Why I love Sony for Buying Bungie
Before we get into this, let me make clear that I’m fully aware that a lot of very smart industry experts have already shared their truly clever thoughts on probably the most game-changing acquisition in the video games industry — yes, some think this deal will have a bigger impact than Microsoft scooping up Activision Blizzard for almost 20x the price. Count me in that group!
While Team Green picked up a somewhat troubled video game publishing juggernaut to fill up the Game Pass pipeline for years to come and potentially revive some of Activision’s classic IP, Team Blue acquired one of the very best AAA studios in the world TODAY, living on only one single IP that is currently at the very best it has ever been (I’ll dwell deeper on that in the following 3K+ words) along with an incredible pool of talent in both massively-online-multiplayer game development and self-publishing. Here’s an excellent take on Sony’s clever move by Christopher Dring, Head of Games B2B at GI.biz.
Now, I don’t want to borrow too much from other smart people’s public opinion pieces, but let me chime in by saying I-told-you-so based on a piece I drafted about six months ago that Bungie was onto something more than just making the best action MMO better and better. As some GI.biz readers might remember, I’ve been a big fan of Destiny 2 since Sony added the game to PS+ and even fanboyed to Jason Sussman, Art Director of Bungie when meeting him at Reboot Blue, in 2019 — fingers crossed we’ll have IRL conferences being a thing again, soon!
When the major Destiny 2 DLC Beyond Light dropped last year, I couldn’t help but hammer out another 3K+ word piece because I was so excited about all the new cool stuff Bungie added to the only game I’ve been playing on my trusty PS4 Pro since I became a full (spare) time Guardian. However, I knew it would be hard to pitch another WIL piece on the same title from the same author within a fairly short time. Nonetheless, I had to get this out of my head because, as an entrepreneur running an independent games studio making sci-fi (space) shooters, I really thought Bungie was on to something much bigger than just making yet another one of the best sci-fi shooters in video games history — as if this wasn’t bonkers-successful enough.
So, I started drafting the below piece when the term metaverse became meta in the industry long AFTER legendary, exotics, armor mods and dedicated loadouts as well as players being an integral part of the game became the meta in Destiny 2. It might be a long shot in saying this, but what I think Sony bought here isn’t just an IP and one of the best game studios in the world, it’s potentially a universe that people aren’t just going to play in, but also explore cross-world experiences and content through.
Quick disclaimer: My long-term business partner Christian Lohr and I sold our first studio to create a 3D online world even before Second Life became a thing back in 2000, so I’m not entirely new to this idea. We never got the money from that exit, and the former company went under when the Dotcom bubble burst in 2001, but one of the devs managed to upload the investor teaser to YouTube (major cringe incoming!): https://youtu.be/vrFUFUjIfwk
Anyway, here comes what I wrote in June, last year. If you make it all the way to my back-then afterthoughts you might understand why I think that Sony and Bungie made a truly game-changing deal. With Bungie’s existing lore and experience working with some of the very best movie talent as voice actors and in-game characters, combined with Sony Pictures’ knowledge and infrastructure to produce and market movie and TV content.
I want a Destiny movie, anime, TV series, the whole package! I mean, Disney bought Lucas Arts for a similar price only a few years ago…
This was just going to be a love letter to a game that I’ve never considered to be one of my (many) real-life hobbies, despite having sunk hundreds of hours into Destiny 2 without regretting a single minute over the past three years. However, while I was working on this piece, constantly researching and comparing my thoughts with the critical consensus about Destiny 2’s season 13 and 14 as well as how other original AAA gaming IPs and recent movie tie-ins within the sci-fi space — pun intended — performed couldn’t help but wonder if we’re only just seeing the prologue to one of the biggest sci-fi IPs yet to come.
Big words from a small German indie developer! Call me presumptuous, but the more I follow Bungie’s amazing journey, the more I see parallels to our own roller coaster ride — on a micro-scale. My best friend and fellow co-founder, Christian Lohr, and I have been putting everything on the line to build a world-class team and (primarily) create genre-defining sci-fi shooters combining highly accessible shooter and exploration gameplay that has an extraordinary audiovisual experience and deep lore. It’s not unusual for me to stop and ask myself when we have to make major decisions about the future of our studio, what would Bungie do? To keep this piece primarily about Bungie and Destiny’s future as a franchise, here’s an in-depth interview about our story so far hopefully providing enough context for why I dare going out on a limb with this article — feel free to roast me! ;)
It’s complicated, but the Destiny 2 flame is burning more than ever!
