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2 top executives leave video game maker Infinity Ward

The two top executives of the studio behind Call of Duty: Modern Warfare have unexpectedly left the company amid a conflict with publisher Activision Blizzard Inc., clouding the future of one of the world’s most popular and profitable video game series.

Vince Zampella and Jason West, chief executive and president, respectively, of Encino game development studio Infinity Ward, both exited, corporate parent Activision confirmed Tuesday. Their departure puts in question the fate of Infinity Ward, creator of the Call of Duty military shooter series and the producer of its recent blockbuster Modern Warfare installments.

While Activision wouldn’t specify the reasons for their leaving, it referred to an apparent conflict with West and Zampella in the company’s annual report filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission on Monday. Activision said it is “concluding an internal human resources inquiry into breaches of contract and insubordination by two senior employees at Infinity Ward,” adding, “This matter is expected to involve the departure of key personnel and litigation.”

Top employees at Infinity Ward have clashed with Activision Blizzard management as they have tried to secure more independence from their corporate parent and also expressed displeasure at other game development studios being assigned to work on Call of Duty games, people familiar with the situation said.

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Zampella and West could not be reached for comment. Activision didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Call of Duty is one of Activision’s three key franchises, along with the music series Guitar Hero and online fantasy game World of Warcraft. Last year, the three games accounted for 68% of the Santa Monica publisher’s revenue.

Indeed, Call of Duty has grown more important for Activision as Guitar Hero revenue fell last year in the face of slumping sales for the music game genre. In February, Activision laid off about 200 employees, a move it attributed to declining sales for Guitar Hero and other games aimed at infrequent, casual players.

November’s release of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, produced by Infinity Ward, generated more than $1 billion in sales through January, Activision said.

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Activision acquired Infinity Ward, which was founded by a team that created the Medal of Honor military series for Electronic Arts Inc., in 2003, the same year that the first Call of Duty game was released. By 2005, the publisher started releasing Call of Duty games annually, with the Santa Monica development studio Treyarch also making titles.

The Encino studio’s Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, released in 2007, and last year’s sequel were the most popular installments, driven in part by gamers’ and reviewers’ high esteem for Infinity Ward.

Currently, the studio is developing two pieces of additional content to go with Modern Warfare 2 that players could download from the Internet.

The departure of West and Zampella could affect the timing and quality of that downloadable content and possibly hurt Activision’s bottom line, said Broadpoint AmTech analyst Ben Schachter.

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“What will matter for investors is if the core Infinity Ward studio holds together or if the departure of key executives will lead to further turmoil within the studio,” the analyst wrote in a research note.

Activision chief technology officer Steve Pearce and head of production Steve Ackrich will lead Infinity Ward on an interim basis.

In addition, the publisher confirmed that in addition to Treyarch’s Call of Duty game scheduled for release in November, a new development studio in Northern California called Sledgehammer Games, staffed by former employees of Electronic Arts, is working on a Call of Duty game as well.

Activision is also in talks with partners to bring Call of Duty to Asia, where online multiplayer games are extremely popular.

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ben.fritz@latimes.com


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