The ongoing legal tussle between Call of Duty: Modern Warfare developer Infinity Ward and publishing giant Activision is full of intrigue, accusations, lawsuits and, more recently, an exodus of key staffers from the studio behind the game.
At stake is the future of Infinity Ward, the studio behind one of gaming’s biggest franchises, a chance for EA – Activision’s hated rival – to now build a new franchise with two of Activision’s top creators, and the future of a now legally-entangled Modern Warfare brand.
Who are the key players in the drama behind the legal warfare? How did we get here? How might it affect the fans of the Call of Duty brand? Here’s a summary of the still ongoing big break-up of Activision and Infinity Ward.
Activision – The Publisher
The company was founded in 1979 by former music industry executive Jim Levy and former Atari programmers David Crane, Larry Kaplan, Alan Miller and Bob Whitehead, establishing the first independent third-party publisher for video game consoles. Those original members were essentially a pissed off group of Atari programmers who felt snubbed by a lack of recognition (and compensation) for their contributions to Atari. In 2008, Activision, thriving from sales of games like Call of Duty and Guitar Hero, merged with Vivendi Games, which was the owner of World of Warcraft and StarCraft developer Blizzard. The resulting entity, which is majority owned by French media conglomerate Vivendi SA, is known as Activision Blizzard. Today, Activision Blizzard is one of the world’s largest video game publishers, owners of the lucrative Guitar Hero brand of music games, Call of Duty line of military shooters and Blizzard’s WarCraft, Starcraft and Diablo properties.
In 2009, the year Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 was released, Activision Blizzard made $US4.28 billion, with $US1.56 billion of that cash coming in the quarter in which Modern Warfare 2 was released. In November 2009, Activision said it had made $US3 billion from Call of Duty games, originally created by developer Infinity Ward.
Robert “Bobby” Kotick is currently the CEO and president of Activision Blizzard. Kotick took over Activision in the early ’90s as part of an investor group, when Activision was at a financial low point, eventually being named CEO of Activision. He’s also one of the most hated men in gaming – at least by its core audience – lambasted by passionate gamers for Activision’s fondness for exploiting its game franchises and the occasional villainous soundbite.
Infinity Ward – The Developer
Vince Zampella and Grant Collier founded Infinity Ward in 2002. Like the original founders of Activision, they weren’t happy with the state of affairs at their previous employer, 2015 Inc, the creator of military shooter Medal of Honor: Allied Assault for EA. Along with Jason West, they took 20-plus team members from 2015 and set up shop in California, establishing Infinity Ward. Activision helped fund Infinity Ward in its early days, buying up 30 per cent of the company. The studio’s first game, World War II shooter Call of Duty, was released on PCs in 2003. The day after the game was released, Activision said it had snapped up the rest of Infinity Ward, signing employees to long term contracts.
Infinity Ward later went on to make Call of Duty 2, Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare and Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 for Activision. Publisher Activision tapped other studios to work on Call of Duty sequels and spin-offs, including Treyarch, Gray Matter, Spark Unlimited and others.
Jason West & Vince Zampella – The Insubordinates
Before they were fired, Jason West acted as president, game director and chief technical officer of Infinity Ward, with Vince Zampella bearing the titles studio head and chief executive officer. Grant Collier, IW founder and studio head, left the studio in early 2009 to work at parent company Activision on “special projects”.
After the release of the studio’s bestselling Call of Duty 4, Infinity Ward and its top talent signed new contracts with Activision to stay at the studio. “The recently renegotiated deal may not seem like much of an impact from the outside perspective,” wrote IW creative strategist Robert Bowling, “but it has laid the ground work and kick started our future project, as well as the possibility of a unique new IP by Infinity Ward, that we’ll have complete control over.”
West and Zampella’s contracts were to extend to 2011. That “future project” was Modern Warfare 2, a game that has since sold 14 million copies worldwide and more than 2.5 million downloadable map packs, priced at $US15 a pop.
Infinity Ward and Activision didn’t seem to agree on much. Even early on, the two entities had different ideas about the direction of Call of Duty.
“With Call of Duty 2, we were dead set against it being World War II,” Zampella said in an interview, “but Activision really wanted it, the compromise sort of being that we’d get some dev kits for consoles in exchange for doing a World War 2 game. And something I’ll add to that, Activision also did not want Modern Warfare. They thought working on a modern game was risky and [thought] , ‘Oh my god, you can’t do that, it’s crazy!’ They were doing market research to show us we were wrong the whole time.”
“We had to fight for everything,” said Jason West in the same interview. “They wanted [Call of Duty 4]to be World War II. Again.”
Some of the butting of heads between Activision and Infinity Ward was more public, more inflammatory. Prior to the release of Call of Duty: World At War, one of the games not developed by Infinity Ward, community lead and creative strategist Robert Bowling referred to an Activision producer of that other Call of Duty game as a “super douche”.
“Can you guys please stop interviewing this guy, talk to someone who actually works on the Dev Team at Treyarch and knows what the fuck they’re talking about,” Bowling wrote, “Not Senior Super Douche Noah Heller from Activision – who apparently has never played the game and doesn’t even work at the developer.”
