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Activision exec emails foreshadow breaking point with ex-Infinity Ward heads
Activision exec emails foreshadow breaking point with ex-Infinity Ward heads
May 22, 2012 | By Mike Rose

May 22, 2012 | By Mike Rose
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    36 comments
More: Console/PC, Business/Marketing



A series of emails between top executives at Activision has been unsealed as part of the publisher's ongoing court battle against Infinity Ward founders Vince Zampella and Jason West, shedding light on the pair's growing tension with Activision's management that led up to their firings.

In March 2010, West and Zampella were fired from Infinity Ward, the Activision subsidiary studio that created the multi-billlion-dollar Call of Duty franchise, with the publisher accusing the two of "insubordination." After being fired, the pair quickly filed a lawsuit against Activision for breach of contract. The lawsuit is set to go to court on May 29.

New court documents published by the L.A. Times feature emails from mid-2009 that were sent between Activision executives Dave Stohl, Mike Griffith, Rob Kostich and CEO Bobby Kotick, amongst others.

In one email from May 29, 2009, Activision VP Kostich discusses "a situation" in which Zampella and West said they would not be able to have a live gameplay demo for Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 ready for Microsoft's E3 press conference.

"Msft [Microsoft] will go ballistic over this and the deal is seriously risked," he wrote. Griffith, former president of Activision Publishing, then calls up the pair to discuss a new strategy for the deal, and follows up, "They hung up on me," to which Kotick answers, "If they really did I would change their locks and lock them out of their building."

To that, Griffith replied, "As soon as I get that gold master..."

Elsewhere, Stohl discusses with Griffith a letter that was sent to West and Zampella -- although it is not explained what this letter was regarding, apart from there being "a proposal" for the duo.

"We should also discuss what the plan B is going to look like," he says, adding that "there could be a ton of risk getting the project [Modern Warfare 2] done depending on how the team takes it."

"Treyarch taking it over now is also an option," he continues, "but scary given the tight timeline."

He later notes, "Is everyone ready for the big, negative PR story this is going to turn into if we kick them out?... [It's] freaking me out a little."

An email from Griffith also mentions a proposed equity-based retention plan for Infinity Ward's "top 12 team members," excluding West and Zampella. The plan, Griffith said, was to "help ensure we retain the team if things blow up at the top. As you know, this has been a difficult relationship."

The court documents also show the bonuses and base pay that the top 20 Infinity Ward staffers received in 2009, and were projected for 2010.

Both Zampella and West were on base salaries of $420,000, with projected 2009 bonuses of just over $3 million each. With total equity value added, they earned nearly $6 million each in 2009.

However, looking to 2010, they were each projected to earn over $16 million each, including $13 million each in bonuses, before they were let go from the company.

The documents shed more light on the strained relationship between Activision and the Infinity Ward duo. Earlier this month, other court documents alleged that Activision launched an internal investigation against the Call of Duty creators eight months before they finally lost their jobs, which a former Activision director saying he was asked to "dig up dirt on Jason and Vince."

Activision recently settled a complaint with competitor Electronic Arts, in which Activision accused EA of meeting with West and Zampella about future partnerships while still employed at Activision. Activision also recently said it would award $42 million to former Infinity Ward staff that sued the company for compensation.

Since their fallout with Activision, West and Zampella founded the independent studio Respawn Entertainment, which is in a publishing partnership with EA.


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Comments


John McMahon
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Wow....I'm so looking forward to the court transcripts after this thing hits.

Michael Rooney
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"Both Zampella and West were on base salaries of $420,000, with projected 2009 bonuses of just over $3 million each. With total equity value added, they earned nearly $6 million each in 2009.

However, looking to 2010, they were each projected to earn over $16 million each, with $13 million each in bonuses, before they were let go from the company."

Holy balls.

Ricardo Carretero
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Even if it is more money than I think I will do in my whole live making videogames, I think they deserve it. Why the benefits from a well done game should go only to the publishers and not to the developers? Activision is making billions with COD: MW and it is fair the brain behind it's success get their piece of the pie.

Michael Rooney
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I don't really side with Activision, but I still think it's pretty absurd that they have base salaries of a half million dollars with bonuses over 6 million and demand $1 billion in their lawsuit.

I support the Employee lawsuit (distinctly different from the west/zampella one) because it benefits all the employees ($75-100 million for all employees vs $1 billion for 2 employees). West and Zampella demanding so much when they already have so much feels at least as selfish as Activision acted in the first place.

I feel like I have no sympathy for anybody involved in the Activision v West/Zampella lawsuit anymore.

[User Banned]
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This user violated Gamasutra’s Comment Guidelines and has been banned.

