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Activision exec emails foreshadow breaking point with ex-Infinity Ward heads

Newly-unsealed court filings revealed emails from top Activision execs, detailing a building tension between management and former heads of Call of Duty house Infinity Ward.

Mike Rose, Blogger

May 22, 2012

3 Min Read

A series of emails between top executives at Activision has been unsealed as part of the publisher's ongoing court battle against Infinity Ward founders Vince Zampella and Jason West, shedding light on the pair's growing tension with Activision's management that led up to their firings. In March 2010, West and Zampella were fired from Infinity Ward, the Activision subsidiary studio that created the multi-billlion-dollar Call of Duty franchise, with the publisher accusing the two of "insubordination." After being fired, the pair quickly filed a lawsuit against Activision for breach of contract. The lawsuit is set to go to court on May 29. New court documents published by the L.A. Times feature emails from mid-2009 that were sent between Activision executives Dave Stohl, Mike Griffith, Rob Kostich and CEO Bobby Kotick, amongst others. In one email from May 29, 2009, Activision VP Kostich discusses "a situation" in which Zampella and West said they would not be able to have a live gameplay demo for Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 ready for Microsoft's E3 press conference. "Msft [Microsoft] will go ballistic over this and the deal is seriously risked," he wrote. Griffith, former president of Activision Publishing, then calls up the pair to discuss a new strategy for the deal, and follows up, "They hung up on me," to which Kotick answers, "If they really did I would change their locks and lock them out of their building." To that, Griffith replied, "As soon as I get that gold master..." Elsewhere, Stohl discusses with Griffith a letter that was sent to West and Zampella -- although it is not explained what this letter was regarding, apart from there being "a proposal" for the duo. "We should also discuss what the plan B is going to look like," he says, adding that "there could be a ton of risk getting the project [Modern Warfare 2] done depending on how the team takes it." "Treyarch taking it over now is also an option," he continues, "but scary given the tight timeline." He later notes, "Is everyone ready for the big, negative PR story this is going to turn into if we kick them out?... [It's] freaking me out a little." An email from Griffith also mentions a proposed equity-based retention plan for Infinity Ward's "top 12 team members," excluding West and Zampella. The plan, Griffith said, was to "help ensure we retain the team if things blow up at the top. As you know, this has been a difficult relationship." The court documents also show the bonuses and base pay that the top 20 Infinity Ward staffers received in 2009, and were projected for 2010. Both Zampella and West were on base salaries of $420,000, with projected 2009 bonuses of just over $3 million each. With total equity value added, they earned nearly $6 million each in 2009. However, looking to 2010, they were each projected to earn over $16 million each, including $13 million each in bonuses, before they were let go from the company. The documents shed more light on the strained relationship between Activision and the Infinity Ward duo. Earlier this month, other court documents alleged that Activision launched an internal investigation against the Call of Duty creators eight months before they finally lost their jobs, which a former Activision director saying he was asked to "dig up dirt on Jason and Vince." Activision recently settled a complaint with competitor Electronic Arts, in which Activision accused EA of meeting with West and Zampella about future partnerships while still employed at Activision. Activision also recently said it would award $42 million to former Infinity Ward staff that sued the company for compensation. Since their fallout with Activision, West and Zampella founded the independent studio Respawn Entertainment, which is in a publishing partnership with EA.

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