The lights are on
At E3, we had the chance to get a look at a game we’ll likely never play. Call of Duty is about to enter its third beta in China, and Activision gave us a lesson in the challenges of bringing its flagship franchise to a new market in a brand new format.
Activision is teaming up with Tencent, which now owns part of the mega-publisher following the split from former parent Vivendi, to release Call of Duty Online in China. The current frontrunner in the FPS space in China is a title called Crossfire, and as you can see from the video below, it looks a bit dated.
Crossfire is a Korean online shooter that has been available in China through a partnership with Tencent for the past five years. With 4 million peak users, it’s the current king of the hill.
On visuals alone, Call of Duty has Crossfire beat, but bringing the franchise to China as-is isn’t enough. The play patterns of Chinese gamers are drastically different than those in the west, even though pirated Call of Duty titles have been available on the black market in that country for years.
“In Crossfire, [players] don’t ADS (aim down sights). We’ve been doing it since long ago, in Call of Duty 1, aiming down the sights of your Garand,” says Call of Duty vice president of production Daniel Suarez. “It’s something that’s embedded in the psyche of players. For us, it’s training them that this is going to give them more accuracy and that it’s going to be a better experience for them.”
Additionally, Chinese players avoid collectibles on the ground. For instance, in Kill Confirmed mode, which is about picking up dog tags left but friendly and enemy players, Chinese testers were actively avoiding them.
The Call of Duty Online team has also added brighter markings for waypoints. Instead of the “Follow” dot in single player, there are also chevrons brightly pointing to where players need to be.
Call of Duty Online features a full single-player experience, a “greatest hits” collection of multiplayer maps from past Modern Warfare and Black Ops titles, and survival mode. The undead are taboo in Chinese culture, so they have been replaced with cyborgs.
Another significant change is the approach to free-to-play. In order to overtake Crossfire, which raked in nearly $1 billion in 2013 and sits atop the global mountain of free-to-play titles, Call of Duty Online needs to appeal to those gamers. There are currently 350 million PC gamers in China, and over 100 million of them play shooters.
In order to make sure as many of those players can access Call of Duty Online, Activision has minimized the size of the client and is handling most of the processing on servers. As new modes and maps are added, players won’t need to pay for new content. The overall investment is lower for Activision up front, partially because of repurposed content, but server management over time will have longer lasting budgetary impact.
Monetization comes in many of the same ways that western titles coax money from users. Customization options, skins, weapons, and attachments will all cost players money. Suarez says that a major difference between the west and China is a difference in perspective on pay-to-win. “Their tastes are different,” says Brian Raffel, studio head at Call of Duty Online developer Raven Software. “They don’t mind paying for a leg up on their counterparts, whereas that wouldn’t go over in the U.S.”
Call of Duty Online will enter its third closed beta this summer with between 10,000 and 50,000 players. There have so far been requests for beta keys totaling 1.3 million, hinting that Activision, Tencent, and Raven are in a good position to make a splash in this new, enormous market. Most importantly though,
Call of Duty Online looks like the Call of Duty we've been playing for years. It might be wrapped up in a different package and adapted for a different audience, but Activision and Raven are bringing a real Call of Duty experience to a market largely untapped by western publishers.