Uzoma Okeke
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Michael,I think the reason they are asking for $1 billion is not just royalties, but because they are also fighting for the name that is Modern Warfare. They believe the game to have been under their full ownership, and if you consider that mindset, how much of MW3 was completed at this time in regards to storyline and gameplay, and how much MW3 sold overall, $1 billion seems pretty legit. There's more to court than just what you're owed. There's also the worth of what you're fighting for, and the damage your image took. And disregarding Respawn, I'm not the first person to think that neither side of the argument could be trusted without further evidence; and when businesses think the same thing, that can ruin someone.

Benjamin Quintero
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Hmm, I wonder if the real source of the problem here is that they were projected to make more than Bobby himself =).

Alan Wilson
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Unfortunately, they aren't even close... 14 Mar, Kotick picked up just over 6m shares (free) - must be bonus time. On the open market, those are worth well over $70 MILLION. I doubt Bobby was feeling financially challenged by West & Zampella.

And to an earlier point - why is anyone expressing surprise at the scale of their bonuses? Think about it, people...

Alan Rimkeit
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Man, things are looking very bad for the people at Activision. It would have served them better just to pay Zampella and West the money they were due. Now they have to go to court and it looks like they may actually lose, which is bad for their companies image. What a mess. This is no way to run any company.

"He later notes, "Is everyone ready for the big, negative PR story this is going to turn into if we kick them out?... [It's] freaking me out a little."

That says is all. How lame can this get? I hope Zampella and West invest the cash they are going to get into their projects to make new games. What ever it is I am betting they will make cash hand over fist.

Peter Kojesta
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I often see hatred/muted animosity toward what people perceive as the ones "in charge". It's pretty obvious in posts like "make more than bobby" or whatnot. I've learned through very hard management experience that "rockstar" developers are not worth it. They often make needless demands, reduce overall team morale, and generally cause a lot of cultural harm. I don't know the people involved in this case personally, but missing demo dates, and hanging up on people generally sounds like the behavior of someone in 1 of 2 mental states

1) So sick of dealing with the higher ups (which does not account for or excuse missing demo due dates)
2) People who think they don't have to answer to anybody and everyone should dance to their tune.

if it's #1, I wish them luck and hope everything works out for those involved.
if it's #2, tough, you deserve to be fired. This was me at one point in my career when I first started, and thank god Doug fired my ass.

Kelly Kleider
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"thank god Doug fired my ass" <--Sounds like there's a story there.

John McMahon
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It's not always that simple Peter. You can't boil people down to a binary choice.

There was obviously a bad relationship between the Zampella and West well before that phone call.

like you said you don;t know the truth, so you cannot make any asumptions especially boiling down your assumptions into two possibilities.

Eric Geer
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@Bill "Hear Hear!!!"

Michael Rooney
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@"West and Zampella created Activision’s most profitable franchise. The very notion that they are now fighting for their just compensation (especially considering the billions their creation has generated) is evidence of just how ridiculously greedy and vile the corporate mindset truly is."

What do you think 'just compensation" is? Consider that their entire team is also suing Activision for $75-100 million and that West and Zampella (~2% of the development team and probably the 2% that least need the bonuses) are suing activision for $1 billion.

Michael DeFazio
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...see your point about rockstar developers, but considering the mass exodus of IW veterans after West & Zampela left, i'm going to have to assume the relationship between management and all the creatives (especially given the email trail) was already untenable, which is the fault of management.

perhaps i'm in the minority but i get the impression it's about more than the "money", but rather autonomy (West & Zampela could no longer tolerate getting micromanaged by execs making demands who know absolutely nothing about game development). the fact that an exec is trying to enforce crunch on West and Zampela over the phone tells me how out of touch they probably are/were.

Christopher Enderle
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@Michael DeFazio

I agree. It's definitely not just about the money. They could retire right now so what are they litigating for? 'Cause they want to keep making games, they want to be able to support and work with their core team, and they want to be able to do all that without being screwed over. They can't do that if they become an easy target for others to take advantage of.

It's a shame you have to be a millionaire in the first place to take a publisher to court if they decide on whim to simply not follow the contract they signed and pay you.

k s
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I'm no fan of publishers (activision especially) but from what I've read west and zampella have been acting like spoiled brats.

Peter Kojesta
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@bill

That's actually the exact issue I was speaking to. Lumping all management into "talentless hacks" is a pretty weak point that members of our industry often take; and it does not hold water. There is a million reasons that the system is the way it is, most of them evolutionary. my point isn't that you should not pay people for their hard work, it's that you should not expect to be treated with graciousness if your dropping milestones and hanging up on people.

