The Develop Interview: Bungieâ??s Next Chapter

The Develop Interview: Bungieâ??s Next Chapter

By Michael French & Rob Crossley

April 30th 2010 at 3:00PM

The Halo studio on Activision, Infinity Ward, independence, Microsoft and multiplatforms

Yesterday, Bungie stunned the industry by announcing an unprecedented 10-year deal to develop completely new IP for Activision.
 
Though its new publisher has been plunged into a damaging legal spat with employees from one of its owned in-house studios, Bungie remains confident that this show-stopping deal can propel it to new heights as it goes from Xbox exclusivity to multiplatform development and beyond.
 
The deal with Activision allows the studio to own its IP, and remain independent – while Bungie leaves the biggest publisher in the world to market and distribute its new string of games.
 
Develop spoke to the studio’s community director Brian Jarrard about Bungie’s drive to remain independent, why owning IP is important, why a one studio-one project focus is key to new properties, motion controllers, and saying good-bye to Halo…

Why sign with Activision? How did you get talking to them?
A year ago we started looking for a partner to help lock down and secure our future. Over that time we have spoken to a whole bunch of potential partners and publishers and Activision was there from the beginning.

I’d say ultimately what drew us to them was the fact they are one of the largest publishers in the industry bale to launch big properties globally across multiple platforms. It was all very appealing to us.

And on top of that we were able to establish a partnership that allows Bungie to retain its core values in terms of making sure we remain independent and that we own the IP we are creating. Plus we have creative control over executing our vision of how this universe we make will play out over the coming decade.

There is a large handful of studios able to do these deals, such as Epic, Crytek, and so on. Is that a trend in the industry?
I’m not sure. It’s definitely something we talked about with Activision, and from  their perspective I would defer to them – in terms of business deals they do this every day, but we’ve only done two; one when Microsoft bought the company and now this.

But statistically, if you look around, there aren’t many developers in the position to establish a deal that gives them IP ownership, and the ability to be independent and creative control.

I know a lot of people would love that. But thanks to our track record, and the efforts people working here have put into it for 19 years, we have been able to go out and get the kind of deal we want.

I don’t think you will see a shift where this becomes more and more the norm – because the majority of publishers and developers right now don’t want to embark on that kind of relationship.

How important is it, as part of that deal, that Bungie retains its own IP?
It was probably one of the most important elements to be honest, and you know, we had lots of great discussions with lots of great potential [publishing] partners and, y'know, there was a couple of key terms that we weren't going to budge on.

These terms are defined in our own constitution as an independent studio; we want to own our creations and that's extremely important to us. One of the reasons this was such a great partnership was because that Activision was amicable to making a deal that would allow us to retain our own IP and still have creative control over our projects. That was super important to us.

Was that proviso of independence made even more important in light of the Infinity Ward developments?
No, I think Bungie – from when it was bought by Microsoft and developed Halo – I think all the core people and the leadership team learned a lot through that partnership before we returned to independence. You know, looking at Halo and the fact that we didn't own it - I think that's not going to ever happen again for us.

Bungie is a fairly unique studio, given that you were formerly first-party. Why do you need a publisher? Surely Bungie has the reputation and clout to find a distribution partner and manage the release entirely on its own?
Honestly it’s just not something that isn’t a core competency for us, nor is it something that excites us.

We have great designers and programmers and a creative core that is inspired and passionate about delivering stories and great experiences – adding a whole other level to our business would just dilute what makes Bungie, Bungie.

It’s great that we can focus on that, and that eventually it will make it to market in the most efficient and most impact way with someone like Activision.

This partnership gives us just that – we get everything we need and Activision has access to this new IP. Who knows, if we hadn’t been able to find a publisher that could help us stay true we might have considered it – but that’s a big leap. As much as we have done on Halo in the last decade, much credit goes to Microsoft in terms of the marketing and actually delivering the game. We just want to focus on great entertainment.

You’re moving to multiplatform games development – was it important to try things on non-Xbox platforms?
Yeah, it boils down the fact we see ourselves as storytellers. As people who work in creative mediums we want to share that with the largest possible audience.

For us looking forwards it's very exciting to think we can engage more fans than ever across as many devices as possible, and connect and extend that experience for them, beyond the box in the living room. That was a key part of finding a partner like Activision.

What do you think you can bring to non-Microsoft platforms? Bungie had a huge impact in the early development and growth of Xbox Live and the ideas that fed into it.
We had a very mutually beneficial relationship with the Live platform and that was a great run. We’d like to think that those kind of relationships will persist but really it’s about being able to reach more people – and not locking them into a single choice or platform.

