During a conference call in February of last year, Activision Blizzard announced the formation of Beachhead Studios, a new development team whose focus was to create a “digital platform” for the Call of Duty franchise. What they created we now know as the freemium service Call of Duty: Elite. Similar to other web offerings from developers of popular multiplayer games (e.g. Bungie.net and Electronic Art’s Battlelog), Elite service allows players to keep track of their in-game progress and compare stats and accomplishments with friends and the rest of the world. Additional services and content are given to paying subscribers. But what exactly are you getting for your money ($49.99 annually), and is it really worth it?
A beta for Elite was offered for Xbox 360 users in July, in which I took part. At the time, it provided a glimpse to both the free and premium features that would be offered when it would officially launch on November 8, 2011, coinciding with the release of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3. Users had easy access to their overall stats, scoreboards of recent games, and access to any screenshots and videos they uploaded. Contests were also held in a variety of categories, though no prizes were awarded other than bragging rights. For what was offered at the price point (i.e. fee), it was something I could see, and did see, myself using quite a bit. I would access the website to show my friends some neat things I had done, or provide evidence of my superiority. I liked Elite for what it allowed me to do, and it was nice knowing I could use it if I wanted to, but after a couple of months I thought about it less and less. It was not something I needed to enjoy my Call of Duty experience, and therefore held little value in my eyes.
With the impending release of Modern Warfare 3, however, Activision unveiled that paid Elite subscribers would receive all downloadable content (DLC) for Modern Warfare 3, as well as all future Call of Duty titles, for free and in advance of non-paying members. If you took into consideration the four DLC packs for Call of Duty: Black Ops (as well as the $15 price attached to each) released over the year after the game’s initial launch, the $49.99 subscription fee for Elite seemed like a bargain for anyone planning on purchasing upcoming content anyway. Better yet, those who purchased the “Hardened Edition” of Modern Warfare 3, whose price was only $40 more than the standard version of the game, would receive a year membership of Elite in addition to all the other items included. It was as if Activision just wanted to give the DLC away.
What Activision did instead was take all of our money and put it in their already inflated bank account. Within the first week of Elite’s launch, it managed to acquire over 4 million users, a million of which had paid the $49.99 price for premium features (I assume this includes those who purchased the Hardened Edition as well). This likely bolstered the company’s earnings for the fourth quarter of 2011, as well as the year in general. (If you would like to take a look at the actual numbers, be my guest. I can’t make sense of all the capitalist jargon.) Instead of getting a potential $15 from each of those million users only once a quarter over the course of 2012, we decided to give them all of our money at once for a product we hadn’t even fully received. And it will only make them more money from here. As of February 9, Elite now has 7 million users, 1.5 million of which are paying. If that number keeps increasing, Activision can bank on, quite literally, hundreds of millions of dollars every year.
What have we got to show for our hard-earned cash (or Hardened-earned membership)? In addition to the standard features available on the Elite website, premium users also have access to regularly scheduled contests in which they can earn real-world and virtual prizes (most of which are currently “badges” you earn and can show off on your profile), “dynamic expert strategies” that offer vague, minimalistic tips on how to perform better with certain weapons or on certain maps, the ability to upload more videos and screenshots, and “Call of Duty: Elite TV”, whose exact function I am still not entirely sure of (I don’t think Beachhead is, either).
That is just filler. We all know that is not why we signed up for Elite. We want the DLC. Well, two maps were made available in January exclusively to Xbox 360 subscribers (PlayStation 3 subscribers received that content yesterday), and February followed up with another map. According to the schedule for the “Modern Warfare 3 Season of Content”, between January and September of 2012 (and, I assume, February through October for PlayStation 3 users), we can expect to see 12 new multiplayer maps, six new Spec Ops missions, and two new game modes. That’s actually quite a lot of content. I guess it might actually be worth it.
In the long-run, yes. Right now, however, I am not getting a lot of use of what content is already available. See, the three maps that are available for the Xbox 360 are only available in a certain playlist within the multiplayer component of Modern Warfare 3. Within that playlist are three sub-playlists, all of which only amount for about 1% of the total amount of players on the game at any one time. And the playlists available are all “mosh pits”, switching around which game mode the next match will be. So, if you are like me and typically stick to one, maybe two, game types, you’re shit out of luck when you get stuck playing Search and Destroy. And there is no guarantee you will get into a game on one of the new maps, they just have an increased chance of showing up.
When another “Content Drop” is released next month, Activision will make a “Content Collection” available to the general public containing the first three months worth of DLC. At that time, a separate playlist containing the maps will likely be created, and a few weeks later the maps will be integrated into all playlists. Finally, at the end of March, almost five months since we all started paying for the Elite service, eagerly awaiting the DLC to trickle its way out of Activision’s teat, will we actually have something to show for our fifty bucks.
What seemed like a great bargain initially has now been revealed to be just another way for Activision to try and lock customers in by getting them to pay for, all at once, the content they would potentially pay for anyway over a longer period of time. At BlizzCon 2011, the other half of Activision Blizzard announced an Annual Pass for World of Warcraft. While your monthly (or quarterly/bi-annually) subscription fees are not altered in any way, agreeing to a year’s worth of Warcarft in advance means you get an exclusive in-game mount for your character, and a free copy of Diablo III whenever the hell they finally release it. That is a great deal. Unless you find you are too busy/poor/etc. to play World of Warcraft anytime in the next year.
Activision is not the only company doing this. Over the past year, numerous developers have been offering “Season Passes” to customers. What this gives customers is a reduced price for DLC that will be released over an extended period of time. If you plan on buying all of the future content anyway, this saves you a decent amount of money. While you are still paying upfront for services not yet rendered, these passes differ from Elite and the Annual Pass in the fact that they are not recurring charges. With L. A. Noire, for instance, it was just a bonus for buying a new copy of the game rather than pre-owned. While Elite does not require you to input your credit card information (though you do have the option to, at least through Xbox’s website), your subscription will need to be renewed after a year to keep using all of the online features and receive all of the next Call of Duty’s DLC.
If you do use the Elite web services extensively, and do enjoy the maps in the capacity in which they are currently presented, you may be happy paying the subscription fee. And while I certainly don’t regret purchasing the Hardened Edition of Modern Warfare 3 (I am the kind of guy that needs just about every special edition of every game available, even the extremely-expensive, clutter-inducing ones), if I knew this was the way the DLC was going to be rolled out, and the Elite subscription had not been included with the game, I would have avoided Elite altogether, and been quite content shelling out my $15 every few months like I have been doing for the past several years.