Activision has a bit of a problem on its hands with Call of Duty Elite. The ambitious stat-tracker/social network built for Call of Duty fans hasn't had exactly had the best launch since it arrived last week alongside Modern Warfare 3. Despite the lengthy summer/fall beta test that Beachhead Studios put the service through it just couldn't handle the incoming traffic of a launch day Call of Duty crowd.
"It was our fault that the service wasn't up and running the day [fans] put in their token or the day they bought it," Activision's Daniel Suarez, VP of production told me. With the worst of the launch nightmare seemingly behind them, Beachead's goal now is to have everything up and running by or before the 30-day mark, since that's the length of the complimentary service extension premium subscribers received as a "make good" gift for the launch week shortfall.
"They kind of have to bear with us while we bring this all back up, but for us it's literally 'Give us those couple weeks, we're giving those to you for free and come December 1 the goal is that we'll have everything up and running.'"
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When I spoke with Suarez last week, Beachhead was just getting a handle on the registration mess and moving into the core Elite functionality. We chatted again in a follow-up late Wednesday, and those initial troubles at least are squarely in the rearview now.
"We were in a pretty bad place," he said of the launch week fiasco. "I think we had less than 10 percent of the players actually accessing the service, and you were seeing various different types of errors on the console and PC. We didn't have [Elite-related] double XP or the Founders entitlements working."
If you've been surprised to see such a troubled launch after Beachhead held a months-long beta to test out the service, you're not alone. I asked Suarez how this kind of breakdown could possibly have occurred when so much advance prep work was supposed to have been done. Much of it has to do with the sheer number of people who signed in on day one and the strain that it placed on the servers, but Suarez also admits that there was a miscalculation on the development side.
"The service is run on a couple of different key pieces, and one of those pieces is, for lack of a better term, a couple of key databases that handle all of the data that's being served up from both the console app and the web service," he explained.
"Now when we ran our beta, [it] was strictly on the PC, and a lot of our assumptions were based around [the idea] that a larger majority of users were going to use the PC [interface] since it's a more robust version of the service than the console app. Some of that may have been incorrectly analyzed, because we're seeing 80 to 90 percent of our users coming straight from the console app."
"So the way we've had to balance out the way that's feeding the community is different," he continued. "Right now we're retrofitting that so that that works better across the board rather than the way it was set up."
Things have changed dramatically since last week, as anyone who's been watching Elite on a day-to-day basis can see. The web service and console app are both working reasonably well now, though they're still not nearly at 100 percent. It turns out that Beachhead has taken some inventive steps to cut down on traffic as stress tests are run and fixes are implemented on the various features that the service offers.
"We've basically been prioritizing premium subscribers first and then letting in free users as we have bandwidth and scalability available to us," Suarez said. "As we look at going into next week, our goal is to reduce the amount of people we have throttled, or prioritized, and open it up to everybody, and just keep everything as stable as possible."
Even with the technical issues, Beachhead is still seeing Elite growth. Clan functionality came online this week, and Suarez tells me that 22,000 were registered within the first 12 hours. Next week we'll see some new competitions launching and the premiere of the premium-only Elite TV program Friday Night Fights, on November 25.
"Beyond that is really the mobile thing, which we're looking at launching at the end of November," Suarez added. "We've got a tiered approach over the next two weeks to bring everything back online, so to speak, but it's been a challenge.This is not the experience we wanted our fans to have on Call of Duty, and I think we are making at least visible progress from where we were last week."
Suarez added that there are no plans right now for any additional "make good" gestures. "I think we're just going to take those things as they come," he said. "Look: we're building a community and by the sheer size of it right now, there's a lot of people that have now become members of Elite, whether premium or free. We're going to want to keep this community happy. Right now it's really [about] getting the service up and running."
There's no update yet on how Modern Warfare 3's downloadable content, which premium subscribers will have early access to, will start to emerge in the midst of all of this. Suarez has nothing to report yet, but he expects that we'll hear something soon. "We haven't announced, I don't think, any dates specific to MW3 DLC. I'm assuming that that messaging will be coming at some point in the very near future."
The last major piece of this puzzle is the PC component of the service, which was at the center of some controversy earlier this week when an Activision FAQ indicated and indefinite suspension of Elite's launch on PC. A subsequent update from the publisher confirmed that the FAQ was incorrect, but I asked Suarez to clarify.
"It was a mistake," he said. "Our goal is to get something on the PC. We haven't set timing yet, but our goal is to do that." There are some issues inherent to the PC as an open platform, versus the closed console platforms.
"On the PC, that's an open platform [which is] more prone to cheats and hacks," Suarez explained. "We're trying to prevent them as much as possible, but that platform isn't as secure. As we're doing competitions and more things specific to stats and generating those stats and creating leaderboards for people, we don't want to create a situation where the service itself becomes invalidated by people having crazy stats because they've been able to do something to the game."
There's no plan in place yet for beating the hackers. Beachhead is working closely with Infinity Ward and Sledgehammer Games on the problem. Suarez suggests a number of possible solutions that could be considered, but he makes it clear that it's all speculation at this point; nothing is set in stone.
"We can limit operations, we can limit the types of stats that are there," he said. "There's stuff we're working on that will allow [security protections] to work better. We haven't outlined what the details of that are, but it's something that's important to us. Our PC fans are important to us. There's a lot of PC players playing MW3 and Call of Duty. We're not saying we're not going to do it; we're going to do it."
Suarez also wants to make another thing clear to those who might not be aware: PC players haven't even been given the option of purchasing an Elite subscription yet. "Literally, the Premium subscription is available only on PSN and only on Xbox 360. We did not sell a version of a subscription on the PC."
For now, the repair process continues into weekend number two. From the sound of things, December 1 is a cutoff point for Elite, a deadline by which Beachhead hopes to see full functionality for the service on the console side. The mobile app should arrive before the end of the year, if not later this month, and the PC service is still in the works.
Will Elite be fully functional by December 1? That remains to be seen. Activision has undeniably made a few missteps as this affair has unfolded. I'll say this though: it's encouraging to sit down with an executive for an interview and hear those mistakes being owned. It won't count for much if the service continues to struggle, but the pace that's been set so far is one of continual improvement. Here's hoping it continues.