June 1, 2011

Activision To Launch Call Of Duty Online

Activision Blizzard Inc., the video game developer behind the popular 'Call of Duty' franchise, that runs on consoles like the PS3 and Xbox 360, is looking to take the game to a whole new level: online for a monthly fee.

The company plans to launch an online service called 'Call of Duty Elite' in the fall that will work alongside Activision's next major release of the series: "Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3." The online service would also work with all future installments of the combat-simulation game as well.

Activision wants to charge a monthly subscription fee for users who play the game online, much like the company's Blizzard arm leader "World of Warcraft," which has 11 million subscribers. Activision says the monthly service will offer extra content that will not be offered on game discs sold in stores, including downloadable map packs that give subscribers new levels to play.

The Call of Duty franchise has enjoyed unparalleled success. The latest title, "Black Ops," has sold more than 22 million copies worldwide since November 2010, and more than 7 million people play the game every day online.

Activision said Tuesday that the service will officially launch November 8 when the next game releases. It said a test version will be available beforehand, but Activision isn't saying when that will be.

The service has been in production for the past two years in a specially-created game studio called Beachhead. Call of Duty: Elite will let players form groups, compete by skill level or interest, share stats and create video clips of their best "Call of Duty" moments.

Players will be able to access CoD: Elite from game consoles, computers and smartphones.

Activision executives said they have yet to put a price on the monthly fee for the service, but expect the cost to be less than fees for comparable online-entertainment services. It said portions of the service will be free, including features inspired by Facebook that will let Call of Duty players meet for online for gun battles with others who share common interests.

Another feature will give players tools, modeled on those from stock-trading websites, to analyze their performance within the game, gauging factors such as which weapons have been most successful for them.

The plan could be a risky venture by Activision to try to further make profits off from consumers, who will already be sinking $60 on the game itself. Charging a monthly fee is more common for big multiplayer games that run basically on personal computers, such as World of Warcraft.

For Xbox 360 users, the monthly subscription fee will come on top of the $9.99 monthly fee they typically pay for Xbox Live services. Sony's PS3 owners do not have a monthly fee to play online.

Activision's CEO, Bobby Kotick, said in an interview with Wall Street Journal that he isn't worried about pushback from gamers about the CoD: Elite fee because players will still be able to compete against each other online without subscribing to the service.

Kotick said that it wouldn't be possible to run the service for free because of all the offerings that will be included in the service and the customer service needed to support it, although he didn't go into detail what those offerings included.

"This is an enormous investment," he said.

Since Activision's first installment of Call of Duty more than eight years ago, it has racked up more than $3 billion in retail sales. Unlike blockbuster movies, new versions of the game come out every year, with the latest installment due on Nov. 8.

"It's probably the biggest entertainment franchise in the world," said Dennis Durkin, corporate vice president in Microsoft's interactive-entertainment business.

And while the game has been a big hit with gamers who play the old-fashioned way -- by themselves against game-run enemies -- Call of Duty has become the most successful console game ever at getting players to battle others in environments over the Internet.

Activision has about 7 million daily players online for Call of Duty, said Jamie Berger, VP of digital for Call of Duty. On average, players spend about seven full days per year playing the game against others online.

While Activision has made money selling Call of Duty map packs and other digital content for a one-time fee, it believes subscription fees to a new service could give it a continuing way to capitalize on the online success of the franchise.

Rob Dyer, senior vice president of publisher relations at Sony's US games division, said only a few games command the loyalty and size to support a subscription service like Call of Duty Elite. He said he is "very confident" other publishers will follow in Activision's footsteps. "There's money to be made here," he said.

Eric Hirshberg, CEO of Activision Publishing, said online services are the next step for the video game industry, which must figure out how to offer players experiences that go beyond the $60 cost of most video games, aside from Call of Duty, that have seen bumpy sales, and as many gamers flock to cheaper games such as "Angry Birds" and "Farmville."

Hirshberg stressed that the company won't charge for anything currently available to Call of Duty players for free, such as the ability to play multiplayer games.


On the Net: