We're emulating one of HBO's more apropos mottos this week: beating dead horses. Really.
An offhand remark in the HBO forum about the lack of information in the Weekly Updates prompted a reasonably long thread, not just about the updates, but about the lack of information about what Bungie is working on, and branching out into the general parameters of Bungie's relationship with its fans, through those Weekly Updates and other methods.
Shishka, a former fan now working with Bungie on that project they aren't ready to talk about, had an interesting comment that I think addressed a key idea, but in a way that set me off down a completely different path, the results of which you are about to see laid before you, for good or ill.
I think when a lot of people came into the community after discovering Halo, they learned of Bungie's connection with the community, but misinterpreted it. People have become so used to media extravaganzas, information blowouts, and gigantic hype engines that Bungie's relative silence at the beginning of development on a new title is a completely foreign concept to them. It's really not new, though.
That got me to thinking. Has Halo really spoiled the Bunige fanbase? Are we now so used to media blitzes that we aren't satisfied just to know Bungie is diligently working on what will doubtless be a fantastic game? Even before that, did the Halo and Halo 2 Updates make us so used to getting relatively substantive information so constantly that the sound of a few months of silence is deafening?
While Bungie fans are perhaps understandably curious and impatient, however, I do not think they have grown unreasonable. Nor do I think they've been spoiled, or become less patient. In fact, since Halo was announced, lengthening release cycles have required Bungie fans to be even more patient.
To substantiate that, I dug around for some dates and other information and created the Bungie Timeline; a list of important events in Bungie's history from 1993 to present. It is by no means complete; but major milestones in releases and developments, including Minotaur, Pathways Into Darkness, the Marathon trilogy, the Myth series, and Halo and Halo 2 are included, along with the acquisition of Bungie by Microsoft. I'm still collecting more information, but if you know about a date I've overlooked but should include, or if you've caught me making a mistake, drop me a line at email@example.com.
What I noticed is that as of today, it's been about eighteen months since Bungie's last release, and slightly less than four years since the last time it announced a new title: Halo 2 in 2002. In that time it has shipped one game, Halo 2.
For comparison, in a similar period of time from 1996 to 2000, Bungie shipped four games: Marathon Infinity, Myth: TFL, Myth 2, and Oni.
In short, long periods of silence while Bungie develops games is a relatively new thing. Of course, huge media extravaganzas when Bungie announces a game is also a relatively recent thing, as it applied only to Halo 2 and, to a lesser extent, Halo 1.
Eighteen months is the longest gap between Bungie releasing a game and announcing its next project officially. In fact, it's longer than Bungie used to take to develop and ship that game, even when that game is an entirely different genre with a completely different backstory, developed simultaneously in-house for a cross-platform release. It's only six months short of the time Bungie used to take to announce and ship two games.
The single largest factor in this is that development cycles all over the industry have lengthened. The quality of graphics, sound and music that can be displayed by gaming hardware in 2006 is a far cry from that available on a Macintosh in 1993 when Bungie released Pathways. The era of releasing a game marathon every year is gone forever.
Bungie fans used to get about a game a year or so. Starting with Oni, due to the increased complexity of games, that has stretched out now to the current cycle of about three years. Throughout that period Bungie has been a pretty accessible company to its fans; doing interviews with Mac gaming sites and posting in Usenet newsgroups in the early days, and then through the forums of various Marathon, Myth, Oni and Halo fansites.
Far from being more impatient, Bungie fans used to have even less. In January 1994, Bungie showed a very early version of Marathon at the MacWorld show in San Fransisco. Apparently not impressed with the reaction to it, they went back to the drawing board, and by the MacWorld show in Boston only seven months later, had a completely new engine, a vastly improved game with a detailed story, and told showgoers they were waiting for the boxes to come back from the printers and the game would ship "in two weeks".
Marathon shipped more than four months later, and Bungie stopped publicizing release dates until Halo. As it turns out, Bungie wasn't happy with the solo levels, and reworked every single one of them during those four months. No doubt the reverence that game receives from its fans, and I count myself among them, is due to the work that went on during those four months.
Still, Bungie was deluged with complaints about the delay. They were already hooked. They'd played Pathways into Darkness and they wanted more. Not only that, but they were Mac users. At the time, Bungie was pretty much the only show in town, the only company cranking out absolutely top-notch quality games first and foremost for Mac users. Marathon was the Mac user's answer to Doom.
That was a four-month delay, for a game that nobody had seriously paid attention to only eight months before, and that had only been officially announced at the MacWorld Boston show. And Bungie fans were rabid to get their hands on it. Now, eighteen months after Halo 2 shipped and not an official peep out of Bungie about whether or not what they're working on is Halo 3, even when the game ended with such a horrendous cliffhanger and it seems obvious to everyone from God on down to your local Gamestop manager that Microsoft would be insane to let Bungie work on anything other than Halo 3. Is Microsoft enforcing the silence? Perhaps. It's difficult to imagine why, given that the silence was broken first from Microsoft's side when Bill Gates let the Spartan out of the bag. Perhaps the uncertainness of the PlayStation 3 schedule, in light of Gates' promise to counter the PS3 with Halo 3 was a factor. Certainly that is coming to people's minds now that Sony has admitted their next console will launch worldwide this coming November; sites are all atwitter again with the idea that Microsoft has a chance to make good on Gates' threat (Next-Gen, Kotaku, CNN).
Of course, back in 1994 those fans thought they had a legitimate complaint. They'd been promised a game in two weeks and didn't get it for four months. Almost anyone would be ticked.
Bungie hasn't broken a promise lately. Despite red herrings about Halo 2 being delayed, the only official public release date ever given for Halo 2 was the date it hit: November 9, 2004, just a few weeks shy of Marathon's tenth anniversary. Before that, they hit the nail on the head with Halo 1, coming out as the prettiest debutante at the Xbox's ball.
For the current project, there's no public release date. No genre. No plot, no title, no codename, not even a platform. Still, just about everybody with more than a couple functioning neurons and even a few people without them assume the next game is Halo 3, for the Xbox 360, coming out maybe this year or next, either to rain on the PlayStation's parade or to herald the release of the Peter Jackson-produced movie.
Who am I to argue with that?