Activision, Infinity Ward, and Project Icebreaker

Posted by patrickklepek (4624 posts) -

When Activision terminated former Infinity Ward leadership Jason West and Vince Zampella on March 1, 2010, the publisher launched an internal investigation about them. According to West, Zampella and their attorneys, it wasn’t the first time Activision tried that.

Jason West and Vince Zampella are working on a new, still unannounced shooter over at Respawn.

"Project Icebreaker" was, based on a recent filing from the upcoming trial, an ongoing Activision initiative to uncover information regarding West and Zampella by accessing their work email, computer, and phones. It was rolled out just months before the launch of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2.

It’s also incredibly difficult to not chuckle at the name, which feels right out of a mediocre James Bond movie.

The details I'm sharing regarding Project Icebreaker come from a recent court filing related to the upcoming trial between Activision, West, Zampella, and other former developers. There's more to it. It's worth disclosing how this filing came into my possession.

This filing landed in my inbox from the public relations firm for West and Zampella's attorneys. I've been sitting on the filing for a few weeks, knowing full well this very specific filing was handed over to me, a reporter, with a specific agenda in mind, and one that doesn't paint Activision in a great light. Upon further reading, I concluded there was enough relevant, interesting information about the allegations to warrant sharing.

Activision's lawyers did not respond to my request for comment regarding this story.

If it were possible, I'd share much, much more. The entire case filing is not available online (proof!), and since I'm not in Los Angeles, I can't go to the court house myself. Maybe that'll change when I'm in town for E3.

With that context in mind, let's continue.

Project Icebreaker reportedly arose in 2009 over strained relations between Activision and Infinity Ward. While executive memos suggest Project Icebreaker did, at times, involve improving relations between the two companies, there were contingency plans in motion if and when it didn't work out.

The details that follow were pulled from a filing made by counsel for West and Zampella on April 23. The filing focuses on Activision director of IT Thomas Fenady’s deposition, and was filed in response to an Activision motion to dismiss parts of his testimony. Activision motion hopes to dismiss Fenady’s testimony under attorney-client privilege. West and Zampella’s lawyers argue Fenady’s testimony outlines Activision’s attempts to remove West and Zampella from the company prior to the 2010 incident.

Thomas Fenady was director of IT at Activision. He left in December 2009, and now works at Warner Bros. Fenady testified that in the summer of 2009, then Activision chief legal officer (now chief public policy officer) George Rose instructed him to “dig up dirt on Jason and Vince” because “we just want to get rid of them.” Rose said the decision came from Activision CEO Bobby Kotick.

Fenady claims Rose asked him to gain access to West and Zampella’s email, voicemail and computer, and “don’t get caught doing it.” Whatever happened in the course of seeking out this information: "Bobby will take care of you. … Don't worry about repercussions." Rose denied he asked Fenady to specifically "dig up dirt" in his deposition with Activision, though he did discuss Project Icebreaker's existence and instructing Fenady to find information.

In Fenady’s deposition, Activision counsel asked the following:

Activision: So as I understand it, the investigation in your mind included seeing whether you could get access to Mr. Jason and Mr. Vince's work computers; correct?
Fenady: Yes.

Activision: It included determining whether you could get access to their work email; correct?
Fenady: Correct.

Activision: It included determining whether you could get access to their work voicemail?
Fenady: Correct.

Activision: It did not include getting access to any personal computer or personal telephone; correct?
Fenady: Correct.

Activision: What I wanted to know is, did I get it all?
Fenady: The only thing I would include is, it involved engaging third parties in order to do to. That was all part of -- the objective was the same.

Activision: Which was to gain access --
Fenady: To their work systems, yes.

Besides his deposition, West and Zampella’s counsel pointed to a Facebook message between Fenady and Infinity Ward online operations manager Robert Dye, where Fenady mentioned being asked to uncover information about West and Zampella for Activision. Fenady confirmed the message existed.

“Plaintiffs learned about Fenady from a Facebook conversation Fenady had with Robert Dye, an Activision employee. Fenady told Dye that “atvi [Activision] asked me to dig up dirt on [Jason and Vince] about 6 months prior to COD release. looking for excuses to dump them...”

