Anybody who follows the modern video game industry knows that it is not populated only by the goodhearted and charitable. With development teams constantly let go upon completion of award-winning projects, there is only a select few who are successful and seasoned enough to earn permanent employment. So when Infinity Ward co-founders and creators of Call of Duty, Jason West and Vince Zampella, forever changed the entertainment world with the release of Modern Warfare, it seemed that the rest would be history.
What actually transpired was an abrupt dismissal by parent company Activision claiming the pair had breached their contracts, denial by West and Zampella, and a $1 billion lawsuit that is only now seeing the inside of a courtroom. After a prolonged silence, West and Zampella are finally giving their side of the story, and outlining the conspiracies and espionage that Activision was involved in prior to their firings. If their statements are true, then even those who view Activision as exceedingly profit-oriented will be surprised.
West and Zampella – now happily starting fresh at Respawn Entertainment – opened up in an interview with Game Informer, finally voicing their own confusion and disbelief at how Activision’s highest-level executives conspired to effectively kick the pair out of their own studio. There are always two sides to every argument, but with the new information provided by the two and their attorney, many recent actions surrounding the lawsuit make much more sense.
For starters, Activision’s grounds for the lawsuit in the first place: filing charges against the two creators of your most profitable series to date seems odd, but accusations of sabotage and back-room dealings with competitor EA seemed to justify the publisher’s case. As for the $1 billion in damages that Activision is seeking from the pair? The pair explains how they believe that figure was arrived at:
Vince Zampella: They say that Modern Warfare 3 would have been a much better game and would have made 700 million more dollars for them and they want us to pay that.
West: We deprived them of our services by being fired and therefore we owe them money.
According to West and Zampella’s attorney, Robert Schwartz, Activision is claiming that by conspiring with Electronic Arts the two “engineered their own firing” and are therefore on the hook for the money that Activision lost by having to fire them. Apparently when Modern Warfare 3 obliterated every sales record known to man, it was doing so despite being hindered by their absence. Now Activision is not only seeking the extra profits that would have been made by a West/Zampella-helmed game, but the profits that Sledgehammer Games would have produced had they not been needed to complete development on MW3 as well.
It’s hard to understand how things could have ever gone this far with so much money being generated off of IW’s work, and Activision’s marketing of said products. According to West and Zampella, things took a sudden turn in February 2010, just one month before their eventual departure. The studio heads were negotiating new contracts with Activision, and were willing to put aside their desire to make a new project not within the series, and develop Modern Warfare 3 instead. Their only stipulation was that after that work had been completed, they would be able to leave and develop independently, and wanted to be allowed to hire “up to 10 people” from Infinity Ward.
It was here that things went south. According to Schwartz, Activision was not in favor of letting the pair leave with their rights to the franchise intact, or taking talent with them. But what happened next came as a surprise to everyone:
“This is the third day of meetings between Activision’s lawyers and their lawyers. Their lawyers go over, and Activision comes out of their lawyers’ office and they are talking and talking. Their lieutenant counsel says, “I just don’t think we can come to an agreement on this. Give this to Jason and Vince.” He shoves across the table a piece of paper.
“What does the piece of paper say? “You are hereby being notified that you are being investigated for improper conduct and breach of fiduciary duty. You may not talk to anybody about this and must cooperate in full or that in itself will be potential grounds for termination. We haven’t made any decision about what we’re going to do in this investigation - whether there is any discipline to be had or termination - but you better take us very seriously. Thank you very much.”"
As West points out, the fact that negotiations were presumed to be moving smoothly by the developer’s attorneys shows how much Activision was operating behind closed doors:
“The thing that blows my mind is that they showed up to the meeting with that thing printed out in their briefcase already. It wasn’t an email. It was hours of conversation, then reach in and pull out the paper. This was all very surprising, by the way. You’re waiting for the call to be like, “Did they take the offer?” Well, actually, they gave me this piece of paper. That was a surprise.”
West and Zampella were soon fired due to the apparent findings of the investigation, accusing the duo of conspiring with EA, eventually naming the competing publisher as a defendant as well. Activision has since reached a settlement with EA before the court proceedings began, the terms of which have not been made public. What was revealed alongside that announcement was the existence of an investigation referred to as ‘Project Icebreaker,’ tasked with finding dirt on West and Zampella that could justify their firing.
Schwartz referred to the operation in great detail, alluding to testimony from an Activision “I.T. whiz” who was asked to break into the Infinity Ward email server, encouraged by claims from the publisher’s chief attorney that the task came “from Bobby Kotick. If you do this, Bobby will protect you if anything happens.” Along with this testimony is a set of internal PowerPoint slides showing how much money West and Zampella would be making in bonuses, and how much could be saved if they no longer worked at the company in 2012. This was all evidence attempted to be kept out of court, Schwartz argues, since it shows Activision’s motivations for firing the two long preceded the actual dismissal.
All three believe that when the contracts were signed before production on Modern Warfare 2 began, Activision was prepared to do anything they had to to get the game made, regardless of their commitment to honoring the agreement. While the Call of Duty series has gone on to great success, Schwartz believes that if his clients are found to not be guilty of conspiracy or breach of contract, the impacts could be wide-ranging. Thanks to a single sentence in the contract, West and Zampella have contractual rights to any Call of Duty game set post-Vietnam War. We’ve previously reported on how the setting of Black Ops 2 could be legally troubling, so don’t think that we’ve heard the last on that front.
If Activision fails to make the case they thought they once had – seeming more and more plausible given their payouts to former IW employees – then the success of Modern Warfare 3 and Black Ops 2 could both be brought into the discussion of damages owed. If that’s the case, then this court case could set just as many records as the most recent editions of Call of Duty. Either way, West and Zampella – along with most of their former colleagues – have a new home at EA, so things could certainly be worse.
We’ll keep you up to date on any new Infinity Ward or Activision reports that arise from the ongoing case, since the outcome is still anyone’s guess. Be sure to read the full interview as well.
Follow me on Twitter @andrew_dyce.