[In an in-depth opinion piece, Gamasutra's Chris Remo takes a look at Infinity Ward's 'declaration of independence' within big publisher Activision, asking whether the balance of power has changed enough so that developers like Blizzard and Bungie are also tails wagging the publisher dog.]

A number of observers have hypothesized that the recent, vaguely-announced contract renegotiation between increasingly huge publisher Activision and star developer Infinity Ward may have been catalyzed by last year's surprise regained independence on the part of Bungie Studios.

The move was revealed by Infinity Ward community manager Robert Bowling, who stated that the studio has renegotiated its deal with owner Activision, and will have "complete control" over its next project, a new intellectual property. (In an email, Bowling told Gamasutra the company isn't ready to go into any further detail just yet.)

The Bungie Connection

The Bungie-related speculation is sensible, and almost certainly at least partially accurate, particularly from Infinity Ward's perspective. Like Bungie, Infinity Ward was founded as an independent studio, and was acquired by its publishing partner; both studios retain key leadership; and both reached their incredible retail success after they were acquired.

Both also left their major properties--Halo and Call of Duty--in the hands of their publishers after years of unbroken franchise development, freeing up the studios to get back to what put them on the map in the first place: developing new titles.

Seeing the kind of leverage Bungie leadership was able to wield when negotiating its amiable departure from Microsoft ownership surely inspired Infinity Ward's Jason West, Vince Zampella et al to knock on the doors of Activision brass, revenue sheets in hand.

Breaking The Never-Ending Dev Cycle

But inspiration may also have come from somewhere a little closer to home: Blizzard Entertainment, the fully-owned-but-nigh-untouchable rockstar developer of WarCraft, StarCraft, and Diablo, a subsidiary of soon-to-be Activision partner Vivendi.

Activision has long been praised by Wall Street as one of the best-run publishers in the industry, and much of its success has been built on being able to consistently churn out yearly iterations of its flagship franchises - Tony Hawk's Pro Skater, Spider-Man, and Call of Duty being some of the biggest.

The company must, however, be realizing that this strategy leads to diminishing returns. Tony Hawk and Spider-Man, once both critical and commercial slam-dunks, have become decreasingly relevant in both arenas. (The former was roundly spanked by EA's freshman offering Skate, the product of concerted development innovation.) Guitar Hero, the latest perennial addition to the lineup, is of course picking up the slack.

Despite that latter shot in the arm to the core yearly lineup, Activision must be realizing that those never-ending development cycles are hardly the best way to maintain innovation and quality over time. It has already announced plans to take some time to rethink and reinvigorate Tony Hawk - which no doubt comes as sweet relief to long-time developer Neversoft.

The Blizzard Connection

Blizzard - whose moniker will soon share equal billing with Activision's in the merger's resultant mega-corporation - has long been subject to corporate ownership, but it has never been subject to that kind of pressure, even long before the mind-boggling cash cow of World of Warcraft.

It is likely that Activision has taken notice of what happens when a studio with that kind of track record is given a much broader sense of freedom. And now Infinity Ward joins Blizzard as one of an extremely select few individual development houses that can boast ten million unit sales on a single franchise--even a single title.

We need only look back to earlier this month for an example of what happens when a studio of that stature is able to cultivate that kind of autonomy and identity. A simple series of teaser images on Blizzard's site spawned uncontrollable fervor among gamers (of which I admit to being part), fervor which manifested itself not only into tangible hype for one product that is in the works, Diablo III, but also managed to spur considerable sales for another product that is some eight years old.

How often does that happen in this business? And is there any chance it would be happening if Blizzard had been relegated to assembly line franchise production?

Meanwhile, the studio continues to release its titles whenever it feels like releasing them, to the point that it is now said to be on its third stab at Diablo III--and StarCraft II still doesn't even have a vague release projection.

At this point, Blizzard does not even go out of its way to flaunt its independence; it is simply a matter of course. Observe Blizzard's Paul Sams speaking to Gamasutra after the company's recent game announcement. "I don't think it's something any of us are concerned about trying to do," he answered when asked if the merger with relentlessly-multiplatform Activision would provide any increased incentive to develop for consoles, going so far as to add, "It wouldn't be because of corporate pressure or anything like that."

Fully-Owned And Autonomous

Is it a stretch to compare that nonchalance to the phrasing of Bowling's blog post? Bowling indicated that Infinity Ward "decided to reup on our contract with Activision publishing." While I am not privy to the terms of Infinity Ward's employees' contracts, the studio is certainly a fully-owned subsidiary of Activision, and I suspect whatever bargaining chips its leadership did play were given more value than they would otherwise contractually have held by Call of Duty 4's astonishing success.

Of course, that kind of image benefits both Activision and Infinity Ward. It gives Infinity Ward the benefit of looking autonomous--which, to some degree, it apparently is--and it gives Activision the benefit of looking like a publisher that Infinity Ward chooses to work with, rather than simply being the corporate overlord Infinity Ward must work with.

If this kind of thing becomes a trend (although, to be sure, few developers bring in the kind of sales Bungie, Blizzard, and Infinity Ward do), it could be amplified by the ever more obsessively informed hardcore gaming audience. With the sheer amount of information being pored over night and day by the dedicated audience, awareness of studio names and even individual developers is starting to increase.

Shift In Developer Awareness

In the 80s and early 90s, major publishers were much more upfront with development credits - early Electronic Arts staked its reputation on its creative talent, Activision was a reaction to Atari's policy of not crediting developers, LucasArts printed designers' names on its boxes, the PC arena was driven by arguably overhyped "game gods," and so on.

That trend decreased sharply as the 90s came to a close, but developer awareness seems now to be rising among the hardcore, albeit with a bit more of a focus towards overall studios. And while, to be sure, these days the prized audiences are the mass consumers and casual gamers, there's something to be said for the "tastemaker" phenomenon. No doubt part of Call of Duty 4's success was driven by an awareness that the series' original team had returned, after many gamers surmised that one reason they were less enthralled with COD3 than with COD2 may have been that it lacked that Infinity Ward touch.

Could these developments be indicative of a shift in thinking, or are they merely isolated examples of certain outrageously successful studios claiming appropriate influence? The cynic in me suggests the latter, but in an age when Electronic Arts' CEO freely admits EA stifled and killed once-vibrant studios with its overbearing management tactics, you never know.