As noted, Rose disputed Fenady’s directive was to “dig up dirt." Rose explained his position during his deposition:

Activision: Mr. Rose, I just have a couple of questions for you. First, you testified earlier today about discussions you had with Mr. Fenady. I have a specific question for you. Did you ever ask Mr. Fenady to dig up dirt on Jason and Vince?
Rose. No. Absolutely not.

...
Activision: So am I correct to understand that as part of Project Icebreaker, you asked the Activision IT department to enable you to monitor the email traffic of Infinity Ward, including Mr. West and Mr. Zampella?
Rose: Correct.

Activision: And you told me that one of the things you asked Mr. Fenady to do was to enable you to monitor the emails of Mr. West and Mr. Zampella and other people at Infinity Ward as part of Project Icebreaker. Were those efforts successful?
Rose: No.

Activision: Did you ask Mr. Fenady or other people at information technology at Activision to do anything else as part of Project Icebreaker?
Rose: As part of the Project Icebreaker, once it proved to be impossible to do what I just said, no.

To try and accomplish this task, Fenady reached outside parties. He reportedly contacted Microsoft to help crack West and Zampella’s passwords, but Microsoft refused to comply without a court order. Third-party security specialist InGuardians was contacted, too, but the vendor “didn’t feel comfortable” with the “legal hurdles.”

There was also discussion about obtaining private access to Infinity Ward's space in order to image the contents of West and Zampella's computers by staging a fake fumigation or mock fire drill at the studio. Hilarious?

“I only know it was discussed,” said Farday in his deposition. “I don't think it was acted upon.”

The concept of Activision investigating West and Zampella is not new. While reporting for G4 when the original news broke, I'd obtained an internal Activision memo asking internal studios to seek evidence about the following:

  • "Documents regarding past, current or future IW projects, including but not limited to any and all businesses analyses of future projects (e.g. Modern Warfare 3)"
  • "Documents regarding any potential 'spin out' of IW, including but not limited to any communications with IW employees, West or Zampella regarding forming a new studio independent of Activision"
  • "Documents regarding West and Zampella's communications with Activision's competitors, including but not limited to Electronic Arts"

Not long after the breakup, West and Zampella inked a publishing deal with Electronic Arts with their new studio, Respawn Entertainment.

If allegations like Project Icebreaker indicate what we’re in for, prepare for a legal fireworks show. The trial has been scheduled to begin on May 29, but Activision asked for a 30-day extension. It was denied.

If you'd like to read the entire document, I've included it below.

Project Icebreaker

Activision/Infinity Ward Memorandum of Understanding

Staff
#1 Posted by patrickklepek (4624 posts) -

When Activision terminated former Infinity Ward leadership Jason West and Vince Zampella on March 1, 2010, the publisher launched an internal investigation about them. According to West, Zampella and their attorneys, it wasn’t the first time Activision tried that.

Jason West and Vince Zampella are working on a new, still unannounced shooter over at Respawn.

"Project Icebreaker" was, based on a recent filing from the upcoming trial, an ongoing Activision initiative to uncover information regarding West and Zampella by accessing their work email, computer, and phones. It was rolled out just months before the launch of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2.

It’s also incredibly difficult to not chuckle at the name, which feels right out of a mediocre James Bond movie.

The details I'm sharing regarding Project Icebreaker come from a recent court filing related to the upcoming trial between Activision, West, Zampella, and other former developers. There's more to it. It's worth disclosing how this filing came into my possession.

This filing landed in my inbox from the public relations firm for West and Zampella's attorneys. I've been sitting on the filing for a few weeks, knowing full well this very specific filing was handed over to me, a reporter, with a specific agenda in mind, and one that doesn't paint Activision in a great light. Upon further reading, I concluded there was enough relevant, interesting information about the allegations to warrant sharing.

Activision's lawyers did not respond to my request for comment regarding this story.

If it were possible, I'd share much, much more. The entire case filing is not available online (proof!), and since I'm not in Los Angeles, I can't go to the court house myself. Maybe that'll change when I'm in town for E3.

With that context in mind, let's continue.

Project Icebreaker reportedly arose in 2009 over strained relations between Activision and Infinity Ward. While executive memos suggest Project Icebreaker did, at times, involve improving relations between the two companies, there were contingency plans in motion if and when it didn't work out.

