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Call of Duty: Black Ops launches Tuesday; Will it measure up?

Santa Monica studio Treyarch has replaced Infinity Ward as the developer behind the latest iteration in Activision Blizzard's blockbuster video game franchise.

November 09, 2010|By Alex Pham and Ben Fritz, Los Angeles Times

Mark Lamia, as the head of Treyarch Studio, is used to late nights overseeing the creation of what's likely to be the biggest video game of the holidays, Call of Duty: Black Ops. But on a Monday in late October, Lamia stuck around even later than normal — until 1:30 a.m. — waiting to talk to a game journalist.

"I had just finished playing Black Ops at Treyarch, and when I walked out of the room, there he was standing there to ask me what I thought," said Geoff Keighley, who hosts "GameTrailers TV" on MTV Networks' Spike. "I'm not sure how long he stood there waiting, but you could tell he was a little nervous."

Keighley told a visibly relieved Lamia he thought it was the best game Treyarch, owned by Activision Blizzard Inc., had made in its 14-year history.

The question is whether the best for Treyarch will be good enough for Call of Duty fans.

On Tuesday, when Black Ops hits store shelves, investors and fans of the franchise will be laser-focused on Treyarch and whether it can deliver the same lofty reviews, and blockbuster sales, as previous Call of Duty games developed by Infinity Ward, the studio that created the series but was decimated when Activision fired its two studio heads in March.

If Black Ops is able to match or exceed the estimated 20 million copies sold by Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, which was developed by Infinity Ward and released last November, it could prove to gamers and investors that the franchise has a future. If it falls short, it could demonstrate that gamers are souring on Call of Duty and one of Activision's pillars is in danger of crumbling.

"It takes a few iterations to build a blockbuster franchise," said Evan Wilson, an analyst with Pacific Crest Securities. "But it only takes one bad game to kill a franchise."

No one is more aware of this than Lamia. His studio has developed two other Call of Duty games — Call of Duty 3 in 2006 and World at War in 2008. Both have sold millions of copies and were considered financial successes in their own rights.

But Treyarch historically toiled under the shadow of Infinity Ward, the Activision-owned Encino studio that many consider to be the best developer of the "shooter" genre of games. Infinity Ward's Call of Duty titles have consistently scored better reviews and sold better than Treyarch's.

"Much of the characterization of Treyarch as being the B team is accurate," Wilson said. "Then again, it's important to note that just about everybody is the B team if you compare them to Infinity Ward."

That distinction ended when Jason West and Vince Zampella, fired from their posts as heads of Infinity Ward, left to form a new studio, Respawn. More than half of the developers at Infinity Ward left with them.

With Zampella and West gone, Lamia inherited sole possession of one of Activision's biggest and most lucrative properties. It's a role Lamia, who doesn't boast the artistic background of many game developers, arguably has groomed for during his 15-year career at the company.

After graduating from Loyola Law School, Lamia took an entry-level job at Activision in 1995, burning CD-ROM discs in the company's lab. He worked his way up to become assistant producer, producer and then, eventually, vice president of North American studios. He switched to Treyarch in 2006 and became its studio chief a year later.

Affable and animated, Lamia earned a reputation as a go-to executive when Activision needed to get things done, whether it was signing a publishing deal with a developer or making sure a game ships on time and on budget.

"Mark is an Activision lifer, someone who could always get the job done," said Keighley, a longtime game journalist. "If all goes well with Black Ops, I expect he will be the man in charge of this Call of Duty brand going forward."

Lamia feels the pressures facing his Santa Monica studio.

"More than ever, our work has to speak for itself," Lamia said. "The game we made is different and unique. If we can focus on doing our best work, we can produce work that is at the top of our industry."

Lamia's studio is the antithesis of Infinity Ward, which had a testy relationship with Activision Chief Executive Bobby Kotick. Treyarch's 200 employees work across the street from Activision's offices in Santa Monica, and Lamia solicits frequent feedback from the publisher on Black Ops. Infinity Ward, by contrast, wouldn't allow Activision executives to see Modern Warfare 2 until after it had been in development for more than a year.

Since Activision acquired Treyarch in 2001, the corporate parent has steered the game studio to its own priorities, including developing sequels of games from licenses such as Spider-Man. Since 2008, however, it has focused solely on Call of Duty.

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