Killing the Goose

As Infinity Ward sheds staff, battle lines are drawn - will IP or creative talent prove more valuable?

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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.

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