Saturday, April 24, 2010

A Larger Perspective

Of course I wouldn't leave it simply at that. Seriously, the Call of Duty implosion has been one of the more exciting stories in the industry, even for someone like me, who has never played a Call of Duty game. If you haven't been keeping abreast of the latest developments, however, I've gone ahead and drafted this rough chronology of events pertaining to the case and the history of the parties involved:


Frustrated by Atari's policy not to credit the actual developers of the games it publishes, four programmers leave the company to form Activision, the world's first third-party publisher for game consoles.

Activision's determination to release games for the Atari 2600 without the console manufacturer's blessing leads to litigation between the two companies that will not be settled until 1982, when Atari agrees to allow third party publishing in exchange for royalties. The decision leads to a massive boom in the number of software publishers and consequently the number of titles on the market, ultimately leading to the video game crash of 1983 due to oversaturation.

After years of continuous decline for Activision, since renamed Mediagenic, the company is finally acquired by BHK Corporation, an investor group led by Bobby Kotick. Under new CEO Kotick, the company is completely restructured, the Activision name also restored to mark a vigorous reentry into the games market.

Activision acquires Neversoft Entertainment, developer of Apocalypse (AKA "that Bruce Willis Robotron game"). The studio's next project is Tony Hawk's Pro Skater for the PS1. The game is an immediate sensation and is quickly followed by a sequel the next year.

Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 2 ranks as the best-selling PlayStation game of 2000 in the U.S. Released to universal praise, the PS1 version remains also one of the highest-rated games of all-time.

Through 2007, Activision continues to release one Tony Hawk title per year (plus spin-offs), to progressively lower scores and sales.

Activision acquires Treyarch, developer of, among other things, a couple of entries in EA's struggling Triple Play baseball series.

EA releases Medal of Honor: Allied Assault for PC. Developed by 2015, this third entry in gaming's premier World War II first-person shooter series receives near-universal acclaim.

Twenty-two employees of 2015, including Medal of Honor: Allied Assault project leads Vince Zampella and Jason West, leave to found Infinity Ward.

Activision acquires Infinity Ward. The studio's first title is Call of Duty for PC. The well-reviewed World War II first-person shooter receives multiple "game of the year" awards.

Meanwhile, through 2007, EA releases nine more titles in the increasingly irrelevant--only one of them is for HD consoles--Medal of Honor series.

RedOctane releases Guitar Hero, developed by Harmonix. The surprise hit demonstrates the market potential for both rhythm games and peripheral-based games.

Activision releases Call of Duty 2, developed by Infinity Ward. Another WWII FPS, it is the best-reviewed and best-selling Xbox 360 launch title. Speaking for Infinity Ward, Vince Zampella later reveals that "With Call of Duty 2, we were dead set against it being World War II, but Activision really wanted it, the compromise sort of being that we'd get some dev kits for consoles in exchange for doing a World War II game."

(Among its fans is a co-worker of mine at my game testing job. In his first week on the job, this eighteen-year-old son of a soldier declares the FPS the only worthwhile game genre and Call of Duty the best FPS, bar none. He announces that, on the day Call of Duty 3 comes out, he will skip work to pick it up and spend all day playing.)

While PC and 360 players enjoy Call of Duty 2 proper, PS2/Xbox/GameCube owners get Call of Duty 2: Big Red One, a slightly less lustrous offering from developer Treyarch.

Activision releases Call of Duty 3 for PS3/360. The console-exclusive WWII FPS is developed by Treyarch instead of Infinity Ward. The game receives markedly lower scores than Infinity Ward's titles, fueling the perception of Treyarch as a B-team, brought in so that Activision can keep pumping out Call of Duty on an annual basis while still allowing Infinity Ward a two-year development cycle for each of its projects.

(My young co-worker does not end up skipping work to play Call of Duty 3, but he does pick it up. I ask him how it is. His former exuberance for life since tempered by the game test environment, he offers only a defeated laugh at himself.)

Activision acquires RedOctane and, along with it, Guitar Hero. Later in the year, MTV purchases Harmonix.

