Activision Blizzard Inc.'s testy relations with the two creators of the Call of Duty franchise dated back at least a year before the company fired them, according to emails recently unsealed in the company's $1-billion lawsuit against the developers.
Publicly, their relationship fractured in March 2010, when Activision fired Jason West and Vincent Zampella, the former heads of the Infinity Ward studio responsible for making the Call of Duty titles, which have generated more than $6.75 billion in revenue for the Santa Monica game publisher.
West and Zampella, along with 40 other former Infinity Ward developers, sued Activision for withholding royalties. Activision countersued West and Zampella, claiming that the developers were disloyal and plotted to leave Activision and work for the company's chief rival, Electronic Arts. The case is set to go to trial May 29.
Behind the corporate doors, however, relations between Activision's top brass and the Call of Duty developers had been strained months before West and Zampella met in August 2009 with EA's chief executive, John Riccitiello, according to emails submitted as evidence in the lawsuit.
In one email dated June 17, 2009, Activision's president of publishing, Mike Griffith, referred to "an equity-based award for the top 12 team members ex Vince and Jason to help ensure we retain the team if things blow up at the top. As you know, this has been a difficult relationship."
According to another email exchange dated May 29, 2009, Griffith told Activision's chief executive, Robert Kotick, that West and Zampella "hung up on me" when Griffith asked for a live demonstration of the game during an upcoming press conference.
Kotick replied, "If they really did I would change their locks and lock them out of their building." Griffith then wrote, "As soon as I get that gold master...," referring to the finished copy of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, the game that West and Zampella's studio was developing at the time. You can read the email exchanges here.
What Kotick and Griffith meant by their emails will be up to the jury to decide, assuming that the case is not settled before it goes to trial.
What's indisputable is that the relationship, though vastly profitable for both parties, had been rocky at best.