By Meelad Sadat
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. You can read the first installment at “Targets Acquired.”
In Part 2, it’s “Fire and Movement.”
Activision head Bobby Kotick made a risky if strategic move during the summer of 2009. “Modern Warfare 2″ was rumbling into its final months before release, one of several of Activision’s high-profile console titles coming out that fall. The publisher had made it known that the war game was to be its biggest title of all time, announcing to the media that it was out to break entertainment records. Entertainment and ad industry watchers knew that the publisher had not only the most profitable game launch in its sights, the 3.6 million copies Take-Two had sold for “Grand Theft Auto IV” in 2008. It also wanted to beat the most profitable US film opening, Warner Bros. Pictures’ $158 million take for “The Dark Knight.” To Kotick and his company, the Modern Warfare sequel’s prospects might only be stifled by influencers outside of their control. In late June, during an interview with the Times of London, Kotick pinpointed one.
“I’m getting concerned about Sony,” Kotick told the news outlet. “The PlayStation 3 is losing a bit of momentum and they don’t make it easy for me to support the platform. They have to cut the price, because if they don’t, the attach rates are likely to slow.”
It was one company’s shot across the bow of another that could help, or potentially hurt its product’s performance. And Kotick kept firing in the article. He said that it was too expensive to support Sony’s console when its competitors were selling more systems and giving higher potential returns for publishers. He gave the news outlet a timeframe, pegging 2010 and 2011 as dates by when Activision would consider whether it wanted to support Sony PS3 or even its handheld PSP. His remarks weren’t exploratory, nor were they statements that a journalist had managed to pry. It was clearly a strategically placed message in an interview that delivered no other news outside of Kotick’s views on Sony’s game hardware strategy.
Sony didn’t exactly reveal its hand. But it did blink to show that Kotick’s words carried weight, enough to move the man at the top. Sony chief Howard Stringer responded less than a month later, speaking in an interview with Reuters News Service. In a few lines, with one used to zing Kotick for making “a lot of noise,” he labeled it a bluff. And in what would prove to be a carefully crafted message, he denied an impending price cut to the existing PS3 system’s price.
Stringer had certainly chosen his words well. When Sony did drop the price of PS3 in August, the company made it known that it wasn’t a price cut at all. Sony was introducing a cheaper to produce version of the system, the PS3 Slim. Despite still taking a loss on each PS3 Slim sold, it positioned its lower price as representing savings from streamlined production passed on to customers. Kotick hadn’t been the first to suggest a PS3 price cut, nor was he the last leading up to the move. Analysts, pundits, press and other publishers had been chiming in, and getting louder as they watched the all-important fall season approaching in what was shaping up as a slump year. Kotick may have taken the harshest stand, and as a result made the most noise as Sony put it, but no one would credit Activision with prompting the price drop singlehandedly. And Activision did nothing to try and take credit. The outcome was good enough. Sony almost immediately began selling more systems, which meant more people waiting for “Modern Warfare 2.”
There were no summertime doldrums for the Modern Warfare crew. The game’s developers at Infinity Ward would’ve been knee-deep in the mud stew that bubbles up in the last few months of a game’s production. For Infinity Ward marketing man Robert Bowling and his Activision counterparts, the focus was on stoking ever more buzz among the press and public. Bowling had been a community manager for Infinity Ward when development began on “Modern Warfare 2.” By the time it was close to shipping, he’d quite visibly taken over the game’s PR, becoming the developer’s in-house communications director. The game settled into its standard PR campaign of peeks and previews through July and August. Bowling was smartly positioned as the game’s ever-present voice. He spoke for the developers, and he always directed his communications to the fan community. How well that approach worked is perhaps best exemplified by the handling of a usual ho-hum announcement for games of any caliber: third-party peripherals.
Mad Catz scored a coup and licensed the rights to make a range of branded peripherals for “Modern Warfare 2,” everything from console skins to controllers. It was standard fare, worthy of a single press release and a blip on game press radars. Bowling helped turn it into a fan community effort, and in doing so set off a media frenzy. Well before the Mad Catz peripherals would be announced, Bowling managed a quasi-leak through his Twitter account.
