The Ballad of West and Zampella

Jason West.

Former top game developer for 2015 Inc., co-founder and former president of Infinity Ward, and more recently co-founder of Respawn Entertainment. From the titles bestowed upon him alone, it’s easy to think of him as a major power player within the gaming industry, whose movements and maneuvers sent ripples that was felt by game enthusiasts everywhere.

And you’d be right.

For context, 2015 Inc. was the studio behind Medal of Honor: Allied Assault, one of the most highly regarded World War II first-person shooters of all time. Infinity Ward was responsible for birthing the mega-franchise Call of Duty and its most successful titles such as Modern Warfare and Modern Warfare 2. All of these games involved West in their development.

But as I dug into West’s various deeds, I found another name, often mentioned alongside West’s in various articles as if he’s the Jerry to West’s Tom, the Teller to West’s Penn: Vince Zampella.

Together they formed one of the most dynamic dev duos the gaming industry has ever seen, known not only for their brilliance in concocting innovative games, but also for their cunning behavior that culminated in a highly-publicized billion-dollar lawsuit against Activision.

Wait, how did that happen?

It all started way back in 1997, when Zampella met West during the development of a role-playing game called Skies. Zampella was a producer for Segasoft back then, while West was one of the developers. Two years later in 1999, West was a lead developer for the aforementioned 2015 Inc. when he convinced Zampella to join 2015 as the lead producer. Starting from 2000, the pair worked under 2015 to develop a WWII shooter which would eventually be known as Medal of Honor: Allied Assault, released in 2002.

We all knew how Allied Assault fared in the market: critically acclaimed by critics and players alike for its never-seen-before level of immersion and its technical achievement of using the more powerful PC graphics. To this day the game still has a following, which is more than impressive for a 19-year old game. At the surface, a resounding success from 2015 Inc.

But what most people didn’t know was that around the time of Allied Assault’s release, Zampella was accused of conducting secret meetings under 2015’s nose with the objective of leaving the company to form a new team. The meetings were alleged to discuss things in great detail: job titles, salaries, location for office space, and time lines. This was mentioned in a lawsuit filed against Zampella by 2015 CEO Tom Kudirka. Up until West and Zampella’s departure from 2015, Kudirka would find resignation letters in his office, accumulating to a total of 20 out of 27 employees in 2015 Inc. In the aftermath Kudirka told Vanity Fair in 2013, “I was a tough boss. But those guys screwed me over pretty good.”

Secret meeting conspiracies aside, West and Zampella did form a new team separate from 2015: Infinity Ward, founded in 2002 with 25 developers, most of which were former 2015 employees. Initially they had plans to develop a new Medal of Honor game, but the plan dissolved after parent company EA decided to take development for Medal of Honor games in-house (subsequent Medal of Honor entries were mainly developed by EA Los Angeles). This led them to turn towards Activision, who agreed to pay $1.5 million for a 30% stake in Infinity Ward. The result? The very first Call of Duty game released in 2003, which received universal acclaim.

Flash forward to 2007, when the original Modern Warfare was released. The title was a massive success, selling more than 10 million copies in nine months and winning multiple gaming awards. Naturally Activision wanted a sequel, but West and Zampella weren’t without leverage: They demanded a bonus plan worth tens of millions of dollars and absolute creative control over the Modern Warfare franchise, going so far as to give Infinity Ward authority over sequels. Quality control was going to be done internally, meaning that Activision executives wouldn’t be able to play the game until it was released.

However Activision, back then represented by CEO Bobby Kotick in its agreement with West and Zampella, put a loophole into the deal: if West and Zampella were to be fired, Activision would acquire the rights to the games. From then on the scenario played out exactly like a Hollywood white-collar drama: Activision tried to find a way to replace West and Zampella as heads of Infinity Ward. West knew it, Zampella knew it, Kotick knew it. It’s just that neither would directly comment about the situation.

