How Activision Invaded Black Ops 3 This Weekend to Begin the Marketing of Infinite Warfare

AKQA integrates Facebook Messenger into latest Call of Duty launch

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.

The new COD franchise

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.