Joystiq interview: Bungie's Marty O'Donnell on the 'digital content crisis'

Marty O'Donnell caused something of an uproar recently following controversial comments aimed at used video game sales. In particular, it was the Bungie audio director's apparent assertion that content creators and publishers "shouldn't stop receiving income from further sales" that served as the biggest sticking point; after all, why should the game industry be given special treatment beyond the initial point of sale?

Not long ago we had the opportunity to have a candid conersation with O'Donnell on this topic, during which he clarified his stance, and stated that while he doesn't feel games represent a "special category," he believes that "digital content is creating a crisis for the economic model of new and existing mediums."

"Digital copies are essentially identical to the original, and they don't 'wear out' with use," he told us, a burden that he feels is not shouldered by the gaming industry alone.

"The music and movie [industries are] not happy about used sales either," he explained. "It makes no sense to me to prevent consumers from selling or trading anything they 'own,' however we do have to at least look at the impact of the technology on how creators get compensated for providing entertainment."

O'Donnell continued: "A musician who writes and records a song that millions of people end up enjoying should be able to put food on the table ... Would it seem right to you if a single CD is sold one time to a store for which the musician gets a share, and subsequently that store re-sells it to 100 more people for which the musician gets nothing? That's the situation we're in right now and I'm just observing that it will be hard for that musician to have a reason to make a follow up CD even if the public is clamoring for one."

However, used game sales have not prevented Bungie from cranking out a pair of sequels to Halo, not to mention establishing one of modern gaming's most well known brands, and O'Donnell was quick to point out that he isn't complaining about Halo's place in the pre-owned market. "I would maintain that Bungie has been pretty smart about making a product that has legs and encourages the consumer to hold onto the physical medium for a long time."

"If I was part of a team that had created a smaller, less commercially successful title," he added, "we would probably be hurt by used sales and thus might not create again." Of course, herein lies the problem faced by the game industry in what was quickly begining to look to us like its own personal Kobayashi Maru. But is it a no-win scenerio?

"Creators, publishers, and distributors should get together to come up with some smart and equitable solutions," theorized O'Donnell. "Something that consumers will be happy about, but still rewards the creator for making something that people enjoy." Simple, right? Doubtful, though this hasn't stopped the audio guru from speaking out.

"I have a problem with the "poor" brick and mortar folks who keep making a new mark-up on the same thing over and over and don't share. I have a problem with greedy publishers and for that matter greedy creators. I also have a problem with consumers who believe that because they "bought" something they have the right to copy it and distribute it themselves."

And while O'Donnell isn't shy about speaking his mind, that doesn't mean he has all the answers either. He spoke of many possible solutions to the problems he sees during our conversation, from subscriptions to defying GameStop's COO Dan DeMatteo's Magic 8-Ball and going all-digital. He even joked, suggesting "plastic that slowly deteriorates over time."

"I don't think that I have a solution that will stamp out greed or ignorance," he offered as we wrapped up our dialog.

"Like I said before, it's going to take some creative thinking by the creators and distributors to come up with equitable solutions. I'm certain that part of it will involve new habits, new models, and new technology. In the long run I believe that the cost to the consumer will go down and the share for the creator will go up. But I'm an idealist."