Over the decades, the global video games industry has seen some fierce rivalries. Sonic vs Mario. FIFA vs PES. Xbox vs PlayStation.
But the fiercest and bitterest of all conflicts has to be the one between EA and Activision.
The two super-powers of game publishing have been locked in battle for over 30 years. And the animosity between the two was laid bare in 2010 after a dispute between Activision and Call of Duty creators Infinity Ward saw many of the developer’s staff walk out, form their own studio, and then jump into bed with EA. Respawn – as the studio is aptly called – launches its first game Titanfall in March.
But as anyone familiar with industry history will tell you, this was not an isolated incident. The EA/Activision war goes back ten years. And it was actually Activision that fired the first shot.
“Back in 2003, EA had Medal of Honor as the runaway World War II shooter. It was fabulous. That was the product to beat,” says Scott Dodkins, who was Activision’s Euro VP at the launch of the first Call of Duty.
“I think the EA/Activision rivalry was even more intense then. We were really gunning for EA. We were desperate to narrow the gap and overtake it, which Activision eventually did. EA had games like FIFA, which we couldn’t compete with. But Medal of Honor was a genre we thought we could enter. So we were looking for a product that could emulate and beat it, and we came up with Call of Duty.”
"I think the EA/Activision rivarly was even more intense in 2003.
We were really gunning for EA."
- Scott Dodkins, ex-Activision VP
By 2002, Medal of Honor had established itself as a major force on consoles, with two PSOne games and the PS2, GameCube and Xbox smash hit, Medal of Honor:?Frontline.
But the most critically lauded Medal of Honor title was the PC-only Medal of Honor: Allied Assault (released in January 2002), which was created in Oklahoma by a relatively unknown studio called 2015 Inc.
“I was the first employee at 2015. It was my very first job in the games industry,” recalls Allied Assault’s level designer and writer Zied Rieke.
“Allied Assault was a difficult project. It was a bit chaotic. There wasn’t a lot of strong leadership on the team. The designers weren’t working together super well, they were each making their own stuff.
“But we pulled Allied Assault out of our asses – it was the last six months when that game really came together. And we realised ‘Wait a minute, if we can do that in six months, what could we do with a full development cycle having learnt those lessons?’”
Yet 2015 would never get the chance to make another Medal of Honor. EA decided to take all development for the franchise in-house. Morale was low amongst the team and they were looking to start up on its own.
“Allied Assault was a pretty intense project,” explains Justin Thomas, an artist on the game.
“We had bonded as a team, but decided we wanted to work with new management. Many members of the team were actually going to leave to find new jobs, regardless of potential royalties coming in from Medal of Honor.
“Around the same time there were some not-so-subtle hints that if a new team formed there would be work for them. So instead of disbanding, we decided to continue to work together at a new company of our own design. With the main idea being that the destiny would be driven by the team.”
"We received two deals. We had one with EA LA, a deal we took for about
two days before the deal with Activison came through."
- Zied Rieke, ex-Infinity Ward designer
But things didn’t go entirely smoothly for this new outfit, which was later named Infinity Ward. The firm began working on Medal of Honor, but as EA prepared to take the series in-house, the company was in trouble.
“After leaving 2015 we were working with a major publisher. For legal reasons I will say things didn’t go as planned with it. We were left in a situation of unpaid milestones that were delivered and no finances to operate on,” says Thomas.
“The company was potentially going to disband. In a last ditch effort our then president, Grant Collier sent out a signal to all the major publishers in the industry letting them know that the majority of the Medal of Honor: Allied Assault team was available. Within days of closing the doors on the studio, Activision responded immediately with an offer.”
Rieke adds: “We actually got two deals. We had one with EA LA, a deal which we took for about two days, before the deal with Activision came through. Both would involve moving out to LA, but with EA we were concerned that we would be rolled up into EA LA, and that our team identity would go away. That was the ultimate swaying point for us deciding to go with Activision. Activision had four or five different studios in the LA area, which all operated like they were independent. And that was what we wanted.”
Thomas continues: “Activision offered to deposit money in the account within hours and fund a project for over a year, with one stipulation: The right to purchase the company for around $3m and we had to sign that day. Let’s just say they got a very good return on investment.”
Indeed it did. Activision now had the team behind the most critically acclaimed Medal of Honor game building its rival WWII shooter.
“In some ways that was the key thing,” says Dodkins. “If we didn’t get the men that made Medal of Honor to make a version of Medal of Honor but under a different name, then it may never have worked.”
"We were looking for a franchise that would work well across all of Europe and the US. And it was the World War II shooter genre that was the one."
"The project was actually named 'MOH Killer' until an
official name could be found."
