Video game industry veteran Martin O’Donnell, who composed the music for Halo and was on Bungie’s board of directors, has spoken very openly about the deal Bungie made with Activision and how it all fell apart. The long and short of it is that O’Donnell had a bad feeling about the deal for the Destiny series from the very beginning, but the whole story is like something out of a movie.
Speaking to YouTuber HiddenXperia, O’Donnell first clarified that it was Bungie’s seven members of the board of directors that collectively made the decision to work with Activision. O’Donnell was a member, so he acknowledged his part in the decision. O’Donnell also continues to hold stock in Bungie.
Discussing the origins of the deal, O’Donnell said he had misgivings right away. “We knew it was a risk right from the get-go,” he said. “It turned out to be exactly as bad as we thought it was going to be. Everybody who no longer works for Bungie is going to say, ‘Yeah, it was bad from the start.'”
Higher-ups at Bungie who still work there won’t acknowledge that it was a problematic deal from the start, O’Donnell said.
“If you still work for Bungie, you’re going to be political and you’re going to say all sorts of things like, ‘Oh, we had a good partnership and blah blah blah we were able to build a wonderful thing. And the time came for us to go our separate ways because we each had different goals but we’re happy and we love each other.’ That’s BS,” O’Donnell said. “There are so many scripted answers out there that I hear.”
O’Donnell’s summary of the deal with Activision is that it was “not a marriage made in heaven at all.”
Bungie decided to sign with Activision because the Call of Duty publisher was allowing Bungie to retain ownership of the Destiny IP. This came from Bungie’s experience working with Microsoft. Bungie sold the Halo IP to Microsoft in 2000, and had needed to answer to Microsoft ever since. Bungie did not want to repeat this for its new deal for Destiny.
“The reason why we went with Activision was not just the money, but it was because as part of the contract–they didn’t own the IP,” O’Donnell said.
O’Donnell said it was a “non-negotiable” item for him in his discussions with the rest of Bungie’s board before making the deal with Activision. And in a shocker of a revelation, O’Donnell also reveals that Bungie was “very close” to making a deal with Microsoft for Destiny before Activision won out. “We almost went back to Microsoft,” O’Donnell said.
Also during the interview, O’Donnell alluded to one of the reasons why Bungie fired him. He suggested that some members of Bungie’s leadership team wanted to give Activision more control of Destiny.
“Here’s the spicy part. Activision not only didn’t have the legal right to mess with the IP. But the only way they would be prevented from messing with the IP is if all the leadership at Bungie said you can’t mess with the IP. And that’s not what happened. And that’s why they fired me,” O’Donnell said.
“That was probably my biggest disappointment–we worked for a decade to make sure we could be in a position where we could stand up to the publisher and say, no, we own the IP–you can’t mess with it. And I was overruled and eventually let go,” he added.
One of the more chilling revelations from the interview is a story that O’Donnell shared about a dinner he had with Activision’s executives just before the deal was done, including CEO Bobby Kotick and a CFO that O’Donnell referred to as an Austrian man from the “Vienna School of Economics.” He never mentions a name, but Activision’s former CFO was Thomas Tippl, an Austrian man who was involved in the deal to sign Bungie for Destiny.
O’Donnell shared that he has a saying, “be nice to the goose,” which means you should be nice to the goose because that’s where golden eggs come from. In this analogy, Bungie is the goose that lays the golden egg that is Destiny. This unnamed Austrian business executive told O’Donnell, “Yeah, I like that story … golden eggs … the goose. But sometimes there’s nothing like a good Foie gras.”
Foie gras is the French cuisine that is made from goose liver after the bird is fattened by forced feeding. O’Donnell was spooked that Activision saw Bungie as a goose to be fattened and then killed off, and today he wishes he had raised concerns to his colleagues.
“The red flag went off. I’m in the middle of sipping some wine and he says that, and I’m like, ‘Oh my god.’ I felt like I was in a Twilight Zone episode,” he said. “What I should have done is stood up, flipped the table, and told all the other Bungie guys, ‘We have to get away from here–now!’ But that only happens in my dreams.”
At the same time that Activision was making this deal with Bungie, Activision was in the midst of its tumultuous relationship with Call of Duty Modern Warfare developer Infinity Ward that saw the company fire founders Jason West and Vince Zampella for insubordination.
“They were eating the liver of Infinity Ward while I was sitting at that table,” O’Donnell said. “I thought we were protected from them doing that [to us at Bungie], and I was wrong. My gut instinct was this is bad, we shouldn’t do this. That’s hindsight though.”
In 2015, O’Donnell won his legal case against Bungie. A court-appointed arbitrator ruled that Bungie violated its contract with O’Donnell when it fired him “without cause” and made him give up his company stock and drop out of Bungie’s profit-sharing plan.
O’Donnell later co-founded the independent game studio Highwire Games, which published the VR title Golem in late 2019. It was released exclusively for PS4.
As for Bungie, with Activision now out of the picture, Bungie is self-publishing the Destiny series. The studio has bold ambitions for the future of Destiny, including new expansions through 2022.
Additionally, Bungie received $100 million from Chinese company NetEase to make non-Destiny games.
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