The latest amended complaint in the lawsuit between the fired co-founders of Infinity Ward and parent company Activision Blizzard reveals some interesting schedule details about the next big potential blockbuster game: Call of Duty Modern Warfare 3.
The lawsuit involves a dispute between game studio Infinity Ward co-founders Vince Zampella and Jason West, who were fired by Activision Blizzard in March because they were allegedly trying to start a new game studio while still on Activision Blizzard’s payroll. The co-founders sued the company and accused it of trying to withhold tens of millions of dollars in royalty payments. Dozens of employees filed their own separate suit and last week filed an amended complaint with the details about the game’s schedule.
The game would be the third in a series that has become the biggest game franchise of all time. It is almost guaranteed to be a gigantic seller. But for a game studio embroiled in litigation, it won’t be easy to deliver. The litigation is being closely followed because it captures a rare fracture in developer-publisher relations and there is a lot of money at stake.
Activision bought Infinity Ward in 2003 for just $5 million, and it generated more than $3 billion in revenue from the Call of Duty games that the studio created. With Call of Duty 4, Infinity Ward branched away from the World War II theme to start the Modern Warfare franchise. Last November, Call of Duty Modern Warfare 2 debuted as the most popular video game of all time. The game has now sold more than 20 million copies and generated well over $1 billion in revenue.
Activision Blizzard contends that, despite the turmoil at Infinity Ward, it has more people working on Call of Duty games than ever and that it will deliver Call of Duty Black Ops (made by sister studio Treyarch) in November. On top of that, it promises a Call of Duty game in the fall of 2011. If Activision Blizzard can’t make that schedule, it will presumably warn investors at some point. But so far, it is insisting that it can do so. Thomas Tippl, chief operating officer of Activision Blizzard, reiterated that commitment to me in an interview. He said, “We will have a first-person shooter with Call of Duty Black Ops. We will have a first-person shooter in 2011.”
As Infinity Ward was embroiled in a dispute, Activision Blizzard created a new studio, Sledgehammer Games, to work on a new Call of Duty game. That studio is headed by former Electronic Arts veterans Glen Schofield and Michael Condrey. Their game will extend the franchise “into the action-adventure game.” That game is targeted for 2011.
Part of the tension between the Infinity Ward co-founders and the parent company was that the studio wanted to work on a new original title while the parent company wanted them to work right away on Modern Warfare 3, which the lawsuit says was scheduled for the fall of 2011. The Infinity Ward lawsuit alleges that Activision’s decision to force the studio to work on Modern Warfare 3 as their very next game was a violation of their contract.
Clearly, there is a balancing act between creative control, which the studio wanted, and business demands, which the parent company was pushing. But what kind of game do you get if you try to force your creative people to push out a game they don’t want to do? And wouldn’t it be worth making a bet on a new game franchise, started by a team with such a track record as this team had? Activision Blizzard would be foolish not to commission Modern Warfare 3, but it may also have been foolish in trying to get a team like this to do something it didn’t want to do.
The suit alleges that Activision held royalty money hostage in order to force the employees to work on Modern Warfare 3. Dozens of those employees have now left to join Zampella and West at their new studio, Respawn Entertainment, which is backed by Electronic Arts. Many of those employees joined the lawsuit against Activision.
The question at hand is whether Activision Blizzard, which now has only two-thirds of the original Infinity Ward team, can recover from this fiasco and deliver Modern Warfare 3 in November 2011. Perhaps the Sledgehammer game will make it to the market instead, fulfilling the obligation to produce a Call of Duty game at that time. But it’s hard to believe that the damaged studio can deliver the highest quality game on its original schedule.