Activision Publishing is about to kick its marketing for Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare into high gear with its big fan event next week, Call of Duty XP. Just like its predecessor event in 2011, the XP event will draw thousands of rabid Call of Duty fans to watch the finals of the Call of Duty World Championships and to get a download on Infinite Warfare.
Eric Hirshberg, CEO of Activision Publishing explained in an exclusive interview with GamesBeat why the big company skipped a booth at the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) show in June in favor of the Labor Day weekend event in Los Angeles. This time, all of the forces came together for big reveals in September, the finals of the year-long esports tournament, and a need to stay in touch with influencers and hardcore fans in the most engaging way, Hirshberg said in our interview.
It’s a big bet, but Call of Duty XP was a spectacular event back in 2011. If Activision can pull off something similar, it could gain an advantage over rivals like Battlefield 1 as it approaches the Nov. 4 launched date of Infinite Warfare.
Part of the challenge will be to convince fans that Infinite Warfare, which has a sci-fi setting, is still going to appeal to players who have enjoyed the modern warfare setting for the past nine years. And if fans really want to stick with the modern warfare setting, they can play Call of Duty Modern Warfare Remastered, which will be available as part of the Deluxe and Legacy versions, as well as the new Zombies cooperative play mode.
Here’s an edited transcript of our conversation.
GamesBeat: Why revive Call of Duty XP this year, and why skip E3 this year?
Eric Hirshberg: First of all, we didn’t skip E3. We skipped having a booth at E3. We were at E3 in a reduced way compared to years past, but we were on Sony’s stage with the grand reveal. We were in Sony’s booth. We had lots of activity behind the scenes. I understand the question, though, and the answer is simple.
First of all, we looked at all the things, all the stars that were aligning for Call of Duty around September. We had all these reveals coming for the game. We have this incredible second offer this year with Modern Warfare Remastered coming online around the same time. And this year is the inaugural year of the Call of Duty World League. We had our first championships slated around the same time. We felt like, with a great new game from Infinity Ward with Infinite Warfare, alongside one of the greatest games ever made, also made by Infinity Ward, being remastered, alongside our biggest esports event ever — there were a lot of stars aligning for September. Let’s bring back Call of Duty XP and make this the ultimate fan celebration.
GamesBeat: You had a big year with Black Ops III. I wonder what changes that’s driven for the Call of Duty community. What’s going strong as far as where the franchise’s momentum is right now?
Hirshberg: The momentum has never been stronger, honestly. We have record engagement with the franchise right now. Black Ops III has been incredibly sticky. If you listened to our earnings call, you know that the first half of the year was a record for the Call of Duty franchise. We’ve figured out this great cadence with our community, delivering this steady stream of great content with a variety of gameplay. We have MP, Zombies, loot chases for them to engage with. Where a lot of franchises have struggled in that area, Call of Duty has figured out this great constant stream of content to keep our fans engaged. There’s always something new to do. You see that in the results.
GamesBeat: My first reaction when I heard about the game was, “Hey, this is going to be more sci-fi than modern warfare. I’m not sure if I’ll like it.” I think a fair amount of fans felt that way as well. What’s still to come that can convince them this will still be Call of Duty?
Hirshberg: The more people see of this game, the more they like it. Of course you’re correct about initial reactions. There were a lot of assumptions at the beginning. We aimed to make this a Call of Duty game — something with the visceral authenticity and impact and pace of a Call of Duty game, all the things you expect from the franchise — just in a new theater and setting.
The reasons to go into this new setting and time frame were really driven by gameplay innovations that the studio wanted to create. When we showed our first eight-minute playthrough of uninterrupted gameplay at E3, people started to say, “Okay, I get why they did this.” We’re doing things in this game that we simply couldn’t do in a different setting that look really fun, that are new and well-executed.
The franchise has gone into different areas of fiction before. If you were just to describe it in an elevator, it would sound like science fiction, but we’ve always found a way to make it feel authentic, plausible, and military. As you saw in the E3 and Comic-Con playthroughs, this feels more like war and less like science fiction. It’s the Call of Duty style, but in a whole new setting.
The eight minutes of gameplay we showed at E3 was the highest positive sentiment we’ve ever seen coming out of E3 for the franchise. The 12 minutes of gameplay we showed at Comic-Con also set a new high-water mark for sentiment in the press coming out of that event. A lot more of that is yet to come. We’re holding way more back for later in the calendar year than we have in past years. One driver there is what you mentioned about engagement with Black Ops III. We want to keep our community focused on that content. But also, we knew we were doing Call of Duty XP. We’re doing some major reveals there that, in past years, would have happened already.
Not only are we revealing Infinite Warfare’s multiplayer for the first time, in the same day players are going hands-on. We’ll be revealing multiplayer in Modern Warfare Remastered, and in the same day they’ll walk up and go hands-on. We’ll let people go hands-on with Zombies for the first time. We also have reveals for campaign in Infinite Warfare and Modern Warfare Remastered. We have a lot of powder dry in terms of the big curiosity-driving, motivating assets for these games that in past years we would have shown already.
GamesBeat: How do you level up the XP event compared to past events? What’s going to be different that will help magnify the impact?
Hirshberg: You can imagine how hard the creative brief was, having been there yourself, to figure out a way to go bigger than the first time. But I think we’ve managed to do that. The primary way we’re doing that is by making this event one and the same with the World League championships. More than a billion minutes of Call of Duty World League content have been viewed this year. Each phase has set a new high mark for us in esports engagement with the Call of Duty franchise. We fully expect that the 100 hours of competition live streamed at Call of Duty XP will set the new high mark as our most engaging and most viewed esports event ever.
