Why did you feel the need to develop Elite when you already have in-game community features?
Jamie Berger, VP of Digital, Activision: I think there’s two things to take into account. One is the sheer scale of the audience – and not just by any individual game.
There are four Call of Duty games in the top ten most played on Xbox Live. The number of people engaged made it clear to us that we had to step in and build something that was going to unite this audience. We’ve got this franchise that’s evolving but we weren’t allowing the player to evolve. We’re asking them to start all over again every year with each new game – and that can’t work.
And I think the other thing is that, quite honestly, the world has changed. If you think about the context of how consumers look at entertainment now, versus how they did three or four years ago, they see the world through a prism based on Facebook, Foursquare, mobile apps – things that didn’t exist not long ago. They want to be able to build socialisation and communication into and outside of the game that they can’t do themselves. We have to help them with that.
So I think Elite is a recognition that we have 30m people worldwide doing something and we can’t just leave them to their own devices. We have to support them and get ahead of their needs, rather than always playing catch-up with them.
Did you look at other social networks when developing Elite?
Chacko Sonny, Studio Head, Beachhead: We definitely looked beyond the games industry, so there were a number of social networks we saw with interesting features. Obviously Facebook – we even implemented Facebook integration into the games, that’s been critical for us – but it’s important to keep in mind that we didn’t just blindly take features.
We wanted to tailor this very specifically to the needs of the Call of Duty community. So a lot of the design – while we looked at everything from dating sites to financial networks and location-based things like Foursquare – we had to put everything through this filter of ‘what is appropriate for the Call of Duty community?’
What are the features and what are the ways they aggregate and connect? What features support that while giving users the ability to do those in new and innovative ways?
That development was 100 per cent driven by both the studio organisation, Activision, and then all of the game development teams: Treyarch, Infinity Ward and Sledgehammer.
Berger: We focused a lot of time on thinking about what people are doing, so that creates a social element which also has a purpose to it. We benchmarked dating sites because there’s socialisation but it’s with a purpose – you’re trying to meet someone to date, not just meet people. Or on a financial site, you’re trying to share information and are thinking about what to buy or what to sell.
For us, there’s socialisation but the purpose is to play the game and have more fun while doing so. We have to get it so that people join because they all like Call of Duty, so that they can find more people who enjoy the same things they do and then let them go play Call of Duty. So it’s taking the socialisation aspect, but it’s focusing on the purpose, which is ‘we all like to play Call of Duty’.
You have said you are hoping to reach a broader audience than your typical hardcore Call of Duty player. Why is it so important to encompass a wider audience with Elite?
Sonny: I think the idea that most Call of Duty players are 16 to 35-year-old males might have been true a few years ago, but when you think that we have 30m players worldwide, the reality of the diversity within the Call of Duty community is astounding. We have, on average, people playing 170 hours a year, but there is still a tremendous number of people who play a smaller amount and they’re not just the 16 to 35-year-old male. They’re students, they’re male and female. So from our perspective, it was important that we create a service that serves that community across that full range.
Absolutely, there are going to be features that appeal most to those hardcore gamers, but as part of the way we’ve designed the features on the site, we have components that are easy to get into beyond just more traditional hardcore things like intense competition or really, really deep stats.
The Groups feature, for example, is a very low-friction, easily accessible way of finding other people who you could potentially play with. That’s consistently cited as the single biggest reason why people come back to Call of Duty – to play with friends.
The Improve section is another great area where we think we can get that crowd with fewer hours of playtime more into the game and not only be a better player, but also have a better understanding of what that community is doing.
Berger: We’ve been using the example of sports a lot. So golf, for example, is a sport where every possible level of skilled player can join in. As a player, you can get super-engaged, super-involved with it and you don’t have to be highly skilled. You can join a country club, you can take lessons, you can watch Tiger Woods play golf, and you can play with people at a skill level that’s appropriate to you.
Gaming has never built that kind of infrastructure. We’ve never embraced that broad community and said that everyone should have an opportunity to compete and join clans – not just the core gamers. We already have a mass audience, so all we need to do is build something that’s right for the full spectrum.
A premium service for the Call of Duty series has been rumoured for some time. How difficult has it been, and will it be, to emphasise that this is something completely worthwhile?
Berger: There’s been lots of speculation about this so we need to rid people of their misconceptions about us trying to charge for multiplayer, make COD an MMO or other things that we’ve simply never had plans to do.
First things first, we need to get the information out there and be honest. We need to explain what it is, why we think players will enjoy it and that we’re not making everyone get it if they don’t want it. It’s about choice. If it appeals to you, then great, we can show you something that we think you’ll find really exciting. If it doesn’t, then good news – you never have to touch it. You can play the game all day long, you can still get DLC, you can just use the free elements of the service.
And then honestly, we want to talk directly to our players and we want them to talk amongst themselves. It’s not going to be about us marketing to them. It’s about us communicating with our early adopters and evangelists and letting them talk to their friends.