It was always going to happen, and now it has. The nature of a corporation is never to sit still and be content with its lot - it's to forever look to ways to make more money from what it has. (If RPS had a scrap of sense, we'd have launched a couple of spin-offs by now, but a corporation we are not). Activision was never going to let the world’s biggest gaming franchise stay the same size - its duty to its shareholders, and to a far less extent to its employees, is to make its IP as profitable as possible. With several of its divisions and titles recently axed and even WoW subscriptions in decline (by an apparently tiny 5%, but the difference between revenues increasing and revenues decreasing is a fundamental one for shareholder confidence), the publisher is almost required to milk a little more out of its remaining cashcows. On the one hand, you can’t blame them for introducing Call of Duty: Elite, a premium subscription service (though its basic features are free) which adds various community and content goodies to its shooter series’ frighteningly popular multiplayer mode.
On the other hand, it’s hard to not to feel a little dirty about Elite, isn't it?
Call of Duty already isn’t a million miles from being a subscription game, at least in terms of multiplayer - every November you cough up another $60 for a few new weapons, features, maps and a ridiculously overblown but relatively brief and heavily scripted singleplayer experience, but essentially continue having the same experience year after year. (That’s before you factor in the Xbox Live sub, if that’s your preferred platform for the game). If the Elite fee is to be, as hinted, around $8, that means you’ll be spending some $156 a year on Call of Duty if you want the complete package, to ensure you’re getting all the Call of Duty there is, and keeping up with whatever Joneses most matter to you. This is, clearly, quite a lot of money. You could buy around five other new release, big name games for the same sum, but clearly that’s exactly what Activision wants to dissuade you from doing. Give all your money to CoD. Give yourself to CoD. Play only CoD. There are no other games. Nothing else matters. Shoot the men. Shoot all the men. Shoot them all the time.
What remains to be seen is whether the service gives out enough on top of the free elements to make enough people pay. Given recent CODs have sold tens of millions of copies, only a very small percentage of players need fork out for Elite for it to bring in an eyewatering amount of cash, so at a total blind guess I imagine Activision aren’t going to push the boat out all that far. With a userbase that huge, they don’t need this to be an immense success - they only need it to be a small success. Today's web-wide calls of “there’s no way I’m going to pay for this” may well not be bothering anyone in the slightest. Moreover, the promise that the subscription will include all the paid DLC as part and and parcel will probably have more than a few people convinced that it’s worthwhile for that only. They may even think it’s the only way to definitely get all the DLC; indeed, that may yet prove to be the case.
The social element is perhaps a little more bewildering on the surface it, in that Xbox Live, PSN and especially Steam already handle a lot of it already, and well enough. But again, this isn’t aimed at gamers in general - it’s aimed at Call of Duty gamers, for whom this game/series is a foundation of their leisure time. You may sneer, but there are plenty of folk out there who're probably going to appreciate being given ways to weave it all the more into their daily affairs.
It’s a global obsession, the new football, and brings all the strange passion and stats and chest-thumping and grudge-matches that entails. Of course people are going to go for Elite, and it’s very probably going to be an extremely well put-together service. Those of us who find the concept unsavoury can only be King Canute (pre-punchline Canute, anyway). But when CoD’s already a game we find we need to buy new versions of annually if we don’t want to be left behind by our friends and online rivals, Activision making Elite entirely free would help support that yearly investment, perhaps go some way to defeating the concern that the franchise and its fanbase are simply being milked.
At the same time, I can’t go all the way into hating Elite. Sure, it’s clearly about making money and it hooks into a lot of the stuff I find distasteful about certain aspects of modern gaming - Achievement culture, bragging, unlocks and other ephemeral rewards with built-in obsolescence - but it is also trying to give more context and satisfaction to what are otherwise rinse and repeat online man-shoots. I bristle at the sense it’s an attempt to supplant ‘gaming’ with ‘Call of Duty’ but at least it’s something a little more purposeful and ambitious than simply and cheerlessly supplanting Call of Duty 2010 with Call of Duty 2011 with Call of Duty 2012 and so on. Elite is troubling on tons of levels, most especially because of the track record of its owner (e.g. $15 map packs, the closure of multiple developers earlier this year) and because it's so brazenly about wringing yet more cash out of us, but maybe, just maybe it won’t be as despicable and cynical in practice as it sounds.
So here’s a discussion point to end on: if this was done for something that generally attracts more respect amongst the RPS community, such as Stalker, The Witcher or Minecraft, how would we feel about it then? A flat fee to get any and all DLC, to form groups and share creations? Is it the mere concept of such a service that leaves a bad taste in the mouth, or is it that it’s Call of Duty and Activision, which are so often treated as easy go-to names for Everything That’s Wrong With Gaming? Either way, we may hate Elite and what it says about the modern games industry and audience to the pits of our very souls, but let's not kid ourselves that any other major publisher wouldn't kill to be in a position to do something similar.
A beta version of Call of Duty Elite launches for Black Ops later this Summer. You can request to be on said beta here.