Activision could have announced its brand-new Call of Duty game, Infinite Warfare, through any number of paid media outlets and reached millions of people. But why do that when you already own an entire fictional world where you can do real marketing to millions of people who are already avid gamers?
Activision did just that this weekend, creating a four-day "Hostile Takeover" puzzle for gamers inside Black Ops 3, Activision's massively popular 2015 COD title, that culminated Monday with the reveal trailer for Infinite Warfare.
The tactic is similar to what Activision did last year for Black Ops 3, which it promoted with Snapchats hidden inside Black Ops 2. But this campaign, coordinated by AKQA, was blown out on a completely different scale.
First off, here is the reveal trailer:
Now, let's backtrack. Here's what happened, chronologically:
On Friday morning, Black Ops 3 players in the popular Nuketown map noticed a mysterious spaceship hovering overheard in the cinematic that ends the level, promoting feverish speculation from players who'd watched the video hundreds of times and never seen anything out of the ordinary.
On Saturday morning, the bad guys from Infinite Warfare infiltrated the Black Ops 3 universe, leaving propaganda all over the place. On Sunday morning, the hero from Infinite Warfare, Lt. Reyes, appeared and directed players to what he described as the only secure communications channel left—Facebook Messenger—where players could interact with him and get help finding clues hidden within the game and elsewhere the internet.
Players who found the codes could unlock the Infinite Warfare reveal trailer at 9 a.m. Monday morning, an hour before it was scheduled to be released widely. (In the end, this didn't exactly go according to plan—but more on that later.) Those players were also promised special content they could carry with them into the new game when it launches this fall.
Activision CMO Tim Ellis told Adweek last week, leading up to the four-day stunt, that it only made sense to target Black Ops 3 players, particularly after last year's Snapchat stunt in Black Ops 2 helped to make Black Ops 3 the biggest entertainment opening of the year—with more than half a billion dollars in its opening weekend (a bigger opening than any Hollywood movie, including Star Wars).
"We've seen the greatest player engagement in franchise history [with Black Ops 3], which is an important fact when you consider how we're using that game and that platform to introduce the next game," Ellis said.
"We wanted to create the widest possible net—to use what turned out to be the biggest game of the year to introduce our new game, Infinite Warfare. We wanted to drive that message from the outset that Infinite Warfare is going to be the next epic entertainment launch of the year."
The Black Ops 2 Snapchat stunt "just kind of just scratched the surface of what was possible" with in-game launches of a new game, Ellis added. So, he challenged AKQA and the gameplay studios—Treyarch and Infinity Ward, which had to collaborate to bring their two worlds together—to take the concept to a new level.
For AKQA, it was a fun challenge, all rooted in the simple truth that marketing—if done subtly and entertainingly—conducted inside a Call of Duty game, for real Call of Duty players, is likely to be much more powerful than any advertising effort outside the game could be.
"No ad or stunt or microsite or commercial is ever going to be better than the greatest game ever," AKQA group creative director Nick Strada told Adweek. "So, what we try to do is create a really awesome Call of Duty experience. We take the game, and the principles of the game, and bring it to life in a way that the marketing vanishes into the game and creates moments that are memorable and shareable and awesome."
The agency knew it wanted to expand on what it did with Snapchat in Black Ops 2. "We started to build that muscle. We asked ourselves: How do we double, triple, quadruple down on that?" Strada said.
Thus was born the idea for a four-day mystery, and the Facebook Messenger integration.
"It started with something really subtle," Strada said. "If I went into your living room and moved something two feet to the left, you would notice. We went into one map in the game, Nuketown, which is like the Lambeau Field of this game, and put the bad guys' spaceship in there. We just wanted players to say, What the heck is going on here?"
Importantly, the players could choose whether to investigate further. None of this added adventure—which is basically marketing materials in disguise—was compulsory.
With the advent of chatbots, the Facebook Messenger integration seemed like a fun way to coordinate an game- and internet-wide scavenger hunt for alphanumeric codes that would unlock the reveal trailer.
"You might have to zoom in with your sniper scope to see one of [the codes]. There might be one on the other side of a wall, that you can only see if you jump to your death. What we didn't want was for somebody to hack this in 30 seconds," said Strada.
The hunt went well beyond the game, too.
"It's this multichannel thing," Strada said, "where what you see in the game, and what you see on Twitch and on Snapchat, and what you see buried in the code of our website—actually buried in the source code of CallOfDuty.com—it all comes together in this Messenger experience, where we get to reward our fans with an early view of the game trailer and, later, with content they can take with them into the next game."
