Call of Differentiation

CODThe Call of Duty franchise is one of the most successful and iconic video game brands of all time, partially because development of each game alternates between two studios, Infinity Ward and Treyarch, allowing publisher Activition to release a new full game each year. But that boon has turned into a burden as the desire for differentiation has resulted in an identity crisis for the brand. The internal politics between Activision, Infinity Ward and Treyarch has created congnitive dissonance over where the Call of Duty series is headed. And in the case of this year’s Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, Activision has said that they’re gunning for Grand Theft Auto 4’s launch sales records, but their indecision over the official title of the game may have cost them millions in opening day revenue, and has potentially pushed GTA IV’s sales records out of reach.

For Call of Duty fans the buzz leading up to Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 has been a roller coaster ride of product branding and re-branding. When the game was first mentioned during a Massive Inc., “upfront” advertising meeting in late 2008, it was referred to as Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2. After 2007’s Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, Activision dropped the, “4” and began using subtitles to denote sequels, hence 2008’s Call of Duty: World at War – sometimes referred to by fans as Call of Duty 5. Confused? Well don’t feel bad, you’re not alone.

The game that would be Call of Duty 6 went from being named Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, to simply Modern Warfare 2 when it was officially confirmed during Activision’s fourth quarter financial call in February 2009. The CallofDuty-less Modern Warfare 2 turned heads at GDC 2009 when Infinity Ward revealed a new hinting at some of the themes behind the game. Then in early May Infinity Ward released the first gameplay trailer – a teaser – stating that the real full-length trailer would be revealed on TNT during the NBA Eastern Conference Finals on May 24, 2009. During this spot Modern Warfare 2’s official release date, November 10, 2009, was revealed for the first time. The game continued to impress during E3 in June when Infinity Ward gave a live gameplay demo and revealed more details about the story behind the game’s single-player campaign. During E3, Infinity Ward Community Manager, Robert Bowling, said to MTV Multiplayer that Modern Warfare 2 is named as such to emphasize to fans that it will be a direct sequel to Modern Warfare, not just another entry in the Call of Duty franchise.

That idea was abruptly derailed later in June when Gamasutra posted comments from Nick Williams, the head of GamePlan Insights, a division of research firm OTX, stating that once he began tracking data for Modern Warfare 2, instead of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, consumer awareness for the game was halved. In other words, Williams discovered that the Call of Duty name alone effectively doubled consumer awareness for Modern Warfare 2 – quite a remarkable statistic. Two weeks after OTX revealed their statistics, Bowling showed the official Modern Warfare 2 box art via his Twitter feed. The logo, not unexpectedly, bore the Call of Duty title, officially re-renaming the game: Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2. Activision quickly released this official statement about the game’s name:

“We have focused our attention on Modern Warfare in order to most effectively communicate the fact that this is the first true sequel in the Call of Duty series. Infinity Ward, the original creators of the Call of Duty franchise, has said from the beginning Modern Warfare 2 resides in the Call of Duty universe. This is reflected in the title’s package.”

This was a smart move by both Acitvision and Infinity Ward in the wake of William’s revelation. However, two days after the first box was revealed, Bowling showed both the, “Hardened Edition” and the, “Prestige Edition” of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, with neither of the premium boxes bearing the Call of Duty name. Obviously the name of this game has become a much larger issue than Activision or Infinity Ward had expected. But does it really make that much of a difference for such a widely popular franchise? There’s no doubt that Modern Warfare 2 will be one of the most successful games of all time, but the lateness of Modern Warfare 2’s re-branding means that Activision may have already missed their chance to break Grand Theft Auto 4’s monumental sales records.

For the time Modern Warfare 2 did not bear the Call of Duty name it theoretically missed out on 50% of its potential fans. The game has gone for nearly half of its promotional lifetime without the Call of Duty name, so it’s possible that Activision has already lost a quarter of first-day or first-week buyers. Analysts have said that Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 stands a chance at selling 4.6 million units globally on launch day, with a total of 7.8 million in its first week. Losing one quarter of that would mean 3.5 million on launch-day, and 5.9 million in weekly sales, putting the game just barely shy of GTA IV’s record of 3.6 million, and 6.0 million respectively. Ouch.

Based on the success of Modern Warfare, Activision and Infinity Ward  may have thought it possible to spin the Modern Warfare brand completely away from Call of Duty. But one thing they should have known is that when it comes to sales, the gaming industry is a franchise sport. None of the best selling franchises have ever successfully strayed very far from their inceptive title. Although Activision has said that they’re planning an enormous marketing push just before the game’s release in November, and OTX has reported that even without the Call of Duty brand, “purchase intent” for Modern Warfare 2 was still four times above average. Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 will most likely have the biggest launch of 2009, but the the record sales numbers Activision is hoping for requires an absolutely flawless promotional campaign, and regardless of their marketing efforts up to launch, confusion over the brand in past months may have already cost them the edge they need to bring down GTA IV. One thing is certain: I will definitely be at my local game seller on launch day, helping the franchise achieve its sales goals. Heck, I might even buy two copies.