Call of Duty: Elite has been running for about four months now, with an active base of seven million users. This week I met with Noah Heller, product director at Beachhead Studios, and Mark Cox, European marketing director for Call of Duty digital products, to chat about Elite on PC, next-gen support, and the difficulties of "drinking from the firehose".
Q: Elite is the first service of its kind, certainly on this kind of scale. Call of Duty is now almost more like a service than a game. Is that how you think of it?
Noah Heller: Part of what we're trying to do with Elite is really justify the fact that people stick around with the game for so long. People are playing Call of Duty up to a year or longer after the game releases, and we kind of owe it to them to provide that content. I think the interesting thing is every time we release a Call of Duty game, it's new. It's a new way to play the game, it's a bunch of new things to learn. And Elite is almost that golden thread, running through different years of Call of Duty titles.
Mark Cox: Yeah, it's the connective tissue that brings everything together. Elite becomes the foundation for everything moving forward for Call of Duty - for the next new game, whenever it comes out this year, and anything else that pops up in the universe, if we feel it's relevant we can pull it in to the Elite service. Once you're a member and you're using it, you'd want to see a number of elements in here if the universe expanded elsewhere. So it's really the one-stop shop for everyone who's part of that universe.
Q: So Elite will be the base platform for whatever else happens with Call of Duty?
NH: Elite is the social and multiplayer universe for Call of Duty, for our gamers. And that can be little stuff or big stuff, but it's important for us to continue to listen to the community and find out what they want.
MC: We've got seven million people that are signed up, free members that are part of Elite - so that's a very large base of people that are using the service on a daily basis. We've got 1.5 million paid members, and that was at our last earnings call, which was a good couple of months ago - so there's still growth to be reported later. But ultimately we've got people interacting with this on a very large base on a daily basis, whether it's via mobile, console, or the web site. It's become part of their overall social experience of the game. So the game has just extended, it's become a daily part of my routine. I'm checking the latest stats on the site, going into the heatmaps, then going onto Facebook and seeing my friends talking about it. It's definitely changing the social dimension.
Q: What are the plans for supporting Modern Warfare 3 beyond this year? Do you have plans to still roll out content for Modern Warfare 3 after the next game is up?
NH: We practice what we preach. We have support for Black Ops there on the site. We did our beta in Black Ops, and we'll continue to keep all these features alive. Recently we even did a few Operations in Black Ops, because Black Ops still has a sizeable player base. While the focus of the company is always going to be on the recent game, we want to make sure Elite is a big tent that can fit all these different communities. So I think you'll find that we always support them to the extent that we can. One thing that sometimes is a little challenging is going back and reverse-engineering the old games so that they work in Elite. We've had a lot of requests to do that from our different community members, and while it's not a priority right now, it's something I think we'll do eventually.
Q: So do you think you might run Operations for Modern Warfare 3, come next year?
NH: If you take our experience on Black Ops, I think we might. I don't want to say definitively because there are a lot of people that go into that decision, but one of the reasons why we decided to run Operations for Black Ops is because the fans asked for it. So I'd say if the fans are asking for Modern Warfare 3, we'll definitely give it to them.
Q: What have been the main obstacles in getting Elite to where you want it to be, and what have you learned from them?
NH: I'd say the toughest obstacle is listening to our community. We have a metaphor for it internally, we say it's like drinking from the firehose. There's so much feedback and it's so vocal that it's sometimes hard to understand what's a priority. But you know, some themes bubble to the top. First and foremost is, make sure the service is up and stable and secure. Second is, make sure that those of us that are gathering the community together - the key influencers in the community - have the tools they need to rally the troops.
Even the clan uniforms thing is a piece of that. The clans wanted more ways to identify their teams, and so they got them. Clan Operations was something we rolled out in February because we needed to make sure it was rock solid. The Community told us, 'We're not your beta testers, we paid for this service'. So we said, OK, we're going to make sure we get it right. That's been the biggest theme I can pick out of that large grouping.
Now, there are some guys who were like, 'Give us Spec Ops leaderboards!' And so we did, because we felt we could squeeze in that time and that work. There are some guys who want Zombies leaderboards for Black Ops, and that's not something that's as high a focus for us - because the community isn't shouting and screaming as much. If your readers take one thing away from this explanation, it should be that Elite is about having a direct dialogue with the community, and if they ask for it we'll do our best to deliver it.
Q: Given your firehose analogy, I guess you have to be slightly selective...
NH: If they turn down the profanity a little bit, we're more likely to listen. That's a life lesson for all of us!
Q: The Xbox 360 and PS3 weren't originally designed with services like Elite in mind. Do you think that the next generation of consoles will be built with more of an idea towards supporting this kind of venture?
NH: I'd get in a tonne of trouble if I actually talked about the next generation of consoles, due to NDA issues. But I will tell you that we're entering a world where connectivity is the primary focus. When the 360 launched, probably a lot more people played single-player Call of Duty than multiplayer, and now it's completely the reverse. And so our focus for Elite is deeper integration, a tight experience between the game and Elite itself. And that will echo into future generations of Call of Duty.
Q: Obviously I know you can't talk about new consoles, but perhaps a safer way to phrase it would be this: Do you think there's a greater level of awareness for services like these among hardware-makers?
MC: Well, I don't think it's necessarily just the hardware-makers - it's software as well. I think that publishers, developers, they understand if you look to the likes of WoW or any MMORPG or even now with Elite, the future model is to have social [features] and have it all combined - not necessarily into a single platform, but like I said before, it's the connective tissue that pulls everything together. You'd be foolish to turn a blind eye to it, and you can see every large service provider is going that way - not just in the games industry.
NH: If you think back to playing Call of Duty, your first multiplayer you go in there, you have fun, it's different and it's always changing - and that's probably what hooks you on multiplayer the first time. But after some amount of time you get in there and there's team talking. Someone says, 'Go take B, I'll take B!' and you go there at the same time as him. Your eyes are kind of opened that there's a larger world out there, there's a world of social play. And then the natural extension is to make those relationships persistent with Elite. I have to think that everyone's thinking about that these days.
Q: One final question: what are the plans with regards to PC support for Elite?
NH: Unfortunately I don't have anything to announce today. We're still working on it, it's a challenging problem. We need to ship a quality product for that community, we can't turn around and give them something that doesn't feel right. And so while I can't really tell you anything today, I'll tell you we're still looking at how best to get it done, we're still working on it, and we're still waiting to announce it.
Q: So the message is sit tight, basically?
NH: I'm sorry, I know that's challenging to hear for a PC audience. But they should know that we don't want to treat them like a second-class citizen. It's the true answer, and when I talked about drinking from the fire hose... PC fans are very vocal. And they should keep that up!