The lawsuit between Activision and the founders of Infinity Ward, Jason West and Vince Zampella, over the Call of Duty: Modern Warfare franchise may be a war, but it is anything but modern. It exemplifies the classic, time-honored struggle between the artist and the sponsor who funds the artist’s work. Whether it is the author versus the publisher, the actor versus the studio, the player versus the team owner or the musician versus the record label, the struggle has always been the same. Who is responsible for the success of an artistic enterprise? The artist who created the work or the investor who gave the artist the means by which to create?
We never would have read Harry Potter without J.K. Rowling. But we also might not have ever read Harry Potter without Bloomsbury Publishing, who took a chance after eight other publishers had passed on the book. We would not watch professional football without great players. But there would be no professional football players without the NFL.
This eternal struggle between the artist and her sponsor! The performer and the owner of the stage! The computer programmer sitting in the basement with a PC, a Costco-sized bag of Cheetos, and a case of Mountain Dew and the publisher-developer-financier! That is what the fight between Activision and West and Zampella is all about. The creative geniuses at Infinity Ward had a vision. They wanted to create something new. There was nothing new about a military first-person shooter game: that had been done many times by many studios long before Modern Warfare. It had been done within the Call of Duty franchise itself. But anyone who had ever played a video game before could tell within 30 seconds of playing Modern Warfare that it was better. Not just a little better, but leaps and bounds better. Just when the shooter genre was stagnating, West and Zampella and their colleagues at Infinity Ward were able to transcend it altogether to create something truly epic.
That creation cost a lot of money to create. And that money was provided by Activision. Activision had acquired Infinity Ward and made it part of the Activision empire long before the success of Modern Warfare. It saw something in Infinity Ward. It took the chance before anyone else did. And for every Infinity Ward, there were any number of investments that did not pay off.
The problem is that Infinity Ward and Modern Warfare succeeded beyond anyone’s imagination. First, there was Call of Duty, which became a successful franchise. But then there was Modern Warfare, which became perhaps the most valuable franchise in the history of the video gaming business. The money to be made from this unprecedented new game-playing experience simply could not have been anticipated by either Activision or West and Zampella at the time Activision acquired Infinity Ward. Which is, of course, why they are now engaged in a raging legal battle — one that, with Activision’s filing of a countersuit accusing West and Zampella of “morph[ing] from valued, responsible executives into insubordinate and self-serving schemers who attempted to hijack Activision’s assets for their own personal gain,” is getting increasingly ugly.
Industry observers are noticing. And let’s be realistic: when your most significant competitortells a reporter, “We don’t have the time to comment on the many lawsuits Activision files against its employees and creative partners,” you have a bit of a PR situation on your hands, no?
So who is responsible for the success of Modern Warfare and who should reap the larger share of its harvest? That determination will be made as a legal matter in court. But in reality, the answer probably is simpler than that — both are responsible. The biggest success stories almost always involve the respectful collaboration of the artist and the investor, with each understanding the limits to their role. Somewhere along the line, with the huge increase in the money being made by Call of Duty as a result of Modern Warfare, either West and Zampella or Activision or both decided that they could no longer collaborate, that they no longer respected the other’s necessary role and could no longer limit their own. As with all such fights, everyone involved will be the worse for it, especially the customers who buy and play the games. One would have hoped that both sides in this war would have understood that and been able toshare in the huge amount of unanticipated wealth and artistic achievement they had createdtogether.