There are still tons of people that have never experienced the world of Halo because they didn’t want to buy an Xbox. So it’s great for us to not have to worry about that and know we can touch more people and bring the experience to them – rather than making them come to us.

Are there any challenges in developing for a platform like the PS3?
Oh, sure - we've been Xbox exclusive for a long time. But it's something where we have some of the best engineering folks in the industry on board who are already thinking heard about how our new game universe might manifest itself over various devices.
 
That was another big draw to Activision - they have a lot of experience with multiple platforms and a lot of technical expertise. I think we'll be able to work with them to leverage that experience and make that a little bit easier for us going forward.

It would be remiss not to mention the Infinity Ward stories of late. Did that create any nervousness for you?
My only nervousness has been announcing this – a great, awesome first step in our next chapter. I was nervous of announcing this in the current climate and the knee-jerk reaction after – you know what the internet is like.

But there was never nervousness about whether Activision was the right partner – this discussion happened months before the latest issues came to light. And also we have a great deal where we are well poised to execute on a very strong vision, and Activision is great partner to support that.
 
Obviously the timing isn't ideal given the climate these days. The long form announcement was only signed this week but we didn't think we could sit on it. Nothing in this industry stays secret for long.
 
And ultimately this is about our studio – we wanted people to know that our future is secure and that we are ready to turn the long-gestating concept of ours into a major game.
 
We are also very focused right now on Reach – now that the announcement is made we want to get back to finishing that. We have a lot of work to do on the beta still as the beta launches on Monday and we don’t want to detract from that with this. It’s very much back to business for the studio now.

Does this deal represent a fresh start for Bungie?
I definitely don’t want to lose sight of the fact that an overwhelming majority of our studio is still super-hard at work to make sure Halo Reach is still the defining game in the series.
 
On the other side, with [Bungie co-founder] Jason Jones, this is a real opportunity for us. There’s excitement, trepidation, we’re under pressure to prove ourselves again.
 
If you then look at how we can bring things to a larger audience as well – we have much better opportunities to bring our audiences to more people across multiple devices.

We have much bigger opportunities in the coming decade that we had in the past decade. The pace of our new project has increased even over the past few months.

We talked with Bungie in 2007, when you divested from Microsoft, and Harold Ryan told us that the new IP was in the works even then. Is the Activision project that new IP?
It is – the initial kernels of it started a long time ago with Jason a core set of people. In the last two years it has grown, taken on new life and become more solidified and we have hired more people and while the vast majority of our team is still focused on reach we have been putting more resources and energy into getting that universe fleshed out.

We’ve had tremendous progress in the last 12 months. Obviously we’re hoping to align that with the completion of Reach, so we can roll the team directly onto the new project in a meaningful and efficient way. So there has been lots of great progress.
 
Our thoughts with the IP itself is that we want to build a place that – much like the Halo Universe before it – is engaging. We want to build a lot of different stories, with a lot of breadth and depth, within this action world over the course of many years.

So the studio will return to the one-project studio set-up?
Yes, we have come to realise that Bungie does its best work when we have all of our best and brightest minds focused on a singular goal.

The types of plans and vision we have for the new IP and universe – this decade-long entertainment experience – is crazy ambitious and the most challenging thing we’ve ever worked on. That will take the might of our entire studio of great people to make it a reality.
 
That makes it hard to think about a way to split off and fragment our talent and energies across multiple projects. So that means we’ll be all hands on deck and laser-focused on making our next universe something really awesome.

As the deal is ten years long, is it safe to assume you are planning IP for the next generation of consoles as well as the current?
Yeah this new IP deal stretches into the next generation of consoles as well as the current ones, I think it’s safe to assume that.

We’re not ready to talk about timing [of the new IP’s release] just yet, but definitely, there’s all sorts of technological discussions that Bungie is weighing in on and thinking hard about.

And, of course, Activision has a lot of expertise with multiplatform development, which is another thing that is a great fit for us as we lay out our new creative vision.

The most exciting thing about this deal is that we are making the game we want to make, on our terms, and have a partner that will take this game and put it in front of the most people possible.

Activision, undeniably, has a lot of expertise with big blockbuster entertainment, big launches, global marketing.

As storytellers working in the creative medium, being able to share your work with as many people as possible – across multiple platforms and devices - is a great thing. It’s really inspiring to the team to know that – when all this hard work is said and done – we’ll have the best partner to spread our work to as many people as possible.