Activision releases Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock for Wii, 360, PS3, and PS2. The title is developed by Neversoft. Meanwhile, MTV releases Rock Band, developed by Harmonix and distributed by EA. Rock Band receives higher scores as a more significant step forward for the genre, but Guitar Hero III is nevertheless the more successful game at market. It is Activision's biggest release yet, eventually becoming the first billion-dollar game and the second best-selling game since NPD began tracking unit sales.

2007 also sees the release of Activision and Infinity Ward's Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare. To much applause, CoD4 finally moves the series away from WWII. Despite coming out weeks later to much less hype than Halo 3, it finishes the year with more units sold (across all platforms) and even overtakes the Xbox's signature game as the most popular game on Xbox Live. It also earns several "game of the year" awards, even up against the likes of Halo 3, Super Mario Galaxy, BioShock, Mass Effect, and Portal.

Looking back, Vince Zampella says, "Activision also did not want Modern Warfare. They thought working on a modern game was risky and 'Oh my God you can't do that, it's crazy!' They were doing market research to show us we were wrong the whole time."

Adds Jason West: "We had to fight for everything."

In its biggest year ever, Activision merges with Vivendi Games, which additionally owns Blizzard and Sierra. The new Activision Blizzard surpasses EA to become the world's largest video game publisher.

EA releases Skate for the PS3/360. This more realistic skateboarding game receives positive reviews and outsells Tony Hawk's Proving Ground. EA will release two more Skate games, plus one spin-off, over the next three years.

For the first year since it debuted, there is no new installment in the Tony Hawk main series.

Tim Schafer's Brütal Legend, originally to be published by the now defunct Sierra, is among the in-development titles dropped by Activision after the merger with Vivendi. When EA later announces its intention to publish the game, Activision attempts to block its release. The parties eventually reach a settlement, and EA releases Brütal Legend the following year.

EA releases Dead Space to wide critical acclaim. Along with Mirror's Edge and the EA Partners program, the release paints a new and improved image of the monster publisher as committed to pushing new IP and non-sports titles.

Infinity Ward's heads renew their contracts with Activision. The new agreement reportedly includes the possibility of Infinity Ward developing a new IP that it will control.

In the meantime, Call of Duty returns to WWII and Treyarch with Call of Duty: World at War, built off Infinity Ward's CoD4 engine.

November 6, 2008
Noah Heller, senior producer at Activision, promoting World at War as something that builds on CoD4: "In the previous Call of Dutys it might take three or four shots from a bolt action rifle. We made sure that a single shot center mass would kill that opponent because that's the expectation of the player."

November 7, 2008
Robert Bowling, Infinity Ward's community manager, taking issue with "Senior Super Douche" Noah Heller's comments, posts the following on his personal blog:

"Bolt Action rifles are one hit kills in every Call of Duty we (Infinity Ward) made!!

"I won't compare it to World at War's Bolt Actions, I can't speak to that because I don't work there. Just like you don't work here, so please stop talking about our games."

November 11, 2008
Activision releases Call of Duty: World at War days after and with considerably less hype than Gears of War 2. Despite some perception of World at War as the B-team Call of Duty game, the 360 version by itself finishes the year with more units sold than Microsoft's biggest exclusive.

(It is actually with this development that Call of Duty first grabs my attention as a heavy hitter in the stratum of Halo and Grand Theft Auto, if not beyond. Expectations are obviously high for the next "real" Call of Duty.)

March 26, 2009
Activision debuts the teaser trailer for Infinity Ward's "Modern Warfare 2." The Call of Duty name is not attached. With Activision apparently committed to this schedule of alternating year-to-year between Infinity Ward and Treyarch-developed titles, some speculate that Infinity Ward wanted to avoid any possibility of their work being confused with Treyarch's.

July 9, 2009
The latest artwork reveals that the Call of Duty name has been restored for Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2. This is most likely Activision reacting to surveys that showed lowered consumer awareness after the Call of Duty brand was dropped.

Robert Bowling insists, "We still call the game 'Modern Warfare 2.'"

The final retail packaging features the Call of Duty name on the standard edition, but not the enthusiast-oriented premium editions.

