Call of Duty is past it. The latest sales data revealed that Modern Warfare 3 has (so far) sold fewer copies than 2010’s Black Ops. A whole 4.2 per cent less. According to some corners of the press, the shooter series has peaked.
Except it hasn’t. Not one bit. A mere 4.2 per cent ‘shrink’ is quite an achievement when you consider how much the overall games market is down (in 2011 the UK games market fell 13 per cent year-on-year. So far this year, it is down 30 per cent).
And anyway Modern Warfare 3 was only half of Call of Duty‘s offering last year.
A priority this year is keeping core gamers on-board well beyond the launch period using the other half. It wants to keep people playing for longer. And to encourage this it launched CoD Elite.
Elite is a social network of sorts that lets users learn more about their games, watch videos, interact with fans, set up clans and a hell of a lot more. It has already amassed over 7m users, with 1.5m of those paying the annual £34.99 fee for the ‘premium service.’ The accompanying smartphone app has been downloaded over 2m times.
Elite didn’t have the most comfortable of beginnings. In fact, the last time MCV met with Activision’s Noah Heller he was embroiled in a PR battle.
Call of Duty Elite was being shown at E3 for the first time, and the series’ vocal fanbase was not happy. Activision had said that some parts of the online service would be charged for, and although it hadn’t announced what parts and how much, Heller’s insistence that the majority of it would be free fell on deaf ears.
Fans felt Elite was just another way for Activision to extract more money from them. And the outcry was such that the publisher’s CEO Eric Hirshberg joked that nets might need to be erected to stop people throwing bottles during his address at fan expo Call of Duty XP three months later. “The words ‘Call of Duty’ plus the word ‘subscription’ equals ‘unleash blogger hell,’” he said.
A year later, Heller feels the reaction was a good thing.
“It took a while to actually arrive at the conclusion that we wanted to do right by the player base,” he recalls. “How much of the content would be walled off for premium users versus free users was a debate until the end. What you saw at E3 was a very transparent, public struggle we were having internally, in terms of how much we give back to players.
“It was a healthy discussion. If people had heard Elite was coming and there had been no outcry, the picture might have been different.”
Three months later and the fan fury dissipated.
Most of Elite was free, and the premium package was good value for money as it included every piece of DLC – plus the chance to win real prizes – for £34.99 a year.
But the teething problems didn’t end there. Having navigated the PR hurdle, Elite launched alongside Modern Warfare 3 in November and then collapsed. It took almost a month before it was up and running.
“We didn’t anticipate the scale,” says Heller.
“When you benchmark comparable online services that are successful – we were thinking about Netflix, Spotify and Xbox Live – and the conventional wisdom was that it takes a year to get to 1m members. We were at 7m by February with more than 1.5m premium members. And a lot of them turned up on the first day. We just weren’t prepared for that kind of traffic.”
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Today, Call of Duty Elite is fully operational and developer Beachhead is working relentlessly to make it up to its fans.
The quantity of DLC that’s being given to premium members has increased from 20 to 24. And Beachhead is regularly adding new modes, such as the recent Clan Operations that lets players level up their clans. There’s even a new comedy TV show called Noob Tube, which features user-generated content, plus a second season of the Ridley Scott-produced multiplayer program, Friday Night Fights.
“Every month we try to release one new feature, and fulfill this commitment that we are not going to stop developing Elite,” continues Heller.
“What we are seeing is that people who are into Elite play Call of Duty more. That’s a big way of how we measure our success internally, how much longer do people stay engaged? People who play with a clan are more likely to play Call of Duty than pick up another game. And that is exciting to us.”
Next up for Call of Duty Elite is a new tablet app to complement the existing mobile, console and web versions. And Beachhead is also working on better integrating Elite with the Call of Duty games.
“We want to get to the point where it is really seamless with the game,” Heller says. “I am not allowed to talk much about the next game. But I can say in-game integration is what is exciting the player base. So that is going to be the real focus for the next title.”
Call of Duty Elite has been a learning process for the publishing giant.
Activision already knows how to launch a boxed product. But an online service is an entirely different proposition. How do you promote something like Elite?
“It is obviously very different to boxed product,” explains Mark Cox, European marketing director for Elite. “We are running a very aggressive search campaign. Also lots of video and social media. And then there’s in-game messaging about the service, that is how we draw our gamers in.”
But retail plays a crucial role, too.
“We have our branded Microsoft point cards, we are working with Sony on a branded PSN card and we are also looking at till-based token systems.
“We want to give consumers as many places to purchase as possible. The cash buyer is incredibly important to the franchise, especially in today’s environment where credit cards are not as widely used. So we need to go into bricks and mortar retail.”
The most impactful form of marketing for an online service is word-of-mouth, and that’s one of the reasons that so much of the service is free, says Heller.
“It would be so easy to say that you can’t be in a clan unless you are a premium subscriber,” he says.
“But what we said instead is that you can’t win a jeep because you are not a premium member, but we still want you in that clan. That way if Mark is a freeloader and he is in my clan, I can say to Mark: ‘We would have done even better if you had been premium. Join up.’
“We want that social pressure. Because we can only run TV advertisements to sell Elite up until a point. We need word of mouth.”
And the best way to achieve good word of mouth is to ensure the service doesn’t fall over when the next Call of Duty arrives.
“We still have to prove ourselves,” admits Heller. “There’s a lot of people we pissed off all the way back to November, and we have to show them that we are not going to let that happen again. But we’ve started fulfilling our promises and I think people are starting to understand that it is real value for money.”