That’s a huge escalation, but then we’re surrounding it with not only a lot of the same things people can expect if they came to Call of Duty XP last time — tremendous hands-on access with the game — but also, we have a new virtual reality experience where you get to fly the Jackal from Infinite Warfare in PlayStation VR. We have a new Zombies laser tag event that’s like nothing you’ve ever seen, Zombies in Spaceland laser tag. We have Juggernaut cage fighting. We have a paintball stadium that’s a life-size replica of Nuketown, the franchise’s most played map ever. We have ziplines.
This thing has leapt out of video games into the real world. It’s going to provide a theme park or two’s worth of entertainment, as well as more playable content than we’ve ever had at any event in our history.
GamesBeat: The VR demo sounds like you could experiment there, test whether that could be a real product.
Hirshberg: Sure. We’re making it for XP. It’s an exclusive experience for the fans who attend. But of course it also might have applications elsewhere. We’ll see where it goes.
GamesBeat: The idea of fan engagement, do you look at it as similar to the way a lot of other companies are doing this now, like Riot Games has with League of Legends? Or do you think you have a unique twist or viewpoint on an event like XP and the championships coming together?
Hirshberg: The company acquired MLG, as you know, not too long ago. We have ambitions to not just create esports content within our games, but also a great platform for esports overall with those talented folks. Of course they’ve been involved in helping us optimize Call of Duty XP and the Call of Duty World League. Our teams have been at it for a long time. We’ve made Call of Duty the most-watched shooter on console for quite some time. But we’ve amped it this year with the formal introduction of the league.
The tournament at Call of Duty XP last time was almost a novelty. It was a one-off. Esports was still nascent at that point. It wasn’t the culmination of a year-long competition like this year’s will be. We have 32 teams ready. The scale of it, the level of polish and professionalism and watchability — we’re turning it all up a notch.
GamesBeat: Modern Warfare Remastered is a pretty big bonus for this year’s game. Is this something you think fans are demanding? Also, is this a way to satisfy those Call of Duty gamers that want to stay in the modern setting instead of going sci-fi?
Hirshberg: You can pretty much remove the question mark from the question. It’s our biggest bonus content ever, our most valuable bonus content. We’ve had collector’s editions that have been creative and well-received. But this is taking the place of things in the past like night-vision goggles or GoPro cameras or Juggernaut refrigerators for your game room. This year we’re offering an entire remastered, beautiful version of one of the greatest games of all time.
We’re thrilled to offer it to the community, because we do know there are people who love and appreciate that classic gameplay, and of course, it offers a way to satisfy all of our fans, no matter which style of gameplay they’re looking for. The combination of the two games is really what drove us. We have a new creative vision for Infinite Warfare paired with one of our most beloved games brought to life in a new way.
As far as our fans demanding this now — this was something we wanted to do for the fans, to offer a package that has something for everyone.
GamesBeat: It seems like Remastered is a benefit of the three-year development cycle. Was that a factor? Has that given you any other advantages?
Hirshberg: There are plenty of benefits, starting with all the innovations you see in Infinite Warfare. Figuring out how to make zero-G gameplay as fun as you’ve seen in the E3 reveal, making the dogfighting work in space. Just the fact that this is the first non-Treyarch title that has Zombies on the disc, and it’s a full, deep Zombies mode with lots of breadth and depth done by Infinity Ward with a fresh creative take on it — those are all benefits of the three-year cycle.
But certainly we never would have been able to offer this in the same collector’s edition SKU alongside Modern Warfare Remastered if we didn’t have that extra time to get this stuff right. Especially something like Modern Warfare Remastered. You can’t do that lightly. It’s one of those games that’s sort of carved into Mount Rushmore. We have to sweat every pixel, and that’s what the team has done.
GamesBeat: Do you think you are able to distinguish a personality for each studio by now?
Hirshberg: The good news is that each studio knows how to deliver a great Call of Duty game, first and foremost. That’s probably the most important thing. This game has a pace and impact, a feel on the sticks, that no one’s been able to match in the shooter genre. We have three great lead studios and beyond who know how to deliver that content. But I also think each has their own distinct creative instincts and strengths that have allowed us to keep this thing fresh for way longer than anyone thought we could.
You’ve seen us take some creative risks. You’ve seen us take the franchise to places where it hasn’t been before. You’ve seen us introduce new mechanics and experiment. Those are benefits that come from having independently-minded, extremely talented different creative studios all riffing on the theme, all working on this great franchise.
It’s also a benefit, as I’ve said before, that we get the increased development time. That allows for more experimentation, more iteration, more things that are tried and discarded, more things that are tried and embraced. All of that adds up to this balancing act, which I think is unique to Call of Duty. We have this game that people love, that has a very well-established set of expectations. That mostly comes from the way the game feels and plays. And then we also have this need to continue to innovate and keep it fresh, keep people coming back for more. Getting those things into perfect balance is a huge creative challenge for any group. Our teams have done it better than anyone.
GamesBeat: Your list of attendees is going to be very different this time, with all the live streamers and the YouTubers and influencers that are now so prevalent.
Hirshberg: Call of Duty XP, the last time we did it, was actually an early bellwether for things to come. The event was not only well-attended by traditional journalists and media outlets. I’m sure the record’s been broken since then, but at the time our keynote presentation was the second most-viewed live stream in history, after the royal wedding. We really did supercharge that event online through social media and through the streaming channels that were prevalent at the time. Even though it was five years ago, I think we were on this trend early as far as the way we were marketing the game, using online channels as a forum for our fans and influencers to amplify our message.
This time we’ve poured a lot of gas on the fire. That’s where culture is happening. That’s where people are interacting, getting their news, deep diving into their hobbies and their interests and their passions. Call of Duty XP this year will be purpose-built to be shared and spread and talked about online.