- "Call of Duty" franchise is launching a special service alongside new game
- "Call of Duty Elite" will have a free stat-tracking component and a paid service
- "Modern Warfare 3" hits stores Tuesday and is expected to be another big hit
The "Call of Duty" franchise is a perennial blockbuster, with more than 65 million units sold so far in the United States and hordes of fans lining up each fall to buy the latest installment of the war-simulation video game.
Now, Activision Publishing will find out whether fans who are accustomed to dropping $60 on a new "CoD" game each year will also cough up an extra $50 to keep their game content fresh.
The much-hyped "Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3" is set to arrive in stores on Tuesday. As usual, players get inside the helmets of soldiers -- in this case, fighting a near-futuristic global war against Russian forces who have invaded multiple countries, including the United States.
The storyline, with battles in London, New York and Paris, is a continuation of its 2009 predecessor.
But "Modern Warfare 3" will be the first game in the series to launch with a new member service called "Call of Duty Elite."
Players will be able to sign up for a free social network that encapsulates the new game, last year's "Black Ops" and future "Call of Duty" games. They'll be able to create a profile that extensively tracks gameplay statistics for multiple "CoD" games across the various console platforms for which they're available.
Stat systems are typically maintained by console developers, like Microsoft and Sony, which means Xbox 360 gamers cannot rank themselves against PlayStation 3 players. The Elite service bridges that gap, although gamers still will not be able to play against someone using a different type of console.
Elite users will also be able to share videos or screen shots captured within the game and download "Call of Duty" stat-tracking applications to their smartphones or tablets. Microsoft and Bungie maintain a similar dedicated service for "Halo."
Despite competition this fall from fellow first-person shooter game "Battlefield 3," which sold 5 million units in its first week, Activision is confident the "Call of Duty" franchise has enough muscle to persuade customers to spend the $50 per year for premium services.
"'Call of Duty' is a franchise that's grown every year of its existence," Activision Publishing CEO Eric Hirshberg said in a recent interview. "I think that we are finding that people have a very healthy appetite for content."
Subscribers will be served a new piece of content they can download each month and use to participate in competitions. The content will include new maps and gameplay modes.
"The things that we're charging for are things that we really wouldn't be able to provide if we didn't," Hirshberg said. "It's not modeled after anything. It's kind of a new entry into the model here."
Activision has been working on the Elite service, which was previously called Project Beachhead, for two years, Hirshberg has said. The company formed a division called Beachhead Studio to maintain its development. "Black Ops" players were able to beta test Elite until mid-October, when Activision shut down parts of the service in advance of "Modern Warfare 3's" debut.
Subscription gaming has proliferated in a genre called massively multiplayer online role-playing games (MMO, or MMOG), the most prominent being "World of Warcraft." That game happens to be owned by Activision's Blizzard arm, allowing the Beachhead team to learn from the pros.
"There are a lot of big brains that we picked down at Blizzard," Hirshberg said. "They've done this kind of relationship with consumers, with gamers, very well, probably better than anybody."
Sony has tried to marry the first-person shooter genre with vast online worlds in a game called "PlanetSide." It wasn't a hit, but the company announced a sequel this summer. Activision believes it has found a sweet spot that won't muck with the "Call of Duty" formula but will still spur gamers to open their wallets.
"Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3" will be available Tuesday for PCs and the PlayStation3, Xbox 360 and Wii consoles. The game retails for $60 and is rated Mature, meaning it contains content suitable for people ages 17 and older.