To a non-gamer, the situation with Activision may seem to be an overwhelmingly positive one. Call of Duty: Black Ops has broken the $1 billion dollar mark, even without the talents of the creative team that arguably made the franchise what it is today. Industry enthusiasts are likely aware that Jason West and Vincent Zampella, the creators of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare have been in the midst of a legal battle with Activision over reported foul play and breach of contract for almost a year now.
With West and Zampella having left to form Respawn Entertainment with rival publisher Electronic Arts, and the overwhelming success of Treyarch's Black Ops, it seemed that the legal battle would eventually fade from the spotlight. Activision isn't set to lay down their arms any time soon, as they have now filed an amendment to their counter-suit against the developers, claiming that Electronic Arts worked alongside the two employees "to derail Activision's Call of Duty franchise, disrupt its Infinity Ward development studio, and inflict serious harm on the company."
By placing EA as a cross-defendant, Activision is claiming that the publisher is an accessory to the misdeeds of West and Zampella, and are therefore liable for the damages incurred as a result of what Activision sees as sabotaging Treyarch.
According to court documents, Activision is accusing Infinity Ward heads West and Zampella of meeting privately with EA CEO John Riccitiello in August of 2009. The meeting was also attended by an attorney to examine the pair's contracts, all while the two were still employed by Activision.
However the meeting went, the pair's remaining days were spent acquiring and copying classified material, sabotaging Modern Warfare rival Call of Duty: World at War, and in generally doing irreparable harm to any success that Activision may have had from other development teams. While West and Zampella have generally come to be seen as an embodiment of the 'little guy' being crushed by the 'big bad corporation,' and having their hard work exploited for profit, Activision's filing claims that the pair are in fact the guilty party:
"Although West and Zampella preferred to portray themselves -- both to the public and within Activision -- as game developers often forced to battle with corporate 'suits,' the reality was and is much different. They were small-minded executives almost obsessed by jealousy of other developers and the thought that another Activision game or studio might share their spotlight."
Activision CEO Bobby Kotick has made a habit of saying somewhat controversial things, like stating that Bungie was the last remaining high-quality developer when the studio signed a deal with the publisher in September. Kotick certainly doesn't pull any punches when it comes to the competition, making it clear that he does not respect the actions of West, Zampella, or Electronic Arts in terms of both ethical behavior and methods of doing business.
EA was quick to creatively respond to his criticisms when he made them a few months ago, and the publisher has wasted no time in responding to these latest allegations. West and Zampella have consistently denied any wrongdoing, and EA is standing behind their developers, regardless of how many leaked text messages or e-mails Activision may have. EA spokesperson Jeff Brown told the LA Times that:
"This is a PR play filled with pettiness and deliberate misdirection. Activision wants to hide the fact that they have no credible response to the claim of two artists who were fired and now just want to get paid for their work."
A response that blunt is to be expected, since EA's previous statements regarding the publisher and its CEO seem to imply that the relationship between Bobby Kotick and the executives at EA is a tense one, and at times hostile. Electronic Arts now has a serious stake in the lawsuit, so it will be interesting to see how their attitudes may change over the coming months.
Respawn Entertainment has yet to produce any serious projects, and while some may have high hopes for the developers, it remains to be seen if recruiting the pair will be worth a $400 million price-tag.
The difficulty for Activision in the lawsuit will be proving that the dollar amount is an accurate representation of the damage inflicted by West, Zampella, and EA, as the $400 million is defined as:
"actual and punitive damages from EA and the former executives, including profits Activision would have made but for EA's interference, costs incurred in rebuilding the affected studio, and damages suffered as a result of delays and disruptions."
While Activision's case against West and Zampella had previously been cloaked in secrecy without giving any specific details, the public finally has an idea of exactly what they are being accused of. Colluding with the competition is absolutely a breach of contract, and personal feelings about Activision as a company won't change that.
Some of the claims made by Activision are not as clear-cut, like accusing Infinity Ward of sabotaging Treyarch by releasing trailers for Modern Warfare 2 on the same day that trailers for World at War were released, with the intention of "crushing" their competition.
To the average gamer, that seems commonplace in an industry as ruled by its world-exclusive announcements as quality gameplay. Buzz is everything, but Activision is making the case that in trying to steal some thunder from Treyarch, both Infinity Ward and Electronic Arts were responsible for cheating the property and publisher out of profits.
Activision wants those profits, and seek to get them from the defendants, as well as the right to reclaim compensation previously given to the developers. It may be hard to convince the court that using insider information to beat a competitor in sales is illegal, since similar games face off nearly every year. There's no question that attorneys for Blur, Split/Second, inFamous, and Prototype will be eager to see how well the argument works.
It may be difficult for Activision to prove just how much damage - in dollars - they incurred, but the fact that the attorney who met with West, Zampella, and Riccitiello was Harold Brown is troubling. Brown is not merely a lawyer, but a "ï»¿former Activision board member and former legal counsel to Activision" - A conflict of interest if there ever was one.
Whether Activision's claims are justified or merely scoffed at, the first look at the evidence against West and Zampella has been given. If one thing is clear, it's that none of the parties are as innocent as they may have claimed.
We'll leave the legal issues to the courts, but keep you posted on any and all updates on the ensuing legal battle.