Call of Duty Elite preview: Building a better mousetrap

"There's been a lot of speculation and we'll continue to say this: We do not and will not charge for multiplayer."

While Jamie Berger, VP of Digital at Activision, saved that commitment for the end of the nearly 30-minute reveal of Call of Duty Elite, we thought we'd get it out of the way first because, like Mr. Berger said, there has been a lot of speculation. And in the interest of elucidation, we'll get another of Mr. Berger's comments out of the way: "When it launches in the fall, Elite is going to offer a premium membership."

So if Call of Duty Elite isn't some kind of "Online Pass" to play Call of Duty with your friends, then what is it and what will a premium membership include? We'll get back to the issue of cost later but, before we do, it's important to walk you through just what the team at Beachhead is trying to do with Elite. To hear them say it, Elite is nothing less than "Activision getting in front of our players and leading them into the future of connected entertainment."%Gallery-124696% "Our goal is simple: to enrich the multiplayer experience," Beachhead studio head Chacko Sonny told an audience in Los Angeles two weeks ago. And he's right, it is a simple goal. But what if that multiplayer experience is already one of the most popular in the world, commanding an obscene investment of time from its millions (and millions and millions) of fans? Sonny says "Call of Duty has the most engaging online community on the planet" and, in case you don't believe him, he rattles off a list of numbers that should put things into perspective: More than 30 million people have played Call of Duty multiplayer in the last year; more than 20 million play each month; and over seven million play every day. Once you add everything up, the number that an Activision executive like Sonny looks at is this: That's more than 170 hours of Call of Duty multiplayer per player. According to CEO Eric Hirshberg, that's over 58 minutes each day or, put another way, more time than they spend on Facebook. So in short, Elite is trying to make one of the stickiest video games ever made even stickier. Beachhead wants to build a better mousetrap.


Career
In short, Elite is a web service that ties into Call of Duty games, beginning with last year's Call of Duty: Black Ops. To start, think of it as an updated, refined, and far more slick version of Halo's Bungie.net functionality. Want to pore over your stats? Obsess over your k/d ratio? Even check out your file share screenshots or videos? Just like Bungie's seminal service, Elite provides a dizzying array of data on just about anything else you could use to dissect your performance in any given round of Call of Duty. Recent matches, custom classes, personal best, leaderboards, weapon performance, it's all there. You can compare your performance against your friends to see how you stack up, either game-by-game or career-wide. This is all included in the service's Career section which, notably, isn't included in the marketing triumvirate we heard repeated again and again: "Connect, Compete, and Improve." The fourth pillar of "Career" may be well implemented, but it's also the most basic of Elite's features. Let's talk about Connect.


Connect
Thanks to the lack of creativity, ambition, or just plain old functionality of the two major console gaming platforms – that would be Xbox Live and PlayStation Network – Activision is able to offer something much deeper to the Call of Duty community: Groups. For me, and I imagine millions of less competitive CoD players, Groups is exactly what's been missing from the online console gaming experience, and specifically from the Call of Duty experience. Without a skill-based matchmaking system, Call of Duty's online ecosystem favors those who've leveled up, earned more gear and more perks, and punishes those who haven't. To add insult to injury, the service is seemingly populated entirely by racist (and/or homophobic) twelve-year-olds whose filthy mouths are only matched by their abnormally high k/d ratios.

Now imagine being able to affiliate yourself with a Group – maybe your high school, or your zip code, or your favorite video game blog – and playing against, and competing with, that Group. Instead of having a leaderboard ranking with eight digits, you could be in the top spot for the Group dedicated to your favorite book. And, since everyone ostensibly shares some cultural connection outside of belonging to a cesspool of the world's worst human beings, that experience is not only more satisfying, but it's also more social. Groups can be organized into buckets (basketball teams!), and each Group listing will contain features like the number of people in the Group, the leaderboards, the collective hours spent in the game, and even a Group-specific comment section.

And then there are Clans. If you play with the same group of people consistently and are looking for an experience that's a little less public, Clans are the way to go ... especially if you're interested in that Compete pillar. We'll come back to that!

Connect is about more than just social affiliations though; videos are also grouped under this hub. Treyarch's Dan Bunting boasted that Black Ops' Theater feature "has generated over 74 million views of videos from fans of the game. This is more YouTube views than content from ESPN, NBC, and other major leaders from the same period of time." Elite will embed your YouTube videos with one special enhancement: You can tag your friends. Did xXXsmokezmadbluntz420Xxx shoot you right in the face accidentally from across the map last night? He could tag you in that video so you both could relive the excitement. If the video is especially wonderful, it can either be promoted with the usual filters – most viewed, most recent, etc. – but it can also be promoted by the Elite staff, serving as curators here, helping to bubble up the best videos.

Compete
The Compete pillar features just about what you'd expect from a game like Call of Duty: You or your clan can compete in pre-arranged tournaments for everything from a "Trophy," which will be attached to your Elite persona, to a real-life Jeep (Black Ops edition, of course). When Modern Warfare 3 launches, Activision promises everything from Group versus Group competitions, to clan versus clan, "even intra-clan tournaments and competition and leagues." They call this "programming" and, much like a television lineup, Elite is going to be trying to program something for everyone. If shooting pictures instead of domes is more your speed, they gave an example of a screenshot contest in which players can upload in-game grabs directly from their file share.

Improve
Once you've reduced the sphere of competition from the entire world to a smaller, more manageable group, say your kickball league, suddenly the idea of trying to improve has some actual merit. Jockeying for some merit when you're on the bottom of the 'boards never made much sense, but when that distinction has purpose, improving your skills makes sense. The Improve pillar uses much of the data from the Career pillar to give you some insight into why you're dying so damned much. Never understood the distinction between all those weapons? Every weapon in the game is listed and fully detailed. Bunting says, "If it's in the game, we have tips from the pros on how to help improve your game."


