Bungie: Welcome Back To Life As A Third Party Developer

Ah, the heady days of the early and mid 90s, when Bungie was an independent developer and publisher, master of its own destiny. They developed what they wanted to develop, announced when they wanted to announced, and shipped... well, when the boxes were done.

Those days must seem so simple compared to now.

Because what's going on now is apparently a Bungie announcement scheduled for E3 today-- one likely related to Halo in some way-- has been postponed indefinitely by Bungie's publisher.

That would be Microsoft, for those of you keeping score at home, even though the name "Microsoft" does not appear anywhere in the carefully-worded missive from Bungie president Harold Ryan.

Most fans, of course, don't care what happened or who is at fault. They just knew they were supposed to be seeing something exciting and new within the next twelve hours, and now they won't. For a form of popular entertainment whose fans vacillate back and forth between endurance trials of development waits-- three years for each of the last three Halo games-- and the instant gratification of online multiplayer matches where average lifetimes can be well under thirty seconds, such an indefinite delay is a great disappointment. Even if we don't know what it was we were supposed to be expecting.

So what were we expecting, when can we expect it, and why was it delayed just twelve hours before it was to hit?

Welcome To Independence Day

Rumors started swirling shortly after the release of Halo 3 about what would come next for newly-independent Bungie LLC and the Halo franchise that has, almost all by itself, secured Microsoft a position in the console gaming market. A distant second behind Sony their first time out, and a close second behind the casual hit Wii so far in this generation, it's hard to imagine where the Xbox 360 would be without the Halo franchise. Might it not even exist?

Of course now the situation regarding Halo is more complicated. When Microsoft bought the studio in 2000, it actually made things simpler. Bungie had gone from master of its fate as a small, independent developer and publisher, to having to sell nearly 20% of the company to Take Two and working with publishers and porting houses to get out its games on Mac, PC and PlayStation. Development costs were even then starting to rise, and the necessary recall of Myth 2, with its show-stopping uninstaller bug in the Windows version that could erase your entire hard drive under the right (or wrong, depending on how you look at it) circumstances, the acquisition must have come as a godsend. More resources, more freedom-- a chance to focus on the games and forget about business. Microsoft acquired Bungie, according to the word on the street, for $40 million or less-- a bargain compared to later acquisitions like Lionhead or Rare, that cost ten times as much and make far less return.

Business, though, as a way of creeping back into things, and eventually Bungie made it known they felt better off as independents. Both parties have put on a very solid front-- that this is good for everyone, that Bungie and Microsoft will continue to work together, that the studio is free to do what it wants, that Halo is in good hands.

Those things can't all be true all the time, though, are they?

And here we have what could be the first major announcement from the studio since its independence was declared last October, scuttled by "the publisher" the night before. What was it that could cause such a stir at Microsoft?

What Was It?

Odds on, it relates to Halo. Lots of fans would like to see Bungie do something different, and it's really hard to see why either Bungie would want independence, or Microsoft would tolerate the idea, if the plan was for Bungie to ride out the Halo hobby horse until the bitter end without once longing to take the blinders off and see what else might be out there.

Neither does that mean Bungie is completely divorced from Halo. They're still doing downloadable content, some of which they released just last week, in the form of Cold Storage, remake of the original Halo multiplayer map Chill Out.

Was the announcement of Halo 4, a sequel to Halo 3, a continuation of the story of the Master Chief and Cortana?

That seems doubtful to me. Despite conspiracy theories and the novels, the three games themselves form a nice tight little story with most of the loose ends-- at least those that regard our hero and heroine personally-- tied up neatly. The Chief and Cortana deserve a rest, and I think Bungie is willing to give them one, even if Microsoft isn't.

E Is For Episodic?

There are, of course, other possibilities.

More multiplayer maps? No. There'd be no reason to delay such a thing for an event like E3; Bungie would just announce them on Bungie.net or in a podcast.

So, not a full-blown game, and not a multiplayer map...

... and therein fits the idea of some other kind of downloadable content-- perhaps a single player scenario not following the Chief, but a group of marines. That fits the description of the so-called "Halo 4" and "Halo Blue" that has been circulating, as well as statements from voice actors Nathan Fillion, Steven Adam Baldwin and Alan Tudyk, all of Firefly fame, who mentioned recently getting together to reprise some of the roles they played in Halo 3.

The Xbox 360 now is further from its End of Life as a product than the original console was when Halo 2 came out. The engine is still fresh-- there's every reason to believe the audience would scoop up new content for the same basic engine. Bungie might even be able to do episodic content right-- something that Valve, in my opinion, has been unable to do because of their obsession with technology. They can't bear to leave the engine alone long enough to push out content, so their episodes are taking as long to get out as a full game. As such, the best way to get that so-called 'episodic' content on your Xbox 360 was to wait for the Orange Box and get them on disc-- hardly episodic!

That's only one possibility. There are many others. It does fit the bill, though-- not a blockbuster announcement around which Microsoft would build its E3 press conference, but important enough to warrant inclusion during the show.

Of course, then comes the question-- what priority should Microsoft give to Bungie and Halo under the current arrangement?

Microsoft owns Halo now, and Bungie is not the only studio working on a Halo game. Ensemble is prepping the RTS Halo Wars for release sometime in the first half of next year, and despite not hearing anything about it lately, one has to assume that Wingnut Interactive is still doing that thing that may or may not be Halo Chronicles which is some kind of interactive entertainment that may or may not be a game (a description that, honestly, conjures the worst kinds of associations-- like Dragon's Lair and Space Ace).

