Discussion of Activision vs Zampella/West COD Case

Ever since March 1st, the gaming community has been constantly blogging, Tweeting, Facebooking and yelling about the recent firings of developers Jason West and Vince Zampella by Activision. There are a lot of things that remain uncertain such as: did Zampella and West commit insubordination? What do these events mean for the Call of Duty/Modern Warfare (COD/MW) franchises? Ultimately, what will be the wider and specific results of the trial?

The two Kombo self-proclaimed intellectual heavyweights Bryan Roush and Joel Windels go head to head in a 3 page battle of speculation and fact to answer these questions.

On the merits of Activison, Vince Zampella and Jason West

From what I understand about the dispute is that Zampella and West were in breach of their contracts in some manner, perhaps in seeking a new publisher to get away from Activison. Whether or not they are morally justified in doing so, and whether or not Activision is morally justified in pursuing and seeking a reason to terminate their employment through the hire of private investigators and other dubious Orwellian practices, it should be made clear that legally Activision are probably in the right over the firings. Nevertheless, Zampella and West have/will clearly win the hearts of the public, if not the courtroom. This is primarily not only due to the fact that they are the creative geniuses behind the COD games, but also because it appears that their intentions have been good from the outset, as illustrated in their redistribution of the wealth gained from royalties amongst IW staff and that they are the perceived 'victims' in this scenario.

It seems incredulous that Activision would go to such supposedly evil corporate lengths in order to recoup $25-35m in royalty payments via a laborious and corrupt series of events when they are taking $1b plus in revenue from MW2 alone. I think that Kotick has underestimated the industry and that by depending on brand loyalty over game creativity he will lose out eventually, as the quality of the games will presumably suffer without the guidance of Z&W and he has already felt some degree of backlash from his unethical behaviour.

There are parallels with Activision and the EA of old, circa 2000-2007. There was a time when EA began to represent a distasteful change that was occurring in the games industry. As the world's biggest games publisher, it was no surprise that they were focused on the bottom line, yet after some exciting new IP shifts and experiments EA began to settle into a profitable but stagnating pattern. Every year the 'improvements' upon the EA Sports titles were becoming ever more subtle, and the mindless rehashes and sequels of successful franchises was downright exploitative; think of the endless Sims expansion packs or the annual Need for Speed releases. With this too came poor business practices, such as severe crunch times for staff and aggressive studio acquisitions. Luckily, in came new CEO John Ricitello and EA have since elevated themselves above such corporate immoralities, it is just unfortunate that Activison have chosen to fill that void.

I am of the mindset that Activision didn't really have any merits to eliminate Zampella & West. Sure we have heard they have breached their contract but, like most relationships, the people on the outside are usually the best judge. From the outside, we see a CEO Bobby Kotick eliminate the brain children of the biggest selling video game of all time, and we also see the antagonism from Infinity Ward towards Activision time and again. Since Modern Warfare 2 was literally one of the biggest selling items in 2009, there was no doubt that other COD/MW spin-offs were in the works.

It doesn't take much to figure out what is most likely is going on over at Activision HQ, just like with the Guitar Hero franchise (and all spin offs), Kotick wanted Zampella & West to develop more COD/MW games. It is pretty common knowledge that Infinity Ward had fun making quality games and didn't feel tied to the COD/MW franchises in order to make great titles. With these two ideas competing with one another, Activision wanting quantity and IW wanting quality, Mr. Kotick most likely gave Z & W an ultimatum to get in step with the company and put the COD/MW title on everything, or face the consequences.

My guess is that Z & W didn't think Kotick would eliminate the leaders of a team that made the company's first billion dollar video game, but Kotick called their bluff and as soon as Z & W were eliminated a statement was released showing off all the COD/MW branded titles that would soon be coming coming. Coincidence? I think not.

Where Joel and I do agree is that Activision will for the most part mimic the rise and decay of the EA we know today.

