Do you need a new social network in your life? Activision thinks you do. It's betting so hard on it, in fact, that it's set up an entire developer, Beachhead Studios, just to create and maintain one – or something that certainly looks like one, anyway. It's aimed at the millions of people out there who play Call of Duty multiplayer.
And, yes, that's millions. 20 million people play Call of Duty online every week, and seven million – eek! – fire a game up every day, apparently. It's almost as big as Farmville. There have been rumours floating around for years that these figures are just so temptingly gigantic that Activision will simply have to dive in at some point and start charging a monthly fee for anyone wanting to get in on the action. That hasn't happened, though, and at a recent Call of Duty press event, the publisher actually reiterated its commitment to offering free multiplayer. Then, it announced Call of Duty Elite, and that's where the whole social network thing comes in.
Call of Duty Elite has been created to organise and enhance your multiplayer COD fun. It offers players a single profile that will store all of their Call of Duty stats, and that profile will evolve with each new game Activision releases. Part of Elite will be premium content and will presumably require a subscription, but everybody will get access to at least some of the platform for free. If you really like online warfare, it's an interesting prospect.
Activision's approached the service with a multi-screen strategy, offering iterations of Elite across the internet, mobile apps, and within the COD games themselves. Each access point will serve up the content most suited to it – the iPhone app, for example, looks likely to foreground friends lists, comments and programme guides – but the PC seems to be where the most complete version of the service hangs out. Elite will launch with support for Black Ops and Modern Warfare 3, and it's the Black Ops content, running on a laptop, that the publisher's currently showing off.
Elite on PC has a stylish, Steam-influenced kind of visual design to it. Log in and you'll find yourself looking at a plain black backdrop with most of your available content broken down into four tabs running down the side of each page: Career, Connect, Compete, and Improve.
Career is where most of the really interesting stuff is, offering something called an Elite Summary - which kicks off with a Twitter-type status box and a feed from acquaintances, before leading you through updates on friends, tracked players, and playlist schedules - and your Player Card. Your Player Card seems to be the heart of Elite. It's a career summary that's tailored for each game, and the Black Ops Player Card we're shown starts by displaying overall stats, then drops down into an overview of recent matches, your custom classes and personal bests, and finally provides a space to collate things like screenshots. You can compare your own data with friends and rivals at any stage, and the stat-love goes dizzyingly deep, offering stuff you'd expect – such as winning percentages, XP earnings and kill/death ratios - and stuff you might not, like nifty little heat maps for each match, complete with a timeline that allows you to see where you were and who you were killing at every moment in any of your last ten online games. You can even see recent performances rendered as graphs. Graphs! I'd like a copy on my desk by Monday, please. And a mocha. Make that a white mocha.
Connect is a lot more straightforward, but also hints at something of a departure for the series. With Elite you'll be able to form groups: not necessarily of players you want to get matched with or against, but of players you have common real-world interests with. In-game photographers can have a group. Head shot specialists can have a group. Fans of Moonlighting, the pioneering mid '80s dramedy that introduced Bruce Willis to the world, can have a group, and one that I'll certainly be joining. It's a bit like the groups you get on websites like Flickr, basically, although hopefully with fewer pictures of sleeping kittens. Beyond that, Connect is also home to a Theatre feature. It curates the best user-generated content, such as pictures and YouTube videos, and also allows you to skim through the most-viewed, and most-liked uploads, as well as anything you're tagged in. Again, sleeping kittens will probably not be present.
Compete, meanwhile, offers a programme guide. It's in the form of a calendar, running along the top of the page, and it's filled with events you can sign up to, from death match tournaments to screenshot contests. Events will be updated regularly, and Activision's promising real world prizes on occasion, citing the real world prize du jour, the iPad.
After that, you're left with the Improve tab, which is basically an interactive encyclopaedia of all things COD: expect top-down views of all the maps, with objective locations and other game-specific info marked, alongside tips and summaries for each weapon in the game, each attachment, each perk, each kill-streak, and each game mode. Every item you look at allows you to call up your own personal statistics relating to it, and it's surprisingly addictive stuff.
That's Elite as it will support Black Ops, then. For Modern Warfare 3, Activision's planning on rolling out a lot more features: clan support to sit alongside groups, for example – it's weird they'd hold that particular element back - and a program guide that goes beyond individual players and caters for groups, clans, and leagues. The Improve section, meanwhile, will apparently allow you to connect to the "collective intelligence of the community" – you're going to learn a lot about what Your Mom's been up to, I'll be bound – in as yet unspecified ways. Will you be able to ask the best players questions? Will there be Parky style interviews? Will somebody get called a "n00b"? Nobody's letting on at the moment.
How much will you pay for this? For quite a bit of the content, you'll pay nothing, by the looks of it: a lot of the career information and the whole membership of groups business were both cited as things that will be free to all, while a Premium membership will not only get you an advanced range of Elite features, but will also allow you to access all DLC – and all future DLC - at no extra cost (it's still being offered for purchase a la carte, of course). I asked Jamie Berger, Call of Duty's vice president of digital, what will happen to that free DLC you've been using if you decide to cancel your premium membership, and he said, "We'll tell you more about that later, but I think we'll have a lot of good news for people." That sounds positive, but good news always does.
Pricing has yet to be announced, but Activision has stated that, "when it launches, Elite will be less than any comparable in-game service out there right now." It's also been stressed that Premium memberships will feed back into the running of the live Elite operation, funding the development of new features and the 24/7 service team. Beyond that, they will probably purchase a few new crystal skulls for Bobby Kotick to drink Vimto from, so we'll all be winners.
That's Elite, then: stats, tips, groups, and community stuff. It will be interesting to see where Activision places its pay wall, and whether it ends up dividing a community into haves and have-nots, but for the time being, it's looking like a thoughtful - and fairly restrained – approach to the inevitable business of further online monetisation.