The team behind Destiny 2 continually takes substantial risks to make the best sci-fi looter-shooter — at least in my book — even better by making significant game design changes from season to season. While we’ve also seen a number of unpopular additions to the game, the Destiny 2 team has shown they listen to their community and back-paddle to change certain core game mechanics if needed, which has them coming out of the GaaS tunnel stronger than ever.
I originally planned to dwell on a few examples in season 13 and 14 that turned on the Destiny 2 flame for me, again, but since this has been covered in-depth elsewhere already, I will link to articles and video reviews that perfectly capture my journey as an avid Guardian and leave more room for sharing my thoughts as a co-founder of a 100% independent, self-publishing studio, reflecting on previous decisions and where we can learn from the best.
Disclaimer: Since my previous accolade for Destiny 2, I have to admit that I lost interest around mid Season 13 — Season of the Hunt after I played through most of the new quests and snagged good rolls of my favorite weapons. Now, with Season 14 — Season of the Splicer, I’m hooked again!
Getting back into DestinyTheGame
My return started with a review about Destiny 2 Season of the Chosen by SkillUp, one of my favourite YouTube video game creators and a Destiny aficionado himself. (As a side note, I find SkillUp reviews to be a masterclass in game critique. No matter if Ralph dissects the latest AAA looter-shooter like Outriders or a critically-acclaimed indie title like Hades, while always being fair and reasonable with a personal and entertaining note to top it off, I regularly share his reviews with our team.)
I watched it only until the 9 minute mark where Ralph was praising the new ghost ship quest “being almost like a vertical slice from a different game […] like a half-built Dead Space”. I immediately hit the pause button so as to not to see any more spoilers and texted ROCKFISH Games UI designer and fellow Destiny fan Thilo to take me to that ghost ship, ASAP!
The next day, Thilo and his very capable Guardian sister Leonie (playing looter-shooters runs deep in their family) took me to the Glykon… and Holy space cow, my expectations were exceeded in every aspect. After enjoying the intro cutscene approaching the massive, abandoned spaceship with some eerie alien vibes and muffled space sounds, my two fellow Guardians let me figure out for myself how to pass that locked hangar door. After dying twice in trying to make the jump to the passage that turned out to lead around the massive Glykon to a hidden entrance, I recalled that Destiny 2 is a looter-shooter that keeps things interesting by throwing in some platformer challenges in exotic quests. So, I put on my St0mp-EE5 boots with extra high mobility that made things much easier from now on.
Let’s pause here for a sec to digest this: Bungie designed a complex quest in an entirely new interior location (very expensive content to create) that kicks off with a tricky platforming passage without giving you a single hint about how to get in… We’re talking about a AAA looter-shooter! You have to either love or hate Bungie for not holding your hand at the beginning of an exotic quest while saying: “Nope! No looty-shooty to get your hand on that sweet exotic at the end of this quest until you’ve mastered this platforming challenge! You did bring your jump boots, right? Oh, don’t like platforming?!”
I can relate to why Bungie designed these types of missions. Apart from putting out a challenge for the very best Guardians, they also wanted to make getting certain exotic gear feel like a hard-earned reward that other hardcore Guardians will respect when they see someone having it equipped, motivating more Guardians to try to beat that exotic quest and thus driving player engagement. But isn’t it a shame (and to a certain extent a waste of precious resources) that probably only a very small percentage of Guardians have ever experienced this portion of the game?
The Glykon mission is a perfect example of the Bungie leadership listening to their community by changing course on exotic fireteam quests to make challenging content more accessible without taking away pinnacle rewards and bragging rights for top Guardians. Speaking for myself, the 20 min timer on previous exotic fireteam quests locked me out from some fantastic content. With Presage, Bungie did the right thing by introducing exotic gear with special rolls for Guardians who manage to beat exotic fireteam quests against the clock in special challenges, while not locking out less skilled players like me.
This experience made me feel even more confident about adding more puzzle-solving in Everspace 2 although some die-hard space sim fans hate puzzles and demand that we take them out — puzzles are mostly optional and have always been part of the franchise — but making them more accessible yet yielding lesser rewards, seems like an elegant solution!
A Master Class in Quest Design
Borrowing the headline from this Shacknews review about the Presage quest, as it nicely wraps up my high-level thoughts, so instead of repeating their praise, let me share my personal player experience playing Presage for the first time, plus an immediate game design takeaway that I haven’t seen covered elsewhere: “How to make back-tracking not suck!”
