Axed ‘Call of Duty’ duo launch Respawn

Jason West and Vince Zampella set up shop at EA

When Activision abruptly fired Jason West and Vince Zampella last month, no one expected the pair to sit on their hands for long.

As the creators of development studio Infinity Ward and the guiding force behind the “Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2,” the best-selling vidgame of 2009, the pair is one of the hottest teams in the business.

West and Zampella resurfaced Monday, launching development studio Respawn Entertainment and aligning themselves with Activision’s rival: Electronic Arts. It’s a move that, though widely expected, could have significant repercussions throughout the vidgame industry.

With West and Zampella’s track record, Respawn instantly becomes one of the industry’s highest-profile independent studios. The pair has a Midas touch when it comes to creating game franchises, having played key roles in EA’s “Medal of Honor” games as well as the $1 billion-plus “Call of Duty” series at Activision.

What’s different this time is that West and Zampella will retain the ownership rights to their games — giving them complete control over the releases, along with a bigger share of the profits.

“That’s critically important for us,” said Zampella. “We’ve learned the hard way that owning (intellectual property) is the only way to control the brand.”

Given the high cost of making top-tier titles, it’s rare for an independent developer to own its IP. Those that do, though, hold a position of power — able to demand higher royalty payments and conditions.

They’re also able to set their own schedules, which are often longer than in-house development teams, such as Infinity Ward, are given.

Respawn’s affiliation with EA will increase the pair’s bad blood with Activision.

West and Zampella sued the publisher after being let go, seeking in excess of $36 million, future royalties for “Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2” and an injunction preventing Activision from releasing any additional “Modern Warfare” or “Call of Duty” titles set in post-Vietnam War timeframes.

Activision has countersued, alleging the pair began discussions with rival publishers while under contract and attempted to prevent the publisher from giving bonuses to Infinity Ward employees so they would be “easier to poach” when West and Zampella left to form their own studio.

Regardless of the validity of those accusations, all eyes are now on the Infinity Ward team. A mass defection could significantly hurt Activision and put the production schedule for future “Call of Duty” releases — as well as the quality of those titles — at risk.

The franchise, one of the publisher’s two most important games, is shared by Santa Monica-based Treyarch, which is due to release the next edition of “Call of Duty” later this year.

West and Zampella say that, as of now, they are Respawn’s sole employees. It’s worth noting, though, that “Modern Warfare 2” lead designer Todd Aldermann and lead software engineer Francesco Gigliotti both left Infinity Ward last week and have not yet resurfaced with another studio. They are widely expected to join Respawn, which could be the start of a larger exodus to the studio.

“EA has offered us a sanctuary that allows us to focus on what we love,” said Zampella. “We’re getting back to what we love to do — playing games and making games. We’re really excited to be able to create new brands and experiences for the fans.”

While EA is likely paying significant upfront costs for its relationship with Respawn, the partnership has the potential to become incredibly lucrative.

“Modern Warfare 2” was not only 2009’s best-selling vidgame, but also the biggest entertainment event on record. 4.7 million copies were sold in the first day in the U.S. and U.K. and earned $550 million in just five days. The two have earned their publishers billions during their careers.

A hit from Respawn would be welcome news for EA. It was once the biggest vidgame publisher in the business, but has struggled in recent years, stung by a lack of blockbuster hits and a weak economy.

That West and Zampella chose to align with EA also gives the company more ammunition in its long-running rivalry with Activision. Both publishers regularly snipe at each other publicly. And EA didn’t hesitate to take a poke on Monday.

“This reminds me of when the Red Sox traded Babe Ruth to the Yankees,” said Frank Gibeau, president of the EA Games label.

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