On the future of the Call of Duty and Modern Warfare franchises

Although the law suit will not be decided until at least June I firmly believe that Z & W have to leave their beautiful franchises with Activision to rot and decay. Even if the Memorandum of Understanding that was supposedly signed guaranteeing Z & W rights to COD/MW any time after the Vietnam War exists, I believe Activision will find a way to grab the COD/MW franchise for themselves. I honestly believe it isn't that far fetched with the accusation of insubordination and most likely Activision will win and it will seem like a logical step that the parting damages that Z & W will have to pay will be their Billion dollar franchise

We as a gaming community will have to bear the brunt of not so good Modern Warfare and COD games for the next five to six years. I guarantee you there will be an RTS set in the MW universe as well as an attempt at a subscription MMO (I would explain why this won't work, but that would have to be another article). If someone were to twist my arm, I also believe that Activision will try to make an even more casual COD/MW title, I'm thinking of a puzzle type FPS, and/or an on-rails experience in the war torn universe. The nightmares of potential creations are endless.
I'm sure that Joel will agree with me when I say that the future of the COD and Modern Warfare franchises, if left to Activision's devices, will not be good and they will most likely fall victim to the same greed and short sightedness that has crippled the Guitar Hero franchise. I think that more people aren't going to realize that when Modern Warfare 3 comes out that Zampella and West weren't behind it. And I'm positive that casual gamers outnumber those of us who exhaustively research on games we buy and those casual gamers will fuel the new Activision dollar sign beast without a blink of an eye.

People like Joel, me, and probably our average Kombo reader will be sceptical of the next Modern Warfare and may choose not to buy it knowing everything that is going on with Activision. Nevertheless, Activision will see enough success with whatever title they release (It could be called Call of Duty: Modern Warfare: Bunny Time Hopscotch) and it will make millions if not billions

As you say Bryan, the Call of Duty IP will almost certainly remain in the hands of Activison, yet under the terms of the memorandum of understanding that was signed by all the involved parties, the rights to the Modern Warfare brand and any COD game set post-Vietnam is wholly owned by Zampella and West. Depending on the outcome of the trial, we could see the COD series confined to WWII and developed either by Treyarch, a dummy version of Infinity Ward or some other less capable studio than the Zampella and West-led Infinity Ward. Even so, with Activison's huge financial and legal muscle, they could well win the rights to all concerned IP. Anyway it does not matter too much who does win, as some form of MW3 will undoubtedly be released by whoever obtains the rights and people will buy it in huge quantities, regardless of quality. However, assuming Z&W lose and it is an Activison release, I believe that despite an initial surge in sales people will soon realise that the game in sub-par and it will fail to match the success of MW2.
Back to the EA Model: after the awesome MOH: Frontline, EA played the Activision tactic and swapped development studios and generally milked the IP as much as possible, enforcing crunch times and the like. This ultimately was at detriment to the quality of the games (see MOH: Rising Sun) and gamers soon clocked that they needn't buy the game simply for the sake of the MOH badge
The games industry is unique in that it is primarily driven by those consumers that are well-informed about the games sector in general. People who read gaming media, check reviews and generate hype for upcoming release are responsible for the fairly close correlation game quality shares with game profitability (I know I refer to this all the time, but it is true). This is opposed to the Hollywood trend for big-budget garbage performing far better commercially than acclaimed artistic films, largely thanks to the high proportion of its consumers who generally do very little reading or research into the latest movies and succumb to market trends and promotional materials.

