Let’s talk about Bungie’s split from Activision

It happened, and I have no idea if it’s a good thing.

Here’s what went down: on January 10, 2019, Bungie officially announced their split from Activision, and said that they would be assuming publishing rights for Destiny. Needless to say, this is massive news. Activision is a publishing giant and I suspect that their funding is the reason that the Destiny we know and love-hate exists today. For Bungie to take on responsibility for both development and distribution is a burden that I do not believe the studio needs.

Based on what Kotaku’s Jason Schreier reports, the news went down well over at Bungie. Really well. There was even champagne. The news went down really well on Reddit, also. r/DTG was super happy, with the bot that brought the news to the subreddit getting gilded. One of the top voted posts at the time was titled Destiny Freedom Day. And while I do understand the source of the enthusiasm, the sceptic in me is hesitant to share it.

I won’t pretend to understand how much influence game publishers exert over the developers they finance, nor to understand exactly what publishers do through the course of development. This is a handy summary that I found of a publisher’s role, but it doesn’t go into anywhere near as much detail as I’d like. I do, however, feel like publishers – with one or two notable exceptions – are often disproportionately blamed for the mistakes of the developers.

Here’s how I understand it

This is a tremendous oversimplification, but I believe (from the reading I’ve done over the years) that the publishers are the relatively sober, primarily logical, business side of a creative endeavour. Making video games is conceptually similar to writing a book, creating art, making a movie. A creative vision exists somewhere, with one people or many, and then teams of skilled people come together to execute that vision.

And as with any creative endeavour, all the time in the world will never be enough to perfectly execute that vision. So I’ve always considered (with no documented evidence to back that up) that a publisher acts in a primarily project management role – handling the budget, keeping an eye on the deadline, facilitating resourcing, and just generally making sure that the thing gets done. What I don’t know is how much creative influence a publisher exerts over a developer, and whether all publishers have the same amount of influence over the final product.

And that’s where the gap is with the Activision-Bungie split.

Credit where it’s due

Activision is probably not responsible for Forever 29. For legendaries decrypting into blues. For the wizard that came from the moon. For the sword we had to be careful of because its power was dark. For Ghost’s terrible dialogue in vanilla Destiny 2. For ‘real talk’. For all cosmetic rewards being in Eververse. For the first Dawning of Destiny 2. For XP throttling.

In the same way, Activision is probably not responsible for Forsaken. For the evolution of the Dreaming City. For Ascendant challenges. For Mara’s throne world. For Pulled Pork and his (poor?) choice of Guardian. For the latest Dawning event. For the incredible Last Wish. For the Drifter and his lore – or really, for all of the spectacular writing in Forsaken and in Black Armory.

All of Bungie’s mistakes are most probably all their own, just as their successes are. They made a terrific mess of vanilla Destiny 2 and Curse of Osiris, and redeemed themselves (in my eyes, at least) with Forsaken, and then put me back on the fence with Black Armory. But it’s important to note that they did not do any of that alone.

Bungie had a fireteam of their own

Bungie had help from Vicarious Visions and High Moon Studios, both of whom are Activision subsidiaries which Bungie would not have had access to without their now-former publisher. On December 8, 2016, Bungie announced on Twitter that they were partnering with Vicarious Visions to work on Destiny and we know now that the studio played a key role in both Destiny 2: Warmind, and in bringing Destiny 2 to PC. (I’m still trying to figure out what role High Moon Studios played; Polygon references them as co-developer and Bungie acknowledged their involvement on Destiny as far back as 2015, but I’m struggling to find more information beyond that.)

(Edit: In a blog post published on January 18, 2019, Bungie thanked High Moon Studios for their ‘wonderful collaboration on Forsaken’ and confirmed that Vicarious Visions brought Destiny 2 to PC. VV is also working on ‘content that will appear’ in the third piece of the Annual Pass, titled Penumbra. So hey, at least we have an idea of who did what now.)

Warmind was something of a turning point in Destiny 2’s life. It wasn’t the disaster that was Curse of Osiris, but it wasn’t the equivalent of a Taken King, either. It was very much a House of Wolves, featuring improvements to the base game and some good, new, replayable content – but not the dramatic series of changes that were required to ‘fix’ the experience. I assume (with no evidence to back this up) that it was support from Vicarious Visions on Warmind that allowed Bungie to divert more of its attention to Forsaken than it would have been able to otherwise, simply because all resources are finite. And if the support from High Moon Studios has been integral to the creation and release of Destiny from 2015 to 2018, I don’t quite know whether Bungie is going to be able to deliver experiences of the same quality and scale as Forsaken without these two studios backing them up.

The fact of the matter is that I don’t really know anything at all. The only person outside of Bungie and Activision that probably does is Jason Schreier, so I’m refreshing Kotaku like a maniac just in case he does talk about something new. And this is where my scepticism comes from – I have no idea what the future looks like.

I could really do with a crystal ball. Or AnonTheNine, whichever.

After Black Armory – which seems to have set expectations for what we can expect from the other two content drops in Destiny 2’s Annual Pass – the next big ticket item on the horizon is a potential expansion in September (simply because that’s when Destiny expansions come out) and then, perhaps, a Destiny 3. However, the end of the Bungie-Activision relationship means that Bungie is no longer beholden to their annual release cycle which means, after the annual pass, there’s no guarantee at all that anything significant will come out this year (if it’s SRL, imma cry).

Might that be a good thing? Perhaps.

If Bungie takes more time and releases something in early 2020 that is of the same scale and quality as Forsaken (if not better), I will be terribly happy with them and somewhat more positive about the future of the franchise as a whole. And, if somewhere along the way, Bungie also says ‘hey, there’s not gonna be a Destiny 3, we’ll just update Destiny 2 forever like World of Warcraft’, I will cry all the happy tears in the world.

But, beyond the annual pass, no one outside of Bungie knows what the future looks like. There were some very interesting leaks by reliable Reddit leaker AnonTheNine, but in November 2018 they deleted their account and all their posts and comments. Is the more ‘hardcore’ creative direction for the next Destiny update something that will actually materialise? Does the future of the franchise look like it will double down on the RPG side of things that Bungie has avoided for so long now? Or will Destiny 3 be so thoroughly watered down that it dies a quiet death while its millions of players go off and play Anthem?

No effing clue.

I would like to hope for the best. But the chaos that followed Destiny 2 has left a fair number of brain-scars, and while I love Forsaken, it doesn’t magically erase the mess that came before it. All I really want is, as Datto said in his retrospective, for Destiny to be good. That’s it. And now, all the weight is squarely on Bungie to make that happen.

Trevor Coelho

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