Dubbed “Project Icebreaker” internally, Activision allegedly instructed its employees to, put it simply, dig up dirt on West and Zampella. Former I.T. director Thomas Fenady was instructed by former chief legal officer George Rose to monitor the pair’s emails, with Fenady himself admitting to have been asked to hack into the pair’s cell phones and computers. On a more comical side, there were plans to distract Infinity Ward employees with a fake fire drill to allow Activision investigators to sneak into the offices and copy IW employees’ emails. Meanwhile, plans to replace West and Zampella were already underway, indicated by a comparison of salaries between the pair and their eventual replacements, Steve Pearce and Steve Ackrich, listed on a late 2009 PowerPoint presentation.

It’s not like West and Zampella didn’t try to fight back. They attempted to block Activision’s attempt to award stock grants to other key Infinity Ward employees, acted rebelliously against Activision executives, and even threatened to not participate in the E3 demo for Modern Warfare 2. It all culminated in West and Zampella trying to renegotiate their contract with the help of Creative Artists Agency agent Seamus Blackley following the release of Modern Warfare 2. The pitch? Infinity Ward would go independent with Activision as its publisher, and they would fully own all the games they made. If the conditions weren’t met, the pair threatened to block development of subsequent Modern Warfare games (remember, this was well within their power as per their earlier deal with Kotick).

Kotick unsurprisingly refused to renegotiate or even deal with Blackley. In retaliation, Activision launched an investigation into Infinity Ward in February 2010 with the help of a law firm, citing “possible misconduct”. West, Zampella, and other IW employees were interviewed under oath, and the investigation was done under utmost secrecy with employees being banned from hiring lawyers or discussing the investigation with anyone.

The result? West and Zampella were fired from Infinity Ward in March 2010.

Activision cited reasons of the firing as being the pair’s violation of their contracts by seeking to start an independent studio and the deliberate slowing down of game developments. The pair responded by filing a $36 million lawsuit against Activision, citing that Activision had fired them to avoid paying royalties of the same amount on account of the success of Modern Warfare 2. However the $36 million in damages quickly ballooned to $1 billion in, which forced Activision to react.

Hiring D.C. power lawyer Beth Wilkinson, Activision initially launched a counter-lawsuit, believing the pair had conspired with Electronic Arts against the company. However, Activision ultimately agreed to pay the pair $42 million in addition to an out-of-court settlement believed to be worth tens of millions of dollars, all settled behind closed doors. This agreement was not seen as a loss for Activision, as the company believed to have performed beyond expectations financially during the quarter.

As for West and Zampella, the pair went on to form Respawn Entertainment in April 2010, operating under EA through its EA Partners program. The studio’s first major release was Titanfall in 2014, followed by its sequel in 2016, the well-received Star Wars game Jedi: Fallen Order in 2019, and the ever-growing battle royale Apex Legends, also released in 2019.

Now let’s talk in present tense. What’s West and Zampella up to these days?

Jason West had left Respawn in 2013 for family reasons, just before Respawn’s showcase of Titanfall in E3 2013. He later resurfaced in 2019 when he joined Epic Games, although it’s currently unknown what projects he’s involved in.

Following West’s departure, Zampella had become the CEO of Respawn Entertainment. In a statement in May 2020, Zampella indicated there was nothing currently in development for the Titanfall series, although he did add that he would personally like a resurrection for the series. “We’ll see if I can make it happen,” he said.

And so ends the ballad of West and Zampella — at least for now — the two game developers that stood up to their employers in one of the most infamous corporate disputes ever known in the gaming industry. It’s funny to think that this arduous conflict ended in amicable terms: Activision gets to keep their golden goose franchise while both West and Zampella still got some money out of it and a game studio of their own with more relative freedom.

Interestingly, Respawn’s latest release was a Medal of Honor game. That’s right, and it’s titled Medal of Honor: Above and Beyond. It’s a VR title released exclusively for PC in December 2020. Another interesting note: it was directed by Peter Hirschmann, who wrote and produced the very first Medal of Honor game.

So I guess you can say that at the end of it all, although indirectly, Zampella went back to his roots: developing a Medal of Honor game.

What an interesting turn of events, eh?

I write about what I like. I like video games, movies, and a little bit of anime.

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