Every Sunday we dig an interesting article out of our massive archive for you to enjoy again or perhaps read for the first time. With a new Call of Duty out on Tuesday, this week we thought we'd take you back to Call of Duty XP, the 2011 event Activision put on in Los Angeles to celebrate the series. This article was originally published on 14th September 2011.
"The way I see it, sometimes I'm the bug and sometimes I'm the windscreen.
"I'll have a night when I'm unstoppable. I hit every enemy and every enemy misses me. Win after win. You ever get a night like that? I love a night like that.
"And then, you know, the next morning I can't shoot for s***. It's weird how that happens, right? I guess that's life. Some you win, some - you know what I'm sayin'. Still, if there were that kind of money on the table... Well I'd be praying pretty hard for a night like that. Who wouldn't love a night like that."
"So, you're not competing then?" I ask.
"Nah. They don't give me a ticket. But I get to drive those that are competing from the hotel. That's the closest I get to the inside. You're from the UK, right? I can hear it in your accent. Anyway, I had one of your teams in the back of the limo this morning. They seemed pretty excited with how it's going. How much must those guys have to play to get that good? I can't even imagine. How is it in there anyway? What's the atmosphere?"
The 28 acres of Westside Los Angeles airfield known as the Hercules Campus was deliberately left off the map during World War II. It was here that the American business magnate and aviator Howard Hughes established his headquarters, designing and building planes, helicopters and his giant water-plane folly, the Hughes H-4 Hercules, the aircraft with the largest wingspan in history.
Eleven of the original campus buildings remain from the 1940s. For 25 years they have been left largely vacant, occasionally used by movie studios (85 per cent of James Cameron's Avatar was filmed here) but otherwise offering little more than a drafty testament to bygone glories.
It's inside these cavernous hangars that Activision has chosen to host the multi-million dollar monument to modern warfare that is the inaugural Call of Duty: XP event. Where once the hangar's patrons deliberately shielded their activities from watching eyes, Activision hopes the event will cement its biggest franchise to the map, ensuring that no pretenders will be able to push it from sight.
Make that one pretender.
EA's headquarters are not more than two miles from the hangar. Battlefield 3 developer DICE may rarely leave the confines of its Swedish office but it's on the publisher's Hollywood turf that Activision has chosen to make its show of strength (home too to Infinity Ward, whose offices are based on the north slope of the Santa Monica mountains nearby).
Be it for the lights, the cameras, the action or drama in the hills, Los Angeles is a suitably high-profile locale for what is the highest-stake game in the industry. This holiday season, Activision's Modern Warfare 3 will do battle with EA's Battlefield 3.
It won't be a battle to the death. Regardless of who sells the greater number of games in 2011 it's rather a battle for hearts, minds and market share, one whose repercussions will only truly be felt in the 2012 and 2013 holiday seasons when the inevitable sequels indicate who won the war.
While nobody will say how much this all cost, one spokesman admits the two-day event has a budget comparable to a US television advertising campaign. A conservative estimate would put that at $15 million. So this is an event, a game, that is all about establishing hierarchy.
Sometimes you're the bug and sometimes you're the windscreen.
COD: XP is a 28-acre, $15 million windscreen.
"I don't have a yellow pass. I'm in the f***ing tournament."
There are two sides to COD: XP. This guy, the one without the yellow pass, is here for the money - or the glory, or the drama. He's one of the hundreds of Call of Duty players from around the world to have won his way here through skill and focus, primed and ready to compete for the $1 million cash prize at stake for the competitors. He is, if you like, one of the upper class of attendees at an event that is all about establishing hierarchy.
"I'm in the f***ing tournament." Don't you know who I am?
The corridor is full of bodies. Five minutes earlier, Infinity Ward's Creative-who-knows-what-he-actually-does-Strategist Robert Bowling left the stage having outlined to a home crowd of a few thousand attendees the multiplayer features of the forthcoming Modern Warfare 3. Now, info load received, attendees have the chance to try those features for themselves and fully absorb them.
Those with a yellow wristband get half an hour with the game before anyone else.
Why are those 30 minutes so important to this guy?
Because the weekend's tournament is to be played out in Modern Warfare 3's multiplayer, which nobody competing has sampled before today. With a first prize of $400,000, every second spent learning the layouts of the maps, the balance of the attachments, perks and new game modes decreases the chance of your team being the bug splattered on the other's team's windscreen.
"Gentlemen, elevate your soldiers please."
There are two sides to COD: XP. This guy, the one with the military-themed double-entendre, is here for the paintball. In an inspired move, Activision has recreated the virtual multiplayer map Scrapyard outside the event hangar for those who paid their way to the event, rather than earned it. Two lines of attendees snake around the wire fence that borders the area. When you reach the front of the line you are given a toy solider to hold, either light or dark green, depicting the team you will play for.
When 16 players have their soldiers, a dress-up marine requests they walk forward and hold them aloft so that the organisers can sort the teams. From there, both teams head into a briefing tent where a dress-up sergeant barks rules of real-life Domination. In the virtual game you capture the three flags on the map by standing in their immediate vicinity for 10 seconds. In the bricks and mortar fire version, you hoist a rope to raise your team's flag and lower the opposing team's, hoping that you don't take a ball of paint to the head while doing so. The team with the most of their flags raised at the end of the game are the winners.
"One German journalist cocks his head, unsure of the term. Another obliges with a definition spelled out in lewd downward thrust motions."
The rules are one hit one kill. If you're shot by a paint pellet you must raise your M16 and walk, head lowered, to the respawn area, where a dress-up squaddie counts out ten seconds after which you are free to head back in. As we pull on jumpsuits and adjust the straps on our protective helmets, jokes are cracked about tea-bagging downed opponents. One German journalist cocks his head, unsure of the term. Another obliges with a definition spelled out in lewd downward thrust motions.
