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Interview: Bungie discusses Activision, its 'new universe,' and what happens to Reach

If it seems like all you've read about today is Bungie, well ... that's probably not far from the truth. Whether it's information about the highly anticipated Halo Reach beta – whose early "friends and family" access began today (giveaway here!) – to some unique Halo Reach swag to the news that the now independent developer has partnered with headline hogger Activision, it's Bungie's world today. We spoke with Bungie's Brian Jarrard and Joseph Staten about everything from their choice of Activision, to their plans to support Reach post-release, to their transmedia plans for this "new universe" they keep talking about. Read on for the entire interview!

Joystiq: What would you tell fans that worry about Activision's annualized business model and how that might affect the culture at Bungie?

Brian Jarrard: The great news is that whatever business model Activision might have internally or applied to their first-party studios or their other properties isn't really relevant to our partnership and our plans for what we're going to do with our next, big universe. We have a specific deal that really allows Bungie to focus on what's most important to us which is remaining an independent company and owning our new IP and having creative control to really execute our vision of how we want this universe to play out over the next 10 years. We already have those plans pencilled in; we've already gone through a schedule with real dates and, sort of, real stuff with Activision at the outset of these discussions and we both have a plan that we agree on and that's exactly what Bungie's vision is for our next big universe.

Did you guys seriously consider relationships with any other publishers before signing on with Activision?

Joseph Staten: Sure, absolutely. We've been in negotiations with Activision for about nine months but we've certainly been planning for this conversation since we spun out from Microsoft in 2007. Over the years, I guess, we really talked to ... imagine any major publisher that you can think of and we've probably talked to them over the years. Activision, at the end of the day, was far and away the best deal.

Does Microsoft have any kind of 'right of first refusal' on future Bungie titles?

Brian: We're not actually allowed to discuss specific details of our contractual relationship with Microsoft, but we certainly have a relationship with them currently. We're still working together on Halo: Reach and we still have plans to work closely together with Microsoft through the release of Reach and beyond as we support the game online. As far as looking into the future and our next big IP, we did talk to Microsoft as well as some other publishers and, like Joe said, ultimately after all discussions were said and done, Activision was really the only publisher that ultimately met all of the conditions and things that were most important to us. And we get to own the IP, we're still independent, we have creative control, and Activision brings to the table the ability for us to explore multiple platforms and multiple devices, which, to us, is a very exciting prospect as we look to broaden our audience and share our new universe and stories with as many people as possible.

Speaking of supporting Reach: After the game comes out and you shift resources over to this new title, is Bungie still going to be supporting Reach or will that be left up to 343 at Microsoft? How does that work?

Brian: We definitely will have a portion of our team still focusing on Reach. I'm not exactly sure how that will eventually play out and at what point there will be a changing of the guard. But for the foreseeable future we are committed to Reach and to our community and we're going to stand by the game like we have in the past. At some point down the road, eventually there will be a time where we'll have to fully align with our future and our new project. We're a little ways away from that and it's a little premature to start speculating on when that's going to be.

Just thinking in terms of a timeline, you guys have delivered, in some ways an unusual amount of support for Halo 2 and Halo 3 after launch. Halo 3 is a game you still support and, moving onto Reach, I think a lot of gamers are nervous that the game will never earn that level of support from Bungie if you're busy with a new project.

Brian: Well, I can tell you we're not just going to drop it and run. That's certainly not the case. And I think between us, and MGS, and 343, there will be a plan put into place to make sure that the Reach experience of the Halo fans continues to get the support that they're used to and is expected to come with the game. So we both share an equal desire to make sure that there's no interruption in service or great experiences for our fans at some point down the road for Reach.

So, Reach being Bungie's final Halo title, do you intend to top your Halo success with your new title? Obviously going multiplatform opens up a lot of new consumers for you that you haven't had on the Xbox?

Joe: Yeah, absolutely. Our intention is not to gain our independence and get control over our creations and then go small. Today we're announcing a new universe, not just a new game. This is our chance to tackle something even bigger and more exciting to us, personally, than Halo. As much as we love it and will support Reach, this is really our chance to take the next step as a studio and build on our experience and tackle challenges that would've been not just terrifying but impossible for us to do just ten years ago. And as a guy that's been around at Bungie since before Halo 1, and surrounded by people on this new project that were there too, just a bunch of old Bungie veterans, it's really great to see people here who have fire in their belly and are filled with creative ideas, and ready to tackle this next big challenge.

So you've called it a "new universe" a couple times now. The Halo franchise has had some fits and starts in terms of being a transmedia property. Obviously you have the Peter Jackson game that never quite materialized and the movie that never quite materialized. Are you thinking of your "new universe" as a transmedia play? Something that you want to have books, and comics, and shows about?

Joe: If it makes sense, absolutely. When we first started developing Halo ten years ago, we were just trying to get this game ready for Xbox launch. We had no idea there would be a game called "Reach" or a game called "ODST" or even a game called Halo 2 or Halo 3, to say nothing of comics or novels or possible movies, or that sort of thing. So, having gone through that experience and seeing the creative possibilities that a vibrant universe allows, we're extremely excited about what may come in the future. But I can honestly say that we're laser-focused on making Reach great. And second to that, we are laser-focused on making this new universe rich and wonderful and able to support any story we might want to tell, whether that's comics or movies or best-selling novels. It really all depends on where we get but, certainly, we're exciting about that possibility.

Brian: And the great thing is it will only happen if we want it to. So we'll be able to really help shape and guide how we want that universe to grow.

