Activision has unveiled a long-rumoured premium subscription service for their Call of Duty franchise. Called Call of Duty Elite, the service will add social features to the company’s offline offerings, including the ability to search for and clan up with gamers based on a specific interest, and ways for players to analyse their in-game performance with tools modelled off of stock trade sites. It was also hinted by the Wall Street Journal and confirmed by Ars Technica that downloadable content maps would be included in the subscription as well. Though some parts of Elite will be free, there will be premium, for-pay elements to the package. Activision would not specify what would be premium or how much the service would cost, though they did specify it would be less than other “comparable” services. The WSJ states Netflix and their $7.99 fee as an example.
There is no word as to whether or not map packs downloaded with the subscription will be available once the subscription is up. We have reached out to Activision for clarification on the service.
Analysis: From a business standpoint, this was a no-brainer. For precious little cost, Activision is basically using a license to print money. Serious gamers will jump all over this, especially if the past of $15 map packs holds true. Even if this costs $6.99 a month – what I think to be the maximum price point – it’s an extra $84 a year. Assuming what Wedbush and EEDAR analysts are predicting comes true (an estimated $60 a year), that’s $60 for the game at the current, record breaking pace, another $60 a year, every year, for an estimated 20% those buyers, and on top of that, for Xbox 360 users (the vast majority of CoD players, and the ones that enjoy the benefits of timed exclusivity on things like map packs), an extra $60 a year just for Live Gold. Someone who goes all-in on this is now paying $180 a year just for Call of Duty. For big Call of Duty fans – the ones who put the games at the top of Major Nelson’s Live charts virtually every week since Modern Warfare dropped – this will be an easy purchase because while they will have misgivings about the price, they will want the tools that will make them better players than everyone else. Who cares if Bungie’s been giving this to Halo players for years? Activision didn’t bring Call of Duty to the top of the shooter heap by caring about trivialities like fan backlash. In fact, Bobby Kotick has specifically blown off the backlash by saying that online play will still be free, and that fans are “clamouring” to pay more money. It’s audacious, but if even 20% of buyers fall in line on this, Activision’s going to be rolling in it, which makes shareholders happy. Shareholders are the only people that matter to Activision.
From a consumer standpoint… well, who cares about the consumers? Seriously, who cares? The consumers have shown, both with and outside of the Call of Duty franchise, that they will consistently make decisions against their better interests. Activision knows this, and like all good AAA companies, exploits it. They shouldn’t care about the consumer, because the consumer will consistently validate the company’s lack of faith in them by spending more and more money, and ruthlessly defending them against non-believers like myself. Every time I’ve criticized Activision or Call of Duty in the past, I’ve been savaged by fanboys attacking me in various ways. I expect this time to be different only because my readerbase at a new site is much lower than it was at past, more established sites. The hate will still be there, just in lower numbers.
As far as how this works, I expect this to be a PlayStation Plus scenario. The data is the hook, and the map packs are going to be the lock-in that keeps people coming back. You can’t unsubscribe, do you want to lose these beautiful map packs? Your friends are on these map packs! You don’t want to lose your friends, who will move on without you, do you? You’ll be lonely on the default, loser packs! Oh, you came around! That’s a good boy… just pay that monthly fee, and everything will be alright. It’s cynical, it’s visceral, and it’s brutally effective. Gamers are bitching up a storm, but it doesn’t matter. Those that don’t buy the service will still buy the game. And just like the dedicated server protests, most of these people will show they’re full of shit anyway, and still sign up.
What I’m really worried about is how Activision and EA are going to depress the rest of the market. Activision’s coming out with their plan to turn Call of Duty into an MMO-like revenue model, and EA’s doing likewise with their own sports games. Other AAA developers, incapable of thinking for themselves, will do likewise with their own games once they’re able to. I figure 20% of customers will sign up for these plans, mainly because it will make them automatically better than the 80% of the losers who don’t – if you believe otherwise, the 85 rated NHL ’11 online players within one day of release have something to say to you about that – which is money going to one franchise, and to no one else. Money is finite, and the last time I checked, the economy still sucks. This is going to contribute further to hurting mid-tier publishers. There will be less consumer money for other games – especially since the whole purpose of something like this is to force gamers to feel they have to continue to pay a monthly fee, and don’t for a second believe otherwise – and what little is left is going to go into $1 apps and other cheap options. Eventually, it’s going to leave second tier publishers with some very tough choices: 1) Try to go AAA (risky; one mistake, and you’re sunk), 2) go digital (probably the best overall option), or 3) go “social” (that’s a bubble waiting to burst and take anyone not named Zynga out with it). It’s a rough game, and while Activision and to a lesser extent EA are right in a business sense to exploit the weakness of their customers, I’m still in my rights to call it what it is: a massive dick move that brings no overall value, and turns the non-subscribers into second-rate people.