@kelly

Yea, the first studio I worked at when I was just a wee lad fired me. It was the best thing to ever happen as I now have my own studio, learned some humility, and am now working with that same studio on equal terms. It did help shape my perspective a bit on how one should conduct their prescience but I still think everyone should get themselves fired at least once; it's a great way to light a fire under your ass.

In general, Cheers to these guys for getting fired, it's a worthwhile experience ... If you learn from it.

Joe McGinn
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@ Bill
" I find it amusing that you call a system where those doing the least amount of direct work on a product acquire the greatest financial gain from its sale “evolutionary.” "

Indeed, the extreme inequity in corporations is at the heart of the rot that has led to this OWS generation, and is probably going to lead to worse before better. The solution lies directly in the form of addressing that kind of inequity in business law.

David FORTH
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Let the games begin!

Alan Rimkeit
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Begin? From the looks of it the game is all but over. The court trial is just going to be window dressing.

Nels Anderson
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"Is everyone ready for the big, negative PR story this is going to turn into if we kick them out?... [It's] freaking me out a little."

How prescient.

Luke Skywalker
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@ Bill Boggess

Too be fair - the amount of work upper management does is debatable. IW didn't achieve their success without the assitance of the 'Suits" so to speak.

"......generally speaking most upper management could not generate or even competently replicate the work of the creative geniuses laboring under them"

Generally speaking, most creative people couldn't raise a dollar to excercise their genius in any field, so everyone fulfills a role here.

As someone who spans the gap between the creative and the business I think it's fair to say that the relationship is more symbiotic than parasitic.

That being said - mistakes were made on both sides here, but clearly Activision withholding promised compensation is the lowest of the low and the few emails that have been leaked clearly seem to paint a picture of vindictiveness on the part of ATVI.

Luke Skywalker
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@ Bill

I would take that wager, I would also posit that creative disciplines aren't necessarily inherent but that would take us into a whole other discussion wouldn't it?

Without Patronage a lot of the great art from antiquity to today wouldn't exist. Is it reasonable for someone who is funding something to have some say in what that is? I honestly can't answer that, but I suspect your answer would be "No". Which strikes me as a bias towards the Creative that is megalomaniacal and narcisstic.

You're whole argument seems to be formed on the basis that creative personalities are being victimized by shallow dolts who bring nothing to the table. These are concensual, two party relationships, if all you say is true is it fair to blame the suits? Again, I don't know, but there seems to be an implication in your posts that creative people have no control over their destiny.

I know exactly the types of people you are railing against, and frankly I have met a lot of those personality types over the years. I find them distasteful in the extreme, however the creatives need the suits just as badly as the suits need the creatives. Maybe it's time for the creatives to get MBAs?

Jeffrey Crenshaw
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If everyone had an MBA, then business would simply become more cutthroat. It's an arms race pattern, with potential positive side effects that could be gained more efficiently if they were not mere side effects and plenty of negative consequences.

You have to understand that being good at business is largely a zero-sum talent: you're simply learning how to take money that someone else who is not good at business would have without contributing a good or service to society. If you believe in the "business elite" that make good business decisions and figure out what society needs and how to allocate it, then you hold an argument against the free market as that is what the free market is supposed to do. So supposing the free market distributes goods, workers make goods, consumers purchase goods -- what do businessmen do besides extracting wealth?

Now to be fair, if all business people disappeared I still think we would have inefficiencies -- creatives making a game that x people would like but only x minus y people hear about because of poor advertising for example. But I would choose poor advertising by all over biased advertising by the elite any day, as at least failure and success are left up to chance instead of success for the already rich and failure for the working class being guaranteed in the hands of the self-serving narcissistic elite. I also suppose West and Zampella are at least partially in this crowd which makes this lawsuit a little harder to take sides on, but Titans sometimes clash with each other.

I would definitely be interested in carving out a more accurate picture of the pros and cons of publishers (they do this positive thing, they do that negative thing, let's not make it black and white), but at the moment I believe the cons far outweigh the pros and until the sickening display that publisher representatives keep showing goes away I am going to give them no benefit of any doubt.

Luke Skywalker
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@ Jeffrey

Essentially, both you and Bill are assuming that the 'business' side of this business (or any business for that matter) is so simple anyone could do it. If that were the case we wouldn't have any suits to complain about would we? The creatives would do it all themselves.

This seems so evident to me that I don't even understand why this is a point of contention.

I would put forward that, perhaps, you and others in this industry are guilty of the same dismissive attitudes that you are aligned against.

The suit says that the creative is high maintenance, opinionated, un-professional, disorganized, unable to focus on the 'big picture.

