Many of you have probably played or at least heard of Call of Duty, the award winning first person shooter developed by Infinity Ward. The series has been around since 2003 in the form of a World War II game, a genre that was incredibly popular in the last decade. IW made a drastic shift however to the modern battlefield in their third outing for the series, Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare. The third game was developed by Activision-owned studio Treyarch, but was mediocre compared to IW’s usual job. COD4 was a masterpiece game, and is considered an instant classic for the addictive online component, wonderful graphics, and well paced story. The game sold several million in a short time and has become one of the best games of the generation, by far. Activision, however, did not treat Infinity Ward, or the Call of Duty series with respect. As such, the future of Infinity Ward, and the Call of Duty series is in jeopardy.
Ever since Activision’s merger with Vivendi Interactive and became officially known as Activision-Blizzard, the publishing company has become “the man” of the gaming world. The company has used a strategy of flooding the market with bread-and-butter franchises like Guitar Hero and Call of Duty to maintain an annual release of each game. For Guitar Hero, that duty goes to Neversoft, who has taken over the series after its creator Harmonix broke with Activision and went to EA to make Rock Band. The series has declined since that break. For Call of Duty, the series has traded off between Infinity Ward for the first and second game, and Treyarch – another Activision subsidy – for spin-offs, third, and fifth game. This two year cycle has allowed both companies to have decent development time, but IW’s product has always been superior. Their last venture was also a slam dunk. Trying to distance themselves from the overexploited title of Call of Duty, the team instead called their direct sequel to COD4: Modern Warfare 2. Activision knew this was going to be their cash cow for the year, and indeed it was. With over 15 million copies sold, the Guinness Book of World Records has proclaimed that MW2 has had the largest launch of any modern media – that’s TV, movies, books, and other video games. The game was a massive success for Activision financially. Critically, it was a bit more of a mixed bag. While the game is still a very, very good game, with improved graphics, better online, and stronger game options; the story suffered from sequelitis. In an attempt to make the game seem more intense than the last, the game lost what made its predecessor good: being grounded in realism and without melodrama in its delivery. Instead, the game’s levels break down like scenes from a Jerry Bruckheimer movie and are disjointed in their connection. This, coupled with some serious controversy surrounding the airport terrorism level and some homophobic ad campaigns, has shown that the game suffered from the growing pains of its corporate control.
It was clear that IW was not happy with the treatment of their franchise when they declined to use the title in their most recent game. There was apparently some antagonism between IW’s management and the big-wigs at Activision. In march, this tension boiled over. The two founders of Infinity Ward, Jason West and Vince Zampella, were fired due to “insubordination.” According to Activision, West and Zampella had been shopping around to other publishers who could maintain the integrity of their series better by giving them more control, and this is in clear violation of their contract. According to West and Zampella, this all stems from the fact that they were not receiving royalties for their work on MW2. I would like to think they cared more about the integrity of their brainchild than money, but who knows?
So what now? Well West and Zampella did not just keel over and die. They have formed the aptly named Respawn Entertainment, a new development company that is part of the EA Partners program. Under this system, EA will publish Respawn games but Respawn can maintain complete control over their IPs. It’s exactly what IW must have wanted when they saw Call of Duty was being bastardized. But it doesn’t end there. Over the past month, over 10 26 other members of Infinity Ward have departed from the company, and many have gone to join Respawn. It appears blood is thicker than water. It is clear to me that Activision has killed their greatest cash cow. They bastardized and sold out perhaps one of the greatest series in the past decade and now they are reaping their just desserts. I applaud the IW team for wanting to maintain their integrity as developers even if it means that they have to lose their baby. As for Activision, they have every intent to keep IW central to the franchise, though they have set up an additional studio to work on other games in the series. Here’s hoping that Respawn can become as strong of a powerhouse as Infinity Ward once was.