Activision Blizzard Inc. came out with guns blazing Friday in its legal battle with two former lead developers of Call of Duty, the video game publisher’s multibillion-dollar franchise.
In a lawsuit that read like a dramatic Hollywood script, Activision claimed it fired Jason West and Vincent Zampella in March because the two “morphed from valued, responsible executives into insubordinate and self-serving schemers who attempted to hijack Activision’s assets for their own personal gain.”
The Santa Monica firm accused West and Zampella of violating their employment contracts by meeting with a rival publisher -- believed to be Electronic Arts Inc. -- and using illicit means to recruit former colleagues to join them in forming a new independent game development studio.
An attorney for the pair called the claims “false and outrageous” and said that Activision itself proposed spinning off West and Zampella’s studio as part of a contract renegotiation last year.
Activision’s suit, filed in Los Angeles County Superior Court, counters a complaint that West and Zampella filed against their former employer March 3, two days after being fired as the heads of Infinity Ward, the Encino-based studio purchased by Activision in 2002. Infinity Ward has produced Call of Duty games since the inception of the franchise in 2003.
In their lawsuit, West and Zampella alleged that Activision fired them to avoid paying them royalties they earned from November’s Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, which has generated an estimated $1.3 billion in worldwide revenue.
The lawsuit claims Activision owes the duo at least $36 million in royalties and damages.
Activision responded in its complaint that “West and Zampella’s misdeeds formed an unlawful pattern and practice of conduct that was designed to steal the [Infinity West] studio, which is one of Activision’s most valuable assets -- at the expense of Activision and its shareholders and for their own personal financial gain.”
Activision did not specify a dollar amount it would seek but claimed the publisher was entitled to withhold all future payments to West and Zampella to recover past payments “during the period of their disloyalty” and cover compensatory damages.
The lawsuit says Zampella and West went “on a secret trip by private jet to Northern California, arranged by their Hollywood agent, to meet with the most senior executives of Activision’s closest competitor.”
Activision did not name the competitor, but it is believed by people familiar with the situation to be Electronic Arts, which is based in Redwood City. EA spokesman Jeff Brown, when asked about the case, said, “We don’t have the time to comment on the many lawsuits Activision files against its employees and creative partners.”
West and Zampella are represented by the Creative Artists Agency, Hollywood’s biggest talent agency.
Among the charges Activision leveled at the two developers was an attempt to “prevent Activision from awarding additional compensation to [Infinity Ward] team members as a reward for the success of [Infinity Ward]-developed games, in order to make these employees easier to poach when West and Zampella executed their plans to leave the company and set up their own company.”
The suit also claims that the pair delayed pre-production on Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3, which Activision is believed to be pointing toward release in late 2011.
“Activision was forced to sever the relationship when it became apparent that long-standing attempts failed to convince West and Zampella to conform their conduct to what was required of them by their contracts, company policies and as fiduciaries,” the publisher said in a statement.
In response, West and Zampella’s attorney, Robert M. Schwartz, said, “This is just an Activision tactic to avoid paying Jason and Vince and everyone else at Infinity Ward the millions of dollars they all earned and that Activision owes them. None of this changes the fact that Jason and Vince would still be at Infinity Ward developing new games except that Activision kicked them out.”
He added that the pair “have taken steps to regain control over their creative future” and will announce their plans soon.