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Social Modern Warfare: Combatting the Information Leak

Call of Duty has become one of the largest franchises in entertainment, and the yearly iteration from publisher Activision breaks multiple sales records nearly without fail. Recently a massive information leak threatened to reveal this year’s Call of Duty title before Activision was ready. How Activision handled the situation should be regarded as a masterwork of public relations and social media implementation.

It’s no secret that I’m the biggest videogame fanatic at Standing Dog. So when I heard that details on Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 had leaked, I jumped on the info. I could bore you with the details about the new gameplay modes, settings and characters, but I won’t, because that’s not what we’re focused on here. The issue is that this information leaked before Activision was ready.

If this was just your average videogame, a leak might not seem like a major concern, but this is Call of Duty. Love it or hate it, the game has become a cultural phenomenon around the world, not to mention the cornerstone of Activision’s earnings— for instance, last year’s Call of Duty: Black Ops earned $360 million in its first 24 hours. But the most impressive part is how tightly Activision controls the information of each game’s release, revealing information when it feels fit. That said, I was interested to see how the publisher would handle this rare leak.

A bit of back story: there is a lot of uncertainty surrounding this year’s Call of Duty game. The original developer Infinity Ward underwent a substantial shakeup following its previous game, Modern Warfare 2 (2009). Multiple developers are reportedly working on this year’s game, and Black Ops, while financially successful, has received numerous criticisms for not being as polished as previous games in the seven part series. Presumably, Activision wanted to introduce Modern Warfare 3 on its own terms, but unfortunately, that was not to be the case.

The initial leak occurred on May 13, approximately a month before the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3)—the gaming industry’s biggest conference. And what a leak it was: the information revealed everything from new game modes to the setting and individual scenes in the game. The release date, previously listed simply as fall 2011, became a definite November 8. Everything seemed to be spiraling out of control for Activision and its developers.

Then the gaming studio took control with calculated moves that its own virtual Marines would be proud of.

The game’s developers released teaser trailers and promoted them through their Facebook and YouTube pages. Since fans were already salivating over the leaked information, they immediately jumped on the teasers and Activision reaped the results. The Modern Warfare 3 teaser trailers received millions of views—at the time of this writing the American version has nearly four million by itself. (In comparison, the Black Ops and Modern Warfare 2 teaser trailers received only—yes, only—tens of thousands of views.) At the same time, the Creative Strategist Robert Bowling quickly reached out to fans via Twitter and took control of the situation, answering questions and dispelling rumors. His facts were retweeted and dispersed. Finally, Activision released an additional (juicier) trailer during the NBA Western Conference Finals.

While these releases may have been ahead of schedule, the ultimate effect has been an increase in anticipation unmatched by any other forthcoming videogame (and possibly movie or album, if one can measure hype). Suddenly, Modern Warfare 3 is everywhere: the day after the leak, GameStop announced that pre-orders can now be placed, and pre-sales pushed the forthcoming Call of Duty title into Amazon’s top 5 bestsellers list. Quite an accomplishment for a game that still has nearly six more months of development, right?

In my opinion, Activision managed to turn a potentially damaging situation into a marketing push. Modern Warfare 3 went from unknown to the center of the videogame world. Some may say that this was inevitable because of the Call of Duty franchise’s success, but I would argue that Activision’s smart actions revitalized its fan base. Realizing how much fans were dying for information, the company managed to provide flashy trailers that didn’t reveal much and diverted fan attention away from the leaked information.

The company’s quick response and willingness to reach out to fans particularly on Twitter created legions of informed individuals—soldiers, if you will. This ragtag troupe/troop divided and conquered across all instances of Modern Warfare 3-related information and was quick to point out unconfirmed details, false rumors and fake videos. They basically did the job for Activision’s PR staff, turning this leak into a huge hype machine.