Does that sound like the type of person you would want the success of your business predicated on?

The creative says the suit is arrogant, doesn't understand what they're trying to do, lacks any creativity, is only focused on the bottom line, etc..

Does that sound like someone you would want to work with?

I think most of us would agree that in both cases the answer is no. If that is the case, the only thing that makes sense to me is a marriage of convenience. Each brings particular skills that the other CANNOT replicate.

Luke Skywalker
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Bill - Perhaps I am guilty of being too obtuse.

All of the creative examples you cited lacked the money to express themselves creatively. Business people are very good at making money. If it was easy to make money, creative people would fund themselves (indeed some blesssed few are able to do so). Most do not, ergo, a partnership is required.

Mine is not an argument for the positive effects of this partnership on the vibrancy of creative products, merely the necessity and the acknowledgement that each side brings unique skills to said partnership. I am dissapointed by the 'victim' characterization of those who are creatively inclined because as far as I know none of these folks was forced to do anything against their will. If I am mistaken in that belief please enlighten me.

Someday Plato's Republic may come to fruition, until then we all need to deal with the world that is.

Uzoma Okeke
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I think what Bill is saying has a point, but people are just overanalyzing this. Business people are necessary but are common in comparison to creative talent of a high caliber, or creative talent. With that in mind, it would behoove those in business to act accordingly and to treat their talent with the respect reflective of their results. Because their creativity may be known because of business, but business heads had no role in shaping it.

Creative talent thrives off of public acknowledgement and creating the very thing they love. To have that kind of passion, with very little goals for it, is to be someone who can be easily manipulated by one who sees the value of said talent and wishes to use it for your benefit, but more importantly for their own. You cannot disagree that those that do business obtain a larger portion of the rewards than those that make that business stand out. And as most indie companies have enforced, it is harder to make a creative project, than to broadcast it and put a price label on it. Granted, business may be capable of having that creative piece achieve its maximum value, but whoever said that is what someone who is deemed creative really wanted? I don't speak for anyone but myself, but if I can create something that provides me with enough to cover my price of living with some profit on the side to cover me for the next year, then I'm okay with that.

I agree with Bill that both parties, business and creative, are essential, but should not interact unless necessary. I also feel that based on my definition of the necessity of the two, that businesses should treat their talent according to the worth they set for them, because you don't need to rely on one business to make money. There are multiple variations out there that can provide that for you (as this case has proven with Respawn being opened under EA funding). Deadlines are a tragic thing to miss, but that can be the fault of many outside sources, including last minute changes invoked by business.

So Luke, I can see what you're saying in regards to creative and business need each other, but the real questions are "what is the percentage of need?" and "exactly who benefits from this the most?"

Jeffrey Crenshaw
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Okay, I had a lengthy response, saw a comment that I "liked" before submitting, and lost my response >_<. Stupidity on my part, I hope I can cover the meat of my argument again.

"Essentially, both you and Bill are assuming that the 'business' side of this business (or any business for that matter) is so simple anyone could do it."

I certainly am not. Though for what it's worth, I also don't think anyone can run a crime syndicate -- that doesn't mean I approve of it solely because it's difficult :). But I also don't feel the simplicity or complexity of "business" is as relevant as the "value" of business. To some extent, calculating finances and analyzing markets and advertising are net benefits. But to an extent past that, the effort you do to increase your share of a market offsets the effort that someone else does to increase _their_ share of the market. Since you both realize you must compete with each other, you start putting in effort that cancels each other out, creating a net loss for humanity (which will hurt you too in the long run).

I am going to point to the arms race pattern again: "An arms race may also imply futility as the competitors spend a great deal of time and money, yet end up in the same situation as if they had never started the arms race." (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arms_race). Now it is difficult to compete in business because others make it difficult to compete in business. By doing well in business, beyond a certain extent (beyond market saturation), you are taking from the system as much as you are putting in (you are merely convincing consumers to buy your product by putting your competitor out of business and out-marketing them, not by making a legitimately better product or spreading sincere awareness). In this sense, you are moving wealth around, not creating new wealth. And when someone can move wealth around, lo and behold, a large part of that wealth _happens_ to mysteriously end up in their own pocket somehow. Publishers do that because, while developers are in an arms race with each other and thus losing resources, the publishers are the arms dealers.

