When ousted Infinity Ward heads Jason West and Vince Zampella announced their own new studio -- and a publishing deal with Electronic Arts -- few people were surprised.
The publisher who sacked the pair, Activision, accuses them of "insubordination", painting a portrait of two studio founders so eager to strike out on their own that they'd talk secretly with the company's biggest rival.
But today, as West and Zampella talk to Gamasutra on the morning they announce Respawn Entertainment, the pair beg to differ. "I don't know that that's a fair assessment," Zampella says. "We were fired! Once we were fired, we got a lot of interest in publishers, and trying to figure out what we were going to do next."
And they had options: "It was encouraging that the day after we were fired, so many people contacted us to find out what we were doing," Zampella adds.
"What was really important was partnering with someone that understood our culture... and that we wanted to own our IP, and EA Partners was the best," says West.
Agrees Wedbush's Michael Pachter: "As an independent studio, the best distribution partner they could find is EA," the analyst tells us. "They have the most global reach."
The major unanswered question is where and how the pair's next project will fit into EA's publishing portfolio. From Medal of Honor
through Modern Warfare 2
, their work has focused on first-person military titles -- and if their new game falls under that umbrella, as most are assuming it will, it will compete with EA's Battlefield
franchises as much as it will with Call of Duty
But the nature of Respawn Entertainment's upcoming work is a question that won't be answered just yet: "Right now, it's just Jason and I; the company's just kicked off today," says Zampella. "So we don't know what we're doing yet."
And as for the angle that the pair is engaged in something of a homecoming after leaving the Medal of Honor
brand in the first place, the pair are clear: "We're not 'returning to EA,'" says Zampella. "We just have a deal with EA and the EA Partners program."
"I will say that EA today is a lot different than it was eight years ago," says West. And the company's funding and publishing deal will help the pair "get back to what we love doing -- and that's what it's all about."
But even as an independent studio, being published by EA means that the two have nearly overnight become the main rival to those with whom they once worked at Activision. Many analysts warn Activision investors that an Infinity Ward exodus of sorts -- similar to what happened to Medal of Honor
-- may occur when former coworkers seek to join West and Zampella's new venture. Are the pair seeking their Infinity Ward colleagues to join them?
"We're just kicking off the hiring now, and we'll reveal the teammates in the future," says Zampella. "We're just focused on getting the best and the brightest all across."
"We're fortunate that the LA area has a lot of talent," adds West.
Earlier today, analyst Pachter told us
he thought this might be a "richer deal... as opposed to straight distribution" for EA than a standard EA Partners agreement, thanks to the prominent endorsement of EA Games boss Frank Gibeau.
"Frank is involved on all the deals, it's just sometimes I'm on the phone and he's on the phone," says DeMartini, who joined West, Zampella and Gibeau in speaking to us. "I wouldn't say Respawn is dramatically more important than Crytek, Valve, Epic or our other partners, but these guys are huge -- we're as delighted with these guys as we're delighted with the other big players that we're able to sign through the program."
West and Zampella, represented by Hollywood's Creative Artists Agency, join other developers who've built reputations on their own as power players, either negotiating special arrangements with publishers, as Rockstar's Houser brothers did with Take-Two, or receiving independent recognition as individuals, as did the newly-solo Will Wright.
But they say they don't see themselves as part of an industry paradigm shift, if one exists, toward recognizing auteurs. "We're not trying to blow this into some kind of big movement in the industry," says Zampella. "We're forming our own company, and wanting to make great games." If people want to project that sort of narrative onto their movements, "that's up to them," he asserts.
As the pair are simply announcing their kickoff today, there are few details to share. "It's just the two of us getting back to doing what we love," West reiterates. "Gaming's in our blood, and we're real excited to kick this off, and we're excited to make this happen."