Bungie: Master Of Its Own Universe

by Bryan Vore on Apr 29, 2010 at 10:40 AM

Bungie says that its 10-year deal with Activision opens up a world of creative possibilities. The compelling centerpiece to the Activision/Bungie deal is a brand new gaming universe being built from the ground up by Bungie’s most talented developers.
“It’s something that Jason Jones, the co-founder of Bungie – who is the same guy who came up with Marathon, Myth, and the first Halo – it’s something that he’s been working on behind the scenes for a number of years now since 2007,” said Joseph Staten, design director at Bungie. “After ODST, I and some of the other core creatives on that team spent some time working with Jason. I’ve actually been full-time on this project since the end of ODST. This absolutely has gotten some focus from me over the last year or so.”

With the freedom the split from Microsoft afforded Bungie, this core team took the lessons it learned from building the Halo franchise and decided to map out a new franchise several years into the future. “If you look back over 10 years of Halo, Bungie definitely never really had a master plan,” admitted Brian Jarrard, community director at Bungie. “Things just kind of fell into place. I think the team’s learned a lot from that. If we have the opportunity to start fresh, knowing what we know now, how would we map out a new universe that would span 10 years? That’s kind of how we got to this point. We have a pretty crazy plan, with real dates and information.”

Staten said the best part of this announcement is that his team can now shift from focusing on building elements to show prospective publishing partners to creating the actual games. For Staten, having a long-term plan for those games has been a boon. “My God, if we’d actually had a plan 10 years ago for Halo, that would have been terrific,” he said. “I think as the design director in charge of telling stories, being able to map out 10 years of stories now and being able to look at plans on a page that actually have some stabs in the dark as to what we might be doing five years from now, 10 years from now, that’s extremely exciting. And knowing that we have funding secured for that time, it’s a really wonderful position and one that we know, sure we earned it with a lot of hard work, but we’re fortunate to be in that position.”

Bungie has traditionally focused on producing games solely for the Xbox 360, but this new deal allows them to go multiplatform for the first time, a move analyst Michael Pachter estimates could net them 15 million units in sales. "As reference, the typical Halo game made by Bungie sold around 10 million units worldwide over its life," Pachter told us, "and those appeared only on the Xbox/Xbox 360. If future Bungie games are as popular as Halo, they could sell as many as 15 million units on Xbox 360 and PS3 combined."

Bungie is excited about the prospect of expanding its reach. “Everybody at Bungie, from the engineers to the artists to the designers, we’re all storytellers,” Staten said. “If you’re a storyteller, what really makes you excited is getting the biggest audience possible. For us, what we’re focused on now is making this great universe where we can tell any story that we want for the next 10 years, and tell it to as many people as possible. That’s really what we’re excited about.”

As Tony Hawk, Guitar Hero, and Call of Duty demonstrate, Activision is notorious for milking its franchises on a yearly basis. For Bungie this strongarm tactic with only the bottom line in mind won’t be a concern, since the deal gives them explicit ownership over the new IP. This means if Activision wants to release spin-off titles for handheld devices or bring on another developer to release games during the lulls between Bungie-developed titles, it will need Bungie’s stamp of approval first. “Ultimately, we make those decisions, so if we somehow felt that that aligned best with our projects and are the types of experiences we want them to have with our universe, that would be a discussion we could have,” Jarrard said.

Additional reporting by Jeff Cork.