Let’s face it: In games journalism, there aren’t too many opportunities for real reporting. It’s relatively easy for games journalists to share their excitement with readers, to sift through press releases for the information gamers actually care about and even to chat with developers about their upcoming projects. The problem is that publishers, for the sake of building excitement for their titles, want to control every single drop of information that flows to the masses. Journalists don’t “uncover” new features in a multiplayer shooter or randomly unearth a studio’s top-secret project; it’s only when things go horribly, horribly wrong that there’s a real story to break, complete with on-the-ground updates, anonymous sources and all.
For that, I want to thank Activision for making it a very interesting week for game journalism.
There are really two stories happening within the same “Infinity Ward versus Activision” clusterf**k. There’s the one told by the facts, which, while initially shocking, are relatively mundane. We know, based on LinkedIn pages and Facebook updates, that Infinity Ward studio heads Vince Zampella and Jason West are no longer employed at the company. We know, based on an SEC filing, that Activision had conducted an “internal human resources inquiry” into possible breaches of contract by “two senior employees at Infinity Ward.” And, perhaps most tantalizingly, we know, thanks to an anonymous source “close to” the developer, that Activision sent security personnel to Infinity Ward’s offices at some point on Monday.
But the far more interesting story is the cloud of unconfirmed rumors and blind speculation swirling around in the ether. Did West and Zampella attempt to take their talents to a rival publisher? Did Activision really stiff the developer on royalties after they produced the best-selling entertainment property of all time? And, perhaps of most interest to gamers, is Infinity Ward getting tired of churning out Call of Duty games?
That last theory has some serious pull, and not just because it could mean the inevitable decay of one of the biggest franchises in videogames. (Sorry, Treyarch, and no disrespect, Sledgehammer, but you’re no Infinity Ward.) In fact, it’s pretty much woven into the history of the studio, which began when a couple dozen developers of EA’s Medal of Honor: Allied Assault left their employer, 2015, Inc., presumably because they didn’t want to be forced into churning out sequels and expansion packs for the same game. (Ironic, isn’t it?)
Amid the rampant hearsay, breaking news from people “close to” the conflict and Facebook posts in lieu of actual comments from the chief parties involved, I’d like to toss my own speculation onto the pile. Despite Activision’s assurances that the fiasco “does not expect this matter to have a material impact on the company,” you don’t shitcan the director of a few of the finest first-person shooters of this console generation and expect the rest of his team to carry on as if nothing happened.
So, will the rest of Infinity Ward keep their heads down and resign themselves to their not-so-newly imposed status as the premiere Call of Duty sequel factory? Or will we again see a core group of idealistic developers depart from the studio to make games on their own terms?
I hope it’s the latter. Not because I have any ill will toward either Infinity Ward or Activision – there’s nothing evil about wanting one of your franchises that makes billions of dollars to continue making billions of dollars – but because, as a creative profession full of people with unique opinions about where videogames should go next, it sucks that developers often end up yoked to ideas that they’ve long since outgrown. Imagine what the team behind Modern Warfare 2 could do if they didn’t have to fit their next game into the confines of a two-year production cycle and the specific setting that Activision has reserved for them. Think back to the difference between Medal of Honor: Allied Assault and Modern Warfare and try to imagine where the developers could take us next if they were truly passionate about their direction.
Call of Duty might not be the same without Infinity Ward, nor Infinity Ward without Call of Duty. But they could end up something better – or at least, something unexpected. And if this weeks’ round-up of news stories is any indication, gamers love the unexpected.
Jordan Deam hopes he’s one day important enough to have “bouncert-types” escort him from his office.