Anyway:

"If that were the case we wouldn't have any suits to complain about would we? The creatives would do it all themselves. "

It's hard for the creatives to compete in business by themselves _because_ the suits make it hard. How can you win against someone who dedicates their life to business when you have to put part of your life toward creating the thing to be sold? I can't likely succeed without publishing of some sort because my competition uses publishing; they are the cure to their own disease. It's the mafia analogy: do you think the mafia deserves praise for providing "protection" for businesses? It might not have started that way, but in the last ten or twenty years, business in America has become more parasitical than symbiotic with CEO pay being dictated by boards of their close friends and corporations lining the pockets of politicians and mass layoffs for the working poor grimly contrasted with golden parachutes and public bailouts for the filthy rich. I actually think it has been this way for quite some time, we were just satisfied in the post war era as the spoils of war and being able to strong-arm negotiate countries that suffered more from the World Wars put us on easy street, but I am not going to speak too much about things that occurred before I was born.

"This seems so evident to me that I don't even understand why this is a point of contention."

Hopefully that is cleared up: there is no point of contention that "businessing" for some definition of "businessing" is hard :).

"I would put forward that, perhaps, you and others in this industry are guilty of the same dismissive attitudes that you are aligned against."

And I will accept and embrace this claim. I am dismissive of suits. I do contrarily despise them being dismissive of talent. This is no more hypocritical than being dismissive of pedophiles or rapists or murderers or any other group of people that harm society.

"The suit says that the creative is high maintenance, opinionated, un-professional, disorganized, unable to focus on the 'big picture.

The creative says the suit is arrogant, doesn't understand what they're trying to do, lacks any creativity, is only focused on the bottom line, etc.."

Okay, let's talk big picture. Plant potatoes in one field ("labor", i.e.: programming, art, gameplay, etc), and throw pennies (capital) in the other, and see which feeds you.

"I think most of us would agree that in both cases the answer is no. If that is the case, the only thing that makes sense to me is a marriage of convenience. Each brings particular skills that the other CANNOT replicate."

And here is where we disagree. The artisan creates wealth, the capitalist merely controls it while lowering the artisan's wages at no net gain. It is jokingly simple to realize how the working class is being exploited - "Oh no, the business man gives you the money to run your business that he took from others trying to run their business, you must worship him!" No. Fuck that. I have respect for businessmen who are _also_ artisans, of course, but this modern yuppie arms-dealer-of-no-other-talent society that leads to this: http://www.cbpp.org/images/cms//6-25-10inc-f1.jpg can rot in hell. It is evident we are not rewarding the people who create value anymore, and I don't believe for one second this is a mere accident of the free market.

A S
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If anything has come out of this, it's that both sides behaved like children.

jin choung
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if you hang up on your boss, you should be fired. immediately. have armed guards escort you out of the building with your stuff.

as someone who rankles at authority, it's still clear to me - you take their money, you do what they say. and you don't fucking hang up on them... wtf?

especially considering the money they were making, that is literally inexcusable.

Michael DeFazio
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just because someone has authority doesn't mean they are smart, informed, or logical. i've worked with a few bosses that lied to my face numerous times, took credit for my work and reneged on the most hallowed of promises. In those situations, or situations where your boss is being unreasonable , unprofessional, or irrational, i say hanging up might be the right way to go YMMV.

Some work environments are not symbiotic, but rather parasitic, and if you lie down like a rug, you'll get run over.

Uzoma Okeke
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If you're busy working on the next big thing, and your boss is drowning your progress with ideas and discussions about something you already told them was not possible, and you still have to meet deadline because you're clearly behind, why wouldn't you hang up? There are people that have done far worse than this in business and still get the credit they receive. There's business relationships and personal relationships. Just because you personally don't like the way someone treats you, doesn't make it bad business.

Maria Jayne
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The billion dollars is not about needing a billion dollars, it's about a sum of money that would hurt Activision and make the management and publishers in the game industry sit up and realise you can't treat your developers like shit.

I'm really surprised so many people can't see that is what it's for really, how do you hurt a multi billion dollar company? you take their money.

Michael Rooney
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There's already a class action lawsuit by the Infinity Ward employees for this reason.

Colin Campbell
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Let's not forget this is the same company that at one point was planning on hacking into Infinity Ward's email and voice mail accounts in order to find incriminating evidence to warrant firing them. They were caught red handed, and yet there are still people defending their choices. Therein lies the problem, such malicious behavior from corporations has become so commonplace that it's acceptable behavior in the eyes of some.

I'll also note, from a QA standpoint, that I and several other employees have been laid off from Activision and then told by the EDD that unemployment wouldn't be granted. HR representatives often claim we quit instead of being honest and saying they laid us off at the end of a project in order to deny or at least delay any unemployment from being paid out.

Kotick's reputation is already horrible as he's managed to downplay the work of testers, artists, programmers, and development producers time and time again. He has no business working in this industry, but even a leading company like Activision opted to wait until his mismanagement costs them millions. They're getting what they deserve.


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