow of Call of Duty content, including map packs, which have previously been available a la carte. Berger stressed that anyone who strictly buys a CoD game and doesn't pay for Elite can expect campaign, co-op and multiplayer "for no extra charge." He didn't elaborate on why someone would opt for the premium Elite offering of CoD map packs and other downloadable content, though one could imagine that those premium Elite members might get access to such added content early or at a bulk discount.
Two of us at Kotaku were recently given an advance demonstration of Elite, using a version of the beta build that will launch this summer and tie into Call of Duty: Black Ops. The screenshots that follow, all supplied by Activision, show off the features of Elite that were presented in our demo. (Click each to enlarge.) The Elite officials wouldn't tell us which of the features we saw would be offered only to paying customers—just that "many" of those we saw would be free—so as you check out the following screenshots and our accompanying descriptions, you're welcome to guess what you'll have to pay for and what will be available for all.
Elite is divided into four sections, the first of which is Career. It operates as one might imagine, sucking in a Call of Duty player's multiplayer stats from a PC or console and displaying them on multiple pages of the Elite site. This screenshot shows an Elite user's performance in Call of Duty: Black Ops which will be supported in the beta. It appears that Activision and Beachhead are only guaranteeing support for Modern Warfare 3 and beyond once the service launches in the fall.
The Career page and all of Elite will be platform-specific, so a player who has Call of Duty games on, say PC and PlayStation 3 will only have their stats from one platform in their Elite interface (unless, presumably, they decide to get two Elite accounts). All social-networking and competitive options will also involve only CoD players on that same platform.
One surprise feature on the Career page is the level calculator. It will allow players to input the number of hours of CoD they play each day in order to have the calculator tell them how many days it will take them to Prestige, aka reach the multiplayer mode's top rank before cycling to the lowest rank and starting the climb again.
The Career mode will give players access to an intense amount of statistics for the matches they've played. The shot here shows the player's performance in a Domination game on Black Ops' Berlin Wall map. The map shows green and red dots where the player killed another player or was killed. The timeline below it shows when those kills occurred and can be scrubbed through in a manner that crudely but effectively recreates the flow of life-and-death action in that session. These kinds of stats can be expected to be available on Elite just a minute or two after a match concludes in the games themselves.
The Career tab includes a Leaderboard Tracker, which will allow an Elite user to compare their standing in a variety of Call of Duty modes to those of other players they've befriended or are tracking through the service. Speaking of befriending people...
The Connect part of Elite makes CoD just a little bit more like Facebook or even Twitter. Players can befriend each other and see how they stack up on leaderboards (see previous screenshot). They can send messages to people they befriend and track the performance of players they're not friends with. Elite users can also join up to 64 groups, each defined by a hashtag. A user can start a group or join one and then strive to be the best CoD player in that group, be it #MW3, #Kotaku or even #StephenTotiloIsMyFavoritePersonNamedStephen.
Players will also be able to interact with each other through the Theater, which will allow users to host videos of their favorite CoD moments and comment on them. One of Elite's more clever features is its ability to read the meta-data of the Call of Duty videos uploaded to it and automatically tag each video with the names of the players in the captured match. Every player will easily know which videos they were in, intentionally or otherwise. Thanks to that bit of Elite tech, an unsuspecting Call of Duty player might discover that they were the victim—or the accidental star—in some popular Black Ops killstreak video.
The most promising and potentially impactful part of Elite is the Compete section. It has the potential to turn a fervent fan's weekly (or daily) after-work, after-school Call of Duty multiplayer sessions into what will essentially be participation in a season of CoD played as game show or sport.
A Program Guide in the Events page will list upcoming challenges. Some challenges will involve uploading videos or screenshots that meet certain contest criteria. So-called Lone Wolf Operations will challenge players to perform certain one-off feats in multiplayer—say, a set number of kills in a game mode that day—and could, the Activision people who showed us Elite said, win a player anything from an in-game badge to a real Jeep. The grander Events will pit players against each other in weeks-long tournaments that are set up for CoD gamers at different levels of skill. It's not clear yet whether the tournaments will only involve comparisons of players' stats against one another during the tournament or if players will ever be expected to actually play specific CoD matches against one another. (A Beachhead developer did say that the Elite team will be able to sniff out attempts to cheat in the tournaments by those who might attempt to pad their stats by playing against of friends who pose at shooting targets for them.) Winning tournaments and other contests will earn players Trophies, new status symbols that will surely motivate players the way Xbox Achievements and in-game badges already do.
The least-flashy part of Elite is the Improve section which is designed to serve as an instruction manual for Call of Duty multiplayer. It is a prettier version of an FAQ, providing data about how weapons and attachments work...
...how maps are laid out...
...and other details to study so that you can improve your Kill-To-Death ratio in Modern Warfare 3 and beyond.
Based on what we've been shown of Elite so far, the service looks like it will give CoD addicts a trove of data and networking options that they will surely enjoy. It doesn't offer anything to the single-player-only CoD gamer. It also doesn't yet have any meta-game in its own right, no way, for example, to "play" Ellite on your iPhone in a manner that would let you beat other Elite gamers or affect your standing in a proper Call of Duty game. The top developers on the service told us that game-like extensions and other unseen features may well be a part of future evolutions of Elite. For the beta, though, players should expect the features listed here, retro-fitted to suit Black Ops. An expanded suite of features will be offered when Elite launches alongside Modern Warfare 3. [Update: Elite will continue to also connect to Black Ops after the service launches in November, according to a spokesperson for the service.]
Elite will go into beta this summer. Those interested in joining should check out CallofDuty.com/Elite.
The Call of Duty series has been a blockbuster for Activision, one that has, on the strength of its online multiplayer, kept gamers busy for months after each release. The series has earned the publisher of the game piles of money. For a while it has seemed that some sort of premium service was inevitable. If people pay $15 a month to play World of Warcraft, why wouldn't they pay to play CoD? Yet Activision appears to have decided that it can't suddenly start charging for CoD multiplayer, so Elite results as the company's best option to find an alternate way to make money on multiplayer.
It remains to be seen how enticing it will be to pay for Elite. But there's a second benefit that Activision might gain for Elite. For the last few years, competing first-person shooter creators have been trying to knock CoD off its pedestal as, by far, the biggest multi-million-cop seller in its class. They have found it hard to do so for many reasons, including the fact that there is simply a lot of social pressure for gamers to buy each new Call of Duty.
The shooter gamer wants to play with their friends. The more passionately one person in a group of friends feels about playing Call of Duty, the more likely that all of the friends in that group will get the next game in the series. If Elite bonds those groups more tightly together—through communal stat-tracking, through social-networking, through competitions—then those groups of friends will find it even more enticing to keep the Call of Duty playing going, and those games that want to compete, will have a harder time than ever butting in.