August 5, 2009
Bobby Kotick from the Activision Blizzard earnings call, on the high pricing on peripheral games: ". . . if it was left to me, I would raise the prices even further."

September 14, 2009
Bobby Kotick at the Deutsche Bank Securities Technology Conference: "I think the goal that I had in bringing a lot of the packaged goods folks that we brought in to Activision ten years ago was to take all the fun out of making video games. I think we definitely have been able to instill in the culture the skepticism and pessimism and fear that you should have in an economy like we are in today. And so, while generally people talk about the recession, we are pretty good at keeping people focused on the deep depression."

Kotick also envisions a future "untethered Guitar Hero" that will bypass consoles and hook up directly to televisions.

September 15, 2009
At a Modern Warfare 2 press event, Infinity Ward seems to poke fun at Kotick's "skepticism, pessimism, fear" speech.

October 30, 2009
Infinity Ward slips in a homophobic slur in a YouTube video using Philadelphia Phillies pitcher Cole Hamels to promote Modern Warfare 2. The poorly received video is pulled the next day.

November 10, 2009
Activision releases Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2. Selling nearly five million copies on the first day, it is the biggest launch in entertainment history.

The Activision logo, while on the box, is curiously missing from the game's boot and intro sequences. Furthermore, the Activision section in the end credits is sped through in thirty seconds following five minutes of Infinity Ward credits.

Activision also releases Call of Duty: Modern Warfare Reflex, a Treyarch-developed Wii port of the first Modern Warfare.

EA cuts 1,500 jobs and announces that it will refocus on iterating upon established franchises.

November 17, 2009
Activision releases Tony Hawk: Ride, an attempt to reinvigorate the franchise by tying it to a motion-sensing skateboard peripheral in a $119.99 package. The game and its use of the peripheral are widely panned.

Activision poaches Glen Schofield and Michael Condrey, executive producer and senior development director of Dead Space, to form wholly owned developer Sledgehammer Games.

December 2, 2009
EA announces the return of Medal of Honor in the form of a reboot set in modern times. The first trailer elicits more than a few comparisons to Modern Warfare.

December 22, 2009
Activision releases Guitar Hero: Van Halen for PS2, PS3, Wii, and Xbox 360. This follows Guitar Hero: Metallica, Guitar Hero: Smash Hits, Guitar Hero 5, Band Hero, and DJ Hero for the aforementioned platforms, all in 2009. Meanwhile, Harmonix and MTV remain staunch in their support of Rock Band 2 as a platform, powered by new downloadable tracks released on a weekly basis. Having said that, they then release two new Rock Band titles in 2009 (The Beatles: Rock Band and Lego Rock Band), plus three retail track packs.

Revenues for both Guitar Hero and Rock Band are down compared to last year, and the $373 million drop accounts for approximately half of the $720 million dollar decline the industry faces as a whole.

February 11, 2010
Activision shuts down Neversoft and RedOctane, attributing the closures to market conditions that see the publisher more than halving the number of music games it will be shipping compared to last year.

February 18, 2010

Bobby Kotick at the DICE Summit: "I don't know how this happened, but all my life I was the rebel flying the Millennium Falcon or the X-Wing fighter and suddenly I wake up and I'm on board the Death Star."

Kotick admits to having made some mistakes in the past. Looking back at Activision's acquisition of RedOctane for the Guitar Hero brand, he recalls that he knew of Harmonix as "somewhat a failed developer of music games." He regrets that he did not meet to do business with the eventual developer of Guitar Hero's direct competitor.

Summarizing, he says, "If you have a company and you want to protect your creative freedom and the integrity of the creative process, if you want to retain your identity and culture, if you want the support of the mothership and the resources of the mothership, we're a really great mothership. But if you want to sell out and move on, there are definitely other companies to talk to."

March 1, 2010
Less than two weeks after Kotick shows that he might actually be human, Infinity Ward heads Jason West and Vince Zampella are terminated on charges of insubordination.

March 2, 2010
Activision announces its plans to expand the Call of Duty brand, scheduling three games by three studios over the next two years, including an "action-adventure" take by Sledgehammer Games.

