LOS ANGELES — In the video game world, “respawn” means a character that was killed off has come back to life.
So when two of the top creative talents in the industry form a new independent company called Respawn Entertainment, they are sending an unmistakable message to colleagues, competitors and fans.
The pair, Jason West and Vincent Zampella, who played key roles in the development of the multibillion-dollar military shooter franchise Call of Duty, have been embroiled in a bitter dispute with their former employer, Activision Blizzard Inc., which fired them a month ago in a move that shook the industry with the force of a rocket-propelled grenade.
West and Zampella first responded by suing Activision for more than $36 million. On Monday, they made their next move with the announcement that they are forming a new game studio and hooking up with Activision’s chief rival, Electronic Arts Inc., which will have exclusive distribution rights to their next creation.
The company is initially being funded with several million dollars in seed capital by EA, according to people familiar with the situation. In a typical publishing deal, developers are given money by a publisher up front that they can earn back from the game’s sales revenue.
In a rarity for the highly corporatized video game world, however, West and Zampella will own and have full control over the intellectual property they create.
“This is a total reset,” Zampella said. “We’re starting again from ground zero. It’s daunting and exciting.”
West and Zampella are among a handful of creators well known by video game players. Their creation of a company is roughly equivalent to the shake-up in the film business when Steven Spielberg, Jeffrey Katzenberg and David Geffen formed DreamWorks Studios in 1994.
The move, a rare bet on individual talent in an industry usually focused on big brand names, means there will be a major new title competing for gamers when Respawn finishes its first product in two or three years. It could also presage more independence and financial benefits for the creators of hit games, particularly if West and Zampella win or favorably settle their lawsuit.
Activision fired West and Zampella on March 1, alleging they had violated their contracts by seeking to start an independent studio and purposefully slowing the production of games while working for the Santa Monica-based publisher.
In a lawsuit filed two days later, the duo said Activision had fired them to avoid paying millions of dollars in royalties owed on November’s Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, which has sold about 20 million units and generated an estimated $1.3 billion. The publisher denied the charge in a counterclaim last week that labeled them “self-serving schemers.”
Throughout their careers, West, 37, and Zampella, 40, have specialized in realistic, first person-perspective military action games such as Call of Duty, which are hugely popular with hard-core gamers. The mostly male audiences have been attracted to the real-world settings, blockbuster action sequences that resemble those of big-budget movies, and extensive online options that let them compete against other players via the Internet.
There have been six Call of Duty games released since 2003, four set during World War II and two, which carried the subtitle Modern Warfare, featuring contemporary counter-terrorist combat.
West and Zampella co-founded Encino-based Infinity Ward with then-partner Grant Collier in 2002 after leaving the studio 2015, which had made the previously dominant military action game series Medal of Honor for EA, based in Northern California’s Redwood Shores. Infinity Ward’s creation Call of Duty was published by Activision in 2003 and quickly surpassed Medal of Honor in popularity. Activision bought Infinity Ward that year for $5 million.
“It has a certain irony to it,” Frank Gibeau, president of the EA Games label, said of West and Zampella’s return to making games for his company. “But the fact that they were in this situation was a stunning opportunity for us.”
The publisher declined to discuss deal terms, but a person familiar with the situation said it has the rights to publish Respawn’s first game, along with potential sequels and spinoffs.
“What makes Vince and Jason’s deal so ground-breaking is that EA is investing in them as individuals, not as part of a larger, established company,” said Seamus Blackley, who heads the Creative Artists Agency’s games department and negotiated the deal.
West and Zampella wouldn’t discuss what the first title from Respawn might be and whether it would compete directly with Call of Duty in the military action genre, though West did say he expected it to be of “huge, summer blockbuster” scale. He added that they would consider turning their games into films, comic books and other media.
It remains to be seen whether avid gamers who have come to love Call of Duty will buy a new game based on the resume of its developers, given the relatively anonymous status of most creative talent in the game industry, compared to that of film directors.
Though West and Zampella declined to discuss their time at Activision, they made it clear that after eight years of working on Call of Duty for the firm, they were eager to forge a new path.
“We have learned the hard way,” said Zampella, “that the best way to ensure the integrity and quality of your work and make sure the fans get what they deserve is to own the intellectual property.”
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