Infinity Ward scandal: Did Activision kill the goose that laid the golden egg?

How the Infinity Ward scandal affects Call of Duty

Infinity Ward finds itself without a proverbial head today after two senior executives were sacked late yesterday. With a new Call of Duty game on Activision's to-do calendar every year from here on out, what does this scandal mean for the series? What does it mean for you, the gamer?

Here's what we know:

Today, Activision announced new games and new developers in the Call of Duty series. Late yesterday, scandal erupted at Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 developer Infinity Ward as senior executives Vince Zampella and Jason West were let go by studio owner and Modern Warfare 2 publisher Activision. A Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) filing by Activision that same day alleges that "breaches of contract and insubordination by two senior employees" occurred at Infinity Ward. Last month, Activision announced plans to release a new Call of Duty game every year. Two years ago, Infinity Ward renegotiated their contract with Activision to work on a new intellectual property that so far hasn't been announced.

Here's what the rumors say:

Unnamed sources at Infinity Ward told BingeGamer that the studio received no royalties from sales of Modern Warfare 2. Those sources also said that the insubordination claim stems from secret talks between Zampella and West with rival publishers. Activision already put developer Treyarch to work on a Call of Duty game allegedly set in Vietnam and Infinity Ward passed on developing Modern Warfare 3, which may be the action-adventure Call of Duty game in development at Sledgehammer games.

Here's what we think:

The future of the Call of Duty series looks hazy. The show must go on for Activision, but whenever major talent walks away from a series, the games usually suffer. Zampella and West already have experience in walking away from a franchise only to see it tank (see "Medal of Honor Redux" in the March 2010 issue of GamePro); and they were big innovators for Call of Duty, pushing a non-World War II setting for the first time in the series' history.

"We had to fight for everything," Jason West told Official PlayStation Magazine UK last year in an interview. "[Activision] wanted it to be World War 2. Again."

Now, post-scandal, we're pretty sure nobody -- not Activision and not Zampella or West -- is going to comment officially on what happened at Infinity Ward. If the scandal makes it to a courtroom, there will probably be a gag order in effect for all parties involved.

That doesn't stop others from talking, however, video game industry legal expert Tom Buscaglia gave GamePro his take on the Activision/Infinity Ward scandal:

"I did employment law for 20 years," Buscaglia said. "In my experience, insubordination is a justification of last resort because it's completely subjective. If I see that [in a wrongful termination lawsuit], it's usually complete bullshit."

Like the rest of us, Buscaglia is in the dark about the alleged breaches of contract at Infinity Ward by Zampella and West. As a longtime first-person shooter fan, however, he thinks the move spells doom for Call of Duty.

"I'll give you an example: Tribes," he said. After Tribes 2 came out in 2001, series developer Dynamix got the axe from parent company Sierra Entertainment after they were bought by Vivendi Universal. Two new games in the series were made by other developers (Inevitable Entertainment and Irrational Games), but neither achieved the success that the first two games garnered under the original development team.

"In any game, somebody has to be the keeper of the vision," Buscaglia said. From what he understands, Zampella and West were it for Call of Duty. "So now they've killed the goose, but they have a golden egg."

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AJ Glasser

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