“What happened to Infinity Ward?”

Like any good Jewish family living in North America, mine has crafted a set of not-so-time-honored Christmas traditions involving movies – this year, a rented version of The Town – and a visit to somebody else’s house for dinner. In 2010, that means that I spent a significant portion of Christmas day playing a friend’s newly gifted copy Call of Duty: Back Ops.

I’m not the world’s biggest Call of Duty fan – I tend to prefer Dragon Age – but Black Ops is interesting because it was a bit of a test case for the industry. It’s the first Call of Duty game to hit shelves in the wake of the Activision/Infinity Ward fiasco and it’s forced us to ask some tough questions about video games as an artistic medium.

“What’s more important for the game?” mused Lazard Capital Markets analyst Colin Sebastian in November. “Is it the franchise itself or is it the developer behind the game? If Treyarch can sell just as many units as Infinity Ward, then that would mean the franchise is more important.”

For a naïve idealist/game blogger like myself, it’s tough to cling to the notion that artistic integrity will be rewarded when Activision spends as much time in the courthouse as the studio. That’s why it’s refreshing to step back and spend an afternoon with friends who like games but don’t spend the majority of their waking hours completely immersed in the news wire.

“I think unless you follow the play by play in this industry, you probably aren’t even aware of the drama,” continued Sebastian, and it’s hard to argue with his logic. Black Ops crossed the $1 billion plateau in record time and proved that brand recognition is enough to carry the day at the retail counter.

That brings me back to Christmas day, where playing split-screen multiplayer in a basement with a half-dozen other people gave me a fresh perspective on the issue. I now know that Sebastian is only half right, and there’s still cause for optimism entering the New Year.

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In my admittedly non-representative Yuletide sample, nobody else knew anything about Activision’s ongoing legal troubles and they weren’t going to let a trivial thing like California labor law interfere with an afternoon death match. Even so, every member of our Christmas party wanted to know one thing: “What happened to Infinity Ward?”\

I was able to relay the answer, but it’s telling that casual Call of Duty fans are asking the question in the first place. It means that people know that Infinity Ward made Modern Warfare 2 and – more importantly – that they didn’t make the follow up. Treyarch was able to overcome that apprehension, but that says more about the talent level at Treyarch than it does about the value of the label.

Bobby Kotick insists that brand is everything, but I suspect that he’s not giving his customers enough credit. Fans aren’t so oblivious that they ignore the logos that flash on the screen every single they fire up the Xbox, and top developers have cultural weight that exceeds the games they produce.\

I know that because – after hearing the sordid tale of litigious woe – all of my friends asked when Respawn Entertainment’s first game would be available. Even Bobby Kotick would have to admit that driving dozens of talented employees to a rival studio is bad for business if it leads directly to a sales boon for a competitor.

So in a roundabout and rather ironic way, Call of Duty: Black Ops injected some hope into my holiday season. The average consumer may not know that Infinity Ward is in shambles, but they know that Infinity Ward made good games, and there are still plenty of everyday players that will give the original team the credit they deserve. That’s a healthy omen, and it’d be nice to see that trend continue beyond 2011.