The lights are on
We recently had the opportunity to sit down with
Respawn Entertainment's Jason West and Vince Zampella, the one-time heads of
Infinity Ward and creators of Call of Duty. During our conversation we finally
got to hear their version of the events surrounding their dismissal from
Activision and the bitter legal battle that has carried on for two years.
This is the most personal account of the Infinity Ward
story to date, and the insights of their lawyer Robert Schwartz gives us a more
accurate and detailed picture of the conspiracy they allege Activision engaged
in to bring about their firing. The civil case is
Why don't we start with how this rift began? Could you
sum it up in terms of why Activision is going after you in the suit? What does
Jason West: I've never really been clear on that one.
I'm not sure what they're claiming. I know they are suing for a billion dollars
and they haven't specified if they want it from EA or from me. [Editor's Note:
Activision and EA settled this suit the following day, agreeing "to put this
matter behind them."]
Vince Zampella: They say that Modern Warfare 3
would have been a much better game and would have made 700 million more dollars
for them and they want us to pay that.
West: We deprived them of our services by being fired
and therefore we owe them money.
Robert Schwartz: They have an expert. I don't know if
this guy is going to ever see the inside of a courtroom, but he is going to
testify that he did an analysis of all of their games and came to the
conclusion that these guys and the 40 who left made better games for less money
than anybody else at Activision. If they had not been fired, Modern
Warfare 3 would have done somewhere between $2.8 and
$3.3 billion in gross revenues. He vetted it through [Activision Blizzard
COO] Tom Tippl and someone else in the chief financial office. He says, "Well,
that's what the game would have done, here's what it did do. So here's all the
profit that Activision lost because they didn't have those services."
And - oh, by the way - Sledgehammer would have been available to do
Fog of War and that would have made more profits, but they couldn't because
they had to fill in for the Infinity Ward team.
That's the damage part of the case. The liability is
the flip side of our case against them, where we say Jason and Vince were fired
without cause. Activision's saying, "Oh no, absolutely there was cause. These
guys were disloyal, breached their fiduciary duties to the company by talking
to EA, they conspired with EA to raid Infinity Ward and set up a competing
studio, and that's exactly what they did. As soon as it became clear to them
that EA would give them a 'happy home,' they set about to misbehave so much
that they engineered their own firing."
West: They said, "He orchestrated his own
firing" - I will never forget that.
Zampella: We're geniuses, apparently.
West: I said, "Don't give me 100 million
dollars - fire me! That would be awesome."
Schwartz: "Let me leave behind all the tech I've spent
eight years working on, the 100 million dollars I've earned, the momentum in my
career, my team, and let me start all over with a small team and development
budget on a game I haven't even thought about that no one has seen or bought."
Yeah, that's a good idea.
Basically Activision is saying that they are bad guys
[who] needed to be fired, and Activision had a contract for their services and
was deprived of the value of not getting better games.
West: It's especially crazy because they gave us the
right to do a new IP. So there is nothing that we could have conceivably gained
by not being [at Activision].
You had recently signed a new contract with
West: Yes, and that contract gave us the right to make
whatever game we wanted after Modern Warfare 2. Apparently, they didn't
want to live up to that.
They say that you were being pursued by EA. Anyone that
makes successful games is always being pursued. That's status quo if you are a
person with a proven track record of making games.
West: They are going to try to prove that's not true in
Zampella: You mean like Sledgehammer, who was pursued
by Activision? [Editor's Note: Activision hired Dead Space developers Glen
Schofield and Michael Condrey away from Electronic Arts in 2009.]
West: They're pretending video games are like banks or
Zampella: What is this? You mean people get recruited?
West: They act like they have no concept of that and
now we have to prove it.
So after Modern Warfare 2, you could make any game
West: Well, they signed a contract that
Schwartz: Not any game [Jason and Vince] wanted, but
[they] could decide what it would be. [Activision] couldn't say, "It has to be
a Modern Warfare game."
So what drives you to EA?
Schwartz: [Activision is claiming] a better deal, IP
ownership, and higher bonus rates.
What leads up to your termination?
Schwartz: [West and Zampella] were negotiating [a new
contract with Activision]. [Activision has] Harold Brown, a top-flight
Hollywood entertainment lawyer. They were making progress. They're giving up
their right to do their own game [of their choosing], they're going to do
Modern Warfare 3. This is February 2010 - a month before they got
fired. So, fine - the same bonus arrangement, same everything. Activision
guarantees them a big chunk of bonuses if the game is delivered on time and
gets a 90-plus Metacritic score - so it's not much of a guarantee. At the
end of the game, Activision will let them go off on their own and be
independent. By the way, their contracts would have been up anyway, so it's not
giving them anything. The dispute they are trying to get around is that these
guys are saying, "Look, when we set up a new company we'd like to hire up to 10
people from Infinity Ward."
These people should be free to go wherever they want.
And, if they leave, all the stock options and whatever - they should vest
and they should not be hurt if they are going with us to make games for
[Activision]. It should be a non-event. Activision is saying, "No, no, no." And,
by the way, Activision is saying you have to sign new employment agreements for
these remaining two years.
This is the third day of meetings between Activision's
lawyers and their lawyers. Their lawyers go over, and Activision comes out of
their lawyers' office and they are talking and talking. Their lieutenant
counsel says, "I just don't think we can come to an agreement on this. Give
this to Jason and Vince." He shoves across the table a piece of paper.
