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Court date approaches for notorious Call of Duty lawsuit

Time to refresh our memories regarding the Call of Duty legal battle that began a couple of years ago.

At the beginning of March 2010 the big story on most gamers' minds was the sudden departure of founders Vince Zampella and Jason West from Infinity Ward, the studio that gave birth to the blockbuster Call of Duty franchise. Activision, the company that purchased studio seven years earlier, terminated the pair, claiming breaches of contract and insubordination.

Less than a week later Mr. West and Mr. Zampella filed a lawsuit claiming wrongful dismissal, outstanding remuneration to the tune of $36-million, and certain rights to future Call of Duty games.

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A month passed before Activision countersued the duo, stating that the co-heads had morphed from respectable game studio executives into "insubordinate and self-serving schemers who attempted to hijack Activision's assets for their own personal gain."

Days later, Mr. West and Mr. Zampella announced that they had founded a new studio dubbed Respawn Entertainment with intent to develop original projects, and that they would turn to Electronic Arts – Activision's chief rival – for publishing services. Dozens of Infinity Ward employees – some who had already quit their jobs over the last few weeks, some who would resign in the days to come – were hired on by their former bosses.

Then, in the final weeks of 2010, Activision formally implicated EA in the legal mess. It produced an email sent by a senior EA executive that suggested the publishing giant unofficially requested Mr. Zampella hold back the release of a Call of Duty map pack so that EA's own Battlefield: Bad Company 2 would have less competition upon its release. The court granted Activision's request to add Electronic Arts as a cross defendant.

Then things quieted down.

Activision went about the work of replacing Infinity Ward's lost talent and ensuring that 2011's Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 would launch on schedule and make a billion dollars. (Mission accomplished!)

The former Infinity Warders, meanwhile, went about the daunting task of developing a brand new piece of intellectual property with the help of their gleeful new friends at EA. It's been more than 20 months and we've yet to hear anything about what this new game might be (though, given the studio's moniker and its staff's area of expertise, it's safe to assume it will involve shooting things).

But in the background the gears of legal machinery were still turning, and it was announced last September that the original lawsuit brought back in March 2010 had finally received a court date: May 7, 2012.

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We're still a few months away from watching both companies' legal eagles duke it out Mortal Kombat-stylz, but the folks over at Law of the Game – a blog devoted to covering legal matters concerning the game industry – are already licking their chops.

The site put up a post this week predicting the upcoming courtroom clash will be one of the biggest game stories of 2012, and their reasoning is sound. The future of what has become one of the most profitable brands in hardcore games is at stake. The forthcoming legal proceedings will decide who in the future will get rich(er) off the series and whether it will even be able to continue in its present form.

More than that, Law of the Game points out that the case will lance several ugly boils that have been slowly growing within the industry for years. It will draw attention to the financial conflicts that arise between studios and the big publishers that buy them, shine a spotlight on the battle to attract and retain creative talent in a highly competitive market, and potentially result in a spike in temperature in the cold war between Activision and Electronic Arts.

Of course, this is assuming that the suit continues along its current path. Could be Mr. Zampella, Mr. West, Electronic Arts, and Activision will settle out of court, like schoolyard rivals begrudgingly shaking hands in the principal's office after a playground brawl.

Regardless, if you were wondering whatever happened with the Call of Duty legal battle, you'll likely have an answer in the coming months.

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