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The parable of the goose that laid golden eggs has been used and abused grievously in the past few weeks to describe the developing situation at Infinity Ward. It's a compelling way to describe the tale - the studio which creates enormous blockbuster hits in the Modern Warfare franchise, laid out on a mortuary slab by the naked greed of its publisher - but its merits in narrative terms are outweighed by the inaccuracies in the metaphor.
After all, there's little evidence in any of the acrimonious and occasionally astonishing legal documents flying between the two sides in the dispute that suggests that Activision executives actually turned up with a carving knife in hand, keen to slice the studio up.
Rather, it seems that the publisher's sin was simply to expect the team which had made one of the most successful games in history to turn up the next day as if nothing had happened, put their heads down and get to work on a sequel - on a fairly tough timescale, at that.
There will be two distinct groups of people reading this article - those who shake their heads in astonishment at such naivety, and those who simply don't see the problem with such expectations.
Both sides have a point. After all, it's not unreasonable to expect your employees to turn up to work and keep doing their jobs, even if the product they've been working on turns out to be a success. There'll be promotions and bonuses in the offing at some point, of course, but in the meanwhile, there's another product on the way which needs working on, so everyone needs to get over their champagne hangover and pitch in.
That's not an unsympathetic viewpoint, but is sadly one which is rooted in two core misconceptions. Firstly, the idea of corporate loyalty - the sense that "we're in this together" which many managers and executives, especially those of a certain age, love to expound upon.
In the modern climate, in which jobs for life are something that hasn't happened for over a generation, "corporate loyalty" is simply a nice way of saying "the ship isn't sinking, so the rats aren't fleeing just yet". Loyalty from valued employees is not granted but earned, not by paycheques but by good treatment, regular promotions, control over their own work and plenty of share options to hang over them like a sword of Damocles.
Secondly, there's the notion that creative staff in the entertainment business - people who are heavily invested in the projects on which they work - can simply be managed as though they worked on a production line, or in a cubicle farm. The attachment and investment of a game developer into their project is simply incomparable to that of a regular employee working on, for example, a corporate IT system.
On one hand, that means that game developers are more easily coerced into working ridiculous hours throughout a protracted crunch period - because any financial reward aside, this project is their baby. On the other hand, it also means that the success of the project is equally personal, and their expectation to benefit from and share in the fruits of its success is, reasonably enough, very high.
We still don't know exactly what happened between Activision and Infinity Ward, and the truth of the matter may never be revealed. The sheer viciousness of the allegations made on both sides in court documents tends to suggest that the case will eventually be settled out of court, as for such allegations to be fully aired in public could be hugely damaging for both sides.
However, it's fair to say that regardless of the nitty gritty of the allegations, there has been a key failure on Activision's part in this story. Having lost the studio's founders, the company has now proceeded to watch Infinity Ward hemorrhage design and art talent, to the extent that every single one of Modern Warfare 2's lead designers has now departed the studio.
Regardless of whether Jason West and Vince Zampella's actions were justified or even legal, the wider context here is fairly straightforward - Infinity Ward was not a happy ship, and it wasn't the principals, West and Zampella, who were making it unhappy, as evidenced by the willingness of their colleagues to leave Activision, presumably to follow them to their new studio, Respawn.
Did Activision expect some measure of loyalty from IW, above and beyond that which is strictly mandated by their contracts? If so, they are naive beyond measure. Did they think that the studio which created 2009's most wildly successful entertainment product wouldn't want a bigger share not only of the profits, but also of creative control of the franchise which they had created?
Did Activision executives dream, for even one second, that if they weren't willing to fight to keep IW happy, their competitors wouldn't step into the breach with persuasive offers?
Or - and herein lies perhaps a more likely explanation, albeit a more worrying one - did Activision simply decide that it owns the key IP involved with Modern Warfare 2, including both the name of the game itself and the Infinity Ward name, and that therefore pesky developers clamouring for a larger slice of the enormous pie they'd just baked were surplus to requirements?
Did they calculate that losing Infinity Ward's staff was an acceptable risk, since the franchise could always be handed off to other developers - who would effectively be working for hire, rather than working on self-created IP, and thus would be far easier to manage?
So let's update our poultry-based parable for this modern age. Activision is not the farmer who wrung the neck of the golden goose - rather, it is the farmer who banged the goose up in a cage with all of the other battery geese and told it to lay golden eggs to a strict schedule, or else. It comes as no surprise to anyone that the goose promptly took ill and stopped laying.
In so far as publishers are to continue as powerhouses of this industry, with the budgets to attract or acquire top developers and fund the creation of expensive blockbusters, there are two competing philosophies at work here.
One of them states that since the publisher has the money and the IP, the talent is barely relevant except as a PR exercise. It's bad PR to lose your key creative staff, as the IW debacle demonstrates, but, this school of thought believes, you can always recruit more developers, and once the franchise is established any moderately talented team can keep turning out profitable sequels.
That's the school of thought which Activision is apparently embracing at the moment. Interestingly, it's also a school of thought which was largely embraced by Electronic Arts during Larry Probst's tenure as CEO - and which the publisher has since abandoned in favour of the second approach.
This approach says that one of the publisher's key jobs, perhaps as important as finance or marketing, is to keep the talent happy - to ensure that top developers and their key staff are satisfied, motivated and well-rewarded, made to feel that their relationship with the publisher is a partnership rather than that of an indentured servant and his master.
Infinity Ward's gradual reforming under EA's wing as Respawn grants a unique opportunity for those two concepts to go head to head. In the coming years, we will inevitably see a battle for sales and critical acclaim between a title from EA / Respawn, and an Activision title bearing the Modern Warfare brand. The owners of the IP will go head to head with the talent that created that IP.
Although the circumstances were very different, the last notable instance of that came when British studio Sports Interactive launched Football Manager (for SEGA), competing directly against a new title using their old, well-loved IP, Championship Manager, which had been handed by former publisher Eidos to a newly formed studio following their split with SI. History relates the rest - things did not go well for Eidos, while Sports Interactive's new IP quickly regained the full prominence which its old IP had enjoyed.
Activision will fervently hope that this does not prove to be a blueprint for future comparisons between its handling of the Modern Warfare franchise and EA's new IP from Respawn.
The rest of the industry, meanwhile, will look on with bated breath. What started out as an entertaining spat between a publisher and its star developer could, in time, be a landmark incident in defining the evolving relationships between publishers and the creative teams on which they rely for their hits.
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