How Much More Revenue Can Activision Wring From 'Call of Duty'?

Though Subscription Plan Has Gamers Up in Arms, Analysts Say Brand's Nearly Bulletproof

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'Modern Warfare 3' could included an online paid subscription service, 'Call of Duty: Elite.'
'Modern Warfare 3' could included an online paid subscription service, 'Call of Duty: Elite.'

The blockbuster gaming franchise "Call of Duty" has raked in $4 billion to date. But that 's not enough for Activision, which plans to add a premium paid-subscriber service that has gamers up in arms. It all begs the question of how much revenue can be teased out of this mega-brand before its enthusiasts revolt.

A firestorm of protest emerged on Twitter and blogs among gamers after Activision leaked a few details for its next "Call of Duty" installment, "Modern Warfare 3," that included a proposed online paid subscription service, "Call of Duty: Elite," that will debut at the same time. As one commenter on popular gamer website G4TV wrote: "No way I'll be paying for that . Isn't the 60 bucks enough to give to these guys?"

That said, it's not a stretch to say that "Modern Warfare 3," which will be the eighth in the "Call of Duty" series when it debuts in the fall, will likely be the best-selling title yet. Some analysts are predicting that more than 20 million copies will be sold.

Activision was unable to comment at press time but it's obvious why it might be emboldened to try the subscription model: The franchise has sold 56 million console units in the U.S. alone, according to NPD Group. The most recent one, "Call of Duty: Black Ops," topped $1 billion in sales in just 42 days, according to Activision. NPD said "Black Ops" has sold more than 14 million copies in the U.S. to date.

"The 'Call of Duty' brand is definitely strong enough to give Activision some room to experiment with an add-on subscription model," said Jeremy Miller, an analyst with DFC Intelligence. "Activision is walking a very tight line between satisfying hard-core online shooter players, the pick-up-and-play crowd, and investors."

"From Activision's perspective, they're looking at the percentage of Xbox Live hours derived from 'Call of Duty' play, and they're asking, 'Why is Microsoft getting $60 a year based on our content?'" said Michael Cai, VP-research at Interpret. "Activision also wants a way to keep players engaged until the next game comes out. They could offer discounts for new 'Call of Duty' games if you're a subscriber, for instance."

Still, with brand fans tweeting, blogging and posting their discontent for days, the question is , has Activision pushed the mega-brand too far?

Activision was vague in its "pre-announcement" and did not detail the extra features or perks subscription gamers would get, nor did it reveal the monthly fee, although it implied it would be lower than Netflix's $8 per month. More information is expected later this week at the E3 Expo gaming convention in Los Angeles.

"By not releasing enough information, Activision has upset consumers who all just hear the term 'paid subscription service,'" said Paul Tassi, editor in chief of online mag Unreality, and a Forbes blogger on gaming. "I don't understand why they decided to release inadequate info now."

Complete details could soothe some outrage, as will the already-announced fact that MW3 purchasers can play the game online without subscribing to the Elite extra package.

In the long term, analysts agreed that the addition of paid subscription alone likely won't damage the brand itself. However, pushing out payment models too far or giving inadequate benefits for those who do pay could do harm.

"Many fear that the next step after a 'premium service' like this would be charging monthly for online play, a la 'World of Warcraft.' The company 'swears' they'll never do that , but never say never in this industry. If a step that drastic was taken, then yes, I could easily see many jumping ship," Mr. Tassi said. "If it doesn't affect core game-play, it's viewed as a dick move vs. a deal-breaker, and I wouldn't imagine it will significantly impact sales."

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