How Activision is teasing its new ‘Call of Duty’ title with easter eggs and chatbots

“Call of Duty” is more than just a game; it’s a massive entertainment franchise. The blockbuster videogame series has made over $11 billion dollars for its parent company Activision since the first installment came out in 2003, according to shareholder reports last December. Industry estimates place earnings at a slightly lower $9.7 billion.

So it’s little wonder that Activision is already throwing a lot of weight behind marketing the release of the 2016 CoD title, “Infinite Warfare,” coming out in November. In collaboration with agency AKQA, the company has gamified popular digital platforms like Twitter, Instagram and Facebook Messenger to reach players everywhere.

“Our goal is to extend [the ‘Call of Duty’ experience] to the places where the fans are,” said Nick Strada, group creative director for AKQA. “We are gamers ourselves, so we have an intuitive understanding of what’s awesome and what would not work. Basically, if something feels like marketing, it’s probably wrong.”

Some things have indeed gone wrong: The reveal trailer for the 2016 CoD title Infinite Warfare is, well, bombing on YouTube (as of today, 335,522 downvotes compared to 181,904 up). “I’m not unhappy because it’s another futuristic call of duty (although 90 percent of people is unhappy because of that). I’m unhappy because it looks outright boring,” commenter V77710 wrote. It’s unclear which company produced this trailer for Activision, but AKQA swears it wasn’t them.

Activision’s first marketing installment for Infinite Warfare — a four-day “Hostile Takeover” puzzle for gamers inside the 2015 CoD title Black Ops 3 — was a much bigger hit, with more than 6 million messages exchanged between individual fans and the Lt. Reyes Messenger chatbot during the first 24 hours.

Here’s how the Facebook Messenger activation works: Last Friday morning, Infinite Warfare’s SetDef (a faction comprised of brutal and militant radicals) broke into a multiplayer map called Nuk3town in Black Ops 3, and left threatening messages all over the Black Ops 3 universe the next day.

On Sunday morning, Lt. Reyes, a hero from Infinite Warfare, directed players online to what he described as the only secure communications channel: Facebook Messenger. There, players could chat with Lt. Reyes (a chatbot account developed by PullString) and get assistance finding clues hidden within the game. Players who found the codes were able to unlock the Infinite Warfare reveal trailer an hour before it was officially out on Monday.

Looking back, Strada told Digiday that when his team designed the Facebook Messenger initiative for Infinite Warfare, they encountered a few challenges, including finding the right tone of voice, choosing the rules which govern the experience, and thinking of how CoD fans really behave. The team initially considered channels like SMS, Whatsapp, Instagram and Snapchat, but Messenger seemed like the right call.

“We are in the early, early days of the use of messaging and bots, and we wanted to start building those muscles,” he said. “We were doing it all with the knowledge that F8 (which happened in the middle of our production timeline) could introduce Messenger updates that would break everything we [had already] built.”

Of course, it’s not the first time that Activision has planted clues in an existing game to tease an upcoming game. When Black Ops 3 was released last year, the company embedded Snapcodes into various locations in Black Ops 2. Players who found the codes and scanned them were taken directly to the CoD Snapchat account where the first cryptic clues about Black Ops 3 were waiting to be decoded.

Viral campaigns and easter eggs aside, Activision has brought in celebrities like Sam Worthington, Michael B. Jordan, and Cara Delevingne to star in CoD trailers. The company has also turned to eSports to drive engagement of CoD year-round. “Activision’s great work for Call of Duty could really serve as a case study to someone like Warner Brothers, which arguably struggled to balance appealing to hard core fans and general audiences with its Batman v. Superman release,” said Rich Guest, president of U.S. operations at agency Tribal Worldwide.

Activision’s marketing and sales expenses reached $734 million last year, up 3 percent from a year prior. Its net revenues increased slightly for 2015, as compared to 2014, primarily due to higher revenues from the Call of Duty franchise, says the company’s annual report.

AKQA’s Strada declined to delve into details on what’s next after the four-day “Hostile Takeover” puzzle, saying that fans can expect Activision to “continue to raise the bar” and his team is already working with the company “on ways to make that happen.”

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