It has gone down as one of the most tumultuous days in video game development history, but even now, nearly 14 years later, we’re still getting insight into the day Activision fired the founders of Infinity Ward.
In March 2010, Infinity Ward co-founders Vince Zampella and Jason West were escorted out of the studio by security after being fired for breach of contract and insubordination. The shocking news came just a handful of months after Activision had released blockbuster hit first-person shooter Modern Warfare 2, developed by Infinity Ward and launched to $1 billion in sales.
What happened next is well-documented: West and Zampella sued the Bobby Kotick-led publisher Activision for $36 million. Activision counter-sued, accusing West and Zampella of meeting EA in secret “to steal the [Infinity Ward] studio.” Of course, West and Zampella did end up co-founding rival FPS studio Respawn Entertainment with EA, bringing plenty of disgruntled Infinity Ward staff with them, and went on to develop Titanfall before smash hit battle royale Apex Legends. Complaints about unpaid royalties were lodged. In the end, all the messy lawsuits were settled. What was left of Infinity Ward went on to release Modern Warfare 3 in 2011, with the help of the likes of Sledgehammer Games and Raven Software.
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Now, as spotted by PC Gamer, NetEase games lead designer and former Infinity Ward member of staff Paul Sandler has penned an article on LinkedIn dubbed ‘That day when Activision fired Jason and Vince.’ It’s a fascinating read that reveals what it was like for the rank and file to go through such a dramatic series of events.
What sticks out for me is Sandler’s recollection of Activision’s attempt to prevent Infinity Ward and thus Modern Warfare 3 from collapsing:
“There was an emergency company meeting in the kitchen space. A group of top Activision high-ups were already at the studio, ready to steady the ship. The Infinity Ward team piled into the kitchen and glared at the group of executives standing behind the long kitchen island table. One of them tried explaining what was happening, which nobody on the development team bought or cared for. The response was mostly stoic silence. Then, a team member asked bluntly if we were going to be paid the bonuses we have already earned for shipping Modern Warfare 2. Reading the tense vibe in the room, another executive took his turn and tried a different strategy. Paraphrasing, he said: ‘Guys, if you stay with the studio to make Modern Warfare 3, you will receive your MW2 bonuses. AND we will also give everyone a fifty percent salary increase’. He paused slightly before repeating: ‘That is a five and a zero, fifty percent’. The looks on peoples faces did not change. If anything, most of the team was feeling even more upset. The executive spoke again: ‘Look, I get it. I know this is a tough situation. But, just take the money and get over it.’ I specifically remember him telling us to ‘Get over it’.”
IGN has asked Activision for comment.
As we know, despite Activision’s attempts, Infinity Ward suffered a mass exodus of staff following the firing of Zampella and West. Sandler says around 40 developers quit from a total headcount of about 100. “Activision had inadvertently splintered their flagship studio, which was also one of the best studios of all time.”
Much has changed over the course of the last 14 years. Infinity Ward endured a poor run of form with Call of Duty: Ghosts and Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare, before kicking off Call of Duty’s comeback with 2019’s soft reboot, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, and the phenomenally popular battle royale Warzone. Infinity Ward has also released Modern Warfare 2 and last year’s Modern Warfare 3.
EA ended up buying Respawn in 2017 after the release of Titanfall and Titanfall 2. Apex Legends followed, with another team making the successful action games Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order and its sequel Star Wars Jedi: Survivor. Respawn is currently working on a third Star Wars Jedi game, as well as an untitled Star Wars FPS. Zampella rose through the ranks at EA to become Group General Manager in charge of Apex Legends, Star Wars Jedi, Battlefield, and Need for Speed.
Image credit: Photo by Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic