Ever since the head of gaming giant Activision Blizzard said that the natural evolution of Call of Duty was for it to go massively multiplayer, it's been fair to wonder when Activision Blizzard would turn their biggest hit into a subscription game—a game you pay to keep playing.
Then they denied that they'd ever charge for multiplayer. They've been true to their word. So Call of Duty has failed to become a subscription game? Not quite.
Tomorrow, we will witness the release of the first "drop" of content for Modern Warfare 3 and this pair of map packs is being offered, well, as part of what certainly could be described as a subscription deal. (CORRECTION: I originally said this DLC was hitting today. I apologize for the error.)
Xbox 360 owners who paid $50 to join Call of Duty Elite for a year will start receiving a nine-month trickle of new content for Modern Warfare 3 at no added cost. (This perk kicks in for paying PS3 and PC gamers after some undisclosed waiting period.)
That $50 annual fee is on top of the $60 MW3 owners probably spent to get the game. It's instead of the money they would have to pay in the future for all that new content if they were to buy it a la carte, once it's available, the way Call of Duty players have been doing for years.
If you pay up front, you get a guaranteed flow of content, and you get it earlier than the people who don't pay for Elite.
A couple of weeks ago, I asked Robert Bowling, the creative strategist at MW3 lead development studio Infinity Ward about this. This was our exchange:
Me: "Is it fair to start thinking of the Call of Duty series in general as a subscription game? When I think of subscription games, be they MMOs or anything else, I think of a game that I pay a base price for and if I pay another sum of money I get a regular supply of content. Does that apply, in terms of the terminology? Is that how you're beginning to think of the Modern Warfare experience?"
Robert Bowling, Infinity Ward: "I think we like to give the option to have that experience. But it's been very important to me, personally, to have that as an option, that it's not a 'We are a subscription game' or 'We are not a subscription game'. It was about giving more flexibility to our hardcore without hindering the casual guys from enjoying it how they always enjoyed it."
So it is. And it isn't.
It's an odd turn to see Call of Duty go this way, neither plunging into World of Warcraft monthly-subscription territory nor keep things going as they were.
We'll find out in Call of Duty Elite's second year whether this is the plan Activision Blizzard now likes or if it was just a test, a half-step toward a new way of paying for Call of Duty. And if it is a test, we'll see if it will bring about a retreat to the old model or a full stride into turning CoD into purely a subscription game for you, me and everyone else.