At the same time you were grilling hamburgers and hotdogs over Memorial Day, Activision and the Call of Duty creators were taking the weekend to prepare to grill each other ahead of this Friday’s Call of Duty lawsuit in Los Angeles State Superior Court. That’s where a jury will begin to hear the biggest video game lawsuit to reach trial, with parties seeking $1 billion in damages. Former Infinity Ward heads Vince Zampella and Jason West as well as dozens of ex-Infinity Ward employees are suing Activision for owed royalties, wrongful termination and the rights to the Modern Warfare franchise. Countersuing the pair is Activision. The top video game publisher alleges insubordination and breaches of contract on the parts of Zampella and West.
There’s a lot of information and legal jargon to take in, and between MW3's Collection 2 DLC and all of the Black Ops 2 news, you may not have read every post in G4’s lengthy Fall of Duty series. To bring you up to speed on the soap opera of Soap’s creator’s, here is a quick time guide to the Call of Duty lawsuit.
Vince Zampella and Jason West are publishing their next game under Electronic Arts, but that’s today. Let’s go to the beginning of the timeline - ten years ago. Back then, Zampella and West were publishing a game under... Electronic Arts. Not much has changed, right? Of course, back in 2002, they were part of Oklahoma-based developer 2015, Inc. and bringing to life EA’s critically acclaimed Medal of Honor: Allied Assault. Once that WWII FPS game launched, however, Zampella and West set up shop in California as Infinity Ward. With almost two dozen former 2015, Inc. employees and funding from Activision in exchange for a 30 percent stake in the new company, Infinity Ward released Call of Duty for the PC in 2003.
The success of the first Call of Duty spurred Activision to buy up the rest of Infinity Ward. The Encino, California-based developer went on to create the PC and Xbox 360 launch game Call of Duty 2 in 2005, Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare in 2007 and Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 in 2009, and each one sold better than the last. In fact, MW2 became what Activision likes to tout as “the biggest launch in history across all forms of entertainment.” Call of Duty: Black Ops and MW3 have since surpassed this record, but MW2 was the first, and that is important in this case.
It took MW2 only five days to make $550 million in sales in 2009. Activision, Zampella and West hit the video game jackpot - only this trio began acting like one of those lottery-winning families in which cracks began to emerge. We now know that their rocky relationship dates back to when MW2 was still in demo form, as documented by May 2009 e-mails that were revealed in pre-trial hearings. The LA Times followed exchanges in which Activision’s president of publishing, Mike Griffith, emailed Activision CEO Bobby Kotick, telling him that West and Zampella “hung up on me” when he had asked them for a live demo of MW2 for an upcoming press conference. Kotick’s reply was interesting. "If they really did I would change their locks and lock them out of their building."
Was this a bit of foreshadowing, perhaps? Fast-forward to March 1, 2010, three months after MW2’s launch. That’s pretty much what happened as G4TV.com broke the news about the Zempella and West’s firings. The two were missing following a meeting with Activision, and a “bunch of bouncer-types" showed up at the Infinity Ward offices, creating a tense work environment.
Zampella and West immediately filed a lawsuit against Activision, claiming that they were terminated “weeks” before the publisher was scheduled to pay them MW2 royalties. Also, part of the lawsuit is “the contractual rights Activision granted to West and Zampella to control Modern Warfare-branded games." According to a recently uncovered internal Activision document, the projected bonuses amount to $13 million each for Zampella and West on top of their base salaries of $436,800. What happened to that money? G4TV picked up on a 2010 comment by Activision social media manager Dan Amrich in which he told an anti-Activision Facebook group that “those bonuses are being redistributed to everybody else, to the people who did not allegedly attempt to steal company secrets."
Activision v. Zampella and West
The last part is Activision’s basis for a countersuit. At first, the company responded to accusations very simply, saying that Zampella and West’s lawsuit was a disappointment. A month later, Activision filed a lawsuit against the ex-Infinity Ward studio heads. According to the complaint, the developer pair "morphed from valued, responsible executives into insubordinate and self-serving schemers who attempted to hijack Activision's assets for their own personal gain."
Activision’s countersuit went into detail, describing an alleged rendezvous Zampella and West had with a rival video game company. The counterargument says that the pair went "on a secret trip by private jet to Northern California, arranged by their Hollywood agent [West and Zampella are now represented by the powerful Creative Arts Agency], to meet with the most senior executives of Activision's closest competitor."
