Friday, April 30, 2010

Too Big Not To Sue – Activision v. Infinity Ward

oooh boy The world, it seems, is falling apart. Earthquakes threaten every corner of the globe. Bafflingly-named volcanoes ground flights for days. We’re running out of helium-3! The Mayans, with their crazy calendar and wooden monkeys, must truly have foreseen the inevitable disasters facing every aspect of our planet.

And it appears the world of video games has not been spared such calamity.

Forgive my hyperbole, but to follow the news regarding the split between Activision and Infinity Ward is to read article after article about one of the biggest debacles the industry’s ever seen. This puts “Guy Dislikes Kane & Lynch, Gets Canned, Starts Kickass New Website” to shame. I won’t begrudge the blogs their traffic on this one, as it’s one of the few stories that’s actually been delivered via legit journalism. It’s outside the realm of the dilapidated Preview/Review cycle and has thus brought out the best in writers hungry to actually cover something.

It all started with the release of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 last fall. Published by Activision and developed by Infinity Ward, MW2 broke world records on launch day and held strong through the holiday season due mostly to the addictive nature of its finely-tuned multiplayer and solid (if bombastic) single-player campaign. You’d think success like that would earn Infinity Ward carte blanche and golden Priuses for every staff member.

You’d think that. And you’d be wrong.

Ready, Aim, Fire

You're fired March 1, 2010. The offices of Infinity Ward. Infinity Ward heads Jason West and Vince Zampella are pulled into a closed door meeting with their Activision bosses. Guards show up on the premises, understandably freaking out the rest of the staff. Word slowly trickles out before the pipe bursts and information floods in from LinkedIn profiles, Twitter accounts, and the blogosphere: Activision just fired West and Zampella.

Why would you chop off the head of your newest golden goose? “Insubordination” and “breaches of contract,” says Activision. No longer could the publishing behemoth abide “self-serving schemers” out “to hijack…the Call of Duty franchise.” I can imagine why a company bleeding cash as a result of the sagging music genre would yearn for a third entry in the Modern Warfare franchise. And I guess I understand why you’d dump the uppity execs refusing to make MW3.

I also understand that said uppity execs might be tired of Modern Warfare and refuse.

The Good(/Bad) Guys

West and Zampella wasted no time in filing a suit against Activision for upwards of $36 mil. As I linked above, Activision quickly replied with a countersuit, claiming that the duo had courted offers from Activision’s competitors. Unfortunately, the details remain a bit murky, as everyone’s still tightly bound by court proceedings.

What’s clear as day however is that yes, West and Zampella are now working with Activision’s most direct competitor, EA. West and Zampella, using the Creative Artists Agency as an intermediary, negotiated a deal through the EA Partners program. There’s delicious irony to be found in the team’s previous relationship to EA – you know, how they made a killer game only to bail, set up a new company, and leech away their talented staff. All of this has happened before, and it will happen again. West and Zampella recently set up a website for their new studio Respawn Entertainment with nothing but an email address for job applications. No one was surprised when Infinity Ward team members started leaving to join Respawn, but the exodus simply won’t end. They may be terrible employees, but West and Zampella must be excellent bosses to inspire such loyalty.

Or maybe the staff is just going where they think they’ll actually get paid. Apparently, Activision’s still holding out on MW2 royalties and may be using the promise of their eventual delivery to persuade people to stay. That won’t stop the deserters, however. The Infinity Ward Employee Group is suing Activision for hundreds of millions of dollars, citing the unpaid royalties. Leaving to work for a company with (supposedly) more creative freedom while still getting money owed you by the company you left? Sounds like a case of having your diamond-fruit cake and eating it, too.

The Bad(/Good) Guys

Poor Activision. You just can’t seem to win. First, you stuff all of your eggs into one plastic guitar. Then, when that breaks, you promptly decapitate the most likely source of all future eggs. What terrible luck. Did I say luck? I meant business practices.This is bobby kotick, not mike griffith.

People at Activision must see this, too. Why else would Publishing CEO and president Mike Griffith bail on Activision a mere two months from the expiration of his contract? I’d say the two lawsuits the company’s currently battling are as good reasons as any. Sure, he’ll stay on the board, but that just means he gets to bitch during earnings calls. It’s not like he’ll have a pension to lose or anything.

Activision will do its best to squeeze a few more bucks out of MW2 with the next and final downloadable map pack, but analysts are saying this may be the last we’ll ever see from Infinity Ward. Word on the street is that West and Zampella did (and still are doing) everything they could to prevent a third Modern Warfare title – fighting Activision directly, encouraging their studio to drag its heels, etc. Of course, such a stockade clashes with Activision’s plans for more corporate coin-diving retreats. There’s the most rational explanation for Activision’s behavior, in case you needed one.

The Future

It’s hard to predict exactly how the legal brouhaha will shake out – mostly because the majority of the details now fall under the obfuscatory umbrella of litigation. West and Zampella have Respawn, along with nearly thirty of their former colleagues. EA’s sounds confident the studio will deliver on its immense potential, though I have my doubts about how creative a team can be with one eye perpetually turned to the courtroom.

Activision, the bigger beast of the two, seems better equipped to block out the noise Respawn’s making. Call of Duty: Vietnam’s on the way. They just signed an unprecedented ten-year deal with Bungie (you may have heard of them). Starcraft II’s about to reduce South Korean productivity to zero. This “fingers in many pies” approach should earn them money despite the growing ill will they’ve engendered with this Infinity Ward business.

The highest-grossing entertainment launch in history has turned into the highest-profile firing and ensuing legal battle this industry’s ever seen. Whether or not the massive publisher can protect itself from a multitude of wronged employees could set precedents that would inform future corporate behavior industry-wide. All of this has happened before. But it needn’t happen again.