West, Zampella, Gibeau talk Respawn-ing

Q&A: Ex-Infinity Ward leaders and EA Games president explain how they are setting up an independent SoCal shop, discuss importance of owning one's own IP.

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Today saw the latest twist in the case of Activision vs. Vince Zampella and Jason West. A month and a half after the two developers were fired for "insubordination" from the studio they founded, Infinity Ward, they are starting up an all-new independent studio, Respawn Entertainment.

The new shop is being established with the assistance of Electronic Arts, which will publish its first game under the EA Partners program. The program offers many top-tier independent developers EA's publishing power while allowing them to retain their autonomy. Its roster includes Harmonix (Rock Band 3), Crytek (Crysis 2), Valve Software (Portal 2), Epic Games (the just-announced Bulletstorm), and now, Respawn.

Respawn general manager Vince Zampella.
Respawn general manager Vince Zampella.

To find out how Zampella and West partnered up with EA--a deal overshadowed by a major lawsuit--GameSpot caught up with the two developers this morning. Sitting in on the call was EA Games president Frank Gibeau, who was likely enjoying the situation, as Activision had poached two of his top developers less than a year ago. (Ironically, the ex-EA devs are now working on a Call of Duty adventure-game spin-off.)

RESPAWN DEAL: ORIGINS
"As you know, we were let go from Activision," said Zampella. "The day after, our phones were ringing of the hook with interest from every major publisher. It was good for us, because at a stressful time, good guys from all over the industry were in contact with us. We sat down with all the publishers, got a lot of offers, and the EAP deal ended up what we felt was the best thing for us."

The EA Partners deal was announced just days after Activision countersued West and Zampella, accusing them of embarking "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, 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 and David Letterman.

Respawn president Jason West.
Respawn president Jason West.

Though EA declined to comment on the accusation when it was made, West had no problem speaking out. "That's all false and outrageous nonsense from Activision," he declared bluntly. However, the pair's attorney did tell GameSpot last week that "Jason and Vince had hired the Creative Artists Agency to advise them in their negotiations with Activision, not to breach their contract."

"It made sense for us, given the situation we were in," said Zampella of CAA's involvement. "After we left [Activision], instead of having to fly all around the country taking meetings, it allowed us to just set up a whole bunch of meetings in the same place." CAA also represents developer Double Fine, which also entered into an EA Partners deal after its game Brutal Legend was dumped by Activision.

SETTING UP SHOP
So what's next? "We're just moving on and kicking off our hiring drive," declared West, referring any interested developers to Respawn's bare-bones Web site. He declined to clarify whether or not Modern Warfare 2 multiplayer designer Todd Alderman and software engineer Francesco Gigliotti, who left Infinity Ward last week, might join the nascent studio.

"We'll announce the rest of the team at the appropriate time," said West, "Right now, it's just us." As to whether or not they might be joined by other Infinity Ward staffers, he said, "We have no idea what's going to happen." Zampella confirmed that the two were looking to set up shop in the same part of Los Angeles as Encino-based Infinity Ward. "There's a lot of talent in that area," Gibeau helpfully noted.

Luckily for West and Zampella, they have time to build a new studio, as they are free of the economic pressures usually associated with a startup operation. As part of its publishing deal, EA has given the two developers funds to rent office space and hire the talent they feel is necessary to make "AAA blockbuster games."

EA Games president Frank Gibeau.
EA Games president Frank Gibeau.

"We've reached an agreement where they have the seed money to get started as of today," said Gibeau. "It basically gives them [a] sanctuary where they can really focus in on creative and build a blockbuster product. We're helping these guys pick themselves up and go kick some ass."

"We need to hire people before we can decide what the game is, what our schedule is," explained Zampella. West said that Respawn's Web site would eventually become a full-fledged destination, with information for fans on the studio's progress. "That'll hopefully happen sooner rather than later--I assume we're going to get a lot of interest," he said.

GAME ON, BUT A WAYS OFF
As part of their own ongoing lawsuit against Activision, West and Zampella are asking for control of the Modern Warfare name. Activision owns the Call of Duty brand, but the two contend they were promised control over its wildly successful offshoot. If the two are successful--a big if--could EA end up publishing a future Modern Warfare game?

"That's irrelevant to what we're doing now," said Zampella. "We are launching our new game, our new company--it's a reset. We're focusing on properties at Respawn alone."

What kinds of games might those be? "We have no idea yet, but we can't wait to see," said West, joking, "We're that clueless." However, given the pair's track record, a first-person shooter is a leading candidate. "I think it's safe to say it will be something our fans will enjoy," he teased. When asked if the EA deal was a multigame arrangement, all three men declined comment.

There is one thing West and Zampella are extremely clear on, though. The pair confirmed that Respawn will always remain an independent studio and will always retain the rights to its intellectual properties. "I think we've learned the hard way that if you really want to ensure the integrity of your games and your brand, you have to own your own IP," he said. "It's the only way to ensure quality."

Gibeau also thinks independence will be good for the two developers. "I liken this to when the [Boston] Red Sox traded Babe Ruth to the [New York] Yankees for a ham sandwich and a few thousand dollars. That worked out pretty well for him," he joked.

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