A star-studded trial of a different mode kicks off Friday here.
Jason West and Vince Zampella may not be household names, but as the creators of first-person shooter video games such as Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, they are true celebrities in the $25 billion game industry.
Over the past two years, the duo and their attorneys have been gearing up for modern warfare of a different kind: butting heads in Los Angeles County Superior Court with one of the industry's leading men, Bobby Kotick, the CEO of the largest game company Activision, which publishes, markets and distributes Call of Duty games.
In a lawsuit filed in March 2010, West and Zampella charge Kotick and Activision unfairly fired them from their jobs as chief technology offer and chief creative officer, respectively, at the Activision-owned Infinity Ward studio in Santa Monica. The action happened just before Activision would have to pay them millions in bonuses for Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, which set industry sales records of more than $1 billion and became the top-selling game of all time until it was surpassed by 2010's Call of Duty: Black Ops.
In response, Activision filed its own suit saying it was justified in terminating West and Zampella, even though they spearheaded its biggest money-making franchise, because they had become disloyal and breached their contracts. "They were small-minded executives almost obsessed by jealousy of other developers," the lawsuit says.
At stake is as much as $1 billion in damages should the jury decide against Activision, which in 2011 posted a record $1 billion annual profit. That included the release of Modern Warfare 3, developed by West and Zampella's former studio, Infinity Ward, along with Sledgehammer Games. The game set a new first-day sales record of more than $400 million.
Activision almost certainly owes West and Zampella cash from bonuses, says Jack Lerner, director of the University of Southern California Intellectual Property and Technology Law Clinic. "But the harder question is who will have a stake in future games in the Modern Warfare franchise," he says. If the court rules that Activision wrongly terminated the two, they "may be able to get a lot more money based on what they could have expected to earn."
An outcome in favor of Activision could shift more power to the publisher side of the game-development equation. "It may send a message about just how far a large studio can go with respect to its employees," says Mark Methenitis, a Texas attorney and editor-in-chief of The Law of the Game blog.
In the court filing, West and Zampella's legal team says there is evidence that Activision's chief legal officer, George Rose, wanted to break into West's and Zampella's computers and e-mail accounts to dig up dirt on them.
Those efforts, called "Project Icebreaker" in court filings, occurred in 2009, a year after West and Zampella extended their contracts and only a few months before the release of Modern Warfare 2 suggesting, according to court filings, that "Activision began preparing to terminate them once the game was delivered."
For its part, Activision insists, in its court filings, that the designers were "conspiring" with competing game publisher Electronic Arts to leave and siphon off much of the Infinity Ward talent.