By now, I’m sure most of you have seen the cross promotion of Mountain Dew (excuse me, “Mtn Dew”), Doritos and Modern Warfare 3. For those of you that haven’t, let me quickly sum it up: you gain double XP for a specific amount of time as you purchase these Pepsi products. The problem is three fold. To begin, the most obvious is that it promotes poor health, encouraging people to eat and drink more of this crap in order for a small XP boost. The second is also quite clear, and the one that has been most discussed; the use of external cash to gain a direct advantage in competitive multiplayer. If this were the true Infinity Ward, I wouldn’t be quite so worried, as Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare was an example of an incredibly well balanced competitive first person shooter with a leveling mechanic. However, I can not be sure that this won’t hurt the initial balance of the game, though as a realist, it is easy to see that the actual XP wont hurt the gameplay in the long run. What it will hurt is the gamer.
But my biggest issue lies in the image this presents. We, as gamers, have collectively fought the “fat nerd” stereotype for as long as games have existed. It appeared as if we were finally getting over that one. Then some ridiculous promotion such as this will come along and reinforce that stereotype in the minds of parents and marketers. I remember the launch of Halo 3 and the Mountain Dew variety of “Game Fuel.” That was annoying, and did little to improve our image, but I don’t think it hurt quite as much. With this, the insinuation that gamers will purchase anything to “improve” their game hurts a lot, for several reasons.
To start, through Pepsi, Activision is essentially insulting its customers. They are selling you a product that is not only bad for your health, but something that you don’t actually need. Leveling up in the Call of Duty games, or any game for that matter, is not that hard. In fact it is already designed as a reward for your growing skill and your way of learning the game. Even if you’re bad the game compensates. Double XP is a backhanded insult to those willing to purchase it, a base insinuation that you should purchase these products because they won’t make you better, but they will give you the neater toys without you having to earn them. A Double XP Weekend does not share this trait as it is open to everyone, and thus the playing field, the balance, is kept level. Activision is basically saying their customers are really that gullible, that this is a promotion that gamers will go for, because they don’t care about skill or earning something when they can spend an extra $5 or $10 to get something that much quicker.
This promotion is further disturbing because it basically tells us that they legitimately don’t care about their consumers, viewing them not as people, but as money. A lot of corporations do this for sure. It is the reason they exist. But it is rather insulting to see it be done so blatantly. As Paul Tassi said in his thought provoking article at Forbes, this crosses a line. We, as gamers, already knew we were being exploited. We clearly have disposable income enough to buy $60 games, so we are targeted for campaigns like this. But it insults our intelligence, and not just our skill.
This cash in comes after the almost equally insulting Call of Duty: Elite service, which Activision scrambled to make viable; in the long run saving the purchasers of the service $10 (off of the already overpriced DLC packs), which they can presumably be expected to use to buy Mountain Dew and Doritos. Even the pre-order bonuses that EA was going to offer with Battlefield 3 weren’t this egregious. They might give some small advantage, but in a game like Call of Duty, XP is essentially the core of the game. It is why people play.
Don’t get me wrong though, I am under no illusion; this will not break the game. Some people will level up artificially, but that isn’t the real problem. Again, the problem is how much it uses and insults customers of Activision. Other companies have made similar moves, but none have ever come so close to affecting a game though. EA had a cross promotion with Dr. Pepper, on all their bottles you could get in game items. However, none of these items really affected a multiplayer mode quite so much as XP does. In fact, few if any, of the items really did (a new car for Shift 2 or an armor item for Shepard in Mass Effect 2). I’m okay with those promotions, because they don’t break the game, and also because they were available on the Diet varieties of the soda, which, while not much better, were at least trying. Further, while they offer items for Battlefield 3, these items are presumably not game defining like additional XP is. Plus, frankly, Dr. Pepper does not present the same image of the fat nerd locked in his basement with a case of Mountain Dew and Doritos. And as previously stated, at least the World of Warcraft and Halo 3 varieties of Mountain Dew Game Fuel did not affect the games.
So far I have refrained from what I feel to be the worst part of this exploitation: the fact that this marketing campaign is wholly unnecessary and reeks of sheer greed on the part of Activision. While it may seem hard to blame them, they are a corporation after all, and they exist to make money, it does not make it any less scummy. People have called this “selling out.” While that is accurate, it is also unrealistic. A companies job is essentially to sell out. The problem lies in their inability to show restraint, to hurt their image and the image of their customer, likely in the long run, in the chase for the dollar in the short run. Call of Duty: Black Ops sold $360 Million worth of copies in its first 24 hours. To put those sales in perspective, that is $60 million dollars more in one day than Microsoft’s mega release, Gears of War 3, sold in its entire launch week. Modern Warfare 3 is apparently on pace to break Black Ops’ first day sales. So this just seems like a totally unnecessary cash in and unrestrained greed.
It is a culmination of everything that Activision has been doing over the years. We know that Activision CEO Bobby Kotick wants to exploit his franchises. Tony Hawk and Guitar Hero are proof enough of that. As soon as competition was introduced to those franchises, they collapsed as Skate and Rock Band appeared. Activision clearly didn’t learn, as the promotions for Modern Warfare 3 continue to grow while the game appears to be mostly stagnant. Don’t get me wrong, I still want to play Modern Warfare 3, but I don’t think I want to play it online, and I’m certainly reluctant to buy it new now. Frankly, I don’t want to support this kind of clearly harmful business model, one that does not respect me or the games I want to play.