Electronic Arts was later ousted as this “closest competitor.” Indeed, after being fired, Zampella and West ended up announcing a new studio, Respawn Entertainment, in partnership with EA. They ended up taking 38 former Infinity Ward employees with them over the course of several months and have been teasing a new sci-fi video game franchise (with the blurry image seen below) slated for release in 2013. The deal for this unannounced title gives the developer pair funding through the EA Partners Program and the rights to all of the intellectual property. In exchange, EA gets a brand new franchise that can compete with Halo and Gears of War. Whether or not Zampella and West conspired with EA prior to their dismissal by Activision is up to a jury to decide.
Almost Activision v. Zampella, West and Electronic Arts
Electronic Arts was roped into the lawsuit in December 2010, when Activision implicated its chief rival, alleging that Zampella, West and EA “conspired in a scheme to harm Activision.” The publisher claims that the agent for Zampella and West wrote an email in which he said, “I’m stoked about your options,” and in an apparent reference to EA’s John Riccitiello, “JR cooks a mean BBQ. I think we could accomplish some interesting chaos.” [emphasis added]
Activision’s expanded lawsuit also used the words of Electronic Arts spokesperson Jeff Brown against EA. Referring to the Call of Duty MW2 DLC pack release date (March 30) and EA’s Battlefield: Bad Company 2 release date (March 2), Brown wrote in an email, "A couple months ago, I asked Vince [Zampella] to hold back their map pack until after we launched (he owes me one).” Brown said that this email, sent with the subject “The Fall of IW?” days after the Infinity Ward firings, was just a joke. “This was obviously sarcasm.”
This one won’t be for a jury to decide. Electronic Arts settled with Activision on March 16 of this year, meaning their legal battle loomed for almost 17 months. The terms of the settlement were not disclosed. The Zampella and West v. Activision case has been going on for more than two years now and will finally come to a head at the end of this week.
Infinity Ward Employees Group v. Activision
Even if Activision wins its June case against Zampella and West, the publisher may be right back in an LA courtroom defending itself against more former Infinity Ward employees. There are 38 former Infinity Ward developers suing Activision for between $75 million and $120 million in damages as part of the lawsuit Infinity Ward Employees Group v. Activision. That amount includes unpaid bonuses, lost value of restricted stock, royalties from MW2 sister games (including MW3) and interest.
This month, Activision paid the ex-Infinity Ward developers $42 million. But this was not part of a settlement. Activision, on the one side of this legal tussle, said the money was paid because it gathered evidence in the Zampella-West case that didn’t implicate the group in the conspiracy. This cleared the group, in the mind of the publisher, and opened them up to their bonus money with interest. On the other side, a lawyer for the IWEG said that this was Activision’s "cynical attempt to look good before the jury trial" and “only a small portion of what we are seeking in litigation."
Where and When
Zampella and West v. Activision will take place at the downtown Los Angeles Superior Court. The “where” has stayed the same since the inception of the case. The “when,” however, has been moved due to various delays. Back in September 2011, the case was scheduled to go to court on May 7, 2012. That day came and went after Activision requested a postponement of the trial’s start. All of a sudden May 29 was the new day. Activision asked for an additional 30 days to prepare a newly hired attorney, but was denied that motion on May 16. Between then and now, however, the trial received one more delay, from May 29 to new expected date of June 1. The reason for the two-day bump, according to Polygon, was because of extended jury selection.
The good news is that once this jury trial does get started, the Call of Duty lawsuit verdict everyone has been waiting for shouldn’t be too far behind. Polygon quotes Judge Elihu Berle as saying, "It shouldn't take 20 days to try this case. It's not that complicated."
No Quick Time Event
With more than two years of litigation, this hasn’t been anything like a straightforward, six-hour Call of Duty campaign mode. Zampella and West v. Activision is more like a confusing and endless game of multiplayer in which it’s hard to tell the good guys from the bad guys. It’s just not that clear cut, even with all of the disclosed documents and private communications. And with $1 billion on the line, it’s hard to say that the verdict doesn’t matter.
G4TV will be reporting from the jury trial in Los Angeles on Friday, if that indeed ends up being its start date. Here’s to hoping that the courtroom proceedings turn into a quick time event rather than a camping affair, and that we see both parties go back to what they do best: making addictive video games.