The details that follow were pulled from a filing made by counsel for West and Zampella on April 23. The filing focuses on Activision director of IT Thomas Fenady’s deposition, and was filed in response to an Activision motion to dismiss parts of his testimony. Activision motion hopes to dismiss Fenady’s testimony under attorney-client privilege. West and Zampella’s lawyers argue Fenady’s testimony outlines Activision’s attempts to remove West and Zampella from the company prior to the 2010 incident.

Thomas Fenady was director of IT at Activision. He left in December 2009, and now works at Warner Bros. Fenady testified that in the summer of 2009, then Activision chief legal officer (now chief public policy officer) George Rose instructed him to “dig up dirt on Jason and Vince” because “we just want to get rid of them.” Rose said the decision came from Activision CEO Bobby Kotick.

Fenady claims Rose asked him to gain access to West and Zampella’s email, voicemail and computer, and “don’t get caught doing it.” Whatever happened in the course of seeking out this information: "Bobby will take care of you. … Don't worry about repercussions." Rose denied he asked Fenady to specifically "dig up dirt" in his deposition with Activision, though he did discuss Project Icebreaker's existence and instructing Fenady to find information.

In Fenady’s deposition, Activision counsel asked the following:

Activision: So as I understand it, the investigation in your mind included seeing whether you could get access to Mr. Jason and Mr. Vince's work computers; correct?
Fenady: Yes.

Activision: It included determining whether you could get access to their work email; correct?
Fenady: Correct.

Activision: It included determining whether you could get access to their work voicemail?
Fenady: Correct.

Activision: It did not include getting access to any personal computer or personal telephone; correct?
Fenady: Correct.

Activision: What I wanted to know is, did I get it all?
Fenady: The only thing I would include is, it involved engaging third parties in order to do to. That was all part of -- the objective was the same.

Activision: Which was to gain access --
Fenady: To their work systems, yes.

Besides his deposition, West and Zampella’s counsel pointed to a Facebook message between Fenady and Infinity Ward online operations manager Robert Dye, where Fenady mentioned being asked to uncover information about West and Zampella for Activision. Fenady confirmed the message existed.

“Plaintiffs learned about Fenady from a Facebook conversation Fenady had with Robert Dye, an Activision employee. Fenady told Dye that “atvi [Activision] asked me to dig up dirt on [Jason and Vince] about 6 months prior to COD release. looking for excuses to dump them...”

As noted, Rose disputed Fenady’s directive was to “dig up dirt." Rose explained his position during his deposition:

Activision: Mr. Rose, I just have a couple of questions for you. First, you testified earlier today about discussions you had with Mr. Fenady. I have a specific question for you. Did you ever ask Mr. Fenady to dig up dirt on Jason and Vince?
Rose. No. Absolutely not.

...
Activision: So am I correct to understand that as part of Project Icebreaker, you asked the Activision IT department to enable you to monitor the email traffic of Infinity Ward, including Mr. West and Mr. Zampella?
Rose: Correct.

Activision: And you told me that one of the things you asked Mr. Fenady to do was to enable you to monitor the emails of Mr. West and Mr. Zampella and other people at Infinity Ward as part of Project Icebreaker. Were those efforts successful?
Rose: No.

Activision: Did you ask Mr. Fenady or other people at information technology at Activision to do anything else as part of Project Icebreaker?
Rose: As part of the Project Icebreaker, once it proved to be impossible to do what I just said, no.

To try and accomplish this task, Fenady reached outside parties. He reportedly contacted Microsoft to help crack West and Zampella’s passwords, but Microsoft refused to comply without a court order. Third-party security specialist InGuardians was contacted, too, but the vendor “didn’t feel comfortable” with the “legal hurdles.”

There was also discussion about obtaining private access to Infinity Ward's space in order to image the contents of West and Zampella's computers by staging a fake fumigation or mock fire drill at the studio. Hilarious?

“I only know it was discussed,” said Farday in his deposition. “I don't think it was acted upon.”