- Justin Thomas, ex-Infinity Ward artist
Activision’s bid to take down Medal of Honor wasn’t built out of malice towards EA. The firm was eager to grow globally, but had taken a number of missteps on the way, and so looked towards EA for inspiration.
“The Christmas prior to Call of Duty for Activision had been a successful revenue holiday period. But it had not been a profitable one,” says Roger Walkden, who was UK general manager at Activision at the time.
“We had a lot of projects going on at Activision at the time and we were trying to grow at a fast rate. We had an extreme sports O2 brand. We had Shaun Palmer and Kelly Slater and Matt Hoffman, all alongside Tony Hawk. And guess what? They all failed apart from Tony Hawk.
“It showed revenue growth, but it meant we had stalled on quality and scale. So there was a bloodbath of products at that time, and tonnes of games that were in development were cut. Particularly games from the O2 brand or anything on the fringes that didn’t have the potential to be a long-term IP.”
Activision’s titles were also heavily US-focused, and the firm was struggling to gain traction outside of its North American heartland.
“What we were looking for was a big franchise that could work well across all of Europe and the US,” says Dodkins. “And it was the WWII shooter genre that was the one.”
So Infinity Ward was tasked with beating Medal of Honor. A mission it took on with confidence.
“I wouldn’t make the mistake of calling it the most humble team,” laughs Thomas, who had been promoted, and was now lead artist on the first Call of Duty.
“The project was actually named ‘MOH killer’ until an official name could be found. We were focused more on fun than success, with the idea that if it was fun, it would be successful. We were just going to make a great game, and do the things better than we did on previous projects. The great thing is that a team learns from previous projects.”
Rieke adds: “Allied Assault influenced us. Call of Duty was a rare chance to right all of our wrongs and fix all of our mistakes.”
But it wasn’t an easy task. Call of Duty had to beat Medal of Honor, but not copy it. And even the creative minds at Infinity Ward were not entirely sure how.
"During the first year of Call of Duty development, the game
was much more like Allied Assault. There was a
James Bond-like character, doing a secret mission
to stop the Nazis developing a nuclear bomb."
- Zied Rieke, ex-Infinity Ward
“The challenge was not to duplicate Medal of Honor,” says Thomas.
“We also wanted to find a way to tell different game play stories without having a ‘super soldier’.”
Rieke, who was the design lead on the project, continues: “It wasn’t just Medal of Honor we were wary of being similar to, because most of the World War II games at the time followed that formulae, like Return to Castle Wolfenstein, which was kind of a super-spy in WWII story.
“During the first year of Call of Duty development, the game was much more like Allied Assault. There was a James Bond-like character, doing a secret mission to stop the Nazis developing a nuclear bomb. There was a German scientist, and a German scientist’s daughter. Medal of Honor was a ‘James Bond in World War II’ kind of game, and that is what we were pretty much making.”
However, Infinity Ward’s game wasn’t the only Call of Duty title in development. Another new studio made up of former Medal of Honor developers – Spark Unlimited – was creating a console version of the new IP called Finest Hour (which was released a year after the first Call of Duty on PC). And it was this studio that hit upon an idea that would later define the series.
“We read a pitch that they had put together about making a game from the point-of-view of three different characters – British, Russian and Americans,” says Rieke.
“That clicked for us immediately. That solved a lot of problems in terms of we were looking for a new ‘D-Day’ moment. We had a lot of ‘moments’ in Allied Assault and we wanted to do something comparable, and with the Russians we could do Stalingrad.
The early concept images of
Call of Duty hero, Captain Price
“We also had been developing a friendly AI. We liked that from a gameplay point of view, but when the idea came to make the game about the story of the war and less a clandestine story with the war as the backdrop, all of a sudden the tagline ‘no one fights alone’ came about. And it became a game about you and your buddies experiencing WWII battles from different points-of-view. That was a huge shift in terms of giving the game a lot of focus from a design perspective.”
But it didn’t mean Call of Duty had to be started again. In fact, Infinity Ward was able to reuse most of its original game. “We took stuff that had been intended to be a part of that America spy storyline and we found new uses for them,” says Rieke. “Then we designed some missions that we could have only done as the British or the Russians.”
"Eventually we said to Activision: "We can keep
reacting to feedback for the sake of it, or you can
trust us to do what you hired us for."
- Justin Thomas, ex-Infinity Ward
Call of Duty was a game built around a few central gameplay innovations – the multiple storylines, the ability to aim down the sights and friendly AI.
After that it was about creating a well-polished, fast-paced game that could stand toe-to-toe with the biggest shooters on the market.
Says Rieke: “We could feel a level of snobbery towards WWII games at the time. So we felt like underdogs in that sense. We were trying to compete with the Half-Lifes and the Quakes. Those are the things that we wanted to be compared to.”