Everyone else tries not to think too hard about how they've squandered their lives.
The game lasts for 12 minutes. For the final two of these, the soundtrack from the game is blasted through speakers to heighten the tension. If you're hit during this final phase, you must exit the map. Game over.
As 16 sweaty, exhilarated men and women pull off their clothes and compare bruises-to-be after the finishing klaxon sounds, one player rounds the corner, paint running down the back of his bald head.
"Step up! Come on. What are you waiting for? Listen, you guys have paid a LOT of money to be here. Don't be shy!"
There are other fan events based around single games, of course; both QuakeCon and BlizzCon command significant attendance. But COD: XP is not an event requested by the fans. Rather, it's an endlessly lavish production put on for their benefit by a company eager to... to give something back? Eager to humanise themselves? Eager to soften core gamer perception of a company best known for its dead-eyed annual franchise updates, high-price DLC, and the stewardship of arch non-gamer Bobby Kotick, effortlessly the most disliked CEO by gamers thanks to his apparent disdain toward them?
COD: XP is, let's say, a smart way to both give back to the community that makes it wealthy and to counter a series of setbacks and unpopular decisions made in and around Modern Warfare.
Setback-wise, there's the departure of Call of Duty's parents Jason West and Vince Zampella, the founders of Infinity Ward who left the company in a cloud of controversy and bitter words last year, taking almost half of the studio with them.
Few journalists breathe a word about this momentous, still largely untold event during the press day roundtable with Infinity Ward staff. But questions burn in the pockets. Is it really so easy to maintain the leading series in the leading genre while losing all of that institutional knowledge and talent midway through production?
Activision doesn't want anyone pondering such things and who can blame them? Bugs and windscreens. So instead we are given a military-themed Disneyland to splash about in for two days, filled with zip-wires, jeep rides through rigged explosives and men cosplaying as ghillie suit snipers.
So COD: XP is a distraction then? Perhaps.
But then there's the cloud of scepticism surrounding the announcement of Call of Duty: Elite, a subscription-based multiplayer service that launches alongside Modern Warfare 3. For gamers tired of premium-based paid-for services, it was a difficult sell. But the news unveiled at the show that an annual subscription to Elite will cost just $49.99 (£34.99) was favourably received, especially as this is set to include all DLC released over the course of that year.
It's not an overly generous price-point, but few would argue it's not a fair one for those who would be interested. Then, the news that the $150 COD:XP ticket price would include a Hardened edition of the game, and that every nickel of profit thereafter would to go to the Call of Duty Endowment, Activision's charitable program to help veterans secure jobs, further softened attendees' view of the event and the company that paid for it.
Finally, zoom up and it seems likely that Elite is an evolutionary stepping-stone not only for the series but also the medium. In five years or less, Call of Duty multiplayer will surely be a cloud-based service. If that's the case, and few technology prophets would bet against it, COD: XP is an educational exercise, actualising the virtual community that exists around the game in real life, and winning the core influencers within that community - the kind of people who would pay $150 and a plane ticket to 'elevate their soldiers' - to the Elite cause.
After all, nobody wants to be the bug in the brave new cloud-based world of our near future.
"Tell me: how does it feel to be $100,000 richer?"
"I don't wanna work at McDonalds any more."
In the final showdown, US-based four-man squad Optic beat British team Infinity to take the $400,000 prize money, a frankly ridiculous trophy made from scale replica automatic rifles and the prestige of being the best Call of Duty players in the world.
A huddle of white men in their early twenties, college students with tidy hair and broad smiles who no longer need to support their education with minimum wage jobs, bounce on their back feet. Gleeful for their winnings, they fail to match their skill with eloquence on stage in the post-fight interview. That doesn't matter much. To the assembled throng, they are twitch heroes who have let their reflexes speak louder than any weepy Grammy acceptance speech.
Indeed, to many here, they are now the most important attendees at an event that is all about establishing hierarchy.
"Now I embody every characteristic of the egotistic."
Kanye West stands atop a 30-foot high stone-effect pillar wearing a gold necklace that cost more than your education. He stares and sways and spits and sings a song about Power in the 21st Century, firing the word 'egotistic' from his mouth with a prissy flick of the tongue.
He plays for a full two hours, choosing to kick off his new tour in front of a hangar full of Call of Duty players and assembled celebrities (Lindsay Lohan, Jack Osbourne, David Cross - now the most important attendees at an event that is all about establishing hierarchy - all spotted in the guarded VIP area which separates the great and good from the gamers).
He's an apt choice for headline act for an event that is all about hubris and showmanship. Indeed, he's an embodiment.
Bobby Kotick sits inside a VIP area inside the VIP-only COD: XP aftershow party at a small VIP club on an exclusive stretch of Hollywood road.
Two blonde female DJ twins with haircuts from the future - characters plucked from a Jet Set Radio designer's sketchbook - play cuts from Jay-Z and Kanye's latest collaboration to a room of journalists, tournament winners and assorted celebrities and hangers-on.
Kanye slouches in a corner, surrounded by a gaggle of seven-foot, hollow-eyed models, checking his watch surreptitiously from beneath his hoodie, waiting for his contracted appearance time to be up. His bodyguard glares at the room, clutching a Taser, primed for the melee kill.
Teri Hatcher works to break a titter through the botox sausage that is her face. Kotick leans 10 degrees too far forward and she recoils while attempting to maintain the air of coquettishness upon which her invitation tonight depended.
A tournament winner makes a move at a dancer who tells him he's "too ugly for Hollywood". To her, he is the least important attendee at an event that is all about establishing hierarchy.
Outside, one of Activision's drivers squeezes a lever and squirts water over the windscreen of his parked limousine. Two swipes of the blades and it's clean again.