The concept of Activision investigating West and Zampella is not new. While reporting for G4 when the original news broke, I'd obtained an internal Activision memo asking internal studios to seek evidence about the following:

  • "Documents regarding past, current or future IW projects, including but not limited to any and all businesses analyses of future projects (e.g. Modern Warfare 3)"
  • "Documents regarding any potential 'spin out' of IW, including but not limited to any communications with IW employees, West or Zampella regarding forming a new studio independent of Activision"
  • "Documents regarding West and Zampella's communications with Activision's competitors, including but not limited to Electronic Arts"

Not long after the breakup, West and Zampella inked a publishing deal with Electronic Arts with their new studio, Respawn Entertainment.

If allegations like Project Icebreaker indicate what we’re in for, prepare for a legal fireworks show. The trial has been scheduled to begin on May 29, but Activision asked for a 30-day extension. It was denied.

If you'd like to read the entire document, I've included it below.

Project Icebreaker

Activision/Infinity Ward Memorandum of Understanding

Staff
#2 Edited by klimdeeni (141 posts) -

woo

I finally got first. today I am a man

#3 Posted by wh1terav3n (659 posts) -

Holy. Shit. Nice reporting Patrick.

#4 Posted by Winternet (8019 posts) -

Tricky doing his thang.

#5 Posted by Foggen (848 posts) -

I vibrate with excitement every time I get to learn more about this case.

#6 Posted by Animasta (14692 posts) -

SCOOPS.

#7 Posted by LiquidSwords (2738 posts) -

Grammar Nazi's approaching!

#8 Edited by Aas (603 posts) -

So the guy just freely admits to spying on his employees? That's creepy as hell.

#9 Posted by Error1355 (97 posts) -

Wows.

#10 Posted by DoctorSage (157 posts) -

This is actual game journalism here, ladies and gentlemen.

Excellent story.

#11 Posted by wewantsthering (1567 posts) -

Neat development! It will be interesting to see how this turns out over the next two years.

#12 Posted by Malphye (413 posts) -

Interesting... Interesting indeed.

#13 Posted by The_Nubster (2149 posts) -

This is amazing. It's incredible that things like this exist.

#14 Posted by oldskooldeano (121 posts) -

Wow. Just Wow. The trial is gonna be great!

#15 Edited by swedmiro (46 posts) -

This is going to be a court room soap of epic proportions!

Popping some corns!

#16 Posted by mrfluke (5160 posts) -

holy shit, legal fireworks show indeed.

#17 Posted by hardindr (189 posts) -

interesting stuff, to say the least. Any chance you can get a free lancer to go to LA and get a all the court filings, or is that just not feasible. A big lawsuit like that can be to search through, but who knows what else is buried in all the filings...

#18 Posted by Azteck (7449 posts) -

Activision at it's finest. Great show by those guys.

#19 Posted by MeatSim (10861 posts) -

Patrick strikes again with hot scoops.

#20 Posted by DukeT (119 posts) -

Fantastic article Patrick. I have to say though, this trial is spinning out of control for Activision. I wouldn't be surprised if we heard about a settlement very soon.

#21 Posted by insane_shadowblade85 (1456 posts) -

No you're not =P

This stuff is getting more and more interesting.

#22 Posted by thedude1 (45 posts) -

Well that is a new twist hmm? Excellent work Scoops.

#23 Posted by Cheekyank (7 posts) -

so if im reading this corectly it boils down to cut throat buisness tactics used on their own employees. classy

#24 Posted by karobit (7 posts) -

Fake fumigation or fire drill? That's some Mission: Impossible hijinks right there.

#25 Edited by MattyFTM (14385 posts) -

Right now I'm picturing Bobby Kotick sat in a big leather chair, stroking a cat while laughing maniacally at Project Icebreaker.

Moderator
#26 Posted by Babylonian (837 posts) -

Well that's pretty much the craziest thing I've ever read. Especially the mock fire drill / fumigation idea that got floated. The preposterously evil corporate stereotype exists for a reason, I guess! #bobbywilltakecareofyou

#27 Posted by megalowho (969 posts) -

scoooooooops

#28 Posted by ArbitraryWater (11748 posts) -

Tricky Scoops Klepek doing some reporting all up in this house. Request a leave of absence so you can cover the trial. I think it will be entertaining if nothing else.

