Thursday, April 22, 2010

In defense of Infinity Ward..

So Infinity Ward has been hemorrhaging employees for the past month or so, and it’s something that not only makes me wonder about the future of Call of Duty, but more importantly, what's to become of Infinity Ward themselves. Chewing through the constant name calling, litigation, and drama over the past two weeks, the fact is that not only has the renowned studio lost its co-founders, but it has also lost a suite of other employees, including but not limited to a number of its key designers, animators, artists, and programmers, many of who had been with the company for a number of years.

In short, and to provide a hyperbolic statement, a great deal of the talent that made the CoD series what it was over the past 9 or so years is gone.

Which is strange, because I don't think ANYONE saw this coming. Generally, in gaming, we watch the rise and fall of many a franchise, and a developer buckling under the pressure of their publisher/owner is nothing new. After all, we watched Halo experience lapses in quality while Bungie worked directly under Microsoft, and the same happened to the Call of Duty series after the success of the second game. However, the way Infinity Ward consistently put out great content, I never would've thought there was an undercurrent of dissent brewing.

Then again, how could there NOT have been? The more I thought about it, the more it made sense.

It’s bad enough that the studio had to deal with Activision’s policies. CoD being as popular as it was, meant it had to fall into the Activision business model of releasing one every year. But, we would’ve thought that the fact that developer Treyarch had to bear the burden would be the end of it. I mean, I did. As long as IW didn't have to spread themselves thin annually and could continue making a great product, I had no problem buying a CoD every other year, and avoiding the inevitable mobile/handheld versions. It seemed like a nice arrangement, but of course, as is the case with Activision, that simply isn’t enough. I mean, why have a bi-annual series capable of garnering over 310 million in sales in a single day when you can poach it to high hell and destroy consumer faith in the brand?

It's a good question to ask, because reportedly, Activision is planning for a Call of Duty MMO, is currently considering premium, subscription based pricing for CoD’s multiplayer, and then there’s the the “3rd person action title” in development under the CoD name by their new studio Sledgehammer Games, set to release at an unspecified date. That's a lot of ambitious plans for a franchise, and they all leave an especially sour taste considering that they didn't even come from the mouths of anyone who actually developed the game.

When thought about carefully, can you really blame Jason West and Frank Zampella for wanting creative control of their award winning franchise back? If this writer didn’t know any better, I’d say they sensed a destruction of their franchise similar to what Activision managed to do to Tony Hawk and Guitar Hero. I saw it coming the minute IW tried to distance themselves from the CoD brand by simply calling the title “Modern Warfare 2”. They were aware of the wildly fluctuating level of quality between titles, and didn’t want their work to be lumped in, or confused with Treyarch’s. As you can see, it didn’t eactly work out as planned, and the Call of Dutybrand was slapped onto MW2 regardless. But anyone paying at least a little bit of attention could see that things are getting a little out of control with the brand, overpriced DLC not withstanding.

So the fact that the two founders were meeting with other publishers does not surprise me. The fact that they're trying to retain some control of the "Modern Warfare" brand in addition to unpaid royalties for Modern Warfare 2 with their lawsuit does not surprise me. If you're no longer in a position where you can decide the fate of your creation, AND you aren't being compensated fully for your hard work, isn't it about time to leave? The truth of the matter is, Call of Duty has grown too large for creative sentiment, and now, it solely speaks to corporate whim. I know I'm not the only one that thinks MW2's lack of multiplayer features on PC (dedicated servers, lean, console, mods, etc) was a decision imposed on them and not one they personally made. In fact, I'm pretty sure that splitting their fanbase and starting a mini-internet uprising against their highly anticipated follow-up title wasn't in the original design specs.

Now they're gone, and honestly, it's a shame that this even had to happen at all. When Microsoft realized that Bungie was about to eat itself away from the inside due to the burden of their acquisition, they backed off. Microsoft owns Halo and could've said good riddance, but they knew there couldn't be Halo without Bungie. So they gave them their independence. These two were forced to take it. Now they've formed a new studio (with EA of all people!) called Respawn Entertainment, with the added bonus of retaining control of any intellectual property they create. No one really knows where the other defectors of Infinity Ward have gone, but it'd be hard to imagine that they aren't going to be signing up with them at some point in the future. I hope they do, because I know they're going to make some amazing games, FPS or otherwise.

Activision may not be worried about the future of Call of Duty in light of this, as they still have 90 or so members of the team left, but they ought to be. I'm sure that all the remaining members are very talented, but arrogance that Call of Duty can survive without the key people who made it great was a hubris they committed when they made the mistake of separating Harmonix from Guitar Hero. Treyarch in my opinion can barely hold the mantle of CoD without riding on IW's innovations, and if rumors that about the next game can be believed, they're going back to Vietnam, and subsequently, the crutch of WW2 (groan) for the next installment. While there isn't any doubt in my mind that Call of Duty is going to keep making Activision money regardless (my baffled reaction to the masses that enjoy World at War outside of Nazi Zombies still stands), to see them lose a great deal of that established userbase to EA and Respawn would put a smile on my face. Think about that, it's the year 2010, and I'm rooting for EA, while Activision seems to now be in control of that Death Star hovering over the industry.

My, how times have changed.

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