This exclusive two-part editorial from the[a]listdaily looks at Activision and Infinity Ward’s run-up to making “Modern Warfare 2″ the biggest entertainment launch in history.

In Part 1, it’s “Targets Acquired.”

By Meelad Sadat

Targets acquired

Targets acquired

In the stream of numbers highlighting units sold, dollars made, and records broken from people clamoring after “Modern Warfare 2,” one publicized figure released by Activision stands out.  About a month after the game hit shelves, and perhaps sensing the dust settling from the nuclear bomb of a launch it had executed for the game, the publisher put out a press release announcing that the game had eight million active players in the first week.  The figure was exactly the number of units it had already announced that it sold about a week prior, bringing the game’s take to more than $550 million.  It was also after Activision had roundly publicized that the game had shattered every entertainment launch record known to man.  Yet apparently the company wanted a new metric for what set the game apart, and the way it decided to frame the figure said volumes about its giddy state of mind.  In a press release announcing the eight million players, the publisher said it represented more people playing “Modern Warfare 2″ than there are soldiers enlisted in the world’s top five armies.  Activision PR even provided estimates for each of those forces for press to have handy.  Some among the press pointed out the announcement as tongue-in-cheek, and no-doubt many recognized it as re-reported news wrapped in whimsy, but they covered it.  It is perhaps one of the oddest cases of corporate chest-thumping in any industry.  It’s certainly a stretch, equating a customer base of people plopping on a couch for entertainment to active military personnel, many of them involuntary soldiers serving in contentious parts of the world.  But for Activision, marking the culmination of a plan it mobilized about a year prior and one it brought to fruition to top everyone’s expectations, perhaps even its own, it showed that the company wanted to keep screaming its victors’ battle cries.

From the public’s standpoint, Activision had put the gears in motion to execute the biggest entertainment launch in history in May 2009.  It was then, in front of millions of Americans watching televised games of the NBA playoffs, that the publisher launched a TV teaser campaign leading up to the first glimpse of “Modern Warfare 2.”  It was decidedly flamboyant for a first look for a videogame.  Interstitials and announcer plugs during basketball games on cable network TNT planted the campaign for two weeks.  They paved the way to a May 24 payoff, when the game was shown during a conference championship late in the tournament.  The spot may have underwhelmed given its buildup, amounting to a story trailer with quick clips of in-game, but not necessarily game play footage.  Despite the mainstream placement and execution, it came across as no more than the type of trailer a hardcore gamer would seek out on an online game site.  And for some viewers it was an awkward first impression when the ad was prematurely cut by the network, and then had to be re-aired in full.  Yet the reveal and the campaign leading up to it was of great significant to one core audience: game marketers.  Right then and there, Activision elevated its title by breaking a template.  Instead of orchestrating a PR campaign, and perhaps tying a TV exclusive into a hobbyist network such as MTV or G4, Activision went for the biggest chunk of an audience it could find.  In doing so, the publisher spent millions of ad dollars for a first look at a videogame six months before launch.

Within days of the big reveal, the game industry gathered at the revamped, re-glorified E3 tradeshow in Los Angeles.  Activision bucked expectations for “Modern Warfare 2″ at the expo, giving the game a quieter than expected presence by leaving any access to a playable version of it off of the show floor.  The only hands-on sessions would be by appointment behind closed doors.  That subduction, usually a sign of trouble for a game, didn’t faze the press, many of whom turned their privileged exposure into positive coverage.  The game also had a significant push from Microsoft, getting high-billing at the company’s always high-profile E3 press conference.  Heads of development from Modern Warfare maker Infinity Ward ran an on-stage demo that drew vigorous applause from the audience.  Many of those in attendance were press who would later be able to usher that excitement into their private demo sessions.  Within a week, the E3 showing and buzz had at least one analyst reeling, when Janco Partners’ Mike Hickey provided a moon-shot forecast that the game would sell more than 11 million units in its first two months.  He followed that with a relatively modest prediction that it would become the biggest title of 2009.  Hickey’s forecast was among the first in a string of bullish analyst predictions for the game.  In an industry whose press corps clamors for news, and as a result often weaves financial coverage into consumer press, analysts would become another buzz building force for Activision’s title.

In early June, advertising trade Ad Age publicized Activision’s true intention for the game, one where making it game of the year would be the gravy.  The magazine got the scoop when Activision finished their agency review and announced that it had enlisted one of the world’s biggest advertising agencies, Omnicom’s TBWA/Chiat/Day.  The headline for the story summed up the objective TBWA had taken on by winning the account: to execute the “biggest entertainment launch ever.”  Activision chief creative officer Brad Jakeman, a former marketing executive for Macy’s department stores, readily spelled out the plan for Ad Age readers.  It was targets acquired for the publisher.  The game was going to beat entertainment debut records, and in its sights were the biggest game launch ever in the $310 million first day bow by “Grand Theft Auto IV,” and the biggest film opening ever with the $158 million take for “The Dark Knight.”  Then Jakeman dropped a bomb, one that managed to evade game industry coverage until after the title had been released.  “Modern Warfare 2” represented a $200 million marketing spend account for TBWA, along with media buying agency WPP Mediaedge:cia.

By summer “Modern Warfare 2” was ready to settle into a steady PR campaign, filling the five or so months between the big May reveals and the final launch push.  But then the game hit a PR snag.  Infinity Ward had quietly dropped the original Call of Duty moniker from this second Modern Warfare title.  The Call of Duty name had launched the war game series and become a powerful videogame brand for Activision, as a multibillion dollar franchise spanning five titles.  As the excitement of seeing the game began to settle, press started to inquire about the name change.  That prompted Infinity Ward’s community manager Robert Bowling to step in.  He issued statements on behalf of the developer that the intention was to set Modern Warfare apart as its own franchise.  As Bowling told MTV News, Infinity Ward wanted to establish it as a direct sequel to the first Modern Warfare game and “not just another one in the Call of Duty franchise.”  Clearly implied in the statements was the developer’s desire to create some distance between its war game series and the recent World War II Call of Duty games that were being developed at a second Activision studio, Treyarch.  Within weeks of the statements, consumer research came out to contradict the strategy.  Analyst firm OTX released a study showing that brand awareness more than doubled when people were shown mock game boxes adding a “Call of Duty” marquee to the title “Modern Warfare 2.”  As the PR push continued, and appropriately without any fanfare, the Call of Duty label snuck back into official logos, images and press materials.

Making history with “Modern Warfare 2” continues next week with Part 2, “Fire & Movement.”