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That time Activision dishonorably discharged Call of Duty's star dev duo

10 Years Ago This Month: Jason West and Vince Zampella were marched out of Infinity Ward right into the eager arms of EA

The games industry moves pretty fast, and there's a tendency for all involved to look constantly to what's next without so much worrying about what came before. That said, even an industry so entrenched in the now can learn from its past. So to refresh our collective memory and perhaps offer some perspective on our field's history, runs this monthly feature highlighting happenings in gaming from exactly a decade ago.

Call of Duty duo faces Activision's firing squad

It probably seems like I bag on Activision a lot in this column. It probably seems like that because by any reasonable standard, I do.

But in my defense, this series is a chronological recap that has spent the last few years knee-deep in Activision's prime era of cartoonishly nefarious behavior. I'm probably as tired of writing about it as you are reading about it. And yet…

Ten years ago this month, Infinity Ward co-founders Vince Zampella and Jason West were escorted out of the studio by security after being fired for breach of contract and insubordination. This was just a handful of months after their studio released Modern Warfare 2, a very successful game that made all the money and also let players shoot innocent civilians in an airport for fun. It was the first game Infinity Ward released since West and Zampella signed new long-term contracts with Activision in 2008 that turned out to be not so long after all.

Within days of their firing, West and Zampella sued Activision for $36 million, saying the publisher had set up an investigation to "manufacture a basis to fire" them after the release of Modern Warfare 2. That particular charge would be proven false in court, as Activision's former IT director testified that it was actually months before Modern Warfare 2 hit shelves that he was told to dig up dirt on the pair.

"Bobby will take care of you. Don't worry about repercussions"

And just in case that didn't make this whole thing shady enough, Activision execs had a cute little name for their plan -- Project Icebreaker -- and the IT head testified that Activision's chief legal officer George Rose had told him "don't get caught doing it", but added, "Bobby will take care of you. Don't worry about repercussions."

Rose denied the quotes in court, but admitted that Project Icebreaker was real. However, he also said it wasn't some shady plan devised to oust West and Zampella. Instead, it was a completely different shady plan to let the company more easily snoop on all of its employees emails.

Publicly, Activision played the victim, counter-suing West and Zampella and calling them "insubordinate and self-serving schemers who attempted to hijack Activision's assets for their own personal gain." It also accused them of meeting in secret with Electronic Arts as part of a plan somehow "designed to steal the [Infinity Ward] studio."

It's not clear how two developers would be able to steal a studio wholly owned by Activision, but West and Zampella did indeed wind up forming Respawn Entertainment with EA the very next month, and bringing a number of their former Infinity Ward colleagues along with them. Naturally, Activision sued EA over this.

On the one hand, the timing of that does look a bit suspicious. On the other, you might have fewer problems with your employees desperately wanting to work somewhere else if you a) stop fostering a climate of skepticism, pessimism, and fear and b) maybe don't make them sue you en masse for $125 million in royalty payments from the last game because you're withholding them until they finish work on the next game. (Activision's defense to those charges was that it had every right to determine the schedule of bonus payments, which makes me wonder if the company cafeteria has one of those "Free lunch tomorrow" signs up.)

While we know for certain the ex-Infinity Ward employees received at least $42 million of the money they were seeking, we don't really know how things shook out beyond that, because corporate legal reality and cathartic resolution are like those two Ron Silvers from Timecop and they can never be in the same place at the same time.

In other words, all of those suits were settled.

Game Developers Contraction

In 2010, there were five Game Developers Conferences: GDC, GDC Europe, GDC Canada, GDC Online, and GDC China. Since then, GDC's organizers have scaled the brand back to its primary San Francisco event, and this year we might not even get that because of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) epidemic. Technically the event has been postponed and organizers are hoping to run a replacement of some sort in the summer, but that seems far from certain.

Disassembling Ensemble

In a rant session at GDC 2010, former Ensemble developer Paul Bettner talked about the damaging work culture at the Age of Empires studio. Beyond saying the studio was inefficiently run, Bettner said "everyone was a workaholic," leading to poor quality of life for developers at the studio.

"We burn out all our best people. We destroy these precious artists, we wreck their families and we sacrifice their youth"

Ex-Ensemble dev Paul Bettner

"I watched this happen and I did almost nothing to stop it," Bettner said. "As an employee, and later as a manager, I didn't take a stand. I just kept hoping for that next high."

He added, "This is a horrible vicious cycle. We burn out all our best people. We destroy these precious artists, we wreck their families and we sacrifice their youth. So they leave, and they take all their experience with them."

Bettner's statements drew a standing ovation in the room, but at least one of his former co-workers took exception to them. In a post on his own website, ex-Ensemble designer Ian Fischer said the studio's developers were more likely to complain that the studio was too lax, that it "allowed our people too much freedom and did not hammer individuals for playing games or not being at their desks by the official start of the workday."

"There were certainly people at Ensemble who did not like working long hours for extended periods (all of them, in fact) but your implication that it was a place that used people up is wholly untrue and contrary to all evidence," Fischer said. "The leadership of Ensemble Studios saw crunch as a failure. While it was certainly used, it was never 'institutionalised' or accepted."

Without calling anyone a liar here, I'll just point out that just about every story of crunch culture in this industry produces widely differing assessments from people with first-hand knowledge of the situation. Just ask Rockstar or NetherRealm employees.

Crunch often affects different parts of a studio differently, and even individuals in the same situation can have different views as to how much of a problem it is, or whether it feels like a team pulling together to accomplish something or an employer exploiting employees for profit.

The Problem with Good Call, Bad Call

I'm quite fond of the Good Call, Bad Call section, but I have to admit there's a problem with it that one story this month is making abundantly clear:

Social gaming is "absolutely not" in a bubble.

