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Activision admits to bungled Call of Duty Elite launch

DICE 2012: "It's far from time for us to be doing any victory laps," despite high adoption of service, says CEO

Activision has admitted that the launch of social service Call of Duty Elite was bungled, and despite the high uptake amongst players, the company isn't yet celebrating success of the 7 million strong network.

Speaking at the 2012 D.I.C.E. Summit in Las Vegas, CEO Eric Hirshberg said even before the service was announced, internally there were doubts at Activision about how to launch such a technically ambitious service.

"I hesitate to talk about Elite, because even though we've had some early success with the numbers, it's far from time for us to be doing any victory laps on Elite," he said.

When Elite launched last year it struggled to cope with demand, with users experiencing lag and even being unable to log in. Activision's communication at the time was poor, only keeping players up to date with minimal community interaction.

If we only talk about the things that go as planned then we miss some of the most valuable dialogue that can come out of this.

Eric Hirshberg, Activision

"We had some technological stumbles at launch and that frustrated some of our fans. We're still making that right. But if we only talk about the things that go as planned then we miss some of the most valuable dialogue that can come out of this," he added.

The thinking behind the service was simple, said Hirshberg: "There's this massive community of people, all passionate about the same thing, with remarkably few ways to communicate and interact with one another. Overlay that with social network and connecting over digital spaces with the things we're passionate about is the zeitgeist trend in our culture. We wanted to create a way of unlocking Call of Duty's community as a real network."

The biggest problem Elite faced was convincing the community that it would be a service worth paying for, when Call of Duty players had already been playing the series online for free for so long.

"There was only one problem, we wanted to do a beta. None of the features were going to demonstrable in the beta because they were all tied into the code of Modern Warfare 3 and the beta was going to be Black Ops multiplayer.

"With the launching of Elite we had a marketing Sophie's Choice," he said. "Do we do the beta, which is the right thing to do from a development standpoint, or do we make the best possible first impression, which was probably the right thing to do from the marketing standpoint."

"We chose to tell people right out of the gate that while the vast majority of features would be free, there would be a premium membership. A lot people thought we should have waited and show people what they get for the premium membership before talking about its existence. But we knew this question about whether it would be free would immediately be asked. We'd be put on the spot. We chose to be transparent and tell people our intentions from the beginning. The words 'Call of Duty' plus the word 'subscription' equals 'unleash blogger hell'," he recalled.

Backlash was strong and inevitable, and for Hirshberg "that was the most painful summer of Google Alerts I've ever lived through."

As the company planned community event Call of Duty XP at which it would detail clear pricing strategies for Elite, it was nervous of more negative feedback, but knew, "if we could get the worlds attention we would have one shot to show of the full features set of Call of Duty Elite and everything you get as part of membership."

Response was positive, and Call of Duty Elite now boasts over 7 million subscribers, with 1.5 million paying a monthly fee.

"Both Elite and XP were both experiments in how willing people are to enter a relationship, to treat it more like a brand or a lifestyle. Like I said, we're a long way from doing victory laps but we're in it for the long haul. We made it for the right reasons and believe its' right for a players and if we get it right we can change the relationship, make the game better and more fun for players."

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Matt Martin


Matt Martin joined GamesIndustry in 2006 and was made editor of the site in 2008. With over ten years experience in journalism, he has written for multiple trade, consumer, contract and business-to-business publications in the games, retail and technology sectors.