What does the piece of paper say? "You are hereby being
notified that you are being investigated for improper conduct and breach of
fiduciary duty. You may not talk to anybody about this and must cooperate in
full or that in itself will be potential grounds for termination. We haven't
made any decision about what we're going to do in this investigation -
whether there is any discipline to be had or termination - but you better
take us very seriously. Thank you very much."
West: The thing that blows my mind is that they showed
up to the meeting with that thing printed out in their briefcase already. It
wasn't an email. It was hours of conversation, then reach in and pull out the
paper. This was all very surprising, by the way. You're waiting for the call to
be like, "Did they take the offer?" Well, actually, they gave me this piece of
paper. That was a surprise. [Laughs]
Schwartz: In court they said this is a completely
neutral investigation - "We just wanted to get the facts and see if these
guys had done anything wrong because we were concerned they might have been
talking to a competitor and we needed to know where we stood." Well, they
started a secret investigation about a year earlier called Project Buzz and
later was called Project Icebreaker. It was a secret task force. It was to look
at what these guys were doing and see if they should fire them [and] if we fire
them, who's going to take their place?
This is a task force that has paperwork?
Schwartz: Yes, Project Icebreaker. They have these
PowerPoint slides in October and November that say, "Here's what we project the
Modern Warfare 2 launch quarter bonuses to be for Infinity Ward studios.
Here's Jason and Vince's share that we save if they are not there anymore.
Here's what we need to do to retain the other guys that might leave if these
guys aren't there anymore."
How is this even going to court?
Schwartz: Spin - lawyers will spin.
Vince: When they handed us that paper across the table,
they already had a room booked the next day and they started showing up at the
studio and pulling people out of the studio.
Schwartz: They'd already hired the law firm. The whole
Icebreaker group that had been investigating them for months rounding up all
the data, the documents, the emails, and whatever, and in a matter of days
dumped it all on the law firms, including a 19-page, single-spaced [list of]
questions to ask these guys - by topic - all ready to go. That's not
very independent, or neutral.
They told the investigators who to talk to, when to talk
to them, what to ask them, what issues to talk about.
What else can you tell us about
Schwartz: You'll love this. Summer 2009 -
May 2009. Before E3, the big [event] for Modern Warfare 2. Do you
know who George Rose is? He was the head lawyer for [Activision].
So George Rose goes into the office of this guy named
Thomas Fenady. He's some kind of IT whiz at Activision. He's sitting in his
office and has no idea what is going to walk in his office. [Rose says], "Hey,
this comes right from the top. I have a project for you from [Activision
Blizzard CEO] Bobby Kotick. Jason and Vince - you know those guys? We're
really sick of them. We want to get rid of them; we want to fire them. You need
to break into their computers and dig up dirt to be used to justify firing
them." [Fenady] testified to this.
So Fenady gets really nervous. He goes to his boss and
his boss finds out about it and his boss says, "You should not get involved in
something like this - this doesn't sound right." George Rose finds out
about this, comes into his office, and goes, "Look, this comes from Bobby
Kotick. If you do this, Bobby will protect you if anything happens. But
remember, the number one priority is do not get caught."
So he tries to break into the Infinity Ward server to
read emails. He sees there is a firewall there, but he breaks through the
firewall. He's now seeing their email server, but he can't make any sense out
of it. So he calls Microsoft and says, "Hey we have this Microsoft Exchange
server out at Infinity Ward. Can you help us figure out how to break the
password and read the emails?"
Microsoft said, "Do you have a court order? This makes
us feel very uncomfortable."
What happened at that point?
Schwartz: Then he goes to a vender that does
penetration testing called InGuardians and they said, "Hmm, this sounds like
some black bag operation, we'll help you but you have to give us an indemnity
and a get out of jail free card against any criminal or civil liability." Then,
they realized they can't do anything unless they have physical access to the
They then go to the facilities guys and they say,
"Look, we need to get into Jason and Vince's computers and the other computers
at Infinity Ward. Can you stage a mock fire drill or something to get them out
of the building so we can go in and grab the computer's image [Editor's Note:
This refers to the process of cloning a computer's contents.] and get out before
they know what's happened?"
They tried to keep that evidence out. Two weeks ago
they had a motion in front of the judge and said, "This is a sideshow, this is
bull----." We said, "No, this is the core of the case, your honor. This tells
you that everything they've been telling you and want to tell the jury about
why they fired them is complete bull----. It had nothing to do with EA. EA
didn't even call these guys up until two months after that."
There's more stuff. In January 2009, now you're 14
months before they get fired. This is after World at War. It's from [Activision
executive vice president of worldwide studios] Dave Stohl to [Activision
president of publishing] Mike Griffith, and he's saying, "I heard from Bobby
that [Activision Blizzard co-chairman] Brian Kelly told you that he's so over
Jason and Vince. Is everybody ready for the big PR blowout if we kick them out?
What are we going to do to finish the game? Maybe we should just wait." This is
14 months before they get fired.
Head to page two to hear what their odds are in court, and if they would have made Modern Warfare 3.
Email the author Andy McNamara, or follow on Twitter, Google+, Facebook, and Game Informer.