Someone saying this in March of 2010 at the height of the Facebook gaming bubble is a slam dunk Bad Call, right? I mean, the quote is from Mind Candy CEO Michael Acton Smith, and he uses Club Penguin and Playfish as his primary examples as to why social gaming is in no danger of collapsing.

EA spent $300 million to acquire Playfish months earlier and would shut it down entirely a little over three years later. Club Penguin cost Disney at least $350 million and did a little better. It waddled along for seven more years before being shut down, but it too struggled to migrate its success from its Flash-based website to mobile platforms.

So sure, social gaming in the form many thought about it in 2010, Facebook games in particular, was in the middle of a bubble. But Acton Smith's reasoning behind the bubble denial was pretty solid.

The free-to-play model was reshaping the industry. Online gaming and digital distribution were the future. Kids in 2010 were consuming games in a fundamentally different way than previous generations did. Social gameplay features will help expand audiences and keep them interested. And in that sense, everything Acton Smith said about social games was absolutely accurate; it's just that everyone's playing Fortnite instead of Farmville.

You're always going to lose some context when you boil people's thoughts and assessments of a complex industry down to a headline, and the Good Call, Bad Call format doesn't always allow for that context to come through. That said, it's always disappointing to find a gem of a headline for the Bad Call section and then read the piece and determine it doesn't really fit. I could really use some Bad Call comfort food now though, the kind of Bad Call that comes up time and time again and is basically always wrong. Let's see what we can find…

Good Call, Bad Call

BAD CALL: Ah, perfect. Here's one from Hi5's Alex St. John -- a possible first-ballot inductee in the eventual Bad Call Hall of Fame -- who doubled-down on his earlier assertion that the Xbox 360/PlayStaton 3/Wii generation would be the last generation of consoles.

"Yes," St. John replied when asked if he still felt that way. "It's funny because the more the console companies protest it the more hollow it rings because, where are they? This is usually when you announce them. It's 2010, how long has the Xbox 360 been out now? Five years? This is usually when you announce them. Any rumours? Heard of anything in development?"

The next generation of consoles would start in 2012 with the release of the Wii U. Sony and Microsoft would introduce the PS4 and Xbox One in 2013. One could argue the generation after that generation began in 2017 with the launch of the Nintendo Switch, but even if we call that a handheld, Sony and Microsoft are expected to join the generation later this year with the debut of the PS5 and the Xbox Series X.

MIXED CALL: St. John wasn't the only one pondering the next generation's arrival. The Strategy Analytics Connected Home Devices (SACHD) service predicted that the PS3 would last for five more years after the Wii was replaced, outselling Nintendo's hardware by a total of 127 million units to 103 million.

Some parts of this prediction were phenomenally accurate. The Wii units sold figure was ever so slightly off, as the system's final installed base was a little less than 102 million units. And the PS3 was discontinued in 2017, which was indeed five years after the Wii was replaced by the Wii U. But Sony's final PS3 tally was 87.4 systems sold, almost 40 million fewer than SACHD had forecast.

GOOD CALL: Nintendo of America president Reggie Fils-Aime said Nintendo wasn't ready to think seriously about a successor to the Wii. Hard to argue with him there. I'm not sure Nintendo was ready to think of a successor to the Wii until it started working on the Switch.

BAD CALL: Tim Langdell declared he was "completely certain" of defeating Mirror's Edge publisher Electronic Arts in a trademark dispute regarding Langdell's Edge Games and its vigorously asserted rights to the word "Edge" in video games.

A US district court judge did not mince words in siding with EA later that year, saying, "it is an open question whether plaintiff's business activities legitimately extend beyond trolling various gaming-related industries for licensing opportunities." Days later, Edge Games agreed to the cancellation of a number of its US trademarks for variations of "edge" in video games.

BAD CALL: Signal Hill Capital Group's Todd Greenwald said that Red Dead Redemption was unlikely to turn a profit for Take-Two Interactive in light of its extended development cycle and big marketing campaign. While it's difficult to say for certain because the industry doesn't exactly trumpet development budgets, marketing expenses or lifetime revenue of its games, Red Dead Redemption did sell 15 million copies and Rockstar was given plenty of time to work on the even-better-selling Red Dead Redemption 2, so we'll go ahead and guess it made some money.

GOOD CALL: Greenwald got back in the Good Call column the next week with his prediction that the forthcoming on-demand game streaming service OnLive would struggle. He said a small installed base would make the service an afterthought for publishers, the monthly subscription fee would negate much of the benefit of not needing to invest in a console, and selling games that could only be played through streaming for virtually the same cost of buying a physical or downloadable copy just didn't make for a compelling offer to gamers.

As much as I'm tempted to not give Greenwald credit for calling the sky blue, Google's Stadia launch suggests some of this common sense stuff just isn't that common after all.

Happy Anniversaries

Happy anniversary to the original bare bones announcement of the 3DS. (Seriously, here's Nintendo's press release about it.) I'm not sure I've ever seen another console or handheld built so heavily on one gimmick that managed to succeed despite nobody caring about or using that gimmick. Truly one-of-a-kind.

March of 2010 was actually a big month for milestones across the industry. Here's a short list of some of the month's big new studios and announcements:

Impressively, all of those studios and Indie Fund are still alive and kicking. Even the 3DS is receiving new downloadable games here and there (five so far this year), so congratulations to a deep and resilient class of March 2010!

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Brendan Sinclair avatar
Brendan Sinclair: Brendan joined in 2012. Based in Toronto, Ontario, he was previously senior news editor at GameSpot.
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