Beyond Infinity

The Infinity Ward spat is a symptom of a wider power struggle between top studios and publishers

Despite plenty of sage nose-tapping and wild speculation, few people outside of those directly involved know exactly what happened between Infinity Ward and Activision this week. It's an extraordinary story - the studio which created last year's best-selling game, and one of the best-selling entertainment properties in history, turning up to work to find security conspicuously posted around the building; the studio's bosses and founders called into a meeting and abruptly dismissed, their fate revealed to the world by shocked-sounding status updates on their profile pages.

Activision, which contrary to many online reports owns Infinity Ward outright, rumbles about things like "insubordination". Those at the studio keep their lips sealed, for the most part, although hints of deep disquiet regarding the studio's share of the loot from Modern Warfare 2's enormous windfall are a common theme in the vague mutterings escaping the firm. That's seemingly confirmed when the studio heads involved, Jason West and Vince Zampella, file suit against Activision over unpaid royalties and issues relating to control of the Modern Warfare franchise.

It will almost certainly take months, if not years, for the full picture of what just happened to become clear. Even staff at the studio itself seem somewhat unclear about the details, and of course, the view taken by Activision differs significantly from that of West and Zampella. What seems clear, though, is that Infinity Ward - despite being a wholly owned subsidiary - wanted creative control of its franchise and a share of the cash it generated, while Activision seemingly wanted to treat IW as an internal studio, paying them salaries (and presumably bonuses, where applicable) and dictating what they work on.

Beyond that, the devil is in the details. Activision may be playing corporate hardball in an effort to entirely control the Modern Warfare franchise and nip any possible challenge to the publisher's management in the bud, trusting that by beheading the studio's boisterous leadership, it will render the creative staff docile - not exactly a move with a strong precedent of success in the creative industries, it has to be noted. Alternatively, West and Zampella may truly have overstepped the mark, perhaps by talking to other publishers or laying groundwork for taking key staff and creating a new independent studio (bearing in mind that that's exactly how Infinity Ward was formed in the first instance).

Either way - and only a court of law is ever going to establish any semblance of truth here - I can't help but feel that the whole ruckus taking place at Infinity Ward's offices north of Los Angeles owes much to the presence of another of Activision's subsidiaries to the south of the city. Although absent from much of the discourse around the issue, Blizzard casts a long shadow over the whole affair.

Blizzard, after all, is the "other" jewel in the Activision crown. World of Warcraft is one of three franchises - next to Guitar Hero and Call of Duty / Modern Warfare - which generates well over two thirds of Activision's annual revenue, and along with the rest of Blizzard's catalogue, that's an important enough role to earn it equal billing in the publisher's name, Activision Blizzard. That, of course, could be said to be an accident of corporate history, coming as a result of a merger with Blizzard's former parent company Vivendi, but the reality is that it also expresses a clear gulf between the status of Blizzard and that of other subsidiary studios. Blizzard, the company's name clearly demonstrates, is special.

Within the industry, anecdotes about just how special Blizzard is abound. I'm particularly fond of the (probably apocryphal) story about a slightly pompous corporate upstart at the finance department of a former Blizzard owner (Vivendi, presumably) turning up unannounced at the studio to demand more oversight of its internal finances and crack the corporate whip - only to find himself dumped unceremoniously out of the building. It's almost certainly either a total fabrication or a massive exaggeration, of course, but the very popularity of this story as a drinking tale within the industry tells you a lot about Blizzard's status. This is a goose that may lay its eggs slowly and carefully, but they're always golden, without fail - and thanks in part to expert corporate manoeuvring over the year by Blizzard's bosses, its parent companies have always left the studio to its own devices, enjoying revenues but exerting precious little control.

It goes without saying that that's almost a uniquely charmed situation. I can think of a fairly small number of studios who have enjoyed similar freedoms, but they are usually studios that require little management oversight in the first place - those committed to regular release schedules by the nature of their franchises, for example. In the case of Blizzard, what's unique is that the firm is left untouched in spite of the kind of activities that normally cause publishing executives to have kittens on the boardroom table - years-long slippages, late stage cancellation of projects that aren't up to scratch, and all the rest of it. Consumers trust that this is down to an obsessive and much respected pursuit of quality. Publishers, on the whole, are less understanding of such traits, but they all seem to understand one simple mantra - you don't mess with Blizzard.

