It would be very easy to make this a rabble-rousing, inflammatory post, but I’ll try to stick to the facts. (After giving it the mandatory, Google-scoring, horror headline. *cough*)

    Earlier this week, the corporate entity known as Activision/Blizzard fired the two studio heads of Infinity Ward, the game studio responsible for the mega-selling title Modern Warfare 2.  The stated reason was “insubordination,” which set everyone in the industry to wondering just how bad the insubordination could be, to warrant firing the heads of a studio whose most recent game has generated more than a billion dollars in sales since November.

    Scott “Lum the Mad” Jennings made the news the subject of his MMORPG column on Wednesday, and argued that publishers are a necessary, but deadly, evil in the game design process.

    Publishers are evil and cannot be trusted. It?s just what they do. Once you sign on the dotted line, you have to assume that you are no longer a partner, but a resource awaiting the inevitable exploitation. Publishers don?t have the interests of developers at heart, nor of gamers ? they simply exist to suck as much money into their pockets with the least amount of effort.

    More information emerged during the week, chiefly in the countersuit by the two fired parties, and their tales of constant harassment, intimidation, and penny-pinching by Activision management make for painful reading.

    Activision conducted the investigation in a manner to maximize the inconvenience and anxiety it would cause West and Zampella. On little notice, Activision insisted on conducting interviews over the President’s Day holiday weekend; West and Zampella were interrogated for over six hours in a windowless conference room; Activision investigators brought other Infinity Ward employees to tears in their questioning and accusations and threatened West and Zampella with “insubordination” if they attempted to console them; Activision’s outside counsel demanded that West and Zampella surrender their personal computers, phones, and communication devices to Activison for review by Activision’s outside counsel and, when West and Zampella asserted their legally protected privacy rights, Activisions counsel said that doing so constituted further acts of insubordination.

    Reactions from gaming journalists and bloggers, many of whom are past/present/aspiring developers themselves, have been fairly unanimous. Everyone seems to be horrified by Activision’s actions; even when the writers admit that West and Zampella were pretty much problem children.. Editorials have been filed by Indie Game Producer Jake World, Matthew Colville, and Scott Jennings, amongst others. And since I already quoted from Jennings, and I read his blog, I’ll quote from him again.

    That sort of fascist hardball isn?t done by people with a moral compass. And given the lack of ethics that sort of conduct broadcasts, it makes it easier for me to believe West and Zampella?s core argument ? that Activision?s hostile takeover of Infinity Ward (and that?s what it is, with an efficiency that would make the expropriators of Yukos Oil blush) was motivated simply by a desire to not pay the makers of Modern Warfare the money they were owed. Apparently, Activision decided it was cheaper to destroy the studio and entangle its founders in legal tar. Something they anticipated in their 10-K SEC filing:

    Jennings goes on to point fingers upstream, to DiabloWikiBobby Kotick, the non-gaming, notoriously-bottom-line focused CEO of Activision/Blizzard.  Which begs the question I asked in the title of this post. Could this happen to Blizzard? Could Activision lawyers swoop in and fire all the development heads and company founders, replace them with corporate weasels, and proceed to churn out uninspired annual sequels to our favorite games?

    Gaming fans certainly hope not, and there’s been no public indication of strife or strained relations between Blizzard’s head guys and Activision’s. At the time of the merger that created [[ATVI]], there were numerous statements about how Blizzard’s internal operations would not be affected. And all the evidence supports that; after all, Blizzard has gone on delaying game releases just the same as ever; behavior that you’d think Bobby Kotick would have put an end to, if he had any way to do so.

    That said, I don’t believe the details of exactly who now owns the various Blizzard IPs has been made public. Activision surely must have obtained some share in them as part of the purchase, and there must be some performance requirements included in the deal. After all, if WoW declined and Blizzard didn’t make any other hits for a few years, Activision wouldn’t keep writing big paychecks indefinitely. So then, if Blizzard continues making highly-profitable games, all will be well. Of course that’s probably what the Infinity Ward guys thought when they sold 15m copies of Modern Warfare 2 in 3 months. And look where they are now? (Drinking and no longer employed.)

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