Info is slowly trickling out about the recent bang-up between Activision/Blizzard and Modern Warfare developer Infinity Ward. Terminated studio heads Jason West and Vince Zampella have filed suit against their former corporate masters, alleging wrongful termination, meanness, and stealing of royalties, and asserting that they own the rights to the Modern Warfare IP.
My buddy Bill Harris over at Dubious Quality has his usual insightful analysis of key portions of the lawsuit, so rather than just regurgitate what he said, I’ll send you there. Then come back here and listen to me.
While I wouldn’t put it past Activision/Blizzard to preemptively fire two employees as a way of minimizing royalty outlay and retain a valuable IP, it also wouldn’t surprise me if West and Zampella were shopping the studio. Infinity Ward is a wholly-owned subsidiary of Activision, but any corporate lawyer can tell you that there are ways for a wholly-owned subsidiary to fly the coop.
What matters here is not royalties (there’s so much money from Modern Warfare 2 that even the greediest should be satisfied), and not “insubordination,” and not even the fact that Infinity Ward wanted out of Activision. What matters here is the Modern Warfare IP, and (possibly) by extension the Call of Duty IP. If Infinity Ward owns one or both, or retains right of refusal against one or both, and if that is upheld by a court, then holy Christ did Activision screw the pooch with this Memorandum of Understanding.
But I don’t think Activision lawyers are that stupid. Everyone knew even back then that the real egg-laying goose is the Modern Warfare IP, not the Infinity Ward brand. I mean sure, Infinity Ward made the best Calls of Duty, with Treyarch’s additions mediocre at best; but remember Activision’s philosophy: any studio is capable of making any game from any franchise at any time. That’s why they gave Guitar Hero to Neversoft. To Activision, the fact that Infinity Ward’s CoD games and Modern Warfare were “better” doesn’t enter into the equation. Activision doesn’t care if its games are good. It cares if its games sell. And according to the stated Activision philosophy, franchise exploitation (at least one franchise installment per year) is the key to success.
Bill is right, I believe: this case will never go to trial, West and Zampella will release the IP to Activision (if they ever owned it in the first place), they’ll get several million dollars in settlement.
One key question, though, is “who are Jason West and Vince Zampella?” I don’t know anything about them. Are they nice? Are they dicks? I don’t know. I do know that the rest of Infinity Ward is suffering from pretty bad morale right now, and we’re likely to see mass resignations should West and Zampella be well liked and form a new independent studio. Oh sure, all those employees certainly signed non-competes, but such agreements are very difficult to enforce, especially in the videogames industry. So I wouldn’t worry about that if I were some designer at Infinity Ward hoping to jump ship to ZamWesta games.
But for now, only time will tell.