INTERVIEW: Michaël Sportouch

You’ve recently changed roles. What does your job entail now?

Call of Duty’s global business unit is based in Santa Monica and is led by Philip Earl. I’m leading the business unit here in Europe. We have a team of dedicated core people working in each country – France, UK, Italy, Spain, Nordic, Germany, Benelux and so on. They are all thinking about the brand every day, how can we continue to develop it, how can we innovate, and talking with our retail partners every day.

Having a distinct focus is really important for us to continue to grow the brand and so that we know what the consumer is expecting in each country – because in Europe it’s a bit more complex than in the US; consumer perception of Call of Duty brand may differ slightly from one country to another.

This new organisation is giving us an increased focus to better serve the consumer and our retailers.

How has this changed your approach to the next Call of Duty?

The approach is not entirely different from what we’ve done in the past. It’s just a question of focus and increased resources to optimise the marketing and the PR on a title like Black Ops. And the fact we have the global business unit aligned with the studio means we have a much quicker line of communication, a much quicker reaction time to make decisions from a marketing point of view. Also when we see a marketing opportunity and an opportunity to communicate with our fanbase, there is a full alignment between Europe and US.

Some analysts have suggested that because of the increased competition this Christmas, Black Ops won’t hit the levels Modern Warfare 2 reached. Do you agree? Did Call of Duty peak last year?

Our mission is to continue to grow the franchise and we don’t see a peak at all. I think the resources we have invested in Black Ops in the development of the game and the marketing campaign are the highest ever for Activision. I’m not saying it is going to be easy because it’s never easy to beat a record, but the ambition is higher for many reasons. Firstly, Black Ops will benefit from a bigger PS3 and Xbox 360 installed base.

Also Black Ops will be available on more formats. Plus we have a fantastic game and a fantastic marketing campaign, so clearly our ambition is to set another record like we did with Modern Warfare 2.

As always the consumer will decide. But Call of Duty is one of the biggest entertainment brands globally and so we don’t only see competition within the games industry. Consumers can take their pound or their euro or their dollar and spend it on other entertainment opportunities such as movies, iPad and iPod. We don’t just see competition in the game environment.

What are you doing in terms of marketing for Black Ops?

With the global marketing campaign we have started very early. In the US we announced Black Ops through the reveal trailer during the NBA Finals, which was a big, big moment for the North American market – and in Europe we started the campaign concurrently as a digital campaign. So we have already invested a massive amount of money on digital. We use a tool called Brandwatch to measure how we are tracking in terms of buzz metrics. The Prestige Edition announcement created a massive amount of buzz online.

The plan has been, from May until launch, to surprise and delight our consumer with digital reveals.

Then there is the mainstream activity. On September 3rd, we are buying a 60-second commercial, during the England vs. Bulgaria Euro qualifier is our first mainstream communication around Black Ops in the UK. From there it’s going to be non-stop. I don’t want to reveal too much, but the plan is going to be massive and again it has already started and will grow even stronger and stronger.

Also this week we had the multiplayer reveal in LA for the press, where the studio is going to reveal some exciting new multi-player modes in Black Ops. Treyarch has invested an enormous amount of resources in the multiplayer and we think the community, the fans and the press will be really happy with what they have done.

Retail is a very important partner for us; an important part of our mix. The way we create big events at retail can really help us amplify everything we do with the media and community – something that is key and something we are doing to surprise and innovate. We have a strong campaign with in-store launches and in-store marketing for continuing momentum before and after the launch.

Are you concerned about the new Medal of Honor title?

We respect the competition and we don’t see the competition only coming from Medal of Honor; there will be other very strong titles in the market – Gran Turismo, Assassin’s Creed – all competing for consumers’ money. But we feel that Black Ops is a fantastic game. We are very proud of it and we have only announced a few elements, so I think in the next couple of weeks the community and the press will be really surprised. So to your question, we have no concern, we are ambitious and confident, but obviously we are looking at the competition and the market globally – and not only Medal of Honor.

Is there any chance of the brand crossing over into other areas?

At the moment, as far as I know, there’s no plan for books or movies. The clear focus is to continue to reinforce the gaming experience.

Our fans are spending millions of hours playing online. So our priority is to continue to improve their gaming experience and work out how we can continue to increase the appeal of the Call of Duty brand for the fans. This year, in the first half of 2010, Call of Duty was the number one franchise in value terms in Europe. Add Modern Warfare, Modern Warfare 2 and World at War and we have a very solid catalogue business.

Infinity Ward faced problems at the start of the year, and Sledgehammer is still starting up. What does that mean for Call of Duty in 2011?

At the moment the focus is on what we have announced – Call of Duty: Black Ops. Our ambition is not only to be the biggest game of this year, but also the biggest entertainment launch of the year. So this keeps us really busy to make sure we execute the best launch plan and continue to do very strong business on the DLC. DLC was a very big business in the first half of 2010 and we want to continue that momentum. We have a very strong catalogue activity on Modern Warfare 2 – we must never forget it is still selling in incredible numbers.

Three weeks ago it was back to number two in the UK charts – so from now until Christmas with the DLC, MW2 and Black Ops we have a lot to do. Our studios are working for the future of the brand but we have nothing to announce for next year for the moment.

Modern Warfare 2 and the DLC had premium prices. Does the success of both the game and the map packs prove that publishers can be more flexible in terms of what they charge for entertainment?

The key is always making sure value for money is right for the consumer. We sell millions of Call of Duty titles every year and we have lots of feedback from the community so this is something we are very careful with. If we feel that we are not going in the right direction with value for money then we are always open-minded.

If you take into account the amount of time people are playing on Call of Duty, it’s probably the best investment for the consumer.

Do we set the tone for the industry? Each publisher is free to decide what the best business model is for the company and we are always very careful when we make decisions about the price of the map pack, or the game.

Is there a pressure to generate as much revenue as you can from your tent-pole releases, given Guitar Hero sales slowing, and the challenges faced introducing new IP such as Blur and Singularity?

It’s more complex than that. Clearly it’s difficult in this market to launch successful new IPs and consumers, in a difficult economic environment, always go with what is a safe bet: a well known, well established franchise.

For me there is no connection between the two. When we think about the Call of Duty pricing, we are not thinking that because another game has underperformed we will charge higher for others. No, in isolation we need to make sure that when someone is buying a Call of Duty game, it’s the right value for money – and this is disconnected from the rest of our products.

Yes, it is not easy to launch a new IP but we have been and will continue to do so – we have been investing a lot as a company to launch new IPs. In the last year when we launched DJ Hero, it was a big bet with a new peripheral, and we’ve been pretty happy with the results so far. It’s a new concept and new idea, and last year it was the number one new IP in both Europe and North America. So it is a challenge pto successfully launch new IPs. But it can be done.

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