If Halo 3 is, as some eager critics claim, 'the game of the decade' then creator Bungie's subsequent separation from Microsoft must be one of the most curious development deals of the decade.
With that in mind, Develop has spoken to key execs involved in the deal to find what both Bungie and Microsoft Game Studios think of the split - with special interviews to be published on both www.developmag.com and in our next print issue throughout the week.
To recap the situation: in October, just days after Halo 3 hit store shelves and generated hundreds of millions in sales for Microsoft, the in-house team and its format-holder owner announced the two would part ways, with developer Bungie going independent. Microsoft retains a minority stake in the studio, and exclusive rights to upcoming Halo games - but the deal has still raised a number of questions by those in the industry.
In the first part of our interview with Marty O'Donnell (published today, and available to read here), the studio's audio director called the move a natural step for a team that has always been an independent force within Microsoft: "From the beginning there was always this very independent feel – Microsoft was always very careful to not creatively dictate to Bungie, we’ve always been able to be really independent from a creative standpoint."
He added: "We want to stay independent, we want to own the stuff we make, and Microsoft I think sees that this is the best way to get the best product from Bungie – to let the team own their stuff."
With the team now free from what some may see as the comfortable place as an in-house team, O'Donnell pointed out that the higher stakes could force the team to work harder: "It’s good for the entire team to be able to realise that we’re doing this for us," he said. "We’ve always been creating stuff that’s been exciting to us, so now the rewards are bigger rewards and the penalties are greater penalties."
His comments are echoed by studio manager Harold Ryan in an exclusive interview printed in the next issue of Develop (out tomorrow), who reveals that on numerous levels Bungie had always kept its owner at bay.
"When Bungie was acquired into the games group at Microsoft, that group itself was evolving and growing," he explained. "One of the first things they tried after acquiring Bungie, after first attempting to fully assimilate them, was to move Bungie into a standard Microsoft building with the rest of the game group. But unlike the rest of the teams they’d brought in previously, Bungie didn’t move into Microsoft corporate offices – we tore all of the walls out of that section of the building and sat in a big open environment."
He also made it clear that the studio's independence will spur its staff towards working more creatively: "[Microsoft Game Studios have] definitely lost something [following the divestment], but their goal has always been to have the right relationship with their partners. So to that end, having the right relationship with Bungie means there are more opportunities for us to both evolve the Halo universe and create new ones. Not that we couldn’t do that with Microsoft – they’re certainly happy to fund us to do anything – it’s just a matter of how creatively motivated the artists and designers are. Their level of happiness has a direct impact on the quality and engagement of work they do.
"Everyone knew about the [divestment] deal during Halo 3’s development, and I think it really made an impact on how invested people were in working for themselves."
He added: "In addition, while Microsoft has been a great partner for us – and currently we’re planning on them being a great partner in the future too – should anything happen in that relationship down the road, we do have the flexibility to pick the best partner for the company. As I’ve said in other interviews, though, the relationship with Microsoft and the Xbox team is really good, and obviously we’ve spent the last seven years developing for the Xbox so we know
it really well and I don’t expect us to change any time soon."
In the full interview (which will be published online later this week) Ryan also discusses what's next for Bungie and other reasons the company had for distancing itself from Microsoft Game Studios. Don't forget to register for our free PDF service and be notified when the next issue is available to download.
Part one of the Marty O'Donnell interview, which discusses the divestment and his thoughts on game audio, can be found here . Part two, which covers O'Donnell's thoughts of games as movies and the perils of outsourcing, can be read here.
Also coming up this week is a Q&A with Microsoft Game Studios' general manager Phil Spencer on the divestment, plus the other development deals (such as the acquisition of BioWare and Bizarre Creations) that some say have threatened its relationships with third-party studios.