Is this new universe a better foundation for that sort of thing? You said when you were finishing Combat Evolved, you had no idea how far it was going to extend. Do you feel like you're building a stronger storytelling foundation with this new property?

Joe: We're extremely proud of Halo, for all the lessons we learned – and some of those were really hard lessons. I think we're much more excited now about this long-term plan that we have, simply because we didn't have a long-term plan before. So being able to sit down at your desk and imagine what might happen five years from now, eight years from now, whatever the dates end up being, that's extremely empowering, as a story-teller. It really gives us the freedom to think long and to think big about the stories that we want to tell. And that's extremely exciting.

So there is one date that we do have, and that's "ten years from now." Bungie announced a ten-year exclusive contract with Activision. Ten years is really a long time; how extensively have you planned this new franchise out and will you be working on this property for this entire ten year period?

Joe: We can't really talk about specifics but I'd say that we did enough planning that Activision was able to look at our ten year plan and be really excited about it. This game is no longer just a concept in somebody's head; this universe is in pre-production. We're looking toward what we might do first in this universe and we have real plans. And again, you never really know what's going to happen in the industry: which platforms might change and which new devices might come to market. We have lots of different plans depending on opportunities that come up, but we've really taken a long view and there are people working right now and we need to be ready for a big team coming off of Reach in the fall. It's real and definitely moving forward.

How many games would a ten year contract encompass? Are there any minimums set by Activision for this partnership?

Joe: Again, we can't really talk about specifics of the contract. I think ten years, like you said, it's a long time. I think that gives you lots of opportunities. We aren't just talking about one game. We're talking about ten years and a universe of possible stories that we could tell.

I'd be remiss if I didn't address the elephant in the room, and that's Infinity Ward. At the LA Games Conference today, Michael Pachter suggested that today's Bungie's announcement was intended to remove some of the attention from the ongoing Infinity Ward situation at Activision. I wanted to give you a chance to comment on that.

Brian: I can certainly see where people would believe that. As far as we're concerned, our priority was, as soon as a long-form contract for this partnership was signed – which was this week – we wanted to quickly make this announcement and be able to return our focus to Reach. As you know, our beta launches on Monday, so our window of time was pretty short for opportunities to be able to do this and, frankly, sitting on this until after our beta wasn't really an option, because there's no way we could have gone along without something leaking, and really we want to return our focus to Reach, and that's all we want to talk about for the rest of the year. So as soon as the deal was signed this week, we decided that we wanted to act quickly and we spoke to Activision and today ended up being the day that worked best between our two schedules. Obviously, I think it has the unintended side effect of possibly being a boost in that regard, but that certainly wasn't anything that we factored into our discussions, we were just happy to share this news about our future, that our future's secure and we can't wait to talk more about it but then let's focus back on Reach again because we're doing a lot of great work there and we're looking forward to releasing it this fall.

Did the situation at Infinity Ward have any effect on your negotiations with Activision? Did it give anyone at Bungie pause?

Joe: Just speaking personally, it gave us a little bit of pause because we're so excited about this news and we knew we'd have to break through a lot of noise to get the message out there. So clearly that wasn't optimal, but like Brian said we signed our long form this week, but had a short-form signed at the end of March, well before all this stuff broke. So I honestly can say it did not have any effect. By the time we knew we were moving down the road with Activision and knew we had a deal which we already liked, where we owned our creations, we were independent, we're gonna reach a broad audience and it had no real material impact on the deal we signed.

Brian: And to be honest, we don't really know any more about any of this stuff than anybody else out there. It's not something we ever discussed with Activision, we're not privy to any insider perspective, it's not something we ever discussed, because frankly it just doesn't have any impact on our deal and our situation, other than, like Joe said, it's unfortunate that we have to fight through this other noise in order to make our announcement.

Joe: Again, I'd just also add that, for us, they certainly could have brought it up, they could have talked about it, and I think they showed a lot of class and integrity never making it part of our discussion. And again there were many things that made us feel good about signing a deal with Activision, but that was certainly one of them. When they were talking to us, they were talking to us, they were excited about our creative ideas and the deal we were signing and I think that's really great.

Are you worried about the effect of losing that first-party support and hardware access from Microsoft and not having it on PS3, a platform Bungie is new to developing for?

Brian: Frankly, I don't think we're worried at all. You're right, we did have a great opportunity even with Halo: CE and Bungie having a chance to have some influence and input even over some aspects of the original Xbox console itself, not to mention on 360 and Live. But it's not something we're worried about. I think all the stuff that we're doing in Reach now and we were doing on Halo 3, that was our team, there was a lot less reliance on insider persuasion and access to have the Live team do custom work for us. I'd like to optimistically think think that whatever our next big grandiose plans are that there will be numerous platforms very interested in having our title being able to work great and have a great experience on their networks and their consoles, and I have a feeling they'd be pretty eager to make that possible.

Are you interested in developing for non-HD platforms?

That's a pretty broad spectrum of device, right? Anything from mobile on up. I think we're now free to make those kind of decisions. We're not a first-party studio anymore, we're an independent game developer. If we look down the road and there are interesting consoles or devices, whatever makes sense for the stories we're trying to tell and the games that we're making. We're certainly not ruling anything out and we're eager to look at all the possibilities, both near future and long term.

Pimps at Sea coming to PS3 confirmed?

Brian: You're the first person who's brought that up, actually.

Joe: Hardcore!

Brian: I know, I guess the world will have to wait and see. When the time is right we'll make our announcement.

Joe: That's an idea that has to be fully baked, you know? It just hasn't quite reached its time or temperature yet.

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