AKQA partnered with an automated conversation company called PullString on the chatbot. Strada touched on the creative challenges of writing for it.
"I'm trained as a copywriter," he said. "When you write for most brands, you write a piece of copy. It's linear. You write it, your boss approves it, and it's only going to be experienced one way—the way you wrote it. This was an experience where we had to assume things, and write copy for scenarios that may or may not ever happen. And we had to do it in a way that didn't feel like you're talking to a robot. The fans know they're taking part in an experience. But we can't break that fantasy by having it be junky."
Overall, the strategy is both practical and delightful—practical in that it's so targeted (it's like if Disney could put an ad for the next Star Wars inside the current Star Wars—though of course, games can do this and movies can't), and delightful in that it gamifies the very announcement of a new game.
There was one unfortunate hiccup, though, and it happened very early Monday morning: The reveal trailer was leaked on Hulu, an Activision partner, several hours before the players with the codes were supposed to see it first exclusively.
It's not yet clear what exactly happened, but this, of course, is the downside of the powerful interconnectedness that makes an activation like this possible in the first place. When there's a leak, it spreads just as quickly and dismantles the framework you've so carefully set up.
Activision took the development in stride and moved up the trailer release.
Lt. Reyes sent all fans who participated an official message, in character, sharing a link to the official reveal trailer—in a sense, giving them a head start on seeing it, though the leaked copy had spread far and wide by then. Also, all players who solved the puzzle will receive an official Infinite Warfare Playercard unique to the "Hostile Takeover" experience for participating.
The company declined to comment on the leak specifically, but did tell Adweek in a statement: "This past weekend was all about the community coming together to directly participate, learn about the new game and engage with the character for the first time. And the fan reaction at each step was fantastic."
A few more images, and credits, below.
Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare
"Hostile Takeover" Activation
Project: "Hostile Takeover"
CEO Activision Publishing – Eric Hirshberg
EVP, Chief Marketing Officer – Tim Ellis
SVP, Consumer Marketing – Todd Harvey
Vice President, Global Media – Caroline McNiel
Global Head of PR and Digital Marketing – Monte Lutz
Senior Director, Digital Marketing – Justin Manfredi
Senior Director, Global Media – Simone Deocares-Lengyel
Senior Manager, Digital Marketing – Richard Elmore
Vice President of Production – Daniel Suarez
Sr. Executive Producer for Infinity Ward games – Marcus Iremonger
Executive Producer for Treyarch games – Kevin Hendrickson
Executive Producer – Yale Miller
Senior Producer – Jason Ades
Producer – Graham Hagmaier
Studio Head – Mark Lamia
Game Director, Multiplayer – Dan Bunting
Director of Brand Development – Jay Puryear
Director of Communications & Social Media – John Rafacz
Producer – Miles Leslie
Studio Head – Dave Stohl
Development Director – Luke Vernon
Studio Art Director – Brian Horton
Director of Communications – Eric Monacelli
Group Creative Director – Nick Strada
Creative Director – Simone Nobili
Associate Creative Director – E.B. Davis
Art Director – Nils Westgardh
Senior Designer – Charles Calixto
Senior Art Director – Hovin Wang
Associate Copywriter – Tandeka Lauriciano
Client Partner – Kristin Goto
Account Director – Andrew Furth
Senior Account Executive – Mal Gretz
Senior Motion Graphics Designer – Arturo Lindbergh
Motion Graphics Designer – Ryan Jones
Director of Film and Motion – Dave Shuff
Senior Project Manager – Joel Wasko
Associate Director of Technology – Jesse Fulton
Strategist – Thijs Van de Wouw
VP, Strategy – Sam Kennedy
Account Supervisor – Lauren Curtis
Social Media Strategist – Ben Lewis
Social Media Strategist – Justin Fitzwater
Community Manager – Kurt Wendler
SVP, Brand Marketing and Communications – Michele Wyman
Senior Director, Talent Relations – Missy Mele
Director, Brand Marketing and Communications – Mark Van Lommel
Director, Talent Relations – Jonathan Kichaven
Senior Account Executive, Talent Relations – Ashley Studer
Program Manager – Chong Kim
Account Executive, Brand Marketing and Communications – Renee Felton
Engineering Lead – James Chalfant
Writer – Scott Ganz
Writer – Dan Clegg