Bungie details, discusses landmark Activision deal
Halo makers Brian Jarrard and Joseph Staten explain why their studio chose the controversial publisher, potentially letting others work on their IP, and how far along development is on the studio's all-new franchise.
This morning, Halo: Reach developer Bungie stunned the gaming world with the announcement that it had signed an exclusive 10-year worldwide publishing and distribution agreement with Activision to handle its first original intellectual property since Halo. The announcement made a few things clear, most notable among them that formerly Microsoft-owned Bungie would be making games on multiple platforms once again.
However, the announcement left a wealth of questions unanswered. Speaking with GameSpot, Bungie community manager Brian Jarrard and writer and design director Joseph Staten addressed a number of key points, including concerns about Activision in light of the recent drama over Infinity Ward, some specific limitations of the deal, whether Bungie could make games for other publishers, and whether the publisher can have other studios create their own spin-offs in the as-yet-unnamed new universe.
GS: How long has this deal been in the works?
BJ: Bungie has actually been out there for a year straight now working hard, discussing our future with potential partners. But the Activision deal itself began in earnest about nine months ago. That got us through to the end of March when an initial term agreement was signed. And just this week the official formal, long-form contract was signed, and that was the impetus for us making the announcement today. It's officially official.
GS: How many potential publishers did you talk with before committing to go with Activision?
BJ: We pretty much talked to every prospective publisher out there. There's only a handful of publishers who could operate on the magnitude of what we're envisioning for our next project and a deal of this scope, with this unprecedented 10-year range. We got through the discussions and started focusing on things that were really important to us, [like] making sure Bungie still owned the IP. We still wanted to be an independent company and weren't looking to be absorbed or sell an ownership stake in the studio. [We wanted to make] sure we had creative control over our projects and our vision for this universe, and [tried] to find a partner that could bring us the largest possible audience across multiple platforms and devices. At the end of the day, Activision was the one partner where all these factors would align for us.
GS: So you knew you didn't want to go with a platform holder?
BJ: I wouldn't say we 100 percent knew, but it's clear from the beginning our intent as storytellers and people that create universes, we were looking for the largest audience we could get. We're excited by the prospect of having new avenues to reach out to fans, new touch points, new interesting engagements and interactions that wouldn't be limited to a single box.
GS: Activision's main business model calls for annual installments of its biggest franchises. Will Bungie be dramatically increasing its output, or will Activision be able to have other studios develop spin-offs in this universe?
BJ: To the second question, definitely no. Bungie does own this IP, so nothing's going to happen with it that we haven't agreed to. Who knows? Maybe there's some world where there's an interesting extension of the universe that we feel would be best handled by a different group with our oversight and that's a discussion we could certainly have, but that's something that we would drive.
In terms of output, we're not going to get into the details of how many different titles this 10-year period will yield, but we're not being shoehorned into an annual release model that Activision might have for some of its other properties. They partnered with us based on this 10-year plan that we've collectively sat down and walked through. We have dates and real milestones, deliverables that we've both agreed to and believe in. Again, it's about us really shaping and realizing the creative vision we have for this universe, and Activision being the great partner to allow us to do that. That's what they're signing up for.
GS: Bungie's expertise is in developing for the Xbox 360, but Activision has already said it would be bringing games to "all platforms." Are you going to get up to speed on everything, or will other studios be helping to port your titles to some of the platforms you're less familiar with?
BJ: I would caveat "all platforms" to mean multiple platforms and devices. "All platforms" may be a little too broad of a comment to make, a little too dangerous. The reality is we're only going to go to platforms and devices that we think actually make sense for the types of experiences we want gamers to have and the interesting ways our universe can be extended onto those devices. I don't think that means every possible device known to man.
As far as development goes, we're going to obviously have some ramping up to do ourselves. We've been working exclusively on the Xbox [platforms] for about a decade now and we know it really well. But in order to get a bigger audience, we are going to have to broaden our horizons. Partially that's going to happen internally. We've grown a lot as a studio and hired a lot of great talent. We have a really deep, seasoned bench of engineering staff. Thankfully one of the other benefits of Activision is that they do have a lot of expertise on a lot of different platforms. They'll have resources and people that will be available to us as well to help us make the right decisions.
GS: The popular narrative is that Bungie left Microsoft because it was tired of making Halo games for 10 straight years and wanted to try something new. If that has any truth to it, why jump right into a deal that will have you making games based on this new IP for 10 straight years?
JS: I think like a lot of popular myths, that one just isn't true. I was the creative director on [Halo 3] ODST, and we wouldn't have done that game if we weren't excited about telling that story. We wouldn't have done Reach if we weren't excited about telling this great new sort of prequel to all the Halo games we made. When you get a chance to play the beta and see the stuff we're announcing at E3 and all the Reach stuff that's going to happen over the summer, I think it's obvious that we at Bungie are passionate and excited about all the games we make.
I think the reason we became an independent company back in 2007 was we wanted to be independent. We wanted to chart our own future. We wanted to own our creations. That was a really important thing to us. And we wanted to reach as broad an audience as possible, and the path forward wasn't as being an internal Microsoft first-party studio. Where we are today is the logical extension of that journey we started on in 2007, and it really had nothing to do with us being tired of Halo, which frankly, we aren't.
GS: Could Bungie still make games using different IP for other publishers?