And we’re talking about multiple platforms and devices. Halo for us was the tip of the iceberg in the way we integrated Bungie.net and find a way to spill the game out of the game space and find ways of keeping people connected.

But, the way the world’s moving, there’s more opportunities than ever for us to create engaging meaningful relationships between fans and game experiences. It’s something that we’re excited about, and I know a lot of people are spending a lot of energy thinking about how we help redefine that [relationship with the market] and usher in a new way to experience our universe.

And that all means the end of Bungie’s involvement with Halo?
Microsoft still owns the Halo IP – but we will still support Reach post-release and we have a great relationship with our community, so we want to make sure we keep the game going. There will be some portion of the studio focused on Halo: Reach.
 
But beyond that we will not be working on any more Halo – we will be completely focused on bringing our next universe to light.

Form there Microsoft will take the Halo universe in the direction they see fit.
Was there a feeling that there wasn’t anything more you could do with Halo franchise?
No, I don’t think so. Even more so than building an individual game, Halo was about building a whole universe that’s broad and rich and interesting that people want to spend time in. I think as the games and novels have shown, the initial core foundation of Halo I think is so interesting that there’s a lot more things to work there.
 
From our perspective, we are definitely approaching Reach as our final Halo game. We definitely are putting out all the stops, it’s something that we’re really proud of.

After a decade of working in this universe, most of the team is looking forward to getting their teeth into something new and seeing if we can do it again.

You have a high profile community and identity. Do those publisher brands matter to your community? Even with all the Activision noise, surely your fans will want to buy your games whether they are published by Activision or whoever?
It’s interesting – the initial gut reaction is to be shocked or upset or confused given the way things are playing out online.

But we’re a long ways away from having real information about the game – and hopefully people can appreciate that. So I’m not worried about long-term repercussions of this announcement or the publisher’s.

We’re just focusing on our next project and redefining entertainment for the next decade, and the great thing for gamers to know is that the game will be on the platform of their choice in ways they haven’t before. It’s a win-win. I’m personally not concerned about it. Bungie is still the studio know and love and we’ll let the games do the talking.

Bungie’s story is quite different anyway to the challenges Infinity Ward has faced, right? You famously have very, very low turnover of staff…
All things considered in comparison to other studios that’s the case, yes.

We still have almost all the core Halo CE team at the studio – and many of those same people are at the core of defining what the next game will be.

Many people here have been here for over a decade. If you ix that kind of experience, tenure and knowledge with lots of a great new talent and young people drawn to Bungie because of Halo and Master Chief it has made for a great mix of talent that has helped Reach and makes us very ready for the decade ahead.

Having Jason on that new project must be quite invigorating for the rest of the studio?
It is, because if you look at Bungie’s track record with Jason and the other guys our track record speaks for itself. We have a great track record in creating engaging gameplay, immersive stories and compelling content. It’s great to have an anchor like him who the whole studio can work off of , bounce ideas from and feed from. We’re a very collaborative studio at the core –and that comes through in all we do.

Bungie has been through some unlikely turns – divestment, switching to single-platform to multiplatform, a high profile deal like this. What’s the secret to the good relations you've had with publishers in that time? Is it just that they don’t meddle with the things you were just talking about?
Clearly from our perspective we want a publisher that has business expertise and is a market leader, and can bring games to market well – there is no question Activision is talented in that realm.

And from our perspective we want to focus on the games we want to make, have creative control and own the IP. After a year of discussions Activision had the right terms for us – and it has the vast level of marketing support and international expertise to support us.

What was their initial feedback on the IP itself? Did they want to change anything? I can’t help but wonder if a publisher is offered a deal with Bungie they would just take it, and not worry about the game itself because of your trusted track record.
Well, no – they definitely had input. It’s two-fold: our track record and ability to deliver consistent product is good for their shareholders.

But there were discussions about the direction of the IP- they had to know what they were getting. And to make the kind of commitment for such a long term in what is a very unprecedented deal you need that knowledge, and they were excited by what they saw and where Bungie is headed.

Is Bungie interested in the new wave of controllers like Natal and Move?
As creative people it is fascinating to watch these new devices appear and new ways to excite our fans and ways to reach new audiences.

Reach is designed from the ground-up for a traditional controller. Like everyone else we are going to wait and see how these new hardware formats play out and take off – we will keep them in the back of our mind, watch what happens and keep marching forward.