Call of $$$

If you've seen many of my previous posts, it should be clear that I used to be a pretty big Call of Duty player (until my account was hacked, that is), so of course my interest was piqued when Travis sent me a link to this article about a new subscription service for the upcoming Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3. The service is called Call of Duty: Elite (official website), and supposedly adds a host of new features to the current Modern Warfare experience (including a new, menacing logo with a silver skull, seriously 1337 font, and SIX guns...it must be serious business).

So what are these features, and are they worth the money? Well that's a good question, since the service is being announced without anything close to fixed feature-set or pricing plan, since "the service was designed to be deeply integrated with Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3, and will not be demonstrable until we are closer to the launch of the game", according to the official site. The features revealed so far seem to revolve around social networking, matchmaking, and improved stats-monitoring. The claim for now is that Elite consists entirely of new features and content, and that players who are used to the traditional CoD online multiplayer will be able to play as per usual at no extra cost. There are also (at least) two levels of Elite, so some features are available for free (though which features will be available at which levels is unclear; it looks like many of the social networking features won't require a fee, at least).

Now I'm going to try to look at this with a level head, and shake off my initial repugnance at the thought of Activision charging a monthly fee for a game touted for its excellent, FREE multiplayer. I can't really blame them from a business perspective - they've established a sickeningly huge user base that, at this point, wil buy any box with the letters C, O, and D on it en masse, and I can't see how this move could be anything but a prime money-making opportunity for Activision. And consider the choice of name for the service: Elite. The CoD community is one in which status in the form of ranks, badges, and leaderboard positions is hyper-valued (the prevalence of hacking to unfairly advance rankings in-game further evidences this), and by making a paid, "elite" level, many players will shell out the cash (or convince mommy and daddy to do so) for the service for no other reason than to achieve the higher social rank it indicates. Oh, and we can't forget about the good ol' free to play model that's gaining so much popularity these days. I rather fear that Activision has crept steamrolled into "can do no evil" territory in fans' eyes with the CoD franchise, so there should be little surprise that they would hop on the FtP bandwagon. More than they already have, that is, what with their $15 map packs (but hey, any and all DLC, including map packs, will be included at no extra charge for players, so that's good).

Well, so much for a level head. Maybe I should be more fair here. I understand why games like WoW require a subscription, and maybe the amount of work required on the part of the developers and the benefits to paying users will warrant a monthly fee. I suppose it makes me sad (especially as one who scoffed at gamers who had to pay for an Xbox Live subscription to play games like Call of Duty) to see Activision start charging. But again, they're not charging for anything that players currently get for free in Modern Warfare 2 and Black Ops, and some of the elite features might actually be pretty awesome. A big part of what they're offering (and what is the most interesting element of what has been announced so far) looks like a persistent CoD social network that will span Black Ops, Modern Warfare 3, future CoD games, and the web. It will even incorporate iOS and Android apps. I was skeptical of this at first glance, but, if it's done right, this could actually work out really well. Previous versions of the CoD games have only allowed for networking with other players via the standard friends list of Playstation Network / XBox Live, so improved social networking features might end up being really helpful. For serious players who want to forms clans and the like, this will be especially helpful, since true clan support was never built into the previous versions of the series. Even games that have officially supported clans have never really done it right. Back in my PS2 days, I played a whole lot of SOCOM US Navy Seals (1 and 2..the third one was garbage, but I digress), and was a member of a clan. Sure it was nice to see all the stats of clan members in one place, and invite those who were currently online to a game, but organizing things beyond that was a challenge. It either involved communicating via email or other channels (which people may be weary of for a variety of reasons) or turn to an external service like GameBattles. Providing better means of organizing matches and whatnot is a definite plus.

It's less clear how useful this will be for more causal gamers, though the claim is that the service will help players connect with others "with similar interests". I'm skeptical at this point but we'll see. I get the sense that this will help people play online with people from their real-world social circles, such as an alumni group, but I wonder if this is what people really want. Activision is making the assumption (I think) that players want to develop more meaningful relationships when they're playing an FPS, but I'm dubious. This thought raises questions about (a) how reasonable it is to expect that players can form "real" relationships in an online game environment, and (b) whether this is something that there is a particularly strong demand for. I don't want to dive into these topics here, but it's something to think about.

There's not much to say about the other features of Elite at this point, at least nothing that I can be the least bit confident about. The ability to visualize your performance on different game maps using what looks like some sort of heatmap interface is definitely cool, but that might just be because I'm a data visualization nerd. For now we'll just have to wait until November for the release of MW3, and in the meantime see if anything interesting comes of the beta version of the service that's being pushed to some Black Ops players.

Call of $$$ by Jared Lorince, unless otherwise expressly stated, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

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