Call of Duty has become the highest grossing entertainment franchise of all time. Toppling other games like Halo and feature films like Avatar and The Dark Knight, Call of Duty’s annual release cycle and user base of nearly 30 million have allowed it to amass an unparalleled following in the game industry.
In 2010 Call of Duty’s publisher Activision started the Call of Duty: Elite project with the goal of allowing users to engage with the game’s vast arrays of data, participate in competitions, and ultimately foster an online community for their mega-series.
As one of the central UX designers on the project, I was tasked with creating an online service that would have to accommodate and balance a formidable set of challenges: mountains of data, engaging our sophisticated and diverse user base, and massive scale.
There is a wide range of players with different skill levels, play styles, and social objectives in Call of Duty. An important part of the research phase for this project was establishing what motivated players to keep coming back for more, and what factors were most important to these different segments of players. Striking the balance between maintaining the interest of the hardcore and appealing to newcomers was critical.
Call of Duty is not an easy game to pick up and learn. To help users acclimate themselves, the foundation of multiplayer gameplay revolves around specific tangible goals such as, “Get 10 kills with this gun, and you’ll level up.”
This completionist focus can carry many users through weeks or even months of play time. However, leveling up and unlocking rewards only takes players so far.
Players reach a crossroads where their playtime starts tailing off, or they begin creating their own sets of challenges and goals to keep the game interesting and rewarding for them. It’s at this point where you can differentiate between traditional completionist gamers, and players who thirst for more.
This second group of players is higher in skill, plays for more extended periods of time, and contains some of Call of Duty’s most die-hard fans. However, eventually they too reach a skill or satisfaction plateau and once again begin to grow tired of the game.
Once players reach a certain level of individual mastery, they often do one of two things: form or join a group to achieve a collective success and help improve other players, or try to get widespread recognition for their skills and accomplishments via social media to satisfy. Both of these behaviors strive for a concept we called “group mastery.”
Essentially once players lose interest in the way the game is teaching them how to play, they decide to improve by teaching directly (in groups) and/or indirectly (YouTube videos, strategy websites, etc).
Engaging and challenging a competitive user base
I worked with the rest of the design team to build Elite around satisfying these user needs. At the heart of the service is a set of statistics and analysis called the Player Card. Here players can get information on their performance trends, as well as research their strengths and weaknesses.
This is a “ground floor” of the service that users of all skill levels use. There is also an almost encyclopedic section of the site that helps them understand terminology and learn to play with weapons, explore new maps modes, and other gameplay features.
To challenge players, I created a system of Elite-exclusive competitions that gave them a chance to win digital and tangible prizes. Players in the “individual mastery” phase of their Call of Duty careers were particularly intrigued by these competitions, as it allowed them to hone in on objectives that other skilled players were gunning for.
Up until this feature’s introduction, all skill metrics shown in Call of Duty were inclusive of the entire population and without the context of a specific objective.
It was quite exciting to flip the switch and see millions of players across the world fight for iPads, Call of Duty branded skateboard decks and backpacks, and even Jeeps! In addition to real prizes, each competition would award digital badges to its successful participants.
The spoils of these competitions, particularly the digital badges awarded to participants who finished in the upper percentiles, became coveted items in the community and left players yearning for more ways to compete.
Clans: Encouraging player organization and collaboration
For decades gamers have teamed up into what are known as “clans” to not only play better in their games of choice, but for the camaraderie and friendships that spawn from them. Clans across the world create their own websites, set up chatrooms and times to play, and run their own tournaments and recruiting drives.
It only made sense to bolster this strong pre-existing concept by supporting it in Call of Duty Elite. Clans were the key to Elite encouraging the player engagement concept I mentioned earlier, group mastery.
As lead designer on clans, I designed a wide range of features that complemented in-game functionality and added meaningful group-based objectives that individual clan members could work towards for the greater good of their clan.
I wanted to alleviate the organizational and social burden clans had of setting up their own websites, and encourage them to use Elite as their online headquarters. On their “Clan HQ”, Clan members could communicate among themselves and other players in the community to work on game strategy and build tight relationships and intense rivalries.
Some clans start as groups of personal friends, but many form organically from chance meetings in-game. However, with tens of millions of users Call of Duty multiplayer can be a large and intimidating place.
Knowing this, I developed a few features that made it easier to find clans for users with fewer friends or contacts in the Call of Duty community. Users could peruse clans that friends and acquaintances were in, as well as relevant clans in the community with similar interests and skill levels.
Additionally, players seeking clans and clans seeking players could head over to clan recruitment forums and match up.
Once established on Elite, clans could participate in clan-specific competitions that would not only reward each member with items to use in game, but reward the clan itself and encourage teamwork.
The ultimate goal of Call of Duty Elite is to improve and expand each player’s gaming experience throughout the Call of Duty series.
Elite achieves this by providing rich data, meaningful competitions and goals, and most importantly by encouraging and simplifying the process for gamers to play together.
With over 12 million registered users and two million clans to date and hundreds of thousands of players participating in competitions every day, Elite has written the book on what a game franchise needs to do in order to take user engagement to the next level.