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Activision, Infinity Ward, and Project Icebreaker

A recent filing in the upcoming legal case alleges an ongoing investigation for "dirt" on Infinity Ward leadership just prior to Modern Warfare 2's launch.

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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.
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

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Activision/Infinity Ward Memorandum of Understanding

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