March 3, 2010
West and Zampella file suit against Activision. Contending that the publisher terminated them only to avoid having to pay royalties due from Modern Warfare 2, the pair furthermore allege that their original arrangement with Activision granted them control of the Modern Warfare brand.

April 9, 2010
Activision files counter-suit, calling West and Zampella "self-serving schemers," who had secret meetings with Activision's unnamed Northern California competitor.

Activision provides evidence in the form of this uncovered correspondence:
Dunno how to scan secretely 13 [sic]. . . . [IW Employee's] computer down. . . . [IW Employee] did it for me last time. .. .Really. No paranoia about it being in [IW employee] user folder? Her comp down anyway now. . . She had a secret area it scanned into. . . . Probably better to just photocopy and fedex. .. .Can scan or photo - your call. . . . Boom boom pow. Away.
(Censoring hides almost anything incriminating, but that "Boom boom pow. Away." bit seems evidence of douchebaggery.)

Asked for comment, the Northern California-based EA says, "We don't have the time to comment on the many lawsuits Activision files against its employees and creative partners."

Other members of the Modern Warfare 2 team, including all of the design leads, depart Infinity Ward and Activision over the next several days, extending into the present.

April 12, 2010
West and Zampella form Respawn Entertainment. The independent studio is funded by EA, who has partnered with Respawn for exclusive distribution rights.

April 22, 2010
Seven other Modern Warfare 2 team members confirm that they have joined Respawn.

Activision says that the hefty bonuses now forfeited by West and Zampella will be redistributed among employees who remain with Infinity Ward.

And on it goes . . .

UPDATE - April 29, 2010
Amid all the bad news and lawsuits, Activision announces its exclusive ten-year publishing deal with Bungie Studios.

(So much for Inifinity Ward . . .)



1. Activision knows how to run a hot property into the ground.

2. So does EA, but it may be changing its ways.

3. Certain people at Infinity Ward may have had a problem with authority.

4. Bobby Kotick is a douchebag.

My expanded take:

It's easy to paint Activision as the monster in this story (because it is and has been), but there's another way to look at things.

Less than two months after they were fired, West and Zampella now find themselves backed by another powerhouse publisher while still remaining supposedly independent as a studio staffed by employees that they have effectively stolen away from Infinity Ward. Why, isn't this the very scheme that Activision accused them of plotting? Having also won the public's sympathy over "the man's" mistreatment of them, West and Zampella really seem to have gotten everything they wanted. And while litigation is far from over, Activision was basically unable to do anything to stop them.

I suppose Activision could have made them a better offer--not just more money than EA is giving them, but also the freedom afforded an independent studio (which is maybe what the fans want also)--but wouldn't that have amounted to bending over for your own subordinates at what was supposed to be a negotiation? Some say that, after delivering Modern Warfare 2, West and Zampella should have been treated like kings by Activision. I'm guessing maybe they were acting like kings anyway, able to get away with anything, which essentially they have. Even if they were your greatest asset, how intolerable a situation would it be to constantly have your own employees disrespecting you? Would you really want to give them even more power and autonomy? Up against that kind of attitude, maybe all Activision could do was remain firm to the unavoidable end.

No, I would never be on Activision's side. But why on earth would anyone feel sorry for Jason West and Vince Zampella? I might feel bad for the remnants of Infinity Ward. Hell, I even wonder where this leaves the Medal of Honor team, given that they are essentially developing a Modern Warfare clone for EA, who is now wining and dining the creators of the real Modern Warfare. Or what about DICE, who in the midst of all this put out EA's Battlefield: Bad Company 2, which some players said was better than Modern Warfare 2? If Respawn is going to carry on 2015/Infinity Ward's military first-person shooter legacy, does that mean EA is going to be publishing three such similar games simultaneously? I think its own history should have taught EA better.

Of course I hope that everybody does well and puts out quality games. This story will probably be just lawsuits and LinkedIn profile updates from here on, so I guess all that's left to look forward to are the actual games that will be coming out of these companies. On that note, I suppose maybe I should finally play some of those Call of Duty games and see for myself what all this was over.

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