Now, after I made it to the hidden entrance to the Glykon, Thilo showed me every lever to open doors, numerous vents and energy coils to shoot that open up new passages, and where to scan datapads and all sorts of corpses to unlock triumphs in future runs (game designers take note of the meaningful reuse of expensive game content), we reached a massive open hangar where you have to jump around between platforms while defeating buffed combatants I was thinking: “Man, this is even better than Halo 2 inside of that massive space station with all those zombies, where it’s fucking dark and you shit your pants on every jump scare; better have your shotgun and grenades ready…! Thilo, you hear me? Ah, you’re too young, you didn’t play Halo 2!? Yeah, too bad, it’s like this, maybe not as good, or different, but I have fond memories! Halo co-op, that music, goosebumps, hardwired in my brain… whatever, let’s move on and shred that boss! Man, this is fucking AWESOME! I gotta share this with our team, first thing tomorrow!”
Following Thilo and Leo to the lower decks of the Glykon, I was falling behind because I was occupied by soaking in all that exceptionally well-designed interior spaceship machinery. Every pipe, each latch, every technical apparatus kinda made sense in the space. Everything was as I would have imagined as a former wannabe machine engineer before I got into 3D computer graphics 28 years ago. Even on my trusty PS4 Pro, textures looked great on my 4K TV, and that lighting… as Marco, our lead technical artist once said when I was referencing Destiny 2 exceptional color & lighting: “Yeah, I know! You do know that Bungie has an entire team bigger than our studio just working on lighting?”
Still having an imaginary discussion with Marco about using complementary key colors in video games, Thilo’s voice brings me back to Destiny reality: “Michael, are you coming? We’re waiting downstairs! Make sure to rally at the flag I planted at the ledge! We need to deal maximal damage with your Void super before we’re all grilled alive!”
Having no clue about what’s expecting us, I rally at the flag, jump down, try to get orientated, when hell breaks loose. I fire my Shadowshot that “slows affected enemies, causes them to take more damage, and prevents them from using abilities”, and empty my 84 round machine gun magazine on that huge AoE fire damage-dealing boss right in front of me. While I enjoy yellow damage numbers popping up with every critical hit, accompanied by a deep, fat RATATATATAAH, making objects in my cupboard vibrate, and VFX from a massive firefight lighting up my living room, I’m wondering for a split second if I should have activated Night Mode for my Sonos Surround System… Yeah, no, too late, take that, my 20-something neighbours who love to party all night, I’m back into Destiny 2!!!
I should have recorded this, but you get me. It felt like I was actually there, at the Glykon with my fellow Guardians. Bungie created an epic quest in Destiny 2 that feels like it pays tribute to one of their most iconic Halo missions from 17(!) years ago while surpassing that combat and exploration experience, and even managing to add back-tracking that does not suck!
Unlocking new passages at the Glykon didn’t become same-old, same-old because a) once learned, you get excited about what new possibilities await behind that closed door/vent/shield you’ve passed earlier and b) since the labyrinth is so twisted and spread out on several decks, going back and forth between interior landmarks guided through clear objectives makes players memorize certain pathways and connections between segments, consequently growing their spatial understanding of the entire location step-by-step even beyond what is actually in the game. To quote Dax, a supporting character in Everspace 2: “You have no idea how big this whole thing is!”
Bungie’s open-heart surgery approach to innovating Destiny 2
After those words from a true Destiny 2 aficionado, let’s finish this half-fanboy, half-learn-from-the-best piece with Bungie listening to critical community feedback by sunsetting sunsetting legendary gear even though they had good reasons for introducing sunsetting in the first place (improving overall game balancing, encouraging Guardians to try new weapons, keeping the loot pool fresh). While I supported this major move in my previous accolade, I do understand that many hardcore Guardians weren’t happy about losing beloved gear that they had been farming for weeks or even months. However, beyond bringing back fond memories from 17 years ago and even exceeding, here’s why I pay Bungie utmost respect for their decision to introduce sunsetting and back-paddle when it backfired.
Taking away a core feature with the intention to further improve player experience and keep things fresh, even though you’re fully aware that, at first, the new mechanic is most likely not gonna go down well within your hardcore fan base, but you’re convinced it’s the right thing to do for the long run, is bold! Like, super bold!
Imagine running a 100% independent AAA studio with 700+ employees all trusting that the people at the helm make the right call when changing the direction of a core mechanic in a game that’s the company’s only public revenue resource. Then you take the L from the community about sunsetting gear like a boss, go back to your team to tell them you made the wrong call (poor decisions always lead back to one person in a leadership position), swallow some inevitable “I told you so” flak without losing your leadership momentum, work with marketing & PR on your public messaging about doing a 180 on a feature that you have strongly defended during the previous season and make a smooth transition to hammer out a new season that hits so hard even the most critical Guardians get excited again. This is all bearing in mind that most of Bungie is likely still working from home. Let that sink in for a sec! A change like this shows flexibility and forward-thinking that leaders should display more frequently.
