Analysis: 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?

Update, December 22, 2010:
It's been 10 months since this story broke. Here's what's happened:
Activision filed a counter-suit in April. Also in April, Jason West and Vince Zampella formed Respawn Studios and signed up with EA. Meanwhile, 38 former and current Infinity Ward employees filed suit against Activision. In July, the 38 employees lowered the amount of money they wanted to sue Activision for. Call of Duty: Black Ops hit shelves in November. In November, Activision moved to amend its counter-suit to include EA in their list of things-to-sue for a grand total of $400 million. Activision announced Black Ops broke $1 billion in worldwide sales.

So, yeah -- our initial March 3, 2010 analysis stands:

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.
Analysis: How the Infinity Ward scandal affects Call of Duty

Modern Warfare 2, brought to you by Infinity Ward.

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," he 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.
Analysis: How the Infinity Ward scandal affects Call of Duty

Tribes 2 was OK, but can you even name the other two Tribes games that came after it?

"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."

How far that one proverbial egg will carry Call of Duty's popularity in future games isn't clear. On one hand, we have the historical evidence from the Medal of Honor series; Zampella and West both left after Allied Assault came out in 2002 and the series suffered a decline in popularity over the next seven games. On the other hand, though, Medal of Honor never hit the crazy-high levels of popularity that Call of Duty enjoys. The mass-market appeal might make gamers immune to the politics of development, and the loyalty of Call of Duty fans might already be paid for by that golden egg.
Analysis: How the Infinity Ward scandal affects Call of Duty

Medal of Honor: Allied Assault scored 91 on Metacritic.

To get a bead on how the loss of Zampella and West will really affect Call of Duty as a franchise, we spoke to brand marketing expert, Mike Tran of marketing service, JVST. The company has worked with franchises like Tomb Raider, Resident Evil, and Dragonball, so when it comes to long-running properties, Tran has a pretty good grasp of the topic:

"To a core gamer, losing the core creative staff at a studio will not have an immediate effect on the brand but will have a long-term effect on the core gamers who are more aware of the developer’s pedigree," he told GamePro. "With a well-established brand such as Modern Warfare and Infinity Ward (which are brands themselves), their consumers are accustomed to a level of quality that only Infinity Ward can put out."

Tran said that Activision pulled off a pre-emptive strike by allowing multiple developers to work on the Call of Duty series. This tactic makes it so that the mass consumer only knows the games as part of the Call of Duty franchise – they don't necessarily see the games as "Treyarch's Call of Duty" or "Sledgehammer's Call of Duty."

The strategy sets up Call of Duty as an undying franchise that's relatively invulnerable to decline in popularity because Modern Warfare managed to win over such a huge audience.

"It's debatable if COD: World at War would be as successful if it did not come out after Infinity Ward established the Call of Duty brand," Tran said. "If you take a look at Medal of Honor, they hit their high point in 2002 and their sequel review scores since then have not stacked up to the same quality as MOH: Frontline. We might see a trend with this if the quality for MW3 is not there as well."

The popularity also has the effect of rendering Call of Duty invulnerable to developer/publisher politics. Naturally, any developer is afraid that if they lose enough hardcore games, word-of-mouth might drag down their sales. However, Tran said, "By the time MW3 is slated to street, this news story will be out of sight, out of mind. The game has hit mass market appeal [so well] that internal politics will not [convince] 'Joe from Idaho' to not buy MW3. He probably doesn't know who Activision or Infinity Ward are, but he does know the Call of Duty franchise since all of his friends are playing it."

That might've been Activision's strategy all along with the Call of Duty franchise. To them, it's not about finding the goose that lays the golden egg; it's about repackaging the same egg in as many ways as possible to keep on producing games on a yearly basis.