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We Need To Talk About Drones: Behind Call Of Duty's Uncomfortably Real War "Documentary"

The campaign for Activision’s highly anticipated Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 uses a faux documentary starring Oliver North to posit a near-future nightmare war scenario.

Activision’s Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 is months away from its November 13 release date but already has the gaming community buzzing about its near-future war premise—a considerable leap from the franchise’s previous Cold War storyline and a concept that lent itself nicely to a scary promotional campaign from 72andSunny.

In addition to gameplay-driven trailers, created by 72 and The Ant Farm, the layered push crosses television and the Internet with original content including an unbranded teaser from YouTube star FPSRussia and, now, a two-minute "documentary" featuring Oliver North, combat decorated marine, military historian, and Fawn Hall boss, and P.W. Singer, future war expert and author. The combo ad/documentary, "The War of the Future," plays up Black Ops 2's plausible scenario of our advanced combat technology falling into enemy hands. The doc, like the game’s trailer released earlier in the week, addresses the rapid development of military tech—unmanned drones, robot armies, lasers, invisible tanks— and the possibility of its being turned against its creators. Iran/Contra perpetrator turned game spokesman North says in the doc, "I don’t think the average American grasps how violent war is about to become." And while one might argue that war has always been fairly violent, the point is taken—that the horrific downside to futuristic military tech is no longer all that hard to imagine.

"The premise of the game is rooted in what’s going on today," says Jason Norcross, partner and creative director at 72andSunny. "If you look around, it seems as if our armed forces are becoming more and more filled with drones and A.I., painting the picture of 'what if’—what if things go bad with the direction we’re heading."

Known for consulting the likes of real military types such as retired Lt. Col. Hank Keirsey and retired Maj. John Plaster to ensure historical and combat accuracy, Activision and developer Treyarch Studios brought in North and Singer to ground Black Ops 2's storyline and weaponry in legitimacy, providing Norcross and his team fodder for "War of the Future."

“We were inspired by [North and Singer], so we thought this should be a part of the marketing campaign," says Norcross. "What’s compelling about the game is that it’s rooted in reality, so part of the marketing should evoke that same feeling." The two-minute version of the documentary was edited down from 10 minutes with the extra assets providing an interactive viewing experience on Call of Duty’s YouTube landing page. Turning on the feature brings up bonus footage that correlates to the action in the trailer, taking the viewer deeper inside what to expect come November.

An earlier campaign component was fittingly stealthy. As part of the strategy of imbuing the game with a sense of authenticity, 72andSunny tapped Kyle Myers, better known as FPSRussia, to create a seemingly real demo of a futuristic-looking weapon. FPSRussia (who isn’t actually Russian) has garnered a massive following by shooting guns and blowing up anything and everything. In the cleverly disguised teaser, FPSRussia demos a machine gun-equipped quadrotor he calls "Charlene" for what appears to be yet another carnage-ridden upload until a passing Call of Duty plug at the end.

The unbranded video leveraged Myers’ huge YouTube audience—his channel has close to 3 million subscribers and 400+ million video views (the Quadrotor video has been viewed over 8 million times since it went up just over a week ago—and added another original content layer to appeal to COD fans and new gamers alike. "Call of Duty has such a rabid community, 30 million strong, and they’re constantly looking around for little tidbits," Norcross says. "With all this future tech and weaponry, we thought, 'How can we leak this out in a fun way?'"

72andSunny’s work on the Black Ops 2 is just the latest game op for the agency, which also engineered the “Vet and the N00b” campaign starring Jonah Hill for Modern Warfare 3. This time around, says Norcross, there was a farther-reaching partnership with Treyarch and Activision. Since this a reveal campaign with more ads to follow closer to the game’s release date, Norcross and his crew have had the unique experience of building a marketing strategy around a product that’s still in development.

One of the most talked-about elements of the Black Ops 2’s campaign as has been the return of once-presumed dead Sgt. Frank Woods, a central figure in Black Ops, acting as narrator for the trailer, co-created by 72 and The Ant Farm. "We had to write those scenes and do do a special [motion-capture] session—it’s really remarkable how collaborative it is and how much input you get when [the game] is still in its formative stages.”

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3 Comments

  • Thomas O'Hearn

    Well, here's the thing. I don't care who is selling the game. What do you guys think about the technology?

    I run the UAV Pilot Network at UAVpilot.net, the Editor-in-Chief of Wired magazine runs a DIY drone website...the technology isn't decades away. Maybe that specific item - a HUMAN-controlled armed quadrotor - but computer-guided is something else entirely.

    There is a slew of technology available that makes these things this century's guided missile. From tracking, to identifying, to pursuing, to engaging.

    I for one support it. It's some scary sh*t to alot of people, but I'm a combat veteran with a Bronze Star with Valor. Combat is some scary shit. Collateral damage, friendly fire, innocents lost...these drones can reduce those horrors of war. At what risk our souls, or making it easier for us to inflict violence on others... I don't know, above my paygrade.

    Other benefits, in the civilian world, are amazing. It's more than quadrotors. Drones are being used everywhere, to track the weather, to track irrigation pipes in Israel, to explore, to discover, to maintain, to connect, to ship... 

    Maybe next year we'll be writing about a UAV Pilot game, much like MS Flight Sim influenced so many kids. Less the crazy combat killing machines, more the future of what is coming with unmanned vehicles.

  • Jeff Goodby

    Great. Use a convicted felon to sell your games. A guy who lied to our elected representatives to funnel arms to illegal insurgents. A guy who did business with our supposed enemy, Iran. A traitor, in other words. Good job. 

  • B1ff

    Look on the bright side: he's been reduced from being a powerful leader of our armed forces to working as a glorified toy salesman. If he's got a shred of honor, he knows he's disgracing himself. If he doesn't, he's not worth crying over.