FEATURE: Call of Duty's next phase

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Few video game franchises can fill an aircraft hanger with thousands of fans on their own, let alone draw the attentions of the world's mainstream media or entice superstar Kanye West to give a private performance.

But Call of Duty can, and did without breaking a sweat. For a brand that some would have you believe is on the ropes after increased competition from rival shooters, Activision's behemoth certainly seemed fighting fit at the first CoD XP earlier this month.

With an attendance that would put fledgling games expos to shame, the Los Angeles event was a testament to how big the series has become in the last eight years – far exceeding what some brands have done in 20. And CoD's developers were just as surprised as their guests.

Call of Duty has become a phenomenon,” says Glen Schofield, co-founder of Sledgehammer Games, the studio assisting Infinity Ward with Modern Warfare 3.

When we started thinking about CoD XP, it was all about how we could give something back to the fans, like Blizzcon does.We knew the hardcore would come, but it's turned into something a lot bigger than that. I have no idea what it'll be like next time – probably taking people out in helicopters or something.”

Chacko Sonny, studio head of CoD Elite developer Beachhead added: A lot of people say CoD is a lifestyle but no one's ever had a tangible way of conveying that beyond dry statistics. Walking into this place was a visceral, super clear validation of the fan support for Call of Duty. It's impressive to behold.”

Infinity Ward's creative strategist Robert Bowling added: It speaks to the size and scope of our community. It's one thing to say that you have 30m people who play your game online, but it's totally different to have an event of this size.

It's a fantastic way to cater to the community. How often do you get to meet so many people that as passionate as you are about the thing you've poured so many hours into? This is definitely the way to go.”

Support from the troops

Even with this gargantuan audience, running an event like CoD XP or investing in a new online service such as CoD Elite (see ‘Elite Force', on page 22) is still a risky proposition, taking Activision into unknown territory. But the publisher claims Call of Duty's stable base gives it room to take a few risks.

We have an audience that allows us to put something new on the table, whether it's new ideas or investing in a brand new studio,” says Activision's digital VP Jamie Berger. Blizzard and a few of the others can do that, but I think we're one of the few that can pull that off.”

But CoD XP only gave a glimpse into that loyal base. For every player queuing to try MW3, there are hundreds at home still playing Black Ops – and even more that drop in and out of the series. And it's this variety of demographics that made Call of Duty such a hit.

It's reached a level of cultural currency that is beyond ‘just a game',” Berger says. Given how many people recognise the brand, this has emerged as a true mass brand and yet has an unbelievably passionate base that will travel from around the world. It's an amazing balancing act that we have right now.”

Tomorrow's war

All eyes now turn to Modern Warfare 3. The title will not just conclude a genre-defining trilogy, but forge a new beginning for the series that has redefined what success can mean for video game brand.

From now on, the next boxed title is just one of the pressing concerns Activision will face each year.

The publisher will have to live up to the first CoD XP. The buzz from this year's expo is sure to evolve into hype as word of mouth spreads. Come 2012, a modified press junket won't be enough to satisfy demand.It must also juggle an ever-evolving online service, an established DLC model and the premium membership that bridges the two.

Step back from the spinning plates Activision now has to manage and you have something more: the business model that potentially defines the future of our industry.It's not just about retail any more. Nor is it just about digital content, social media, online services, mobile presence or live events. It's about all of them, working in sync to reach every possible user and keep the brand at the forefront of their minds.

And, like a well-orchestrated military force, Call of Duty now has all of these bases covered, arguably outflanking any potential competition.Turn over for more on Elite and MW3.WHAT IS SLEDGEHAMMER GAMES?

The third pillar of games development behind Call of Duty, that's what.The studio was set to build a third-person title based on Call of Duty but was drafted in to help with Modern Warfare 3 following an exodus of staff from Infinity Ward.

Sledgehammer was founded in 2009 by veteran developers Glen Schofield and Michael Condrey, who have gathered a team that has worked on the likes of Dead Space, Ratchet & Clank and Afro Samurai.

Schofield tells MCV how it feels to be entrusted with Activision's most valuable franchise: You do your best with every game you make. We know there are millions of eyes on us, and the pressure I feel most is whether we will live up to the fans' expectations, or whether they will accept us.

And I think the more the fans have learned about us and the award-winning games we've worked on, they've given us a shot. And that's all we've asked for, because we're putting everything we caninto this game.”

ELITE FORCE: HOW SOCIAL NETWORKING WILL GROW CALL OF DUTY

Extravagant?activities and Modern Warfare 3 demos were just the spectacle at CoD?XP. The substance was provided by Activision's unveiling of CoD Elite's premium membership.

Once the social network launches alongside MW3 in November, users will be able to sign up for a year for 34.99. This will earn users free early access to all DLC, prized competitions, video content from Hollywood talent – not to mention the stat-tracking and community features in the free version.

Both free and premium users will be able to access Elite via Facebook and a dedicated mobile app.

The scope of Elite shows how seriously the publisher is taking its new social network, and how determined it is to justify the service and fee to the fans.

Traditionally up until this point, Call of Duty has been about the experience within the console, within the game itself,” says Beachhead's studio head Chacko Sonny. We're expanding that outside of the game, in dimensions that haven't been done before.

I think people forget that social networks start with naturally established communities. CoD already has a massive community. All of the things we're doing with Elite are things those fans were already trying to do themselves. There's tons of clan pages out there but there was no way to directly intergrate that with the game until now.”

Activision's VP of digital Jamie Berger adds that the response at XP to the premium announcement made a good positive impact” and that the company expects good things” at Elite's launch, not only from typical CoD fans, but also from those new to the online world.

One of the interesting things is that Elite is actually bringing in a lot of people who are not traditionally DLC buyers. So we hope it's going to broaden the series' consumer base.”

The moment of truth comes on November 8th when Modern Warfare 3 arrives, which also marks the official launch of Elite. Despite some initial confusion when Elite was announced, both Beachhead and Activision are confident the masses will soon appreciate what the service offers.

And Berger says games retailers will be absolutely vital to successfully rolling out Elite – particularly the premium membership.

The first place you'll be able to get the premium

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