#29 Posted by HibikiRush (153 posts) -

What ht hell is going on with the business end of games? Or is it just Activision? I've had MW3 sitting on my shelf untouched for months, I think I'm going to just end up selling it. Unfortunate I contributed to the sales of this game.

#30 Posted by Matoyak (289 posts) -

Well huh. That's...something all right.

#31 Edited by EricSmith (325 posts) -

The request for the trial to be pushed back has been denied. It will begin on May 29th as planned.

Edit* Also, kickass story, Patrick. Best bit of actual games journalism I have seen.

#32 Posted by psylah (2177 posts) -

MYSTERY SOLVED.

#33 Posted by Phatmac (5726 posts) -

Man this shit gets crazier!

#34 Posted by Cloudenvy (5891 posts) -

This is so crazy, I can't wait for May 29th.

#35 Posted by Scratch (628 posts) -

I just want to see what Respawn's coming up game is and don't want this lawsuit ruining things.

#36 Edited by BonOrbitz (2193 posts) -

More like Project Scoopbreaker!

If this is all to be taken a face value, are Bobby Kodick and Co. actions justified if West and Zampella were (possibly) secretly planning to form their own studio and work with Activision's competitors?

Man, what a great story and a dirty company.

#37 Posted by jozzy (2042 posts) -

This made me laugh

To try and accomplish this task, Fenady reached outside parties. He reportedly contacted Microsoft to help crack West and Zampella’s passwords, but Microsoft refused to comply without a court order. Third-party security specialist InGuardians was contacted, too, but the vendor “didn’t feel comfortable” with the “legal hurdles.”

Glad to see some companies still have some kind of moral backbone, or... are at least affraid of getting sued to bits.

#38 Posted by wisdumcube (143 posts) -

SO MANY SCOOPS

#39 Posted by Triphos (80 posts) -

Holy shit, Activision

#40 Posted by ReyGitano (2467 posts) -

I can understand your hesitation in putting up this story, but this is just a pleasure to read. Seriously Activision, the only reason you would name your evil plan is because you WANT people to talk about it.

#41 Posted by konig_kei (618 posts) -

Tricky K with the hot scoops. Can you wear a fedora with your new haircut?

#42 Posted by ztiworoh (731 posts) -

For all of you who complain about Patrick, THIS is the reason he's a great asset for Giantbomb. Good scoops!

#43 Posted by fargofallout (289 posts) -

This really sounds like something out of a bad movie. I can't believe someone would go to Microsoft to try to get them to crack passwords.

#44 Posted by Vitor (2821 posts) -

@MattyFTM said:

Right now I'm picturing Bobby Kotick sat in a big leather chair, stroking a cat while laughing maniacally at Project Icebreaker.

I've given him an eye-patch in my image.

#45 Posted by MattyFTM (14385 posts) -

@Vitor said:

@MattyFTM said:

Right now I'm picturing Bobby Kotick sat in a big leather chair, stroking a cat while laughing maniacally at Project Icebreaker.

I've given him an eye-patch in my image.

Man, an eye-patch sounds awesome. Someone with photoshop skills needs to make this a reality.

Moderator
#46 Posted by Ronald (1368 posts) -

That's crazy, but I understand what Activision wanted to do. They wanted to get rid of the two men with the highest payout coming to them when MW2 came out, and they knew the game was going to sell bonkers. It's dirty, but it's something a lot of companies do right when someone's big bonus or raise is coming up to be paid, they get rid of the person. I hope if all of this is true it ends up coming back to bite Activision in the backside.

#47 Posted by furiouscabbage (20 posts) -

This is incredible. Great reporting, Patrick. I honestly can't wait until all the dirty laundry is aired later this month. Could go a long way to change the way this industry conducts business.

#48 Posted by Greenshoes (279 posts) -

@MattyFTM said:

Right now I'm picturing Bobby Kotick sat in a big leather chair, stroking a cat while laughing maniacally at Project Icebreaker.

I see more of a stone faced statue that sits entirely still, trying to calculate every posible outcome and their potential cost or gain.

#50 Posted by AnjinM (110 posts) -

And this is exactly why I was so happy when Patrick joined the Giant Bomb crew. Great job, Patrick!

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