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Why Call of Duty Online's success could be problematic

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Call of Duty Online, the free-to-play spin-off Call of Duty game that’s exclusive to the Chinese market has begun its open beta. If it takes off, it could be the biggest Call of Duty game ever and that could be a problem.

Call of the Dragon

The game will be published by Activision in partnership with Tencent, a leading Chinese online services company*. The game is being developed by Raven Software, who developed the under-rated Singularity and also did work on some of the earlier Call of Duty’s. It apparently takes its inspiration from the the Modern Warfare and Black Ops continuities.

As a free-to-play title, players will be able to download and start playing the game for free, but will have the ability to buy or rent in-game weapons and items. It will have the usual multiplayer modes you’d expect to find in a Call of Duty game plus a single-player mode called Hero Ops and a co-op mode called Survival. It will also include an exclusive new mode called Cyborg which is a PVE mode that incorporates Cyborgs in some capacity, making them a unique enemy for the series..

"Millions of gamers in the West have come to appreciate that white-knuckled, epic thrill-ride that only Call of Duty delivers. And now an entire new audience of gamers will experience this for the first time. We believe Call of Duty Online is going to be a game-changer for Chinese gamers," Activision Publishing CEO Eric Hirshberg said.

"We couldn't be more excited and we look forward to winning the hearts and minds of a new community in China," he added.



Resistance is futile

I think its great that Activision are looking for new markets to sell their games and it’s even admirable that they are adapting the game to the needs of the locals. It’s just problematic that the specific needs of China means that free-to-play is the most viable way to get the game into the country.

China has a contentious relationship with video game consoles and it’s only in recent months that it’s been possible to even buy a game console in the country. Even so, access to console games is still tough, because the Chinese government implements strict controls over what can and can’t be sold. A traditional PC release would be a waste in the country where pirate software is openly sold in public spaces. So the only way to make serious money with video games in the country is via a more controlled model, i.e. the subscription or microtransactions model.

That all sounds well and good, but if I’m honest the success of this game really puts the shivers in my timbers. The free-to-play, microtransaction system is not one I want to see infiltrate the console market. I’m not particularly fond of it in other forms of gaming either, mobile, PC or whatever.

It’s presence sullies good game design; consider Assassin’s Creed Unity, Forza 5 or Dungeon Keeper Mobile as examples of why. No matter how you cut it, it encourages game content to be segregated, limits access to the games in arbitrary ways and just generally makes the whole experience less fun.

But the Chinese have a real hunger to play the games they read about on the internet and this is really the only way that Activision could launch this game in China and still make money. And since this is Call of Duty and this is China, chances are good this game will be a hit. A monster hit. Once that happens, my fear is that Activision will want to make this their chosen way to give Call of Duty to the whole world and that will be a sad day for the franchise specifically, and gaming generally.

Call of Duty isn’t just a very successful gaming franchise, it’s also hugely influential and if they make the free-to-play microtransactions model work, how long before the next Mass Effect, Assassin’s Creed or The Last of Us also tries it.

If it comes to that, I can assure you that’s the day I hang up my controller.

*Full Disclosure: MWEB’s parent company Naspers owns a 34% stake in Tencent.

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Please note that the opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and not MWEB Connect (Pty) Ltd

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