Call of Duty Modern Warfare 2 was the most successful game launch of all time, based on how quickly it sold 15 million units and generated more than $1 billion for Activision Blizzard. The developers, Infinity Ward, made a great game that became a “category killer” in the modern combat genre.

But the marketing campaign behind the title also had a lot to do with the success. Rob Troy, executive creative director at ad agency The Ant Farm, described the thinking behind the campaign in a panel at the MI6 game marketing conference yesterday. The Los Angeles ad agency, known for its high-profile work, had been working with Call of Duty since the inception of the original game in 2003.

In some ways, the marketing of Modern Warfare 2 was easy. The game already had huge buzz because of the popularity of its 2007 version, Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, which sold well over 13 million units. But many game sequels fail to capture a bigger audience than the original game. The goal of the marketing campaign was to spread the word far and wide that this would be a better experience.

“There was an enormous amount of pressure on how to [improve] the brand with Modern Warfare 2,” Troy said (pictured).

Well before the game was anywhere near done, Troy’s team got access to the script, art work, animated scenes and other materials. While the game studio focused on finishing the game, the ad team focused on putting together a series of animated cut scenes, or segments of the game, depicting furious action. It took about six to eight hours for the ad team to extract each of the scenes they wanted from the unfinished game material.

For the first long video trailer last spring, well ahead of the November game launch, the agency wanted to get gamers emotionally attached to the game, so that by the end of it they’d want to “go out and kick some ass.” One of the big things revealed in the first trailer was that the fighting would take place on U.S. soil, meaning most U.S. gamers would feel like they were defending their homeland.

Troy noted that while a lot of the different scenes of the game were revealed in the early trailer, there was a certain amount of trickery. If you stitched them altogether, you would assume that terrorists spurred a conflict between the U.S. and Russia. But the plot of the game is not as simple as that, so use of so many scenes does not, in fact, spoil the story.

Then the agency did another major video trailer, titled Infamy, which debuted on TV about a month before the game launched. The trailer depicted fierce combat and pounding music as battles raged in a completely devastated Washington, D.C. It inspired a massive jump in pre-orders for the game on the night it aired. Millions of people sought out more information about the game on the web after it ran. People tried to figure out the story, but there were enough misdirections that it was impossible for anyone to truly figure out what was going on.

Indeed, nobody figured out exactly what was happening in a civilian massacre that was shown in much of the material that was available ahead of the launch. That part of the game created a huge controversy when it was leaked out on the web shortly before the game launched on Nov. 10. In that scene, the player acts as a U.S. undercover agent and participates in a terrorist massacre of civilians at a Russian airport. The massacre triggers a war between the U.S. and Russia. There was so much outrage over the scene that Activision Blizzard put an option at the beginning of the game to allow players to skip that scene if they wanted.

“There was this massive backlash when that [massacre] footage was leaked, but our team was a bit bemused by it because we had been showing this stuff for eight months,” Troy said.

Of course, gamers and the public at large were completely surprised at how the game put the player in the role of a terrorist.

A lot of the scenes were so horrific that they shouldn’t have worked as a good commercial, at least on paper. The point of showing the bad guys doing so much harm on U.S. soil was to convince the players that the terrorist group was so intent on its mission that they would stop at nothing, and that you, as the player, really had to stop them, Troy said.

On launch day itself, Activision Blizzard rolled out a 30-second TV commercial that showed the combat set to the hip-hop music of Eminem. That choice of music worked for that spot, Troy said, but it was another risk among many because the franchise had never been associated with hip-hop music before.

In spite of the massacre scene, or perhaps because of the controversy around it, or perhaps because of the quality of the game play itself, or because the marketers took so many risks, the game became a gigantic hit. The game got unprecedented buzz and enough momentum to become known the world over. As good as the campaign was, it didn’t win top honors at yesterday’s marketing conference. The best overall marketing award went to Ubisoft for Assassin’s Creed II.

Here are videos of Troy on stage with moderator Geoff Keighley of Game Trailers TV with Geoff Keighley at the MI6 conference yesterday in San Francisco. (Warning: the scenes from this mature-rated scene are very violent).

Part 1

Part 2


GamesBeat Black Friday Gift Guide: Everything we recommend this holiday season