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Analysis: Activision's Call of Duty XP A Stage For Key Dialog

Gamasutra went to Call of Duty XP in Los Angeles this past weekend, and saw something of a different face for Activision, as it attempted to extend a hand to the franchise's key, core fanbase.
The recent weekend's Call of Duty XP event was something of a foray into the unknown for Activision. Although the publisher has something of a reputation for throwing extravagant parties in its own honor, like its star-studded E3 concerts, the event was more like a theme park not for its portfolio, but for a single franchise. It's not the first time fan events have sprung up around individual brands. There's QuakeCon and Blizzcon -- but notably, those were driven by fans and fan demand. XP was a decidedly lavish production the company threw because it hoped fans would want to come. Comprising two days plus a press preview, XP was staged on an enormous compound in Los Angeles. Outside were recreations of Modern Warfare 2's The Pit and Scrapyard maps for real paintball tournaments, a lofty zipline and the opportunity to ride in a Jeep on an obstacle course kitted with real explosives. Inside a giant airplane hangar, a small "museum" of military equipment, an always-packed merchandise shop where players could get shirts customized with their gamer tags, a small stage for sumo-wrestling in inflatable suits, and, of course, countless banks of seats and screens where users could try out various modes of Modern Warfare 3's multiplayer. Front and center, a major tournament for a $1 million prize. The event was so massive that Kanye West chose the event as the first stop on his newest tour, with his full show set and crew of dancers along. West is a particularly interesting choice for Activision to close the show. He's inarguably a crowd-pleaser, but fans are just as likely to watch the wealthy superstar wrestle with his ego and his relationship with his audience in public as they are to enjoy his music. Easy parallels. And like Activision, he's known for being showy -- it didn't escape the notice of many that the high-visibility event was held practically a stone's throw from rival Electronic Arts' offices, although anyone would be hard-pressed to prove intent. But Call of Duty XP was in many ways a different face for the company, a joyful attempt to connect with the fans of its major FPS brand after many years of miscommunication. Gamers classically visualize the giant publisher as a joyless corporate machine, bent on hyper-annualizing all of its franchises and maximizing its revenue under the leadership of proud non-gamer Bobby Kotick. And a certain reflexive distaste for microtransactions and subscriptions inside the core gaming community has long overshadowed a move that Activision was forecast to make for quite some time: unveiling a premium-content subscription service. Although the Elite service, announced in May, attracted 2 million users to its beta, Activision seems aware that it has a steep information war to wage if it's to convince its most passionate audience base -- the ones it needs if Elite is to succeed -- that the service is a good value. That's why the XP festival was also an opportune time and place to unveil full price and content details of Elite for the first time. The company announced at the event an annual price point of $49.99 for monthly content drops and a deep swath of social features -- less expensive, the company highlighted, than it is for a year of DLC many fans bought for Black Ops. But to view the event as a big party thrown to butter up the fanbase so they'll buy things would be extremely cynical. There was definitely an earnestness in the company's desire to develop its relationships with the fans, and to distance itself from its old image. Rather than Bobby Kotick, it was Eric Hirshberg, a younger, more approachable and upbeat exec, who took the stage to speak as Activision's CEO (he's technically Activision Publishing CEO), calling XP an opportunity to express gratitude to Call of Duty's millions of fans. Further divorcing Activision from some public perception of obsession with profitability above all virtues, it pledged all of the proceeds from sales of XP tickets, $150 apiece, to its Call of Duty Endowment, Activision's non-profit charitable program that helps military veterans land jobs after returning home from their overseas missions. Questions that remain on the table: Will audiences believe in Activision's value proposition for Elite? Will new modes, aimed at minimizing player gaps, drive Modern Warfare 3 to even higher sales than its predecessors? Will the game win this season's unprecedentedly-heated FPS sales (and quality) war? Was XP a meaningful step in the company's quest to improve its relationship with gamers, was it a meaningful experience for fans? It was certainly an admirable attempt. And most of all, attendees certainly seemed to have a good time, an environment of (almost overwhelmingly male players) who seemed game to play MW3 all day, have their faces painted and wait in long, long lines to buy $17 burgers from Burger Town. Overall, Call of Duty XP was an impressive staging, one that seems likely to create demand for next year. Whether it achieved the objectives that the company can be assumed to have aimed for will reveal itself over time.

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