It is due to this relationship we have in the games industry that will prevent either the COD or MW franchises from succeeding long-term, should they fall into the 'wrong' hands. So although I agree with Bryan in that the poorly-informed section of the gaming community will be unaware of this current legal fiasco and will buy the next MW game without hesitation, the sharp end of the industry will be providing less hype, weaker coverage, less server activity, negative word of mouth and will possibly actively stand up against or boycott Activison, especially if it is indeed sub-standard and this will consequently dampen the success of the game. This will particularly affect the hypothetical MW4 should it ever be released, as the expert opinion reaches the masses somewhat later (much in the same way Treyarch's inadequacies in COD3 hindered COD: WAW's success, or how the newly-created Football Manager replaced Championship Manager as the major sports management sim after the developers lost the IP rights to 'ChampMan' after a split with Edios or even in the manner in which Halo: CE and COD4 slowly found an audience amongst the masses after being bought and praised by the leading end of the industry, leading to its mega-success over time and with their subsequent sequels). The cases all exemplify the power the informed gaming community has over the success of titles, even if it at first seems like there are so many gamers that are misinformed or uninterested.

On the result of the trial and its aftermath

As you can tell from my previous responses to the topics, I don't think Z & W are going to pull this one out of the fire. Even though it's sad, I'm being realistic in saying that the evil giant that is Activision will bring down all of its legal weight through, trickery, obscure legal language and well framed rehearsed stories about insubordination at IW.

Even though I will be rooting for Z & W the entire time, compare it to MW2 multiplayer match; Bobby Kotick has only used one of his three killstreaks (firing Z & W/stealth bomber) and not only did our doomed developers get ambushed by him and his Activision clan, but they have already used up their only killstreak (UAV/lawsuit) in defense. Who do you think would win?

I firmly believe that Z & W will end up on their feet. Let's be honest, if you were in charge of a company and saw free agents who made the biggest grossing game of all time, you would want to hire them to (EA? You thinking what I'm thinking?). Not only do I believe Z & W will end up on their feet but their next franchise will not only be hot, it will be white hot.

With Bobby "Moneybags" Kotick out of the picture, Z & W can pick and choose which developer (or who knows they may make their own company, again) and publisher to work with and they will have the freedom to make a new IP and get away from FPSs for awhile just like they have always wanted. If there is more talent from the guys who made the COD/MW franchise what it is today, I can only imagine of the next big thing that will change the video game industry.

Perhaps Joel will disagree, but I believe when talent is caged, it turns in to something you could never imagine. With freedom from Activision I fervently believe that Z & W will have another innovative game that will shape the industry once again. It may not be their first title, but when the time is right it will be set gaming industry and Activision won't be able to stop kicking themselves.

The final outcome of the case is probably going to be financially good for Activision and far less so for Zampella and West, though I am almost certain that the former heads will retain the Modern Warfare IP rights. This is the actually the most desirable victory, far better than the money. If the memorandum of understanding (MOU) is legally-bounding and does contain what Z&W claim it does, then they will have no problem in retaining the MW rights. This cripples Activision as it mean they cannot create any Call of Duty game set later than 1975, even if they call it something other than Modern Warfare. Therefore Zampella and West will win the long-term battle for cash, if not the short.

I expect a gargantuan exodus of staff from Infinity Ward once Z&W do the inevitable and set up a new development studio, armed with the experience of their IW mistakes and surely heavily backed by a major publisher. I think that even if Z&W do win the rights to Modern Warfare it would not be surprising if they released a new IP, as they have stated many times that they were unhappy with developing MW2 so soon after the original and were eager to create something else instead, yet were eventually forced into doing so by Activison. Now here I somewhat disagree with Bryan and one final word of caution should be given at this stage, as it has been shown time and again that super-studios formed from the ashes of another AAA title do not necessarily equate to a quality game and/or commercial success. Just because Zampella, West and the IW employees created COD4 and MW2 does not mean they will shit gold bricks. See the case of Ion Storm, Flagship Studios or Free Radical Games; brilliant minds move to create new studios, equipped with great track records, but all three wound down with poor final offerings and none of those companies exist anymore. Idiots won't even know this case as happened, and their allegiance is to the COD/MW/IW brands, not these men, so if the game they create isn't up to scratch, us informed lot won't buy it and remember: we lead from the front.

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