Call of Differentiation Part 2: Missed Connections

Modern Warfare 2
A few months ago I wrote about the unfortunate confusion over the Modern Warfare and Call of Duty brands. Infinity Ward had just conceded to assuming the Call of Duty label for their upcoming blockbuster Modern Warfare 2, and they and Activision were ramping up for a massive marketing campaign. I showed how Modern Warfare 2 might have already lost its chance to break GTA IV’s monster sales records, and that an awe-inspiring marketing campaign was in order to recapture lost mindshare. Now, less than a week away from launch, we haven’t really seen a campaign on par with what we saw for GTA IV, and Infinity Ward’s most recent promotions seem to only disappoint the relatively small community of industry writers. There is an enormous group of fans that will purchase this game on day one, and Infinity Ward and Activision have done a great job catering to their interests, but have they missed an opportunity to bring Modern Warfare 2, and video games in general, to a larger audience?

Activision promised that they were ramping up for a marketing campaign of epic proportions, working with TWBA\, a globally renowned marketing firm that’s worked on the likes of Visa and Pepsi, to make Modern Warfare 2 the “biggest entertainment launch of all time.” So far we’ve seen some fantastic television spots during three different major sporting events this year, but the focus seems to rest on recent shockingly violent leaked footage, and an unnecessarily offensive promotional video. There’s no question that Modern Warfare 2 is on every gamer’s mind, but in terms of who’s driving the overall marketing message it doesn’t seem like Activision and Infinity Ward are on the same page. Infinity Ward communicates directly with its fans via forums and Robert Bowling’s Twitter feed, but that communication doesn’t seem to tie into what Activision is communicating to mainstream audiences, creating somewhat of a disconnect. Obviously mainstream audiences will respond differently to certain messages than the core audience will, but there is a solid overlap that I feel could have expanded the appeal of Modern Warfare 2 greatly.

Robert Bowling, Infinity Ward’s creative strategist, feels that developers should take more responsibility for the marketing and promotion of their games, and I agree. When it comes to promoting a game the development team can provide insight and a sense of passion that no other individual or organization can emulate. However, for that very same reason, developers need to be guided on how to approach the media and leverage their effort for maximum gain because at the very end of the day a developer’s job is to make great games, not to woo the media. The best way for a publisher to empower their developers and ensure a consistent message is to create and maintain a strong, communicative relationship, something it seems – at least from a distant, outside perspective – Activision and Infinity Ward may have difficulty fostering. Whether this is caused by the tenuous relationship between Activision, Infinity Ward and Treyarch – the guys that work on Call of Duty every other year – isn’t important, but whatever the beef is Activision has to take ownership of the franchise and guide it through the media for maximum success.

Activision’s marketing campaign doesn’t seem to characterize what I feel is Infinity Ward’s and Modern Warfare’s greatest achievement. Taking a storyline beyond the blood and gore and creating an experience that objectively conveys the horrors of war, characterizing the emotional distance needed to tolerate the incredibly traumatic events of war. As a franchise that caters to a young audience with extremely graphic violence, Call of Duty approaches the subject of war in a mature way by offering equal parts victory, defeat, glory, and somber regret. This approach helps me see through the senseless violence that Call of Duty portrays, and capturing it effectively could have helped Modern Warfare 2 garner the attention of an even broader audience, and push the video game medium just one step closer to mainstream acceptance.

I deeply hoped Activision would have been able to capture this aspect of the Call of Duty series in their marketing campaign because I envisioned it taking video games to a whole new level of acceptance in mainstream culture. Together, Activision and Infinity Ward represent a major facet of this industry, and with Modern Warfare 2 they have a rare opportunity to change how the gaming industry is perceived from the outside looking in. We know Activision has little interest in the artistic merits of their games, but as an industry I feel it’s important to keep pushing the boundaries of what video games can achieve both in terms of gameplay and in terms of mainstream acceptance. Modern Warfare 2 will certainly sell millions when it launches next week, but I can’t help but think about that missed opportunity to make Modern Warfare 2 more than just a video game.

Do you think Activision missed something with their marketing campaign for Modern Warfare 2, or were they right on target? Will it be the biggest entertainment launch of all time?