Activision faces big Modern Warfare 2 lawsuit

By Andrew Witts

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Very rarely would you be able to talk to a person off the street and have an informed conversation about the video game industry and how it is structured somewhat similarly to the motion picture business. One could blame the major news outlets like Newscorp and CNN for their lack of coverage of the industry, but where are all of the video game journalists in this equation?

Outlets like IGN, Game Informer and Kotaku usually cover nearly every aspect of the on goings of the medium, but rarely do they make a point to get their news out to the public eye in a bold manner. This is not to say that every single man, woman and child need to know about how many accelerometers are currently in the Wii Motion Plus, but there are certain stories that every one should have brought to their attention. One of these stories is the current domination of Activision Blizzard and their dominance over the developer Infinity Ward.

A few months ago, towards the end of the decade, a video game developer unleashed arguably one of the greatest selling pieces of entertainment that the modern world has known – Infinity Ward’s Modern Warfare 2, published by Activision Blizzard for the XBox 360 and Playstation 3. The overwhelming success of this game was posted on nearly every corner of the Internet. News blogs were ablaze with Activision Blizzard and Infinity Ward’s financial success, while major news sites produced features on the game’s disturbing depiction of terrorism in the level entitled “No Russian.” Meanwhile, journalists within the industry could not stop talking about just how good the game was despite technical comments of the game engine’s wear and the voice-over cut scenes. It is pretty clear that back in Nov. 2009, Modern Warfare 2 was on the tip of everyone’s tongue as gamers could not stop playing. On the other hand, newsgroups could not stop talking about it, and parents were trying to find it in stores for the holiday season.

As the first days of 2010 came and went, the numbers in sales for Activision only increased, and once a month the gaming community would see sales reports of the disgusting progression of growth for the number one online shooter. On the multiplayer side of things, news outlets within the industry could not stop reporting on the number of glitches and unbalanced tactics such as the infamous javelin and supply package hiccups. Despite these flaws, gamers could not do anything but watch as the sales numbers just continued to increase. It certainly seemed like the sky was the limit for Infinity Ward and for video game awareness in general, but it seemed that something very dark was lurking around all of this positivity.

On March 1, 2010 the two founders and figureheads for Infinity Ward, Jason West and Vince Zampella, were escorted out of their offices during work hours by a security team that was under contract with Activision. The two men had been fired by their own publisher for reasons of “breach of contract” and “insubordination.” This news hit the industry as a complete shock, but the real news followed the next day as Activision revealed their new business model for the Call of Duty brand name. This new model essentially treated the Call of Duty franchise in the same way that Activision tended to the Guitar Hero franchise. In other words, they were going to pump out as many games as possible with multiple development teams to capitalize on the sales of Modern Warfare 2.

The fact that this announcement hit the day after the firing of West and Zampella certainly raised more than a few interested eye brows. However, the plot thickened the next day when West and Zampella declared that they were filing suit against their former publisher for $36 million in royalties owed to them. West and Zampella claimed that their ousting from their offices was part of a pre-ordained “Orwellian” construction which would result in Activision’s goal of exploiting the Call of Duty franchise. The lawsuit also mentions a Memorandum of Understanding which was signed in 2008 by West, Zampella and Mike Griffith, the president of Activision Publishing, that gives both Infinity Ward founders power over the Modern Warfare brand and any other first person shooter game that takes place after the Vietnam War. The memorandum, if true, would thus ruin the mega-publisher’s new plan to reproduce new Call of Duty games in multiple development cycles per year.

The outcome of the lawsuit between the ex-Infinity Ward founders and their former employer is one of utmost importance to the whole video game industry. Much like the various strikes and defining law suits in Hollywood or the music industry, the result of this conflict will present the public with the true state of video games.

If West and Zampella actually take their case to trial for their royalties and the rights to their beloved series and are victorious, then it shows that the real thriving power in the interactive medium is with the developer and not the current money-drunk, investor ruled publisher. With such power in the balance, one would assume that news of these developments would be spread across numerous outlets and not merely discussed and reported within the industry’s own exclusive news reporting community. Despite even the spread of the news within industry limits, talk pretty much died down throughout the gaming universe within a week about these monumental events. At the time of this writing, there is still no major support group for either side, showing that gamers do not care, and even worse, Modern Warfare fans do not care.

The important state of action and response from the gaming community to situations such as this are just sad. Very few times does an opportunity arise within a commercial medium where the figureheads of gaming can unleash a war cry to be heard over the sound of money and stock options. Motion pictures have had nearly every riot/strike known to man, while the comics medium has survived strictly on the active participation and promotion from the inside. This is not to say that gamers should be out in the streets rioting and breaking Activision’s doors down, but shouldn’t something happen? When Left 4 Dead 2’s release date was announced to be less than one year after the original, the Internet was on fire with coverage of the petitions from the Valve community. Yes, Valve is known to have one of the most devoted gaming communities in the industry, but it’s not like all of these rabid fanboys have not played any of Infinity Ward’s games and remotely appreciated it. Again, the lawsuit goes beyond just Infinity Ward and the fate of the Call of Duty brand. Instead what is at stake is the perception of the video game industry as a whole. Either we exist in a world where virtual entertainment is seen solely from an economical point of view or it is looked upon with appreciation for the medium and those who strive to renew, improve, innovate, create, and deliver such an in-depth experience that only video games can streamline to your very being.

Andrew Witts can be reached at [email protected]