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How Beachhead is putting Call of Duty: Elite back together again

With Call of Duty Elite still struggling to serve its much-touted blend of stats and features to the throng of Modern Warfare 3 consumers, we asked Call of Duty VP of Production Daniel Suarez to explain the outage, what Activision and Beachhead Studios are doing to fix it, and when we might finally be able to see what Elite is all about. After months of hype, confusion, controversy, and promises, the ambitious web service has failed to launch and, in so doing, has failed to silence the skeptics.

It didn't take long to realize Elite wouldn't hold up to the traffic. Beachhead Studios chief Chacko Sonny posted a notice on the Call of Duty Elite status page in the early morning hours of launch day, but the game had been in consumers' hands for some time. "It's a worlwide launch for MW3 and Elite, so we had a launch occuring Monday late afternoon with Australia and then everything kicking in into Europe and then into the East Coast in the US and then the West Coast," Suarez recounted. "So the launch of MW3 had been huge and we knew it would be huge, it just translated into a tremendous amount of traffic to Elite. And we anticipated it to be big, it just turned out to be even bigger than that."

The problems began at the earliest stage of the process: registration. "The high demand from the console application and registration on the website from the PC really crippled the registration and login process which then translated into the backend servers being slammed," Suarez explained. "So we've been working around the clock to alleviate access into the system and we've had a large number of people now able to register. We've resolved that piece of it and now we're actually working on getting the service back up and running to a point where poeple can then enjoy it."

... we were planning for it to be big. But we just literally had so much influx right now from all the different areas, from the console and the web. It just hit us a lot harder than we thought.- Daniel Suarez

Though registration may be working better, it's intermittent. "We have poeple getting in and they're seeing it and they can use it but then they log back in another time and they're having trouble actually logging in or seeing their stats, so there's just a lot of different pieces that we're trying to put together."

I asked Suarez why Activision wasn't prepared for the traffic, after having beta tested the game. "We knew MW3 was going to be big and we planned for a big demand, it's just the infrastructure is struggling to keep up with volume," Suarez admitted. "We did a beta, the beta was intended to give us the data on how everything would behave with people hitting different parts of the service and different parts of the site. But when you add the complexities of it being not only an online service but one that has a console component, a PC component, and a soon-to-be-released mobile component, all being released at the same time, it's never been done before at this scale."

Since Elite isn't just a premium offering, but a free service for any of the millions of people who purchased Modern Warfare 3 (not to mention the 15 million who already have Black Ops) I asked if Activision underestimated how many CoD players would be interested in also using Elite. "Our hope was that as many people bought MW3 would want to enjoy Elite," Suarez admitted. "We know we've got this Founder's opportunity, the ability to do double XP, and a lot of that drove people wanting to log in and register and be part of it. So I can't say that's what caused this. From the planning standpoint, we planned for it to be big. It's Call of Duty, we have all our metrics. We know what our metrics are from Black Ops and MW2 and all the previous Call of Dutys, so we were planning for it to be big. But we just literally had so much influx right now from all the different areas, from the console and the web. It just hit us a lot harder than we thought."

While Activision is trying to get Elite up "as quickly as possible," the challenge is "ensuring that what we're doing doesn't break anything else so we have another fall down," Suarez notes. "We want to make sure the things we're doing right now remain stable." And that is a day-by-day process. "Right now we don't have a definitive goal to have everything up by this date, we just don't have that data yet."

This is not the Elite experience we want people to have. This is not what everybody worked two years plus for.

Even though Elite is down, with no firm guidance on when it will be fully operational, Suarez and team want to be clear that gameplay data is still being tracked and will be available for Elite to process as soon as it's working. "Call of Duty is always run by a specific backend infrastructure that we have, via Demonware which is an owned company that's been supporting Call of Duty from back to Modern Warfare or maybe World at War," Suarez said. "And all that data from the game is held there in their servers and the way Elite works is we have a direct line into pulling that data and those statistics in a very elegant and number-crunching sort of way to get all the stats and data together."

If you want to verify that yourself, Suarez says, "All that data is being retained, so if you go to your leaderboard inside of MW3 from playing Kill Confirmed or whatever it is, all that data is still there. That's pristine, untouched, and Elite just leverages the data that's there."

Players still have stable, unfettered access to Modern Warfare 3's multiplayer, but Suarez and team aren't shirking responsibility for Elite's failure to launch. Several times in our interview, he said something like this: "This is not the Elite experience we want people to have. This is not what everybody worked two years plus for. This is not what the Beachhead Studios guys poured their heart and souls into. And we're all committed; I don't think there's a bigger priority right now within Activision than to try and get this back up and running as quickly as possible."

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