Four Screens
"Elite is constantly evolving," Berger said. "So accessibility is a key part of that evolution. You saw Elite today on the web; however, the Beachhead team has adopted a philosophy we're calling "four screens." That means that not only are we bringing it to the web, but also mobile applications, the TV, as well as in-game." While no one here at Joystiq HQ can figure out the distinction between the "in-game" screen and the "TV" screen, we did understand the "mobile applications" part. Right now that means iOS and Android devices but, in keeping with the "we're evolving" mantra, Berger said, "We're open to supporting any devices that our players want us to support. As long as they're there, we want to be there for them." Hear that N-Gage users? Get your e-petition ready!


The Beta
While the idea of a "beta" is certainly unusual in the Call of Duty universe – most other online shooters use betas as equal parts marketing and beta testing – Elite is different. "We genuinely want to learn from the process of having the community involved, building that base, and seeing how they use the service and seeing what breaks and what stays up," Sonny says, adding that he can't speak to the absence of game betas. So, beginning this summer interested players will be able to participate in the Elite beta using Call of Duty: Black Ops. It's unclear how they'll select participants, but Sonny did say it will be a "staged rollout," slowly adding more and more players as the service scales.

Additionally, when it launches in the fall, Elite is going to offer a premium membership. Now that's a change and it's one we have to get right.- Jamie Berger

The most important thing to note about the beta functionality – which we used during a press event – is that it's limited to Black Ops for now. That means that much of the promise of Elite will have to wait for Modern Warfare 3 this fall. The Black Ops integration is strictly "one-way" meaning if you want to matchmake with your Group? You can't. Play with a clan? Nope! "Beginning with Modern Warfare 3, Elite is going to incorporate robust support for private clans," Berger acknowledged. "In addition, Modern Warfare 3 is going to integrate your Elite Group and clan identity and affiliations into the game directly in really powerful new ways, which we look forward to sharing with you later in the year." And sure enough, nobody at Activision was willing to talk about much of that functionality, leaving us to base all of our feedback on a slick UI, a strong promise, and the potential for a platform with its own dedicated team behind it.

The Team
Having a dedicated team providing these types of online services isn't entirely unique in our industry – something like Blizzard's Battle.net notably comes to mind – but it isn't common either. It stands to reason that Sonny and his team at Beachhead have learned from their colleagues at Blizzard. "We have excellent communication between staff on the Blizzard side and staff on the Beachhead side," Sonny told us. "They've let us know a lot of things that we need to know when we're considering our service with regards to everything from operational concerns to security concerns to feature concerns." Fellow Activision properties DemonWare (they provide much of the back-end infrastructure that make online games work) and Raven have also pitched in. "There are components of web services that we build, there are components of web services that DemonWare provides in terms of parsing all the data from the Black Ops game, and then there are components that even Raven is building for the component that they're actually working on," Sonny said. Raven was rumored to be the third studio collaborating with Infinity Ward and Sledgehammer Games, so we asked if it was working on something Call of Duty-related besides the Elite web service, Sonny equivocated and finally offered, "Yes they are ... but I can't say more than that."

In addition to the Beachhead team, which is tasked with long-term plans to build to evolve the service, Activision is creating a "dedicated service organization for Elite that's going to provide worldwide 24/7 programming as well as customer service for our members." Indeed, compared to the usual packaged goods products we're used to consuming, Elite looks and acts more like a web service. Beachhead's technical director came from Google, its Operations Lead had a prior career at Expedia, and many on the design side came from web agencies. While Sonny wouldn't give us a number (and neither would Activision CEO Eric Hirshberg) he did say the team was growing.


The Cost
So, what will Elite cost you? We don't know! And, if you believe Activision, they don't know yet either. For us, announcing a service like Elite without clearly defined tiers and a pricing structure only invites speculation and confusion. "A number of the great features that you've seen first-hand today are going to be made available free including things like Career and Groups, to all players, enhancing the out-of-the-box experience for everyone," Berger said. "Additionally, when it launches in the fall, Elite is going to offer a premium membership. Now that's a change and it's one we have to get right."

In other words, Activision is cognizant of the resistance to the idea of charging for anything related to Call of Duty. "We know we have tens of millions of players who are playing our game every month. That is just too large and too diverse a group for us to create a one-size-fits-all strategy. We understand that. When our fans buy Call of Duty, they expect to be able to play the game single-player campaign, co-op missions, and the best multiplayer in the world, out-of-the-box and with no additional price. And that's our commitment to them." If you want one DLC pack but not two, then skip Elite and get that one pack. If you want Groups but don't care about the paid services Elite offers? Then don't pay for them. For the vast majority of players, we imagine Elite will be a solid value-add and not another thing to spend money on.
Call of Duty Elite is a fascinating strategy for a brand like Call of Duty, and provides a sharp contrast to the competition. "Social innovation, in today's world and certainly going forward, is going to be more important or of equal importance than traditional graphical innovation or gameplay mechanics," Berger said, seeming to clearly indicate EA's incredible-looking Battlefield 3. While DICE has always delivered a stellar online component – Bad Company 2 landed on our Top 10 last year as a result – the marketing behind Battlefield 3 has clearly been on graphical innovation. Will Elite change the way we all play Call of Duty? It's far too early to tell; the Black Ops integration is a fine proof of concept, but we'll need to see what Modern Warfare 3 has in store before we hand over our credit cards.

This article was originally published on Joystiq.