Activision: ‘We treat our developers extremely well’


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Ever since Activision Blizzard Inc. fired two top developers of its blockbuster Call of Duty game franchise in March for alleged ‘insubordination,’ the word on the Web is one of sympathy -- for the developers.

The former employees, Jason West and Vince Zampella, were heralded as heroes for suing Activision, while the company’s executives were branded as ‘dimwitted morons’ for dismissing the two from their jobs at Infinity Ward, the studio that makes Call of Duty games.


Last week, Activision struck back with a countersuit that tried to reverse the popularity tide, accusing West and Zampella of being ‘self-serving schemers’ by trying to start their own independent studio while still working at Activision. But aside from terse statements and lawsuits, Activision executives have largely tried to maintain a safe distance from the fallout at Infinity Ward.

Until this week.

On Thursday, Thomas Tippl, Activision’s chief operating officer and chief financial officer, broke the silence to answer some questions regarding the future of the Call of Duty franchise, which has so far generated more than $4 billion in retail sales worldwide since it launched in 2003.

Here’s an edited transcript of the interview.

Q: With two high-profile lawsuits underway, do you think you’ll have trouble persuading talented developers to work for you? Tippl: If you put yourself in the developer’s shoes, the ability to work on the biggest franchise in the industry and bring your creative product to an audience the size of the Call of Duty franchise is an opportunity many would crave.

Q: A few days ago, Infinity Ward lost two other top developers, Todd Alderman and Francesco Gigliotti. Should fans be worried about the future of the Call of Duty franchise now that four of its top developers have either quit or were fired?

Tippl: It’s not a secret that Call of Duty has been one of the most successful franchises in the industry. The franchise plays an extremely important role within the overall plans for Activision. A couple of weeks ago, we announced we will get more focused with a dedicated Call of Duty business to rally the best talent of the company against the opportunity that Call of Duty presents for the company. We’ve had multiple studios working with the franchise so we can come up with innovative, new content every year. Nobody should be surprised that we will continue to focus disproportionately against the franchise.

Q: How many studios do you have working on Call of Duty games now? Tippl: Today, we have three studios working on Call of Duty. We have Infinity Ward, which made Call of Duty 2, Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare and Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2. Then we have Treyarch, which will be releasing a Call of Duty game in the fall of 2010. Treyarch also developed Call of Duty: World at War and Call of Duty 3. And, most recently, we’ve added Sledgehammer in the Bay Area. We haven’t yet announced the content of their game, but it’s going to be an innovative take that will further broaden the audience for Call of Duty.


Q: What’s going to happen at Infinity Ward? Word on the street is that the studio lacks leadership and direction.

Tippl: We have interim leadership in place. We have two senior execs currently: Steve Pearce, our chief technology officer, and Steve Ackrich, who is the head of production for the company. We are currently in the process of configuring the new leadership team there. Infinity Ward still has nearly 100 people. They’ve built a deep bench, and the change of guard will provide an opportunity for some of the rising stars to put their own stamp on the Call of Duty franchise. In addition, we will provide them with all the resources internally and recruit talent from the outside.

Q: There’s a lot of sympathy out there for West and Zampella expressed on fan sites and gaming sites. But Activision is being painted as a greedy corporate overlord. How does this sit with you?

Tippl: We treat our developers extremely well. We have an independent studio model that provides them a lot of creative freedom while we take care of the back office stuff so they can focus on making games. If their games are successful, they are compensated better here than anywhere else. We’ve been paying our talent millions of dollars for their work. Our setup provides a win-win opportunity. We ensure your work will reach a wide audience. Therefore, we have attracted, and we will continue to attract, the top talent in this industry.

-- Alex Pham