Modern Warfare 3 leaks: how Activision turned a "little fire" into a firestorm

Call of Duty publisher "leaned into" MW3 reveals

Last May's thunderous Modern Warfare 3 leak was one of Activision's darkest hours, with plot, weapon, map, mode and release details going large on Father Internet, that friend of privacy and discretion.

To the publisher's credit, though, it took Kotaku's ball and ran with it, rushing out a bevy of teaser trailers the following day and shunting forward its reveal schedule by weeks. Speaking at the Ad Age Creativity and Technology event at the Consumer Electronics Show yesterday, Activision Publishing CEO Alan Hirshberg told the story in full.


"Confidentiality really matters. It wasn't cool. It was a real crisis. It was probably my first real crisis of this type on the job," he recalled.

PR managers, security teams, marketers and product managers were quickly assembled to discuss the blow-out. Initially, confusion reigned. "I came in [to this meeting] and everyone's looking at me like, 'What do we do?' and I'm like, 'I'm not sure I know, I've never been through this before.'"

However, Hirshberg adapted to the news fast. "If members of the government and the military are not immune to these kinds of things happening, we certainly are not, and we live in a digital, connected world, and these things happen a lot. They happen with issues and topics far more grave and far more important than Call of Duty."

Rather than trying to plug a leaking dam, Activision chose to surf the ensuing tidal wave. "The greatest value in this digital connected world is the value of transparency, so we figured, let's just be straight with people, let's tell them what happened, then let's lean into it."

"Like it or not, our launch just started," Hirshberg recalled telling his associates. "It wasn't on our timetable and we didn't instigate it, but it's out there, folks, and we can't put it back in. And our fans didn't do anything wrong today - they're having a great day!

"They're really interested in this game, they really want to know what happened, they're poring over all of the details trying to figure out what's true, what's not, is it real, is it not - and we weren't ready for this, but we've got to deal with it.

"And the wrong way to deal with it is to let the process of figuring out what happened with the leak be the public-facing sort of marketing message. That has to happen and that's important work, but that's not the dialogue you want to be having with your fans.


"Because you go into that silverback gorilla corporate lockdown mode and it's not appealing, it's not fun."

Some team members suggested keeping to Activision's original reveal plan, arguing that most of Call of Duty's customers would turn a blind eye, but Hirshberg stuck to his guns.

"A little fire of interest about our game just got started today, and on most other days of the year we would come in and say, 'Hey, everyone's on the internet talking about us,' and that would be a good thing, right? Why is it because we didn't instigate it and we didn't control it, why does that instantly make it a bad thing? It's not.

"So what we did was we took the fire of interest that had been lit and we poured gasoline on it."

Modern Warfare 3 is Activision's biggest day-one seller yet. Its first few downloadable content drops arrive this month, with more following every month till September.