Bungie's Big Jump: What Next After the Split with Activision?
With Bungie taking the plunge and looking to a future where it self-publishes Destiny, we consider the studio's new-found freedom and what that might mean.
This story starts back in 2007 when Bungie announced that it was leaving the warm embrace of Microsoft to venture out on its own. After revealing its plan the studio still had work to do on the franchise it started and the team would go on to complete Halo 3: ODST and Halo: Reach before finally breaking ties with the Xbox-owning company.
After a bit of time wandering in the wilderness of independence, the studio got back in bed with a publishing partner, but this time it was Call of Duty-owning Activision. Together they announced a ten-year deal that would see them partner on a big new action franchise: Destiny. Now, almost nine years after that announcement was made, that relationship seems to have run its course, and Bungie has once again issued a statement confirming its intention to go it alone and break ties with a major publishing partner. What's more, as promised almost a decade ago when their union was first confirmed, the studio is doing so with full control of its strongest asset, namely the Destiny IP.
There seems to be plenty of surprise about the announcement from Bungie, but really the most notable element is the timing, with months and months still left to run on the agreed ten-year deal. However, you only have to look back at the studio's long-running quest for independence to see that a split from Activision was always on the cards, even since the very beginning. Bungie alluded to as much in last night's statement, writing that "when we first launched our partnership with Activision in 2010, the gaming industry was in a pretty different place." That reads almost like a justification, a way to explain this move toward self-publishing - it's what the studio wanted all along and now, unlike then, is the time to make it happen.
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What's more, Bungie was a very different studio back then, and after spending so much time working on Halo in the relative safety of Microsoft's employ, it's easy to see why it needed to find another protective arm to rest over its shoulder while it continued to do what it does best: making action-packed sci-fi shooters. Now, however, as Bungie noted so prominently, the gaming industry is changed, as publishers and independent studios alike are moving to live service models for their biggest development projects. It can't have escaped the notice of the Bungie higher-ups that games like Warframe - itself a title that riffs on similar themes to Destiny - were not only surviving but thriving under the self-publishing model.
More of the seeds for this move were sown last year when Bungie announced an investment in the company had been made by NetEase, the Chinese publisher which was recently in the news when it was announced that it was partnering with Blizzard to make Diablo Immortal (which didn't go down well at all at BlizzCon). NetEase invested $100 million USD in Bungie, and it was clear that the Destiny-creators were looking ahead to life after Activision, with at least one eye on China.
Of course, things could have turned out differently, and if the relationship with Activision had been stronger, who knows, perhaps the pair might have extended their partnership for another decade and made two more Destiny games together. That's not going to happen now, and with Bungie splitting up with Activision it does leave the publisher in an interesting situation. Clearly, the publisher had hopes for Destiny that remain somewhat unfulfilled, and parting ways early was therefore in Activision's interests too. We heard last year that the publisher wasn't happy with the performance of Destiny 2: Forsaken and it's obvious that expectations haven't been met at corporate level. Given what are likely extremely high operating costs and the potential distance between now and the next major Destiny-related content drop, it doesn't make sense to continue supporting Bungie if it's not going to be repaid in turn.
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However, when viewed through a wider lens you can see there has been a number of notable changes behind the scenes at the publisher, with the most recent announcement confirming Rob Kostich as the new president. Indeed, it's all change at Activision-Blizzard, with chief financial officers dropping like flies, new senior management at major mobile subsidiary King, Sledgehammer co-founder Glen Schofield leaving the publisher for pastures new, and Mike Morhaime set to finally leave Blizzard in the coming months. Hell, even Tony Hawk waved goodbye to the company last year - yes, it's that bad. And that's on top of a slow reduction of staff that seemed to start almost two years ago and has since seen talent leaving studios such as Blizzard. With moves like the reduction of support for Heroes of the Storm, it's easy to see the impact of this downsizing process.
Of course, Activision still has some aces up its sleeve, with Call of Duty the jewel in its corporate crown, but with that series starting to stagnate and more general murmurs of discontent starting to appear with more frequency, it's not outlandish to speculate that the company might be in a spot of bother. The publisher will undoubtedly be keen to avoid the same fate as THQ, but for an organisation as large is this, any realignment or course adjustment is going to have collateral damage and requires careful management. Bungie leaving could well be considered as such. It's not pretty, it's not good PR, but it's necessary as Activision looks to the steady the ship and keep things moving forward.
It's much more fun to speculate about what might happen next for Bungie. The office here was rife with theories, some more outlandish than others. It didn't go unnoticed that Xbox chief Phil Spencer was quick to say something nice about one of his "favorite independent studios" and how he was looking forward to working with them again. Could Microsoft step back in and offer some sort of arrangement to help Bungie find its feet? We presume that MS still retains the minority stake in the studio that was acquired during their own split, so there could well be an incentive for the Xbox team to lend support beyond the PR coup that would represent. It's unlikely, but with Microsoft's newfound friendly approach to its first-party studios, it would no doubt be a tempting proposition if something was offered.
Much more likely is Bungie doing exactly what it says it would, and that's to self-publish Destiny. That, however, could work in a number of ways. Numerical logic dictates that the next entry in the series is Destiny 3, but that would be a long way off and the studio is going to have to keep the lights on during that period, with further monetisation of Destiny 1/2 essential for that (but easier said than done). The alternative is finding a new publisher, but would the studio really be keen to sign another deal so soon after working to secure its independence if that was indeed the aim? Alternatively, signing up with different publishers in different regions, similar to how CD Projekt Red does things, could be an option that would give it the flexibility to target different markets in different ways.
Taking the game free-to-play, at least in certain territories (remember that partnership with NetEase), would potentially bring in some income, and there are no doubt more companies that would be willing to invest if offered the chance, as Bungie still has the credentials needed to court publisher interest and financial backing. By taking Destiny free-to-play and doing away with numbered entries, the studio could transform both games and their respective expansions into one continuous live service that's overflowing with content and ripe for constant iteration. Using Warframe as an example, the studio could transition away from boxed retail products to a purely online experience, releasing big expansions every year or so for players to gather around, with constant smaller content drops to keep the most dedicated guardians busy. It's a proven model and Bungie has the IP to make something like that work - if it can manage the transition with care and bring some of its overheads down in the process.
We'll have to wait and see exactly what Bungie has planned, but the studio will be looking ahead with hope for the future. With Destiny still in its pocket as well as the ability to launch any new IPs and projects, this split from Activision is much less invasive than the one from Microsoft that saw the studio wave goodbye to Master Chief and Halo. Time will tell if it's the right move for Bungie right now, but we're excited to see what happens next as the Seattle-based developer once again tries its luck as an independent studio.