BJ: I guess it's conceivable that we could have those discussions. But the reality is that the type of project we are building for the next 10 years, the ambition we're aiming for and the types of stories we want to tell, it's really going to take the might of our entire team to do it right. I think Bungie's at its best when we're all united with a single vision and all of our best talent is working together on the same project. So that's certainly our plan right now.
GS: I'm sure a lot of Bungie fans are a bit nervous about this announcement given what has happened between Activision and Infinity Ward lately. As the community manager, Brian, how are you reassuring your fans that this deal won't wind up being a bad thing?
BJ: Ultimately there's only so much we can say. At the end of the day, I would definitely tell our fans to hang in there and eventually the game will speak for itself. Many people said the same thing 10 years ago when Microsoft acquired Bungie, that, "That was it. That was the end of Bungie." I think we actually weathered that pretty well and are even better because of it. In this new partnership we're going into, we actually have even more freedom and creative control and ability to do what Bungie does best. And that's make awesome games and engaging universes and compelling stories. We're better poised now to do more than we've ever been able to do before.
People will probably continue to be skeptical based on things they've read online, but clearly we would not have signed a deal that we felt was in any way not in our best interests: Making sure that we own our own IP, that we have the creative control to drive the decision-making process for our own creative vision, and that we're still fully independent. That should put a lot of people at ease right away if they stop to think about what that means.
THE NEW IP
GS: It sounds like the scope of this new IP is pretty grand. How long has the idea for this new IP been kicking around? Is it something that you've been fleshing out and turning over in your heads for years and years, or is it a more recent creation?
JS: Well, [Bungie cofounder and creative director] Jason Jones has been thinking about the next project he'd like to work on for a number of years now. As early as 2007, he got a core team of people together--a very, very small team--and has been cooking up different ideas. But it's only been in the last year or so that those ideas have crystallized to the point that we can take them out to different publishers and really shop those ideas around. It's safe to say we're really in "preproduction" mode right now. We've got really good plans, we know our path for the next 10 years. We're looking at the dates that are coming up earliest, and we're aligning everybody around the first stories we really want to tell.
As soon as the team rolls off of Reach--and the vast majority of people at Bungie are working on Reach--the core team of which I'm a part really needs to be ready for everybody to join us. So we're absolutely making real plans and making real progress.
GS: Joseph, in terms of writing, what do you see as the key characteristics that would be in any new game the studio makes? What makes a Bungie game a Bungie game?
JS: I'd like to think we create universes where we tell lots of different stories that appeal to lots of different people. We're a company that doesn't just think about a single game and moving on to the next one. We try to take a long view, and that's a process we've developed over the last 10 years.
To be completely honest, when we were writing the first Halo game for the Xbox 1 launch, we had no idea there was going to be a Halo: Reach or ODST or Halo 3 or Halo 2. We didn't have that long view. So as someone who's in charge of story and writing at Bungie, it's a tremendous luxury but also a very daunting challenge to be able to sit down today and really map out the specific stories we might want to tell five years from now, seven years from now, eight years from now. But that's what I'm doing right now, and that's really wonderful. It's absolutely a different process, but it's so much better than the way we started working 10 years ago when we were young and not quite as experienced.
GS: Well that way seemed to work out pretty well for you.
INDIE DEVELOPERS, MEGAPUBLISHERS
JS: There were ups and downs for sure, and Bungie emerged in 2007 with a lot of good scars. We learned a lot of hard lessons and continued to do them, but it's really terrific to be able to look around the office and see the same guys that were there 10 years ago working on Halo. We're all still here, but even better, we've still got fire in our bellies and ample creative ideas to take us 10 years and beyond. It's an extremely exciting time to be a part of Bungie.
GS: In recent years, Bungie, the Infinity Ward guys, and Will Wright have all left massive corporate entities to flex their own creative muscle and immediately re-signed deals with massive corporate entities that were more favorable. Are these unique cases, or do you think creators are getting more control in the industry across the board?
JS: Without sounding too high and mighty, there aren't many studios that could get a deal like the deal that we got. You talk about Bungie, you talk about Will Wright… We worked very hard for it, don't get me wrong, but we feel extremely fortunate that we're in this position to have the deal we do. Any creative person, any game development studio would of course want to own their own creative ideas and be as independent as possible. But the nature of the business is such that when you're working on a universe like the one we're planning--that's so broad in scope and has so many opportunities for great stories--you kind of need to sign with someone that knows how to handle that in the marketplace. Activision is the world's biggest publisher for a reason. They have a tremendous amount of expertise and marketing know-how and really can help us reach a broad audience. We certainly needed a partner to help us realize this vision, and Activision is a great partner.
BJ: Somebody asked me earlier why we wouldn't just self-publish, but that's not the business we're in. That's not the core competency of our studio. The minute we start having to divert resources and energy to thinking about how we get a box on a shelf in Europe, that's no longer Bungie. There's always going to be a need for some sort of umbrella for creative people to do what they do best and not have to worry about the business aspects of taking that great game and getting an audience for it.
GS: When can gamers expect to have the wraps taken off this new project?
BJ: Well they shouldn't hold their breath.
JS: They should play the Reach beta!
BJ: Clearly it's important to us, and the reason we wanted to hurry and make this announcement after the deal was signed was to get it out of the way. We're excited about it and it's out there now, but we want to focus on Reach. We still have a ways to go until launch. The beta starts on Monday. We don't want to distract or overshadow any of the great work that's being done on Reach. That's going to be our priority for the rest of the year. We'll definitely look forward to sharing more information, but it's going to be a little while. Reach is our focus right now.