Call of Duty Elite: When profit comes at the expense of growing a thriving player ecosystem

3 Posted by - November 29, 2012 - Community Platforms, News

“Call of Duty Elite was really designed to solve a business problem,” according to Rob Fahey of Games Industry International, “not any issue with the game itself.”

Elite, the stat-tracking, content-hosting arm of the mammoth Call of Duty franchise, finally stepped back from a subscription model to a free service last October, ending an experiment built on shaky foundations. In his postmortem, Fahey points to the big flaw that sunk Elite almost from the beginning: it was all about money…and not about what customers actually wanted.

“Activision’s thinking with Call of Duty Elite was pretty transparent,” says Fahey. “Call of Duty would be an even more appealing product from a financial perspective if it had an element of subscription revenue — another steady month-to-month earner, just like World of Warcraft. The company asked ‘How can we add a subscription services element to CoD?'” Coming up with something Call of Duty’s famously fanatical players would actually buy into as a useful, desirable add-on didn’t enter into the equation until far too late.

In fact, according to Raptr gameplay data, Modern Warfare 3, the game that launched with the Elite service, did not hold up as well compared with previous games in terms of total playtime as a percent of playtime at launch. Last year’s MW3 eventually settled at 20% compared with launch over the following few months. Previous COD games (Black Ops and MW2) settled closer to 40% compared with launch. One of the main things that Activision publicly stated as having a big impact on MW3’s performance was the way they launched their Elite service, which effectively segmented out their most loyal community members due to a fee to access premium services.

Modern Warfare 3 sold roughly a million more units than Black Ops and seven million more than Modern Warfare 2.

Despite that backlash, Fahey argues that Activision retreated from Elite too soon. A service that solved the customer’s needs — accessing more content in more ways — as opposed to simply addressing the company’s issues — making more money — could actually fix both problems at once.

“The holy grail is where consumers aren’t paying for content,” says Fahey. “They’re paying for a service. In other words, a model where you’re not really selling access to content any more. Instead, you have a business that’s vastly more scaleable.” Activision dramatically changed their Elite services this year, so it’ll be interesting to see ongoing what sort of effect that has on overall playtime for BO2.

We’d argue that there’s an additional lesson here: When publishers charge gamers to join a community of the most loyal players, it comes at the expense of fueling a thriving player ecosystem. The most skilled, loyal, and probably vocal fan base is separated out from the rest of the player community, which ultimately has a negative impact on playtime and active user base.

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