Frontier Developments chairman David Braben breaks down the Activision/Infinity Ward debacle, in an exclusive opinion piece for Develop

“Activision will rue the day it let Infinity Ward slip”

"Most of us in the industry have been watching the unfolding situation between Activision and Infinity Ward with a form of ‘rubber-necking’ horror, as this depressingly spectacular train crash unfolds in slow motion. The quiet period we’re in now, and going to court or settlement, can be an anxious time. It is especially unpleasant for those directly involved, but many are concerned whether it will be damaging for the whole industry.

Personally, I suspect the long term outcome will be positive for the development side of the industry as a whole, and quite possibly for Zampella and West, though they will have a year or two of misery beforehand, for which they have my sympathy (lawsuits are always unpleasant, even when you win in the end).

Corporate Harmony

At the root of this is the implication that the board level management of Activision don’t value their development teams, or even understand what it is those teams care about. I suspect the success of Treyarch with their own Call of Duty games has cemented an opinion amongst the Activision board (and perhaps investors) that it is the brand ‘they’ (i.e. the board) created with marketing which sells games, and not the quality of the games themselves. The brand or sequel effect clearly does make a big difference, but the reason it makes that difference is the expectation of quality created by a previous game or brand.

The alternation between Infinity Ward and Treyarch producing CoD games in the past was very effective at capitalising on this effect and spreading the ‘fairy dust’ initially created by Infinity Ward. At the start of this process, Treyarch were very much in the shadow of Infinity Ward in terms of quality (apologies to those involved), but with time they have improved hugely, in my opinion, and I imagine they can now carry the CoD brand successfully themselves going forwards, and the great bulk of players that don’t follow gaming news sites will simply not notice.

Having said that, woe betide the brand if Treyarch goes the way of Infinity Ward – though to be honest, that seems unlikely. I’m sure those at Treyarch have nervously wondered what the future might hold for them if they want to work on something else too. I suspect it will be different, though, and they will be treated as Activision’s new best friends, at least until another potential torch-bearer is in place. 

Nevertheless, there is a wider point here. This whole saga is not about people moving on after a project – it is about corporate disloyalty. It is about giant organisations not fully appreciating where their long-term value comes from. They have let some of their ‘seedcorn’ go, and the impact won’t show on their bottom line for a fair while, probably beyond the short-term window many listed companies are forced to operate within, but it has certainly damaged their reputation inside the industry.

EA, however, have been very smart in their response and in a couple of year’s time I suspect Activision will rue the day.

Whatever happens now, Infinity Ward as it was, is dead. The ‘brand’ may live on, but a company is the sum of the talents and efforts of its staff.

Without the key senior staff who have left it is now a different company, and at the very least will need those people replacing – either by promotion from those remaining, or from outside.

That is not to say that those others might not do a really good job of making it work, but it will have a different mindset, a different approach, a different balance of experience. Tools and tech will carry over, but a company is a lot more than that. Give me Respawn, any day.

The positive long term effect I think it will have for development is in the eyes of investors. Hopefully what has happened will be seen (with hindsight) as a mistake by Activision, irrespective of the narrow rights and wrongs of the case itself, and it will encourage better treatment of development in the future. The more interest in development those investors take, the more care companies will show.

EA’s response has been very positive, even if part of the reason was to put one in the eye of Activision. I (as I’m sure many others do) hope that Respawn’s first game is a conspicuous success, as that will help all of us in development.

Good luck to them!"

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