E3 2011 — We’re Becoming Less Skeptical of Call of Duty: Elite

We’ve seen Call of Duty: Elite in action twice now – once at Activision’s pre-E3 event in Los Angeles and once during a demo at E3. And the more details the publisher and its new Elite-publishing studio, Beachhead, reveal, the more intense and robust the service seems to be.

During the E3 demo, Beachhead Lead Product Designer Noah Heller and Treyarch’s Jay Puryear showed off more of the features of the huge stat-tracking system. They also explained a few of the features in more detail than we’d heard before, including price. The big takeaway from the demo, though, was that Activision, Beachhead and everyone involved with Call of Duty want players to know: it’s free.

There are premium features to Elite. Heller said pricing hasn’t been detailed because it will be closed tied to DLC for Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3. When the full details on MW3 are available, so will the price of Elite, he said.

“The goal is to make it a slam dunk for people, a no-brainer decision,” Heller said. “If you want the DLC for Modern Warfare 3, you’ll want Elite.”

In that regard, the price for Elite’s premium features will be very close to the price of DLC; so much so, it seems, that it wouldn’t make financial sense to purchase DLC without Elite, even though whatever DLC is available for MW3 will also be available Elite-free in an a la cart setup.

Here’s the rest of the new information we got from the demo:

  • Elite will track zombies, although that was as much as Heller would say.
  • The premium tier will be directly tied to competitive programming – so premium members will have more or different competitions available to them as far as tournaments or stats-based prize events, and the prizes will be more abundant and better.
  • Modern Warfare 3 integration of Elite will be deep, and actions taken in Elite will be transferred to MW3. For example, you’ll be able to change load-outs on your character in MW3 from Elite’s various link-up methods, including through its mobile app. You’ll also be able to view the load-outs of other players and copy them instantly.
  • You’ll be able to join multiple “groups” in MW3, but only a single clan, which will have more administrative controls for the clan’s leaders than groups do. Where groups are casual, “anyone-can-join” affairs, clans will be more rigorous and only members will be able to wear clan colors and emblems. Clans will be limited to 100 members.
  • As groups expand, players who join them will receive benefits. Heller wouldn’t detail them further, but each time a group hits a size tier (1, 10, 100, 1,000, etc.), its members will receive some kind of in-game bonuses or recognition.
  • Theater mode will be more robust in MW3 with the help of Elite: You’ll be able to share videos with other players, see your friends’ videos on your list, and see group- and clan-specific videos. All videos will also be tagged with the players who appear in them, so you can see yourself in other people’s videos and track down other players to see where they’ve been recorded.
  • Elite has a team that’s “bigger than some game development teams,” and will have full 24/7 customer support that will help to keep groups “honest” and deal with cheating on contests.
  • Beachhead will be creating groups with special programming: for example, during the run-up to the Superbowl, players might be able to join groups designated for each Superbowl team, but joining one precludes them from joining the other.
  • There may also be sponsored groups or special groups for things like branches of the Armed Forces that have programming built in to act differently (e.g. be slightly more exclusive or special) than normal groups.

Mark Burnham’s Impressions

A few weeks ago, Activision held a pre-E3 event, where I got my first look at Call of Duty: Elite. I left that demo really skeptical, for various reasons. My basic thought on it was “it has some cool features, but why should I pay for this?” Activision didn’t really help that mindset, either, since they basically just said “there will be a premium model,” but didn’t bother to explain it or anything. It made it seem like they were hiding something. I thought the worst.

After yesterday’s demonstration at the Activision booth at E3, I think I changed my mind a little bit. According to Noah Heller, Product Manager at Beachhead Studios, quite a lot of Elite’s functionality is totally free. You can track your career stats, join groups and clans, look at your heat maps, all that stuff, all 100% free. Basically, anything that a computer can do (track your stats, history and connections with other players), all that stuff is free.

So what can you pay for in the premium model, if you opt to do so? The premium model gets you the Modern Warfare 3 DLC (still unannounced), as well as access to special contests in the Compete tier where you can win serious real-world prizes like an iPad 2. Which sounds fine. I’m just pleased to hear that the core of what excited me about Elite–honestly, it’s the “groups” functionality–is totally 100% free. Groups are going to be awesome, by the way. I can’t own the top leaderboards, but maybe—just maybe—I have a chance to be a real threat in the “Marks of the World” group. Or the “Death Metal” group.

Heller showed off many other features we’ve already talked about, but he did drop a couple Modern Warfare 3-integration bombs on us. For instance, with the Elite mobile app, you can arrange custom loadouts, and then “push” them to your actual in-game list of available loadouts. Envision riding the train home from work, and getting a couple custom loadouts ready for when you get home. Even cooler, you can spy on other players’ loadouts if you want, and push them to your account. Very cool stuff, all very free.

So, I’ve lowered my defcon “ripoff” alert level for Elite significantly. I’m still curious about how regularly updated the contests will be, and how exactly the DLC is bundled with Elite (if you buy one month of Elite, do you get just one DLC pack?), but Elite clearly looks like something every Call of Duty fan can and should check out now.

Phil Hornshaw’s Impressions

Like Mark, I’m much more positive on Elite now that more of the features have been detailed. For one, the nebulous discussion of price before sounded shady, but now makes a lot more sense: To hear Heller tell it, Beachhead doesn’t want to roll out a price that’s going to make a lot of sense for everyone. And we’re not going to get the price until the DLC prices and features are fully detailed – so it’ll be interesting to see whether those prices change from the standard $15-a-piece map packs when you buy them a la cart.

For the most part, though, everything cool about Elite is available for free, with the premium tier having a lot more to do with winning things and competing. That’s good news, because it means the social benefits – of which there are a great deal – are going to be open to a wide variety of players.

I’m also excited about the hope expressed by Heller and Puryear that Elite is going to help foster more conversation between players, and thereby more competition. The biggest problem I have with playing Call of Duty online compared to other games is that it lacks a personal connection between players. It’s rare that dropping into a team-based CoD game actually brings a feeling of teamwork – more often, it results in just providing you with lots of targets you’re not supposed to shoot. People rarely, if ever, speak in lobbies or in games, so if you didn’t bring your friends in with you, you’re essentially playing alone. Elite looks poised to at least make an attempt at changing that culture, which could make the game infinitely more fun.

The beta for Elite drops in July, and I’m looking forward to getting in on the ground floor to really mess around with the stats and hopefully see how it changes the experience. There’s still the fundamental need to bring friends into Elite and CoD in order to foster that larger feeling of competition, but there are a great many new options and Beachhead has made what seems to be a really, really big program with lots of angles. Overall, Elite should help make CoD more fun, and more fun is always what we’re looking for.

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