The friction between Infinity Ward’s creative interests and Activision’s corporate wishes were reflected in smaller issues. Infinity Ward wanted the latest game to simply be known as Modern Warfare 2. The game was later rebranded with the Call of Duty prefix. “We still call the game Modern Warfare 2,” Bowling said following the switch. “For our community we’re making it clear that it’s the sequel to Modern Warfare.” The game ultimately shipped with two variations printed on the box, the premium versions simply bearing the Modern Warfare 2 name, the standard edition sporting the Call of Duty brand.
Neither version of the game featured the Activision logo in the game’s introductory screens, a common practice. Pre-release versions of the game’s box were also missing mention of Activision. The publisher later complained the snub “interfer[ed]with Activision’s ability to publish and market Modern Warfare 2.”
Infinity Ward also took another public dig at its publisher at a pre-launch event for Modern Warfare 2, poking fun at Activision CEO Bobby Kotick, who previously said “The goal that I had in bringing a lot of the packaged goods folks that we brought into Activision 10 years ago was to take all the fun out making video games. I think we’ve definitely been able to instil in the culture the scepticism and pessimism and fear that you should have in an economy like we’re in today.” A demo at the event featured pre-built character profiles named, scepticism, Pessimism and Fear.
Kotick later defended and attempted to clarify those statements at game development conference DICE in February 2010, saying “Sometimes that commitment to excellence, well, you can come across as being like a dick.” He praised Activision as “a really great mothership”, supportive to game development studios with “creative freedom and the integrity of the creative process”.
“But if you want to sell out and move on, there are definitely other companies to talk to,” he added, warning “Some ego is healthy, but outsized egos should be checked at the door. As Hillary Clinton says, it takes a village to make a game. If you think you can do it all by yourself, you’re probably the village idiot.” Three weeks later…
On March 1, 2010, Infinity Ward studio heads Jason West and Vince Zampella are fired. Activision notes in a filing with the SEC on the same day that it is “concluding an internal human resources inquiry into breaches of contract and insubordination by two senior employees at Infinity Ward.”
The next day, Activision announced its new “strategic plans” to expand the Call of Duty brand, adding another developer to the rotation (Sledgehammer Games) and placing an Activision Publishing exec in charge of Infinity Ward on an interim basis.
The following day, West and Zampella sue Activision, filing a $US36 million lawsuit that claims “Orwellian” moves as part of a “pre-ordained” investigation designed to “manufacture a basis to fire” them in order to avoid paying out bonuses. Court documents lay out Infinity Ward’s agreement with Activision, which purportedly gives the developer rights to creative authority over “any Call of Duty game set in the post-Vietnam era, the near future or the distant future” and any title under the Modern Warfare brand. Essentially, West and Zampella had locked down the Modern Warfare brand as part of an agreement to keep making more games.
Activision responds, initially saying it’s “disappointed/” by the suit. An internal memo from Activision reveals the publisher is on the hunt for evidence related to Infinity Ward’s plans to defect from Activision and go to its biggest competitor Electronic Arts, the maker of the Medal of Honor war games – on which West, Zampella and a good portion of Infinity Ward worked on nearly 10 years prior.
That disappointment from Activision eventually turns into a counter suit. Activision goes after West and Zampella, accusing them of trying to “steal” Infinity Ward “at the expense of Activision and its shareholders and for their own personal financial gain” and take the developer to rival publisher EA. Among the claims is an accusation that West and Zampella deliberately try to delay development of Modern Warfare 3.
Activision called out the following exchange between West and Zampella in its suit, calling it “an apparent effort to covertly copy certain materials”: “Dunno how to scan secretely [sic] … [IW Employee’s]computer down… [IW Employee]did it for me last time… Really. No paranoia about it being in [IW employee]user folder? Her comp down anyway now… She had a secret area it scanned into… Probably better to just photocopy and fedex. .. . Can scan or photo – your call… Boom boom pow. Away.”
Following Activision’s counter suit, top Infinity Ward developers start leaving. Todd Alderman, a lead designer and one of the key personnel involved in Modern Warfare’s multiplayer and story leaves, as does Francesco Gigliotti, Infinity Ward’s lead software engineer. Over the course of the next ten days, nine more Infinity Ward staffers resign. Including the terminated West and Zampella, 13 Infinity Ward team members have departed since March 1. With the studio headcount numbering less than 100 and the departures comprising mainly of leads, the situation begins to look grim, as well illustrated by PC Gamer UK.
In the middle of all those departures, West and Zampella reveal their plans. They have indeed cosied up to Electronic Arts who will back their new studio, Respawn Entertainment. Whether the ex-Infinity Ward team leads will follow them – potentially a violation of West and Zampella’s contract with Activision – is not yet known.
This still roiling developer-publisher drama has seemed to have little effect on Activision Blizzard’s stock price, which has only moved slightly upward since Infinity Ward’s legal and personnel problems began. The departures don’t seem to have any apparent impact on fans’ eagerness to buy map packs for Modern Warfare 2, which sell like gangbusters during this strife.
For a recap of the latest events in the imbroglio involving Activision, Infinity Ward, West, Zampella and now EA, check out Kotaku’s ongoing Call of Duty Legal Warfare coverage.