For a while those of us who have criticized Destiny for its shortcomings have theorized that Activision may have been the primary cause behind most of the game’s problems. A recent lawsuit between Bungie and composer Marty O’Donnell puts meat on the bones of a theory many of us had. Bungie was being sued for monies due to O’Donnell for work he did on the soundtrack for Destiny and for profit sharing as well as other contractual agreements. What is now undeniable, thanks to details outlined in the lawsuit, is that Activision caused significant turbulence with the creative staff at Bungie around the time that the game was significantly delayed and had the story substantially revised.
In my line of work with graphic design I deal with interference in the creative process with some regularity. Someone with no sense of balance or color starts asking for changes that I immediately know will look horrible. This is often doubly frustrating when I have worked very hard to create a polished piece that gets scrapped because someone thinks they have a better idea (when they obviously don’t). That is, in many ways, what happened with Destiny.
The creative teams did what they do best, they wrote scripts, created weapons, worlds, and enemies, and Marty O’Donnell crafted brilliant and powerful music. Enter stage right, Activision, and everything gets thrown into chaos. They insist that a song Marty worked on for a trailer needs to be pulled at the last minute before it is shown at E3 2013. Around this time is when the game is significantly delayed and the entire story is revised. These events lead to Marty O’Donnell being described as “not fully engaged” with his work which eventually lead to his firing at the behest of Activision. During all of this the original release date of Destiny got pushed back from September of 2013 to March of 2014 and then eventually landed on the official launch date in September 2014. So an entire year gets added to the development of the game. To a certain degree, this is all the proof we need that the game we were promised in dev diaries and early press basically doesn’t exist, and it took a year to re-build what we’ve been playing for the last 11 months. It also makes sense of the empty, bland, and somewhat confusing story.
Probably the most important thing that may be overlooked or long forgotten in this timeline is that Joseph Staten, the lead writer for Destiny, quit and left Bungie shortly after all of this conflict with Activision and O’Donnell took place in 2013. So Activision insists that a song be removed from a trailer right before E3 2013, Marty O’Donnell thinks they overstepped their role, and Ryan, the CEO of Bungie, agreed with Marty along with management and filed a “veto” letter to overrule Activision. In the wake of the E3 events Marty behaved in ways that were seen as unhelpful which set things in motion that lead to his firing. After all of this it isn’t surprising that another major creative role was quickly vacated as things were being changed, retooled, and delayed. So now, more than ever, Joseph Staten the lead writer for Destiny suddenly quitting makes perfect sense. This is the context and birth pangs of the bland and chopped up story that exists in vanilla Destiny. And to be clear, it’s no small thing that the lead writer quit shortly after the composer was fired for having differences with a publisher that was overstepping its role and disrupting the creative process. More concerning is that in March 2015 senior gameplay designer Josh Hamrick quit Bungie to go work for Bethesda. Hopefully this is not a sign of an unhealthy pattern where there is internal frustration and brokenness due to the overreach and interference of Activision that continually makes senior creative team members throw their hands up and quit.
I have been pretty vocal about my disappointments with Destiny, but I’ve also given far more room for improvement and hope that The Taken King is the hinge on which the franchise will turn. Hopefully the timing of this lawsuit and the unsurprising yet unsettling news about how Activision treated the game and Bungie employees won’t overshadow what could be the beginning of clear skies for Destiny. The silver lining is that hopefully all the Bungie-bashers can start to see who the real culprit is in this tumultuous and strange game. And if other game developers see how horrible it is to work with Activision, we can all hope they lose some of their dominance. Yes, Marty was owed his due for his composing work, but that was mishandled by people completely disconnected from the development side of Bungie which makes up the lion share of their staff and is the side of the company that maters most to the Destiny community. These are the people improving the game, making changes, taking in community feedback and swallowing the hard pill of admitting that they have a game that is very much incomplete and in some ways broken. If the Taken King helps Destiny turn the corner it’s more of a testament to the skill and ability of Bungie than anything. Dealing with Activision’s overreach and interference while losing major players on the creative team are huge obstacles that cannot be understated. Hopefully the worst is behind us and we can look forward as things grow and advance, but I fear Activision is only getting started.
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