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The Activision Lawsuit: What It Means And Where It's Going

News hit late yesterday that ex-Infinity Ward studio heads Jason West and Vince Zampella are suing Activision, their former employer. Today, we've received a boatload of new details on that lawsuit through the public court documents (originally posted on Kotaku). I've given the 16-page complaint a couple read-throughs, but rather than attempting to interpret it all on my own, I talked with Eric Chad, an intellectual property attorney with the firm Merchant & Gould. Chad provides some insight into why Activision may have made the choices they did, how relevant the info provided in West and Zampella's complaint is, and just how ugly and lengthy this legal battle could get.

For someone who's completely new to this type of legal document, the biggest surprise was that about 10 of the 16 pages are fairly clear and easy to follow, providing a semi-narrative set of anecdotes about the various problems West and Zampella have faced from Activision over the past few years. Some items I found particularly interesting:

-After acquiring Infinity Ward in 2002, Activision CEO Bobby Kotick told West and Zampella "that they should, and needed to, fight to preserve the 'magic' at Infinity Ward and focus above all else on maintaining its record of top-rated games."

-Following the release and success of the original Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, West and Zampella almost didn't renew their contract with Activision. The duo clearly wanted Infinity Ward to develop a new intellectual property, but they were being pressured by Activision to move right into Modern Warfare 2. From the document:

"Despite assurances by Activision that West and Zampella would have complete freedom to run Infinity Ward as an independent studio, Activision had begun to intrude upon Infinity Ward's ability to create quality games. For example, Activision forced Infinity Ward's employees to continue producing the games at a break neck pace under aggressive schedules, and West and Zampella were concerned that Activision was emphasizing quantity over quality. Given Activision's insistence that Infinity Ward continue to focus on sequels to Call of Duty games instead of new intellectual property, West and Zampella were also concerned that Activision's demands risked 'burning out' the Infinity Ward employees' creativity."

-Activision eventually convinced West and Zampella to stay with them by offering up a Memorandum of Understanding. In addition to extending their contracts through to October 2011, this legally-binding document gave West and Zampella some major financial bonuses as well as a couple other hefty promises. Chiefly, it gave the two "creative authority over the development of any games under the Modern Warfare brand (or any Call of Duty game set in the post-Vietnam era, the near future, or the distant future) including complete control over the Infinity Ward studio." In other words, Activision could not publish a Modern Warfare-branded game (or a Call of Duty game set any time later than Vietnam) without West and Zampella's full approval.

The Memorandum also promised the duo the ability to "operate Infinity Ward independently and to choose to develop new intellectual property after they completed Modern Warfare 2." Taken with the implied desire to move on to new things from the quote above, that probably means West and Zampella weren't looking to have Infinity Ward develop Modern Warfare 3.

-Sometime at the beginning of February or earlier, Activision launched an investigation into West and Zampella that the complaint alleges "was not to uncover any facts concerning any actual wrongdoing, but to manufacture a basis to fire West and Zampella." The details get downright scary here, with the duo saying that Activision refused to provide them with specifics on what they were being accused of, "insisting instead in Orwellian fashion that West and Zampella 'already have a clear understanding of what they have or have not done.'" The complaint notes that any time West or Zampella questioned the proceedings, they were told that anything but full cooperation would be counted as insubordination, thus justifying the firing in and of itself. Activision supposedly demanded access to their personal computers and cell phones and interrogated them for six hours straight in a windowless conference room on Presidents' Day weekend. Yikes.

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