Pt 1: Brian Jarrard looks back on a decade of Halo, Microsoft, and the thirst for independence

Bungie: The Microsoft years

You may have thought its other games were supposed to be forgotten, but in recent times Bungie has routinely name-dropped the likes of Marathon, Myth, and Oni during interviews with the press.

The idea is simple. Bungie is passively explaining that it was, and is, more than just a Halo game manufacturer.

The group’s history before that seminal 2002 Xbox FPS is a little murky – community director Brian Jarrard describes it as a “scrappy outfit from Chicago” – but clearly, the last ten years would have taken an inestimably different course if it were not for one company: Microsoft.

Bungie’s special relationship with the Xbox manufacturer is coming to an end, but it would be delusional to think that it didn’t work. As explained below, not even a global financial crisis would have stopped the studio from turning independent.

In the first part of an exclusive interview with Develop, Jarrard discusses Bungie’s burning passion to be a individual entity – and how Microsoft kept the studio as happy as it could, before the inevitable happened.

Why did your partnership with Microsoft work so well for so long?
Ultimately it’s because Microsoft allowed Bungie to be Bungie. Even when they hired the studio, we retained our own space, our own culture and they believed in this team and the creative people that founded it, and let us what we do best.

Honestly, to Microsoft’s credit they were incredibly supportive; it was a new relationship for them, but they gave us that freedom with a hands-off approach, and they let us connect with our own community which was incredibly important.

I’ve been here over 8 years, and when I started we were in this sort of cubicle-filled office building in one of their office parks. We were in there with a lot of other first party development teams.

Going from there to get our own custom-built space that was miles away from Microsoft’s corporate office, for me, was the most significant step. It gave Bungie its creative freedom, it fostered our own culture, our teamwork and our ability to feel autonomous and not just a part of the Microsoft corporation.

We had our own key cards so that anyone Microsoft couldn’t even walk into our building. It was a bold, big move on there part, and even the investment needed for a new studio was a great gesture.

What would have happened if you didn’t have that freedom?
Initially, a lot of Bungie guys who were there from day one found that assimilating into Microsoft was not easy.

The way that we build games, the way that the team works, means that being in that oppressive Microsoft office was not conducive to the type of work that we do. I do believe that we felt like we wouldn’t be able to do good work there – maybe we would have died a little bit inside had we not been set free into our own studio.

You moved to become independent just before the global financial crisis hit. I’ve always wondered if you would still have made that choice when the whole financial sector was thrown into disarray.
I think we still would have. Money wasn’t a factor, and we still had a tight relationship with Microsoft – going independent didn’t impede on our ability to continue working on ODST and on Reach.

One way or another, after Halo 3, we realised we had come to a point where we knew we needed to make that step, to continue to grow internally and to foster our team, and attract the type of team that we want to have for our future.

Would you regard Bungie as a tech-focused studio?
Absolutely, our engineering group was a huge portion of our studio, and everything we do is more or less proprietary – we built all our own tech for Halo, they were our own engines. Obviously we have partnerships with some tools providers like Havok, but everyone in our studio has an eye for technology, I think our engineers are pretty brilliant.

What we’ve been able to do with Reach, as compared to Halo 3, the hardware hasn’t changed at all but we have retooled our tech and engine to make almost a generational leap in terms of fidelity of visuals, scale and scope.

We had to scrap a lot of stuff for Halo Reach and start again, because some of the stuff wasn’t going to scale properly, it wasn’t going to do the types of things we wanted to do efficiently.

I’d like to think of Bungie as a creative studio; we’re storytellers, we’re artists, we’re designers – but the technology has to power all of that. We’re not the kind of studio that’s just going to go out there and take someone else’s tools – we just have these guys at our studio that think they can do a better job, so why not do it ourselves?

When you’re formulating your new ideas for games – is it the story that comes first?

In our studio, yeah I would say so. If you look at Bungie’s history, we approach game development differently.

Firstly, we are driven to create games that we want to play – looking back at Halo, and the genesis of the Halo universe, the Bungie team sat together and said how great it would be to play a game in this big open sci-fi world. No one else at the time had offered an experience like that, so we decided that was the game we were going to make.

That’s essentially driven every Bungie project; we decide on a game we want to play, but then we construct a universe that’s interesting and deep that ourselves and our fans want to spend time in.

Worlds become platforms to tell stories and build game experiences; that was our approach with Halo, Marathon, Myth, and that’s how we’re constructing our next project for the next ten years.

We’re building a brand new framework that will allow us to build gameplay ad tell stories to our fans.

What are your final thoughts on Bungie’s ten years with Microsoft?
I think it’s been a great partnership and a great ride. I don’t think we’d be here where we are today without tremendous fan support, but Microsoft deserves a lot of credit for nurturing our studio, giving us enough rope.

We’ve learned a lot. A lot of Microsoft people have come over to work with Bungie, and I think we’re a better studio because of it. Bungie was once a young start-up scrappy outfit from Chicago – a few guys just throwing games together – and we’ve become a refined professional developer over the years, and Microsoft has helped us do that.

Microsoft worked with us to have a friendly divestiture from the company, and – overall – it’s been awesome.

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