Crispy Gamer

Activision/Infinity Ward: First Take

I’m sure that since March 1st, 2010, you have heard some interesting news concerning Activision, Infinity Ward, and the suspicious firing of Infinity Ward founders Jason West and Vince Zampella.  A formal document of complaint (which can be read in full  at Kotaku) was issued recently by West and Zampella detailing the history between Infinity Ward and Activision, as well as their current situation.  
There are two major things at stake defined in this document.  First and foremost, West and Zampella are seeking payment (referred to as “royalties”) for their work on Modern Warfare 2.  It appears as though Activision refuses to pay them since they are no longer part of Infinity Ward.  Second, and this is really the more important issue, West and Zampella are attempting to have Infinity Ward retain the intellectual property of not just Modern Warfare, but for the Call of Duty series as well.  
While it is easy to get caught up with emotions and hate Activision for these transgressions, it is hard for me to look at the situation and side with West and Zampella.  The game industry, like any other, is a business; the driving force is money.  While being creative is an important part of the process, the simple fact is that if the bottom line isn’t pretty, people will get fired.  However, that’s what is so interesting about this feud, the bottom line is pretty, and the document of complaint itself stipulates that “Call of Duty has achieved approximately $3 billion life-to-date revenue.”  So what in the world is the issue?
The first claim made in the document of complaint makes the motive perfectly clear.  “This lawsuit is solely and regrettably the result of the astonishing arrogance and unbridled greed of defendant Activision.”  I agree with this statement, there is money to go around and everyone should get their due.  However, this is not about what is right; this is about what is correct, whether or not Activision violated the rights of West and Zampella.  I’m not entirely sure Activision did, but I am sure that they were jerks about it.
The wrongful termination charge does carry some water.  Activision allegedly began a “pre-textual investigation against West and Zampella to create a basis to fire the two co-heads of Infinity Ward before the first Modern Warefare 2 royalty payment would be paid in the ordinary course…”  In doing so, the company went to great lengths making life miserable for West and Zampella: forcing them to attend interrogations during a holiday weekend, aggressive treatment towards other Infinity Ward employees, and the forfeiting of personal computers, phones, and PDAs.  Any act by West or Zampella to resist the investigation would be defined as “insubordination,” which would be acceptable grounds for termination.  
The investigation was completed, and both West and Zampella received a Notice of Discharge that detailed their grounds for termination on March 1st.  According to West and Zampella’s Document of Complaint, the discharge notices contained “charges that were disproved in the investigation,” and numerous other alleged falsehoods.  Whether any or all of that is true, we do not know.  However, it can be said that Activision’s motive in firing two of their best employees was purely that of avoiding payment for their work.  Whether or not West and Zampella return to Infinity Ward is up in the air, but even if they don’t, I believe that they will still get their money either from a successful suit, or through an out of court settlement with Activision.
Retaining the rights to Call of Duty and Modern Warefare, however, are absolutely out of the question.  In 2002, Activision purchased 30% of Infinity Ward for $1.5 million.  Soon after, Activision purchased the remaining 70% for $3.5 million.  While the Document of Complaint makes notice that those deals were “unusually good for Activision,” citing that their $5 million purchase netted them $3 billion, the fact is irrelevant.  The only thing that matters here is that Activision owns Infinity Ward.  The DoC goes on to explain that despite Activision owning Infinity Ward, Activision wanted Infinity Ward to operate on their own so as not to, for lack of a better phrase, cramp their style.  Again, irrelevant, Activision could step back into the picture when ever they pleased.
The meat of West and Zampella’s argument comes in the form of a Memoranda of Understanding that they signed with Activision concerning the Call of Duty series.  The MoU made clear that West and Zampella would retain creative control of any Modern Warfare game, as well as any post-Vietnam era Call of Duty game.  Additionally, any Call of Duty game could not be released without the written consent of the pair.  Therefore, they claim that Call of Duty and Modern Warfare belong to them.
I fear that this is not the case.  Creative control of the series belongs to Infinity Ward, which is completely owned by Activision.  Now that West and Zampella are no longer part of the company, they do not have a claim to make.  Activision can hire replacement heads for Infinity Ward, and creative control would belong to them.
In a way, it’s sad.  I feel for West and Zampella.  Over the course of the last decade, they have grown themselves into great and innovative game designers whose products have not only garnered critical praise, but financial success as well.  Unfortunately for them, they signed their rights away when they allowed Infinity Ward to be purchased by Activision.  Their standoff with the gaming giant is admirable, but ultimately, I believe it’s a fool’s errand.  For as much public support they will get (and have already gotten), their attempt to pry control of their creation away from Activision will amount to nothing.
Business is business.