Pay-to-play coming to Call of Duty

The Wall Street Journal reports:

Consumers are used to paying $60 each for videogames that run on consoles like the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360. Now the publisher behind the industry’s biggest videogame franchise—”Call of Duty”—is about to find out whether it can get them to pay a monthly bill, too.

Activision Blizzard Inc. plans to launch an online service called Call of Duty Elite this fall that will work with the next major edition of the game, “Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3,” and future installments of the hyper-realistic combat-simulation game. In a move industry executives describe as a first, Activision plans to charge a monthly subscription fee for the service, which will provide extra content that isn’t offered on game discs sold in stores, including downloadable map packs that give players new “Call of Duty” levels to play.

An Activision official added that multiplayer would continue to be free (with the purchase of the game, of course):

COD Elite will be free to all COD players – paid aspects TBD, and as promised, no charge for MP. Many more details in the AM.

It’s not hard to see why they would want to do this. There’s a lot of money in those monthly fees. It’s much harder to see what service they could offer that would be paying for. They would need to offer an ongoing service, like an MMO. (Even World of Warcraft, the most successful MMO, is a rip-off in my opinion. For a monthly fee they need to offer five-nines availability (or at least four-nines) and regular new content, and they are nowhere close to either.)

I can’t see paying a regular fee for occasional new content. Besides which, there’s no evidence that they can deliver good new content on a regular basis — the single-player content has been crappy in every COD game other than COD4.

I can’t see paying for multiplayer as it exists now. Currently, multiplayer games are run on individual consoles that communicate amongst themselves, with matchmaking done over Microsoft’s Xbox Live service. There’s no role there for them to play to justify a fee.

Electronic Arts has deliberately put themselves in the middle of the multiplayer experience by requiring that gamers play on their servers, but the way they’ve done it doesn’t actually provide any benefit to the gamer. Plus, it leaves gamers hostage to EA servers that go down. That’s not a model for a successful pay service.

The one thing I could see paying for is lag-free games. If they could offer that, I would consider paying for it. But they would need to provide five-nines availability and the same flexibility we have now. I doubt they can do it. Moreover, from the description it doesn’t sound like that’s what they are talking about.

UPDATE: This makes it sound as though Call of Duty Elite is something like a stats-tracking service. That strikes me as strange; I can’t see people paying more than a pittance for such a thing.

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