So Xbox 360 is the house that Halo built, but Halo's parents, Microsoft and Bungie, seem to be experiencing a failure to communicate-- hence the crossed wires concerning this latest announcement, whatever it is, or was.

Keep It Clean

Microsoft might be forgiven for not wanting any Halo-related announcement from Bungie short of a full-blown sequel to steal the thunder of other developers at the show-- especially developers who have remained in the fold, like Ensemble Studios. It's not hard to see that some within Microsoft might harbor reservations about Bungie's independence. It's a move that is surely without precedent in the industry. One can certainly look at it from the perspective that what Microsoft really wanted all along was the Halo intellectual property, and that's what they've got-- but of what use is it without Bungie? Can the property survive simultaneous translations, not only to other developers, but to other genres as well? Can those developers manage those transitions while remaining under the shadow of Bungie's Halo shooters and their runaway financial success?

One can see where it might be hard. One can see where someone at Microsoft might want to save a little bit of the Halo spotlight for developers who aren't so impudent as to assert their independence.

Then again, that doesn't constitute an excuse to torpedo an announcement less than a day in advance, snubbing fans and developers alike. No doubt the scheduling for the announcement was done well in advance. The mysterious "Superintendent", a mysterious character appearing in various forms on the Bungie.net website and even in the Halo 3 interface, accompanied by the motto "Keep It Clean", has been around now for a few months. If the planned announcements involves Halo, which I suspect it does, then Microsoft's involvement was certainly necessary. If they wanted to keep Bungie's new thing out of E3, they could have said so then. Why did they wait until the last moment?

Because it's embarrassing, of course. Although some might point fingers at the blame sponge, Microsoft, some fans might (and some have) blamed Bungie, claiming they should have known in advance there was a chance this could happen, and should have delayed running their little countdown. For me, I don't doubt that Bungie had complete faith that everything was fine until just hours ago. The company may at times be silent, cryptic, or even downright evasive, they are not inherently dishonest. They put up that countdown because they fully expected to show something cool when it hit 00:00:00.

I doubt it was pulled because it wasn't cool enough. It might have been pulled because it was too cool-- perhaps too cool for this year's E3, in comparison to what other Xbox 360 developers are showing.

Welcome back to independence, Bungie. Maybe you should start shopping for a new publisher.

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Comments

It's hard to be an island when Microsoft owns the ocean. Maybe Bungie made a mistake when they split from Microsoft?

Well, this certainly puts things into perspective. By the way, the Firefly cast member you are referring to is Adam Baldwin, not Steven Baldwin.

[quote=Anonymous]Well, this certainly puts things into perspective. By the way, the Firefly cast member you are referring to is Adam Baldwin, not Steven Baldwin.[/quote]

Ack-- caught me. That's what I get for writing off the top of my head. Fixed. Thanks.


Rampant for over se7en years.

Good stuff, Narc.

I'd like to see $15 downloadable episodes set during the Halo 3 timeline where I get to play other missions as MC or an Elite or perhaps as a Brute. Of course, I'd like to pay $10 for each episode, but I'm guessing MS will milk us for the extra $5 which they know Halo fans will pay.

It's also my guess that the Bungie content was pulled because it would steal the thunder from other MSG works and 360 titles. I guess there's the outside chance that MS saw something from the PS3 (maybe the 256-player online multiplayer) that they now want in this Bungie title.

I had a feeling that Halo:Blue was a collection of all the Halo DLC (all the maps, some themes, vidocs, etc.). But dang. There's a ton of rumors about not one project, but several Halo projects. Halo:Blue could be just about anything.

I always felt that a racing/aerial combat game (kind of like Crimson Skies - hey, FASA is closed...I wonder what those guys are working on?) where you drive/fly Halo vehicles to do certain things would be an easy game to make.

I would LOVE to see story-related Episodic Content from Bungie.

Actually, I would love that more than I would love any new game.

Imagine being able to go back (because they make it take place there) to the Alpha Halo, Installation 04, and play through side-missions there.

Halo Gaidens would be awesome. ("Gaiden" is japanese for "sidestory," in case you were wondering).

I would enjoy that more than I enjoy Valve's awesome (if infrequently released) Half-Life 2 Episodes.

$15? I'd pay at least $20 a piece. That doesn't mean it's a good price it just means that I am really hungry for Halo Gaidens. However, if they made it TOO expensive, I'd just split the cost with my buddies and we'd all just take turns borrowing the console with the content on it.

As for Bungie, all I can say is what I've said in the HBO and Bungie.net forums -- I am sorry that you have to deal with this, Bungie. This really freaking sucks. If it's as I suspect, this is inexcusable. If it's not as bad as I suspect, this is just really freaking sucky.

Either way, your more intelligent fans know that it has nothing to do with you, that you were about to bring to fruition your labors and patience. What makes us even more upset is that this wasn't done just to us, it was done to YOU too.

Bungie fans and Bungie remind me of that hilarious mafia-referencing bumper sticker I've seen: "You hit me, we hit you."

Thanks for the article, Narc.

Looks like MS is making things tough for Bungie.. Perhaps they're still a little resentful towards Bungie for breaking off.

[quote=Anonymous]Looks like MS is making things tough for Bungie.. Perhaps they're still a little resentful towards Bungie for breaking off.[/quote]

I guess this won't help M$'s reputation as a selfish, profit centered company that is so much hated by everyone while it still makes some great stuff.... Their public relations just blow. They just officially alienated from themselves the whole bungie fanbase and drowns further their reputation as one of the world's most meprising/meprised company.