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Its About the People, Activision

One of the key areas that venture capitalists look for in a start-up is the team. It is not unusual for the real intellectual property to reside in the people rather than the ‘protected’ patent. History is littered with examples of the future IP or product pipeline leaving the company when these creative people leave. One of the most famous is the move by Bob Noyce and associates from Shockley Semi-Conductor to Fairchild and eventually to found their own company, Intel.

Such points seem to be lost on the leadership of Activision, one of the leading games producers, as a rift between them and the senior leadership of Infinity Ward, has led to a mass exodus of the developers and software folks following in the footsteps of the leaders of Infinity Ward, Vince Zampella and Jason West. These two have now launched a new company called Respawn, linked strongly with one of Activision’s competitors, Electronic Arts.

Why is this problematic for the owners of Infinity Ward? Because from this team of developers, Activision found itself in control of one of the biggest franchises in the game’s world (Call of Duty). The Modern Warfare installments have made serious amounts of money (hundreds of millions of dollars) more akin to a Hollywood blockbuster. Activision bought Infinity Ward in 2003 but fired the Zampella and West earlier in the year. I confess I own several of the installments myself for the Playstation3.

Indeed the story  itself is starting to sound like a film script. It seems likely creative control was the key issue for the pair and Activision. With a new installment of Modern Warfare due out in October this year (this one set in Vietnam), Activision will continue to make money from the franchise, but one wonders what the potential long run effect of this will be on their subsidiary.

Rumours have it that a large part of the creative side of Infinity Ward have now left, many joining Respawn. I suspect Electronic Arts are going to laugh all the way to the bank, and in this new arrangement Zampella and West crucially own the intellectual property.

It is not unusual for the founders of a company to be ejected within 3-5 years of the start-up. We call it ‘Founder Syndrome’. Ask Steve Jobs. And although the full detail of why Zampella and West were fired is still unclear, it may turn out to be a critical call for Activision in the long run.

  1. Steve the Gamer
    May 30, 2010 at 22:00

    There is a lot of conjecture in this article — lots of “likely” and “don’t know” and “rumors.” And if you acknowledge that you do not know the details about why Zampella and West were fired (though you can read the legal complaints from both sides — Activision’s side suggests some pretty serious misconduct), why are you willing to suggest it’s a mistake already? Perhaps, but I think we should leave this one up to the courts. Nobody has even figured out who is to blame, but I don’t think I’ve ever heard about star performers being fired without a reason. Were they protecting the franchise or killing it? Like I said…ask the judge.

    Also, the new game, Black Ops, is not strictly set in Vietnam, though it does feature some levels set in Vietnam. That’s like suggesting that Star Wars just takes place on a desert planet, and the scenes involving the Death Star don’t really play a big part. The information is out there.

    • May 31, 2010 at 18:28


      Thanks for the constructive criticism. I guess part of the problem is that this is a blog and not a journalists article. I just picked up the Playstation magazine from the UK yesterday and I see that you are correct, the new game is set in the cold war period in the late 1960s although it seems a chunk of it is set in Vietnam, being the big war ongoing at the time. In terms of the situation between Activision and the team, I am not stating that Activision nor the team did anything wrong, obviously that information isn’t available and there are usually two sides to all stories. But what is interesting, and worrying if you are Activision, is that so many of the developers have abandoned ship since the two guys left. If Zampella and West had left on their own I probably wouldn’t have commented at all. But to lose so much of the development and software team that built the franchise, which seems to be confirmed in the Playstation magazine (It is the official UK one so I presume their information is reasonably good), could have serious implications for the franchise at least from Activision’s perspective. Whatever happens in the legal world, I guess the success of the franchise going forward versus the success of the new company would be a sign. Again Steve Jobs left Apple but NeXT wasn’t a success. Though it does seem that he learned a lot while he was there and brought some of that back to Apple when he rejoined. Stranger things have happened. Anyway, thanks for the comments. There is an interview with one of the guys involved (from Treyarch) in the new game in the Playstation magazine but the Activision PR guys stopped the article when it started to get interesting. The question ending the interview abruptly was about creative control.

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