Respawn's West And Zampella Sound Off On Upcoming Activision Lawsuit - Features - www.GameInformer.com
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Respawn's West And Zampella Sound Off On Upcoming Activision Lawsuit

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 currently pending. 

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 it entail?

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 ­Activision, ­right?

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 court.

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 Wal-Mart.

Zampella: What is this? You mean people get recruited? It's weird!

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 you wanted?

West: Well, they signed a contract that ­said ­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 ­Project ­Icebreaker?

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 premises.

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.

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