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ISPs Moving Society Backwards: 'Call of Duty' Chief

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It's not just Internet users who are angry over their service providers' usage-based billing and throttling policies. The man in charge of developing the biggest video game franchise in the world is pretty steamed too.

Mark Rubin, executive producer at Infinity Ward, the studio behind the 'Call of Duty' series, says Internet service providers are holding back innovation with restrictive practices. Both usage-based billing, where customers receive monthly download limits, and throttling, where certain applications are slowed down, are proving to be obstacles to the games industry's advancement.

"We're trying to progress and move into those new areas of downloading content and full games and streaming live. We're pushing forward and it seems like they're going backwards," Rubin said in an interview at this past weekend's inaugural Call of Duty XP fan convention in Los Angeles.

"I don't know what they're afraid of that they have to do all this capping. If they have serious problems with bandwidth, they need to solve that because society is moving forward."

ISPs have recently come under fire for billing practices. In Canada, where subscribers are typically capped at about 50 or 60 gigabytes per month before extra charges kick in, the issue of usage-based billing has even attracted government attention. When regulators gave Bell Canada its blessing earlier this year to implement caps on wholesale ISPs such as Teksavvy, no less than Prime Minister Stephen Harper stepped in to say no way.

Throttling, meanwhile, has been making headlines for years, mostly from ISPs in Canada and the U.S. slowing file-sharing services such as BitTorrent. Rogers Communications recently irked gamers, however, when it was discovered that its throttling was extending over to the popular World of Warcraft online game. Gamers complained to the CRTC, which is now seeking answers.

Internet users say both measures are efforts to limit services that compete with ISPs' own video businesses. The companies, for their part, say caps and throttling are necessary to prevent congestion on their networks.

Despite the backlash over usage-based billing in Canada, U.S. Internet providers are also following suit by moving toward smaller monthly caps.

As Rubin said, these issues are a problem for game developers.

For the unitiated, 'Call of Duty' is one of the biggest entertainment concerns going. Since the first game's release in 2003, successive iterations on a variety of gaming systems have sold more than 100 million units, bringing publisher Activision Blizzard upward of $5 billion in revenue. At any minute of any given day, there are at least seven million people playing 'Call of Duty' games online.

The franchise has proven to be so popular, Activision has two studios alternating in producing games on an annual basis. Last year's 'Call of Duty: Black Ops,' produced by Treyarch (also based in California), earned more than $1 billion in its first month. This year's 'Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3,' from Infinity Ward, will likely smash the records set just last year when it launches on Nov. 8.

At the fan event this past weekend, the company unveiled details of a new Elite service, a social network of sorts for hard-core fans. The free version will allow users to track their statistics in excrutiating detail while mobile apps for the iPhone and Android will let them tinker with game characters while on the bus ride home from school or work.

Elite's premium tier, which will cost $50 a year, will provide access to training videos and downloadable content such as new maps for the game's key multiplayer function. Film directors Tony and Ridley Scott and actors Jason Bateman and Will Arnett, all big fans of the game, will also produce videos for the service that revolve around the games.

For game makers such as Activision, this sort of shift to digital distribution and online revenue generation is vital because it nullifies two of their biggest issues: piracy of discs and the resale/rental business, from which they don't see a penny.

The ISP obstacles aren't just problematic for big publishers, Rubin said, they can also close the door on small independent game makers. These operations, of which there are many in both Canada and the United States, can only compete with the giants if they have easy access to digital distribution.

"The on-demand style of digital download is huge for those guys. They exist because we can do that," he said. "We don't have to worry about it for our title, but we worry about it for the industry. We grow as the industry grows so we want everyone's game to do well and be successful and push gaming further."

Ultimately, ISPs are going to have to bow in the face of societal forces, he added. The Canadian government's response earlier this year was just the tip of the iceberg.

"All that stuff is pushing on the boundary that they are trying to push back at and that's not going to work out," he said. "They're going to lose."