How 'Modern Warfare 2' Vanquished 'Harry Potter'

Activision Video-Game Blitz Pays Big With $550M Launch

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DOUBLE DUTY: Activision's first-person shooter game wasn't marketed as such.
DOUBLE DUTY: Activision's first-person shooter game wasn't marketed as such.
NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- How does a video game rack up more revenue in five days than "Harry Potter" or "Spider-Man"? By going after Hollywood's audience.

"Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2" might be a traditional, hardcore shooter game, but its marketing didn't treat it as such. The result was the biggest entertainment launch ever, according to publisher Activison Blizzard. It claims "MW2" brought in $550 million in software sales worldwide, enough to best the previous five-day global sales record holders from both the movie and gaming industries: "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince" grossed $394 million in global box-office sales and "Grand Theft Auto IV" snared $500 million.

"We have managed to market the game to a wider base," said Brad Jakeman, chief creative officer of Activision Publishing, who leads the company's marketing efforts. "We're starting to see what used to be a niche form of entertainment rise to challenge theatrical audiences."

Starting in the development stage, "Call of Duty" exploited the notion that video-game graphics and narratives have become so cinematic and sophisticated that they resemble feature films. And in the end, the marketing highlighted action and adventure scenes, with the idea that fans of action flicks would be lured to the game.

"It plays like a movie," Mr. Jakeman said, and one reviewer from the San Francisco Chronicle concurred. The game borrows "freely from movies like 'Goldeneye' and 'The Rock,'" he wrote.

While many video-game publishers have drastically cut back on their use of mass-market TV, Activision ran high-profile spots of game footage from Ant Farm, Los Angeles, during the NBA conference finals and Sunday NFL games to drive awareness among a larger potential audience. Mediaedge:cia handled media.

Activision didn't ignore core gamers for the launch, however, and social media was a huge help in reaching them. It started driving buzz for the game in March using game developer Infinity Ward's extensive presence on Twitter and YouTube -- Infinity has more than 120,000 Twitter followers and 112,000 YouTube channel subscribers -- to find gamers where they're already gathering. It racked up its own 400,000 friends on Facebook, 4.8 million views of the launch trailer and countless tweets tagged #MW2.

And it emphasized the game's multiplayer game-play, believing it would peak to social-networking audiences, Mr. Jakeman said. "A solitary activity turns into a social activity," he said. "People can connect with friends through the video game." On Xbox Live, the Microsoft game console's internet-enabled network service, "MW2" players clocked more than 5.2 million multiplayer hours on the launch day in November, and it set a one-day record for Xbox Live: 2.2 million unique gamers played "MW2" on launch day.

That's Entertainment chartEnlarge
THAT'S ENTERTAINMENT! How some movie, video game launches stack up in worldwide sales.

Activision also tapped retail partners such as Best Buy, GameStop and Walmart to support the launch. With the Martin Agency, Walmart created TV spots and webisodes hosted on a "MW2" page on its brand site, featuring the "Smack Talk" guys (see story, P. 4), two characters originally created for EA Sports' "Madden '09" spots. (While the game was sold out in some stores, Mr. Jakeman said that inventory shortages were not purposeful.) Though it did not do the launch ads, strategic agency TBWA/Chiat/Day, Los Angeles was integral in setting the course for the launch, said Mr. Jakeman, adding that this is only the beginning for "MW2" marketing.

"We are challenging the industry convention of marketing that ends with the launch," Mr. Jakeman said. "As a franchise, this is going to be something that lives for quite some time. So we intend to support that with marketing efforts that last."

Some entertainment-industry trackers, such as Brandon Gray, president of Box Office Mojo, are skeptical of comparisons that pit the box office against video games, which have a price point at least eight times that of movie tickets -- "MW2" costs $59.99; a theater trade group's U.S. average price of a movie ticket was $7.18 in 2008.

Activision's half-billion sales estimates also include "Prestige" editions of the game, which retail for more than $150 and include branded night-vision goggles -- Activision declined to report how much special editions account for. So, while Activision can claim greater gross sales than production studios, it doesn't necessarily translate to larger audiences. Video games do, however, benefit from pass-along. Research from 2007 on "Call of Duty 3" found that with only 2 million units in the market, the game had reached nearly 9 million gamers.

Unit sales aside, the very fact Activision is positioning a high-quality graphics, first-person shooter game as a wide entertainment release is a sign gaming has busted out of its pimply-teen-in-the-basement origins. And indeed, the video-game industry's sales have rivaled Hollywood's for years -- 2004 U.S. sales of digital game items exceeded national box-office receipts.

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