A video game company wants to turn virtual war into our next national pastime

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Brian Crecente

Baseball, hockey, football … “Call of Duty”?

If
the people behind “Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3” have their way, the
next big sport people around the world will be obsessing over will
involve virtual soldiers killing each other in perpetual warfare.

With
more than 25 million copies of its last “Call of Duty” game sold,
Activision has the best chance at making that leap from pop culture
phenomenon to cultural phenomenon.

The first step
toward potential cultural dominance lies in the obsessive nature of stat
tracking that has its roots in fantasy sports.

While
this year’s “Call of Duty” returns to the Modern Warfare plot-line that
first heralded the series’ jump to annual mega hit, the developers
behind the game are betting that “Modern Warfare 3’s” biggest innovation
will come from Elite.

“’Elite’ is ‘Call of
Duty’s’ new social and competitive platform,” explains Chacko Sonny,
studio head at Elite developer Beachhead Studios. “’Call of Duty’ has
one of the largest and most passionate communities out there — ‘Elite’
is our chance to build something special for them. Our goal is to create
a service that is integrated with the game and extends the experience
into our daily lives. ‘Elite’ enhances your ‘Call of Duty’ experience
and that can mean a lot of different things with such a large and
diverse fan base.”

That life-integrating,
gameplay-enhancing service comes in both a free and $50-a-year premium
package. Both allow players to track every move they make on a map, the
weapons they use and their efficiency using them. The service also
allows players to find other people to game with and compete in a myriad
of competitions both for fun and fame and prizes. Premium members also
get access to a year’s worth of new downloadable content, strategy
guides and episodic video shows.

The idea is to
make people obsess over their gameplay, sort of like how some sports
fans obsess over their favorite teams. The difference here, though, is
that the stats you’ll be tracking are your own.

“Our
mission at Beachhead Studio is to push beyond the boundaries of the
traditional game experience,” Sonny said. “We want our friends planning
tonight’s match on ‘Elite’ when they are supposed to be at work. We want
new players to have a chance to learn a bit before they get smoked in
team death match. We want our hardcore fans exhausted, reviewing that
last heat map before they go to bed. Our focus is on bringing ‘Call of
Duty’ into your daily life and that feels pretty innovative.”

The
idea is driven by a notion that multiplayer gaming, once the bastion
for hardcore gamers, is increasingly becoming the norm for all gamers.

“Multiplayer
has exploded and everyone is starting to understand why — it is
rewarding to compete online and fun to team up with your good friends to
do it,” Sonny said.

But new players walking into a
match of “Call of Duty,” or any online game, often face opponents with a
much higher degree of experience and skill. “Elite” is meant to help
level that playing field.

“One third of our mantra
is ‘Improve’ — and we’re fond of saying that there’s no manual for
multiplayer,” Sonny said. “We wanted to give even the most casual fans a
place to get started and step up their game by looking at maps, trying
suggested loadouts, or visualizing their performance.”

“Elite”
also allows players to filter their view of the experience in ways that
are more relevant to them. For instance, leaderboards, which show how
well a player is doing worldwide, can now be fine-tuned for a player.

“Our
hunch is that the average guy doesn’t care if he’s ranked 1,000 or
100,000,” said Noah Heller, product director at Beachhead Studios. “But
we think he’ll care about whether he’s ranked first among his friends or
enemies. We try to apply this principle to a lot of our features — what
do our most passionate fans like and how do we make it more appealing
to everyone?”

“Call
of Duty” isn’t the first game, or even shooter, to create a service
that tracks a player’s stats. “Halo Reach” and “Battlefield 3,” to name
two, both have robust stat tracking services. But Jamie Berger, vice
president of Call of Duty Digital, says that “Call of Duty: Elite” is
different.

“We had a singular focus on building
something truly unique and tailored to the ‘Call of Duty’ players,”
Berger said. “For inspiration, we actually spent more time benchmarking
thought leaders in completely different markets, such as financial
services, dating services, fantasy sports, and social networking than
traditional gaming services.”

That resulted in
some odd inclusions, like Elite TV. Elite TV, only available to paying
members, will deliver episodic video content created by Hollywood talent
like Will Arnett, Jason Bateman, and Tony and Ridley Scott. Bateman and
Arnett will deliver smack-talking “Noob Toob,” while the Scotts will
bring “Friday Night Fights” to Elite TV.

“We like
to use the analogy of sports when we talk about ‘Call of Duty Elite,’”
Berger said. “If you love football, sometimes you want to play football
with your friends, or study your Fantasy Football team, watch a game on
TV, or sometimes be entertained by Sports Center talking about football.
Elite TV behaves the same way, where you may just want to be
entertained when you can’t actually get in front of your console. It’s a
great experiment in expanding the idea of a gaming service.”

Activision
knows not everything it’s trying now will survive “Elite’s” continuing
evolution. Already the team has lined up new content, like Clan
competitions, and new ways for players to challenge their in-game
enemies. Other changes are destined for “Elite” as well, once it goes
live.

“’Call of Duty Elite’ has given us the
opportunity to try a lot of new things, especially ways to emphasize the
competitive and social elements of online shooters,” Sonny said. “Our
focus is to bring new ideas to the table. Could Leagues work in ‘Call of
Duty’? Is it interesting to compete with only sniper rifles or stabs to
the back?”

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Brian
Crecente is managing editor of Kotaku.com, a video-game website owned by
Gawker Media. Join in the discussion at kotaku.com/tag/well-played.

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%uFFFD 2011, Kotaku.com (Gawker Media).

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