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Activision / Infinity Ward Upheaval Raises Questions, Doubts

Call of Duty Drama in the video game industry continues to unfold this week as publisher Activision created another reason for the gaming community to shake its collective head in disappointment and bewilderment.  The company dismissed two key members of developer Infinity Ward over what seems to be a difference of opinion.  The basic gist of it all is that Infinity Ward wanted to continue treating their top-selling Call of Duty franchise with careful respect, while Activision wants to run it into the ground for the sake of a quick profit.  Kombo summarizes the mess.

That brings the story to the afternoon of Tuesday, March 2. Word got out that Bobby Kotick was planning to make an appearance at the Infinity Ward studios to address the employees. The exact details of that meeting haven't come to light, but it likely had something to do with Activision's latest press release.  The presser outlines several changes to the Call of Duty series. Some highlights include:

  • Infinity Ward -- as it stands now -- will continue to develop DLC for Modern Warfare 2.
  • A new Call of Duty business group will be created to treat Call of Duty with the same focus that Blizzard games are treated with.
  • Treyarch will release a new Call of Duty game in 2010.
  • A studio -- possibly IW, possibly not -- will release the 2011 annualized version of the CoD franchise.
  • The studio Sledgehammer games, comprised of members of the Dead Space team, will make a new "action-adventure" CoD in addition to the annualized FPS CoD.

It is a crazy turn of events for the highest studio in the industry, and we can only speculate as to what happened. The best bet seems to be that Jason West and Vince Zampella disagreed with the direction that was revealed by the press release from Activision today, perhaps they disagreed with it to the point where they wouldn't work on something specific that Activision wanted them too. This would lead to the grounds for firing under "insubordination" or "breach of contract." Technically, Activision has the right to terminate their employment. Whether it was the right thing to do is a matter of opinion.

The only reason that Activision would be willing to lose West and Zampella is if they believe they know how to squeeze every last bit of value from the franchise better than the two former-heads of the studio know how to make good games. The problem with that is when you compare track records.

I'm not a Call of Duty player, but I recognize and respect quality creative work when I see it.  I believe that Activision is killing the golden goose here just to get at its eggs.  Infinity Ward takes its time when developing Call of Duty titles by operating on a two-year cycle.  Activision, meanwhile, wants as many Call of Duty games just as soon as it can get them.  The problem is that by sacrificing quality in favor of quantity, the franchise runs the risk of being run into the ground.  Consider how the publisher has drained the life from the Tony Hawk and Guitar Hero franchises thanks to rushed annual sequels and needless expansions.  The rationale seems to be that if one Call of Duty game brings in $X, then three times as many released in a year would create $3X in revenue regardless of caliber.  That only works if those three titles are up to the Infinity Ward standard that fans expect.  I have no doubt that Call of Duty can limp along as a franchise that just doesn't have its heart in it anymore, but making that happen isn't really in anybody's best interest.  Activision can squeeze the last of the value from the franchise name before casting it aside, but it really doesn't have to be that way.