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.
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.
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.