“In a design meeting for a MW2 controller,” he Tweeted. “Need your advice–concave or convex grips for the analog sticks “
It was headline news fare for game sites. One leading outlet, GameSpot, gave it top news billing. Popular game blog Joystiq gave it quasi-serious but none-the-less full-hearted coverage. Joystiq staff mocked up what a dream Modern Warfare peripheral would look like: an AR-15 with Xbox buttons. Part of what had sparked imaginations was the fully functional night vision goggles Activision had announced as part of a pricey premium “Modern Warfare 2″ bundle. The excitement drew on just what sort of specialized hardware the developer might be dreaming up to go along with the goggles. All of the press speculation, not to mention the resulting forum chatter and gamer buzz, came from one Tweet. Bowling’s move may or may not have been orchestrated. In hindsight it’s a case study of stoking fans to fire up a PR frenzy. When Activision and Mad Catz announced their branded peripherals a month later, it got standard press release coverage. If press were groaning they managed to hide it, but those that had made the most noise made sure to point back to what generated the hype. GameSpot for its part quipped that the announcement “unfortunately” didn’t shed more light on what Bowling had implied. What should’ve been a standard PR blip in a game campaign became another buzz blast radius for “Modern Warfare 2.”
The game’s well-oiled PR machine nearly blew a gasket in October, less than a month before the game’s launch. First it hit a small bump in what may have seemed a mundane technical spec revelation to the uninitiated, the initiated being online gamers. Bowling announced on a podcast that Infinity Ward was launching its own matchmaking service for online multiplayer on PC, bypassing the gamer preferred practice of letting players set up dedicated servers. The game community cried foul, even launching a petition that quickly gathered more than 100,000 signatures to stop the move. It was an interesting enough development for game press to cover the griping for a few days, if only to highlight a little blemish in what had been an otherwise untarnished communications campaign. But the story didn’t have legs. Certainly not like what followed less than a week later. Just under two weeks before the planned Nov. 9 debut of “Modern Warfare 2,” the press got its hands on a leaked video depicting an unusually violent sequence from the game. Before it was over, the footage would air on CNN.
The leaked video was user captured and depicted a mission from the game called “No Russian.” In it, players would take on the role of an undercover state agent forced to carry out an act of terrorism, joining a band of Russians who gun down hundreds of their countrymen at an airport. Press scrambled to verify if it was real and not some hacked or modified version of “Modern Warfare 2.” They should have quickly recognized it was real. Several clips from the sequence had appeared in an official video trailer released by Activision and Infinity Ward earlier in the month. Although there was no clear context in the trailer that the sequence was a terrorism mini-game, there might have been a hint from the game makers. The dramatic trailer quoted from the biblical tale of Cain slaying his brother Abel as the video panned over scenes of the Russians massacre.
Once the “No Russian” sequence was verified as a mission in the game, and as the first hints came that public reaction to it could escalate, Activision mobilized. The publisher undoubtedly had a very unpleasant precedent in mind, that set by Take-Two when it had to pull copies of “Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas” from shelves because of leaked controversial content. First, Activision released an official statement where it poignantly positioned the sequence as one “designed to evoke the atrocities of terrorism.” It also pointed out that the game’s developers had taken the unusual step of including an in-game warning about the mission’s content before giving players the option of skipping it. Activision then turned to more subtle means. It unleashed Modern Warfare’s TV credited writer, Jesse Stern, on an interview circuit. In what started with a high-profile piece in USA Today, a thoughtful writer whose credits included the mainstream-skewed CBS series “NCIS” helped quickly bring credibility to Activision’s reasoning for including the content.
In the end, if glitches with delivering online gaming or palates gone sour from violent content turned off buyers of “Modern Warfare 2,” it wasn’t in significant numbers. The game premiered as planned, with the only controversy surrounding its launch being eager retailers that had quietly broken its Nov. 9 street date by a day. The rest of the noise it generated was of the carefully orchestrated variety. Launch events ranged from midnight sales that drew customer queues at odd hours to full-blown spectacles. In Los Angeles, military hardware adorned a prominent retailer’s parking lot, with developers from nearby Encino-based Infinity Ward on hand. In New York and London, celebrities mingled with game press and lucky gamers at spectacular launch parties. Most notably, the game achieved the lofty goal Activision had set for it many months before. The game’s 4.7 million units sold at launch beat the record set by “Grand Theft Auto IV” by more than a million units. Its first day take of $310 million nearly doubled the opening weekend for “The Dark Knight.” NY Daily News perhaps reported the record breaking launch best, putting it in their trademark blunt fashion. Daily News writer Robert Johnson led his story with, “Biggest launch ever. A bloody video game made more money in one day than any movie ever has.”