Ex-Infinity Ward heads, EA announce deal

[UPDATE] New studio Respawn Entertainment formed by Jason West, Vince Zampella; EA Partners to be exclusive distributor of future titles; Activision says deal is no surprise given the pair's "improper activities."

Call of Duty

The ongoing drama between ousted Infinity Ward heads Jason West and Vince Zampella and ex-employer Activision has taken another twist. This morning, Electronic Arts announced a deal with the pair to be the sole distributor for their newly formed studio, Respawn Entertainment. According to Zampella, the new studio will be based in the same part of Los Angeles as Infinity Ward, which created the $3 billion Call of Duty series, including last year's $1 billion hit, Modern Warfare 2.

West and Zampella have hit the ground running with backing from EA.

While some studios search for years for a publishing partner, Respawn already has one lined up. Electronic Arts will be the sole international distributor of future titles from the studio under its EA Partners program. For a cut of the sales proceeds, the EA Partners program distributes titles from many top-tier independent developers, including Valve Software (Left 4 Dead 2), Crytek (Crysis 2), and Epic Games (Bulletstorm). The program also distributes MTV Games and Harmonix's Rock Band series, will publish Grand Theft Auto cocreator Dave Jones' massively multiplayer game APB, and has partnered with No More Heroes designer Suda-51's Grasshopper Manufacture.

Though the timing of the EA-Respawn deal was unclear, a countersuit filed by Activision on Friday accused West and Zampella of being "self-serving schemers" who embarked "on a secret trip by private jet to Northern California, arranged by their Hollywood agent, to meet with the most senior executives of Activision's closest competitor." EA was not explicitly named in the lawsuit and declined to comment on Activision's claim, but its headquarters are just south of San Francisco in Northern California. West and Zampella have signed with top Hollywood talent agency Creative Artists Agency, which also represents Steven Spielberg, Brad Pitt, Tony Hawk, and David Letterman.

[UPDATE] In a statement, Activision gave an icy response to the Respawn announcement: "This agreement comes as no surprise to Activision given the myriad of improper activities detailed in the cross-complaint filed on Friday against Jason West and Vince Zampella. We look forward to continuing to work with Infinity Ward’s deep bench of proven talent on exciting new projects."

Though no new titles were revealed, today's announcement emphasized the fact that Respawn will have full control of all intellectual properties it creates. In a lawsuit against Activision filed last month, the pair alleged they were promised control of the Modern Warfare brand before they were fired as part of an "Orwellian" investigation by Activision. In their suit against Activision, West and Zampella are asking for $36 million in damages and to be given control of said brand, which is now under control of Activision's newly formed Call of Duty division. That division plans to expand the Call of Duty IP into all sorts of new genres, including third-person adventure and casual massively multiplayer.

West and Zampella also made a point of saying that Respawn is hiring, and EA promised to give them full support in "assembling a world-class team of designers, artists, and engineers." The declaration raises the prospect of a brain drain at nearby Infinity Ward, which recently saw the departures of two top developers. Last week, Modern Warfare 2 multiplayer designer Todd Alderman and software engineer Francesco Gigliotti left the embattled shop. Both joined Infinity Ward in 2002, approximately one year before Activision acquired the studio and the first Call of Duty game shipped for the PC. Infinity Ward was created after West and Zampella left developer 2015, which assisted in the development of EA's Medal of Honor series.

Today's announcement is a major coup for EA--and also a major bit of payback. Last summer, two heads of Dead Space and Dante's Inferno developer Visceral Games, which EA created from its internal Redwood Shores studio, defected to Activision. They set up shop just down the road from EA's headquarters in Redwood City, California, and founded Sledgehammer Games, which Activision owns. Ironically, Sledgehammer's first project will be a Call of Duty-branded adventure game.

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