The story of game studio Bungie is littered with irony. The company that created Halo for Microsoft’s Xbox platform later split from the Windows-maker to ink a publishing deal with Activision Blizzard for its follow-up, the sci-fi shooter Destiny. The company later split with Activision to once again go fully independent. Now, two weeks after Microsoft bought Bungie’s former publishing partner, the developer is joining Sony’s PlayStation Studios.
The Bungie ouroboros speaks in many ways to the nature of modern gaming. The industry is consolidating rapidly as large platform owners race to build out more expansive software and services ecosystems to sell new hardware and stay ahead of potentially disruptive new forces like subscription gaming and the cloud. And in Bungie, Sony has found a company with unparalleled technical expertise, strong intellectual property and a devout customer base.
Bungie’s future is bright, but it’s brighter with PlayStation. Bungie will soon hold a unique title as both an Xbox- and PlayStation-owned studio over the course of its more than 30-year history. But as part of the dwindling list of independent, third-party game makers, Bungie stands to benefit more from joining a major platform than continuing to stick it out alone.
- The company has pledged to support its current moneymaker, Destiny 2, through 2024 with three major expansions still to come. But Bungie has ambitions “to become one of the world's great entertainment companies,” CEO Pete Parsons told GamesIndustry.biz in a nod to its TV and film ambitions. Sony’s resources can help Bungie do that.
- