China is a nation of 1.3 billion people, 300 million of which game on PCs, and 100 million of those play first person shooters. And almost none of them aim down sights.
That summarizes the opportunity and the difficulty Activision faces in bringing Call of Duty to China, home to an enormous population already familiar with the powerhouse brand, but somewhat intimidated by its complexity relative to the games they're already playing. When Activision takes Call of Duty Online into open beta — it hopes by the end of the year — it will culminate three years spent making sure the game arrives in China as a gracious guest, not an arrogant tourist.
"If you look at other [Western game companies], they've tried to come into the Chinese market and it's been difficult," Daniel Suarez, the vice president of production for the Call of Duty franchise, said during a presentation at E3. "I think they're under the assumption, 'I'm going to take my game, I'll bring it over, and people will engage with it because the graphics are good,' and everything else."
Call of Duty Online's visuals easily make China's current most popular game — a South Korean-made shooter called Crossfire — seem stone-age by comparison. That's a good and a bad thing, however. In China, a high-resolution beauty shot can send the message that your rig can't handle the game, so there's no point in trying the game, even if it is a free-to-play title. Much of the work Activision has done so far, Suarez said, has been in optimizing the performance for common PC specification in the country, and making sure the client isn't so large it takes forever to download.
Because for all it represents in gaming sophistication, Call of Duty is still a well known, desirable brand in China — largely thanks to piracy, Suarez conceded. Two closed betas have generated millions of requests for keys (where 200,000 or so have been admitted). Call of Duty Online will go into a third sometime this summer. It's being built by Raven Software, the longtime, in-house Activision studio that most recently helped work on Infinity Ward's Call of Duty: Ghosts.
In China, a high-resolution beauty shot may send the wrong message.
Raven founder Brian Raffel said the studio started building Call of Duty: Online with assets from Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, Modern Warfare 2, and Black Ops, "just to get the framerate right." As the game progresses features from Modern Warfare 3, Call of Duty: Ghosts, and even the upcoming Advanced Warfare will be feathered in. As a free-to-play online game, Activision will get its money from Chinese gamers who take a keen interest in customizing their in-game avatar with premium items, including some enhanced weapons. In its gameplay, all modes of Call of Duty: Online are free.
Still, Activision has to present something enjoyable enough to be worth the investment in cosmetic items. "One of our biggest takeaways [from research] is that Call of Duty is hard," Raffel said. "CoD players in the west, we're used to looking down sights, we're used to going prone and jumping and doing all these things at the same time. They do none of those things, and the things that they do do, they do one at a time. So they aren't multitasking."
As effective fighting in Call of Duty does depend on gameplay more sophisticated than running and hip-shooting, that's meant Raven had to take great care with its tutorial level. "They see our epic killstreaks and go, "Wow, this is kind of a daunting experience, I don't know that I'm going to be able to do all these things,'" Suarez said. "Being able to train them, and have them understand how they're able to do these things is critically important.
"They don't ADS [aim down sights] in Crossfire," he continued. "So for us, it's training them to understand that this will give them more accuracy. It'll give them a better experience."
Activision is partnering with Tencent, China's enormous online conglomerate (and also a shareholder in Activision itself). Tencent is the publisher of Crossfire, even, raising the question of why it's helping to introduce a competing product.
"The philosophy is that game has been in the market for some time, and the tastes of gamers in that market are looking for the next evolution of where the FPS can go," Suarez said. "Call of Duty is a known and established brand in China — through piracy, it's become this well established and known franchise. So I think Tencent sees that opportunity and they have wanted to partner with us."
Call of Duty Online will feature the standard multiplayer that defines the game's popularity, as well as a singleplayer, story-based mode called "Hero Ops." Player avatars accrue experience and advance through ranks regardless of what mode they play. A third mode, called "Cyborg Evacuation," also will be a part of the game. It's based on the popular Zombies multiplayer mode, but uses shambling humanoid robots because the undead are a taboo subject in China, and won't make it through government censors.
Activision says doing business with China won't change Call of Duty in the West.
I asked if partnering with a Chinese company to deliver a product in China — going through the notoriously rigid approval and monitoring process the country has for video game and entertainment products sold legitimately there — had any creative implications for the series in the West. "No. It doesn't inhibit us from the things we're doing," Suarez said. "In Black Ops 2, China was a potential adversary of the United States. It's not something that we look at changing how we approach our other franchises."
That may be, but China is never directly fought in Black Ops 2 or portrayed as an antagonist, unlike Electronic Arts' Battlefield 4, which had combat taking place on mainland China with the Chinese army as an opponent. It was "banned" by the Chinese government but never formally for sale there, anyway.
Political intrigue aside, Activision's job is explaining things that seem second-nature to a western audience to the one in China, and conditioning gamers to accept them. Chinese gamers may have high regard for the brand name, but then, many brand names are pirated and counterfeited openly there, and desiring something is not the same as actually paying money for, or using it. And playing a video game is not the same thing as watching a movie or wearing a pair of jeans.
"In video games [in the west], you see the shiny coin, you see the blinky box, you know you need to go collect it," Suarez explained. "But when we started toing tests in China, this is not what they did. We have game modes, like 'Kill Confirmed' where you go around collecting dogtags, and either capture the kill for your team or deny the kill for the other. In China, they actively avoid these things. Thye're like, 'No, I don't want to get that.' These practices are just not inherent to their knowledge of how they play they games.
"So we need to take more time to explain that," Suarez said. "We need to adapt our game to that culture."