And so, we come back to Infinity Ward. In dollar terms, Infinity Ward is presently similarly important to Activision, Modern Warfare a franchise on equal footing with Warcraft. Yet the differences in approach are apparent. Short of deciding on a whim to shut down World of Warcraft abruptly and turning its development studios into hydroponic cannabis farms, it's hard to think of anything Blizzard could do that would lead to security storming its campus in Irvine and key figures such as Mike Morhaime being given their marching orders. Thus, as soon as the word "insubordination" floated to the top of this debate, it seemed hard to disassociate anything IW's principals had done from the freedom Blizzard enjoys.

Of course, there are vital differences. Blizzard has decades of track record behind it, three enormous franchises which may be slow to update but deliver guaranteed hits when they do, and an ongoing monthly revenue stream that's the envy of the entire industry. Infinity Ward has created one franchise (and a spin-off) and a number of solid hits, but it's a stretch to think of it as being remotely as proven or as mature a studio as Blizzard.

However, even given those factors, this feels like a major twist in an ongoing debate over the status of publisher-owned studios as much as it is an isolated corporate spat. Blizzard's enormous freedom, Microsoft's eyebrow-raising decision to allow Bungie to buy itself back out of Microsoft Game Studios (paid back in droves, it seems, by the continuing healthy relationship between the two), even the legendary studio-crushing EA's treating of BioWare with kid gloves - all of these are events that are changing the perception of the celebrity game studio, the golden egg laying geese upon which publishers dare not lay too harsh a finger.

Whatever the details of the Infinity Ward case, it seems sure that what happened, at heart, was that the studio pushed too hard, too soon, for the kind of control and privileges which its peers elsewhere enjoy - and perhaps Activision, fretting over its inability to exert real control over Blizzard, pushed back far too hard, fearing ending up with two Blizzards rather than just one under its roof. As top developers become more and more aware of their growing market power, even once acquired by a publisher, this situation is likely to be one that repeats itself. An acquaintance from the film business once remarked to me that he was surprised how docile the creative side of the games business seemed to be, with remarkably little fire in their bellies for fighting over control and revenues with the publishing side. While I suspect he romantically overstates the case of film, there's some truth in that - but as the Infinity Ward case demonstrates, that docility is no longer something publishers can always assume.

Latest comments (3)

As indicated, only time and eventual disclosures through court documents and filings will allow an understanding of what took place at Infinity Ward. One possibility is that West and Zampella gambled and lost. I have to assume that they were at least distantly aware of the consequences involved in supposedly negotiating with outside entities while still under restrictive employment agreements. Blizzard, Bungie, Rockstar, Bioware, etc., all had principals who had the presence of mind to protect themselves from the very start of their parent company relationships, strongly renegotiating their incentives as continued success dictated. There is a lesson to be learned here. Unfortunately it's one that, like the film industry's infamous "accounting" example , will be quickly forgotten whenever creative talents encounter that first big opportunity.
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Robert Huebner President/CEO, Nihilistic Software8 years ago
Good article.

If your framing of things is correct, it has some echoes of the Blizzard North/Blizzard South showdown from a few years back. It seemed that the accepted sequence of events there was a too-early push for parity from the Bliz. North guys, and Bliz. South calling their bluff and the departure of the senior staff/founders (and later closure of the studio).
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Stace Harman Freelance Writer 8 years ago
An excellent read.

Attention will soon shift from the 'why' to the 'what next?'. Rumours that West & Zampella could in some way retain control/ownership of the MW brand add extra spice to the story, though with IW being a wholly owned Activision Blizzard subsidiary this seems unlikely.

The industry will be watching closely to see not only how it plays out but also where West & Zampella go from here once the dust settles. Good luck to them, wherever they end up.
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