At this point Infinty Ward was an unknown entity. It wasn't the world-conquering super-studio that it is today. So to begin with Acitivision felt it necessary to get involved.
“On one of our first few milestones we got a lot of suggestions from Activison,” recalls Thomas.
“Remember that in the early stages everything is subjective to someone on the outside not knowing what the bigger play will be. There are also a lot of folks that are paid to say… stuff. They see rough bits and are reactionary. Internally our team knew what they wanted to do, and knew how to make games. Vince [Zampella] and Jason [West, studio heads at the time] had a ‘good cop, bad cop’ thing they with the publisher. Eventually it got to the point of: ‘We can keep reacting to feedback for the sake of it, or you can trust us to do what you hired us for.’
But Activision soon let go of the reins, and allowed Infinity Ward to do what it did best. Rieke recalls that the Activision relationship was "really good." And the result was an acclaimed title that came together with no fuss. Infinity Ward never required any outside help, and both Rieke and Thomas recalls the game as being one of the least problematic they have worked on. And that’s despite moving to LA?midway through development.
“We designed a campaign which went way above anything
that certainly Activision had ever done for a PC-only game."
- Roger Walkden, ex-Activision UK GM
Call of Duty was part of Activision’s three-pronged attack that Q4, joining Tony Hawk's Underground and True Crime: Streets of LA. But as Call of Duty was a PC-only title, it lacked the same potential as the others. But once the senior management team got to see the game, their expectations changed.
Walkden says:?“On paper it was just a single SKU, against something like Tony Hawk or True Crime, which were on multiple platforms. We were looking at that thinking: ‘Crikey, how are we going to get scale out of one PC product?’
“There was a greenlight meeting every week. It would start at 4pm on a Thursday, 8am in the US, and it would finish when it finished. Sometimes myself and Scott, and a couple of marketing people, would be sitting their eating pizza at 9pm at night, while they ate their lunch. We did so many of them. But what I can remember is the first time I saw Call of Duty in one of those meetings. And it just so happened I was in the US that week and I was given an extended look at what was going to be shown, and I remember being blown away.
“We were seeing things that we had never seen before in games. I remember it being a big, big wow moment. I remember the AI shouting at you and being able to look down the sight of the gun, and you felt totally immersed in WWII in a way that I hadn’t ever seen before.
“And so suddenly what looked like a difficult sell on paper, we now realised was something of real quality.”
Walkden and the UK team backed Call of Duty heavily. Even more so than the US did, with the UK running the first ever Call of Duty TV ad campaign.
“We designed a campaign which went way above anything that certainly Activision had ever done for a PC-only game. We thought it might have been the largest marketing campaign for a PC game that had ever been done in the UK.
“We did a TV campaign for the first Call of Duty. And that was because we really believed in it. I recall going to several meetings where the US marketing people were questioning whether that was a good idea. And I remember CEO Ron Doornik, he backed it and said: “It’s brave. But we are doing this for the future of the franchise.”
He adds:?“I often joke to people I know that I worked at Activision up until 2006 and I was responsible for launching all of the unsuccessful Call of Dutys. But actually, I think it is fair to say that the really big Call of Dutys, Modern Warfare onwards, were built on the shoulder of giants. And we backed it right from the start. I’d like to think those early decisions is why Call of Duty has over-performed in the UK versus other territories.”
And Call of Duty became one of Activision’s first global smash hits, big in markets where Tony Hawk and Spider-Man had failed to perform.
“Call of Duty took Activision into EA’s territory,” says Dodkins. “It was a turning point. It globalised Activision that it hadn’t managed to do with its previous franchises.”
"Call of Duty took Activision into EA's territory.
It was a turning point. It globalised Activision."
- Scott Dodkins, ex-Activision
A year later Call of Duty had its first global hit in Finest Hour. The console game was backed by a huge marketing campaign and was a bit sales hit, even if it did not quite live up to the quality of the first game. But after that it was Infinity Ward that would go on to lead the series, which it does to this day.
And the Call of Duty story is far from over, while the never-ending deathmatch between EA and Activision rages on. Call of Duty did kill Medal of Honor (twice), but EA has bounced back with Battlefield, which is closing the gap on Activision’s blockbuster franchise.
In fact, the shooter showdown between these two companies heads in a different direction next year. EA will publish its new IP Titanfall next March, a game built by the same people that made the first Call of Duty. Meanwhile, Activision is handling Destiny, an ambitious project by that other shooter super studio, Bungie.
Both firms have spent hundreds of millions of dollars turning their IPs into super-franchises. Franchises that have raised the quality of shooters drastically. As a result of this, the FPS genre is probably the most lucrative on the market. Both EA and Activision have generated billions of dollars in revenue from the FPS genre alone.