Call Of Duty’s $50 Per Year Subscription Service Heralds An Expensive Future For Gaming

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The world’s largest game franchises have become businesses unto themselves. World of Warcraft supports a huge halo industry of gold farming and grey markets. Farmville and its ilk have turned microtransactions into millions. The teams developing individual games like Assassin’s Creed or Gears of War are larger than many entire companies. So it’s not surprising that the stakes keep getting raised.

Call of Duty is among the most popular games in the world, and although selling millions of copies of the game at $40-60 is a real source of revenue, Activision is hoping that their new Call of Duty Elite service will bring in recurring revenue and rally the fanbase. But will that fanbase accept a yearly $50 fee on top of the game itself?

Part of the Elite services will be available for free, like mobile apps, stat sharing and analysis, and official clan creation. But the paid portion of Elite has just been detailed, and what it implies about the new gaming order is equally exciting and discouraging.

The primary draw will be the new content, in the form of maps, modes, and presumably weapons and character decorations. There will also be daily refereed tournaments with prizes like iPads. Activision described a “nine month DLC season” with around 20 pieces of content — a lot by any standard, and perhaps more than even CoD’s fans are willing to stomach. Many developers are already being accused of selling half the game at launch and doling out the rest over the next year or so, and although the boxed game will likely be enough for many, the emphasis placed on after-purchases is distressing.

So far, so predictable, but the larger implications are more interesting. Valve has talked about “games as services,” but their idea of DLC is slightly less money-grubbing than Activisions. The Team Fortress 2 community and the dozens of add-ons they’ve done aren’t an example everyone can follow, but you’re unlikely to find a more satisfied gaming community in the world. This idea of Activision’s puts CoD practically in the territory of Second Life or alternate reality games than anything else. People are already very serious about their “careers” in online games, but the social integration we’re seeing (like Battlefield 3′s Battlelog, above), the increased level of integration with other platforms, and the huge increase in money involved make this next generation of “big” games pretty serious business.

It’s a bit like TV adding premium channels like Showtime and HBO back in the day. You kind of have to commit to it, and the community created is parallel to the more mundane one surrounding networks, but far more dedicated. But there can only be so many Showtimes, especially if the currency in trade is time. Someone with money can afford to purchase all the premium channels, but with Call of Duty, WoW, Halo, and so on all expanding to become entire worlds to live in, a gamer can only do so much. This trend will continue, because there’s a hell of a lot of money in it.

Will we stop seeing “traditional” games that just sell for $50 and then that’s it? Something has to give when companies like Valve and Activision can afford to provide more for the money (though they may extract more from you later). The rise of inexpensive downloadable games on XBLA and PSN seems to offer a middle path. I’d expect way more titles between $5 and $20, hits like Braid and Bastion that don’t attempt to build a platform, just tell a story and have some fun. In the meantime, you’ll be paying more and more for the premium experience of the big dog franchises.

Is it a pro for gamers? Once the pricing and exclusivity hiccups work themselves out, I think so. People really enjoy these deep gaming experiences, and while I don’t share their need to, say, publicize my achievements, I can certainly see the draw. Clearly Activision does too, and they also see opportunity. Let’s hope the transition isn’t too rough. The generation that grew up with cartridges and arcades might have to give way. It had to happen some time.