Billions of dollars? Got it. "Astonishing arrogance and unbridled greed"? Alleged. Video games are so close to being Hollywood, that we must celebrate a breakthrough: A possibly boring contract dispute that could be as juicy as Leno vs. Conan.
We've got an executive that the Internet fans love to hate.
We've got not one, but two top creative guys kicked out of a job that they seemed to be doing well.
The analogy fractures if we add that these two men, Jason West and Vince Zampella, are more successful in their field than Conan ever was. They crushed more competition than Leno. They have run a development studio called Infinity Ward that just created the other billion-dollar entertainment spectacle of the fall, Modern Warfare 2. That's the one without the blue cat aliens; it's the single-player and multiplayer game of war loved and played by millions on Xbox 360s and PlayStation 3s day after day, the game Ice-T loves and the one that had a midnight launch attended by James Gandolfini, who just stopped by to see if he could grab a copy for his son.
You'd think they would be the kings of the world after creating a game like that or even guests on somebody's Tonight Show.
No, they were fired on Monday.
Given that they were fired — given that games are supposedly an enormous cultural force — then you might expect an Internet uprising. Changed photos in your Facebook feed. Virtual pep rallies in Twitter.
If video games were as huge as the video game people say they are, you'd expect the entertainment world to be buzzing that two more Conan-like nice guys whose work is loved by 18-34-year-olds got (allegedly) screwed by a big corporation. Shoved aside after a job seemingly well done. Replaced by some interloper who will sit in their chair, behind their desk, handling their coffee mug and entertaining their audience. "Insubordination" the company says, but not yet making public any insubordinate acts.
For at least 10 years, maybe 20, video games have been on a quest for Hollywood-level respect. The millions in sales and the billions of dollars have helped the entertainment world's little brother get some proper credit. But the whole effort's been a little weird, because the gaming world doesn't play out the way the rest of the entertainment world does. Take the sex scandals. They don't involve anyone sleeping with anyone. They involve naked bodies in a game a kid might play. The awards shows get red carpets full of people People wouldn't recognize or Kiefer Sutherland accepting his award for voice-acting in a game, complaining about how dreary the work was.
Games are still figuring out how to be big-Hollywood. Maybe this week's events can help, if we can just frame them right.
Attempt: Bobby Kotick is Jeff Zucker, the guy who brought Leno back and let Conan walk. Well, Kotick may even be the Darth Vader, though he recently said that he thought of himself as Luke Skywalker.
Kotick's company bought Zampella and West's Infinity Ward about a decade ago. The two developers had already brought Steven Spielberg's World War II video game series Medal of Honor series to dominance with Medal of Honor: Allied Assault. Then, for Kotick's Activision, they and their team created a Medal of Honor competitor, Call of Duty, and beat their old series. Their second Call of Duty trumped the first. Activision let another one of its studios make the third Call of Duty. Then, West and Zampella's studio made the fourth, a 2007 phenomenon that sold 13 million copies.
The next events in this saga would be contract stuff and rivalry. Itching to make something of their own, West and Zampella carved out an agreement with parent company Activision, one of those oddly specific deals like giving somebody the Tonight Show in five years. Their understanding, written out for the lawyers, wasn't public, but this week's lawsuit described an arrangement that permitted only West and Zampella's team at Infinity Ward to make a Call of Duty set after Vietnam. And, according to a lawsuit, it would entitle West and Zampella creative freedom, say-so over the Modern Warfare branch of Call of Duty games and royalties.
The ousting of these guys would be the thing that make fans rally, but only if fans knew who Jason West and Vince Zampella are. They are extraordinarily successful game developers with a typical game developer trait: Their presence in the public spotlight is only slightly more pronounced than J.D. Salinger's. They and the rest of their studio refrained from press attention, even in the fall when TV news stations became interested in their last game letting players, as an undercover CIA officer, participate in a terrorist act.
West and Zampella are out. Infinity Ward has a new boss. And Call of Duty continues to have other people in the kitchen Infinity Ward and Activision built: a new Activision studio called Sledgehamer and an old one called Treyarch. The latter had been making Call of Duty games during Infinity Ward's off years — it takes two years to make a Call of Duty game — and Infinity Ward's feelings about someone else working their stove were poorly masked.
When Conan got the offer he could refuse, to move his Tonight Show to midnight, he became a brighter pop culture star and the most widely-supported unemployed millionaire of the current recession. The firing of West and Zampella, the dismissal of the top two men from the top series in video games today, has caused smaller ripples. It's big news, but not pop culture buzz.
The NBC suits may have been right about Conan. Leno was back this week, beating Letterman just as he did when he left. Conan's on Twitter joking about French Fries. But Conan fans can at least rest assured that those NBC suits felt some heat.
West and Zampella don't have many people Tweeting their names or even knowing them. Their studio, Infinity Ward, is in transition under new leadership. And Call of Duty soldiers forward. With this one there may not even be a change in quality. It's too early to say and therefore too early for Modern Warfare fans to panic.
But if there's a time to protest, this is it. If there's a time for video games to prove they are big enough that even their scandals and contractual disputes can generate buzz, it is now. We might not have even figured who the bad guy is yet. Perhaps Darth Vader really is Luke. Perhaps the "insubordination" was indefensible. But are Zampella and West the new Conan? Check Twitter.
[West and Zampella PIC]
[Team Coco modified image by Kotaku]