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Don't We Trust Them?

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.

Shishka wrote:

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 narcogen@rampancy.net.

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?

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Comments

Looking at the responses from both Narc and Shiska, and I wonder if there's truth to both.

Halo CE provided my introduction to Bungie, so I'm not familar with their prior projects or they way they did PR for them. As Narc points out, the blackout period since their last game was either announced or shipped exceeds any other timespan in Bungie's history. Since development cycles used to be much shorter, information was invariably available sooner.

How far along were the games when Bungie used to announce a title or provide media in the form of screenshots or demos? Did they "let the cat out of the bag" early on, or did they wait until the game was nearing completion? If Bungie normally waits until a game reaches a certain level of completeness before showing it off, and their next project hasn't reached that milestone, their silence might not be as uncharacteristic as some think. It may just appear that way because the development cycle is much longer than it has been in the past. It's true they started talking about Halo 2 early on, but considering how many of their ideas ultimately didn't pan out, I think they spoke too soon. Halo 2 may have served as a "lesson learned" for them, and they decided to keep quiet this time around. Certain events, such as Microsoft executives repeatedly referring to Halo 3, and Bungie's decision to make Halo 2 a cliffhanger make such a stance less feasible in my eyes, but I guess it's their call.

[quote=]Looking at the responses from both Narc and Shiska, and I wonder if there's truth to both.

How far along were the games when Bungie used to announce a title or provide media in the form of screenshots or demos? Did they "let the cat out of the bag" early on, or did they wait until the game was nearing completion? If Bungie normally waits until a game reaches a certain level of completeness before showing it off, and their next project hasn't reached that milestone, their silence might not be as uncharacteristic as some think. [/quote]

Well, if you go back to the Marathon days, Bungie was pretty small, and they were only working on one project at a time, more or less. So when you look at PiD to Marathon, that was really about a year and a half development time-- the Marathon engine started as a rewrite/sequel of PiD.

They showed an early Marathon in January 1994, retooled it, officially announced in with a press release in July, showed it again in August 1994, and finally shipped in December 1994.

Since Marathon was getting overhauled for release in the latter part of 1994, it's probably safe to assume that work on Marathon 2 didn't start until after it was shipped. Marathon 2 was announced in July of 1995 and released in November of 1995.

The key to understanding those release schedules lies in the fact that Bungie at that time was a Mac developer, and Apple had trade shows in San Fransisco in January and in July/August on the East coast (Boston, then New York-- now there's no East Coast show).

A lot of Bungie's sales up until that time were direct at the trade show or through catalogs. There was incentive for Bungie to get word out about the products because getting shelf space was difficult.

That's not an issue now. Even if Bungie doesn't utter a peep about their next game until the day it goes gold master, it's practically guaranteed shelf space.

Without that pressure, perhaps Bungie would prefer to be more quiet. Perhaps they couldn't over Halo 2 because MS wanted a last-gasp push for the Xbox to have a good quarter. That isn't really convincing, though, and Bungie was very effusive about Halo 2 early on.

If anything, I think the added popularity of Bungie games now compared to then means that Bungie's every action is even more scrutinized, causing backlash when the game they release is different-- not worse-- than what they announced.

Look at Halo 2. Massive infantry engagements? Space stations you can aim and fire? Those were talked about, but they're not in the game. That doesn't make the game bad, it just means Bungie changed the ideas of what they could and wanted to do in the game between announcement and release. So perhaps they're merely waiting until the point where what the game actually IS (its nature, not its title) before saying anything about it-- until some point where all the work is plug-and-chug-- asset creation, etc.

I'm not sure development at Bungie ever really reaches a stage like that. After all, Marathon was delayed essentially because, even while they were promising customers to ship in "two weeks" they felt the game wasn't quite good enough yet. So they spent four months improving every solo level.

I made this, because as cool as your timeline is, my brain processes visuals faster than two pages of text. ;)

http://nikon.bungie.org/images/bungie-timeline.gif

To me, the thing that sticks out the farthest is the line density on either side of the acquisition. :)

(While I'm here, typo: "The era of releasing a game marathonevery year is gone forever." should be "The era of releasing a game every year is gone forever.")

Nice piece. I agree, it's glue-making... but it's high-quality glue-making.

Mind if I add that to the collection?

I had thought about eventually doing one myself, but yours is pretty nice. Plus, I figured I'd always be having to add something, and I wanted the result to be something that would show up in text searches on the site (which the graphic wouldn't).

Also thanks for the typo, I've caught that one, and I'm already starting to get other corrections and additions as well.


Rampant for over six years.

Wait, I need to write MORE than that? Um... "and good riddance!" Wait, no, that's not right...

Anyway - all yours. Go for it.

You note that from 1996 to 2000 Bungie developed and released four games, whereas during a similar time period from 2002 to 2006 Bungie has only released one game. While your arguments concerning the universal trend towards longer development times most likely plays a part in this, what I think is more important is what happened at the end of that first four year period, more specifically in June of 2000; Bungie was bought by Microsoft.

Now, I don't mean to say that Microsoft has intentionally slowed down Bungie's work pace, but everything that resulted from that acquisition contributes to the both the "media blitz" as you describe it and the longer development times. Mainly this is due to the unprecedented popularity of Halo and its role as the game which put the Xbox on the map. You'd have to expect that with such a popular series, the games are going to receive more attention, fans are going to be more eager to learn about developments, and every effort is going to be made to ensure that the next game in the series (or, even if the next game is not a Halo game, the pressure is still there) is the best it can be.

For these (admittedly limited and probably uninformed) reasons I believe that the acquisition of Bungie by Microsoft is the most important factor contributing to the issues you describe in your Web Log.

-stan