Bungie is clearly comfortable taking a substantial risk on major game design changes that might impact their short-term bottom line to evaluate potential long-term improvements of their IP and correcting course if needed because it proves that Bungie is willing to innovate even if it might hurt their own pockets. They have the bigger goal to grow the franchise together with their community.
On a micro-scale as a 25 ppl indie studio, also making a living on only one IP (so far), I can very much sympathize with Bungie’s approach to try out new things, then iterating to get things right, while they also know exactly what kind of game they’re making and not compromising on their vision. You can measure commercial performance of video games in numbers, but creating a world-class gaming franchise that can last for decades comes from the gut. It requires the willingness to take creative and financial risks instead of just following the mainstream and copying trends to present strong (quarterly) financials. That said, if Bungie was a publicly listed company, I would buy stock now.
What continually impresses me is how Bungie manages to keep even part-time Guardians coming back using an unmatched mixture of 100% guaranteed fun gunplay within a gorgeous sci-fi setting, cleverly interwoven with gameplay loops that make every minute spent in Destiny 2 worthwhile. All that, plus those epic moments when you explore and fight through a new area together with your fireteam, have me torn between a) just enjoying the experience as an avid fan of action games and b) taking notes as vision keeper of a small indie studio eager to learn from the best.
With Season 13 and 14, Bungie has proved that they’re taking risks to innovate and constantly push the envelope, but also that their ear is also close to their community. They take in critical feedback without a grudge and change course to deliver a new season so strong it catches millions of Guardians by surprise. Kudos Bungie, you did it again!
This would have been the closing of my intial draft, and I think it would have been a solid conclusion for a love letter to one my favorite action games and my most respected developer/publisher. But let’s get back to my opening thesis!
While I was working on this piece, it grew on me that Bungie is onto something much bigger. Many of us grew up with iconic sci-fi movies and TV series that saw high-profile video game tie-ins that were fun to play for a while, but they always felt kind of shoehorned or meaningless. At the end of the day, you know that you’re not the hero of your favorite sci-fi movie. No matter how good that licensed sci-fi game is, it’s impossible that you really feel like an integral part of the lore because deep down you know that there are millions of other players trying to fill the shoes of somebody that a) nobody could ever live up to playing a lead movie character, or you’re just a side character, fighting in an interactive movie adaption that has its defined rules within a fixed world where game design and player experience always takes second and third place due to the legacy of the movie script.
Destiny is the exact opposite. While the first installment had been criticized for its weak lore and absence of storytelling, Bungie was focusing on getting the gameplay mechanics right and making Guardians the epicenter of the IP and gradually amping up the narrative of the game. I haven’t played the first Destiny, so I can’t judge how “bad” it was in the early days, but, I did notice that Ralph (SkillUp) dwelled in his recent Destiny 2 review on Bungie adding more and more story content to the game, something which Thilo also brought up when I was asking him about his verdict on season 13 and 14. Heck, in retrospect, even I was feeling it when I mentioned in my previous accolade: “I could go on for hours about Bungie’s excellence in art and world design as well as storytelling — the story mission in the Prison of Elders is where Destiny 2 is firing on all cylinders like a big-budget blockbuster action movie, except you’re right in the action yourself.”
Here’s the thing, as excited as I was when I wrote the previous Destiny 2 fan piece, I didn’t fully get it back then! Conceptually, Destiny 2 felt like an online version of a semi-open world Halo with better graphics, a bit short on storytelling, but tons of activities and almost too deep RPG elements, but when I’m playing it feels like I’m actually there like in no other game I’ve ever played. Today, I’m even more excited now because not only is Destiny 2 in a better place than ever before due new game modes like Battlegrounds and Overkill and lots of new content, but also because I and every other Guardian is a part of Destiny. I mean literally! I’ve played LOTRO for several years, but I always felt like a meaningless minion, never an integral part of the lore, because of that iconic world that already existed. Frankly, I’ve never cared about any quest in LOTRO, but writing this piece, I just realized, in Destiny 2, I do!
Now, I have no clue if this happened by accident or if it was a brilliant master plan by Bungie from the very beginning to put Guardians at the center stage of their IP by nailing online gunplay and building a strong community first BEFORE adding compelling storytelling and deep lore to the franchise, but, the more I think about, the more I’m blown away by the thought that Destiny might actually be the first metaverse that truly deserves that tag, and that I don’t see anyone being able to compete with them in the foreseeable future. Did I mention I would buy Bungie stock if they were publicly traded? Ah, doesn’t matter, I’m a happy Guardian either way… :)