There are tens of millions of Call of Duty fans waiting for Modern Warfare 3, and still playing every one of the games. From Modern Warfare to Black Ops, each still has an army on active service every single night. And
Lord Kitchener Activision wants them all to enlist - not just for MW3, but to Call of Duty Elite, a new multiplayer service that integrates the entire series. A service that, though free at the point of entry, can command a high price. So how seriously do you take your killing? CoD Elite takes it very seriously indeed.
Elite, or as Activision prefer to call it, 'ELITE', is an experiment - but an unusual one. It's almost guaranteed to be a success, for a start, and it's also been treated with little but scorn since its announcement in May this year. Everyone knows Activision want to make more money from Call of Duty, and Elite is seen by many
critics as a divisive cash-grab - chopping a playerbase that's already paid for a game into 'free' and 'premium' accounts.
This story has it that Activision are The Man, paying players are suckers, and Elite itself barely matters. The point is obvious, and pretty bland: Activision want Elite to make money. Stop the presses. Elite exists, so the only questions worth asking are what does it add to CoD, and is it worth paying for?
Chacko Sonny, head of Elite devs Beachhead Studio, starts on the offense: Elite isn't just about cash.
"Anyone who plays Call of Duty multiplayer can come and use Elite for free," he says. "It's just that simple. If you want a premium membership for more features and DLC, you can upgrade, but we want everyone who plays Call of Duty multiplayer to get something out of Elite."
How do you unite a group of people whose common interest is killing each other? At first, Beachhead weren't sure
The free version is, in fact, key to the concept - where its critics see the service as divisive, Activision see a playerbase that, come MW3, will be split across five games. CoD's fans are already fragmented.
"As each new game was released," says Sonny, "people at Activision realised there was still a tremendous audience that continued to play the older games regularly. There was no way to unify these audiences, to give them a place to interact with the rest of the CoD community, and to keep them engaged." Or to put it another way, CoD is now so big that its community needs a hub independent of the individual games. "Elite was certainly, in part, a response to those realisations."
ONE MAN ARMY
When you think about CoD like that - a population of virtual soldiers bigger than most nations - the scale is staggering. Elite is part of a wider trend in the media towards niche social networks, services laser-targetted towards groups of people with a specific common interest. Maybe they should've called it POWbook: where the photo albums are intensely detailed combat maps, the wall posts are combat achievements, and the videos are ranked by bodycount. And at least your mum's not going to turn up on this one - though you can, if you so wish, link it to the real Facebook.
This social aspect of Elite poses an interesting question. How do you unite a group of people whose common interest is killing each other? At first, Beachhead weren't sure. "Conceptually, everyone agreed that Elite was something that was critical to the development of the company and the franchise," says Sonny, "but exactly how we got there was definitely the subject of intense debate and iteration. The designers on our team actually jokingly referred to one of our redesigns as the '10K' rebuild, because it felt like they had re-imagined some of these features that many times before we finally settled on what worked.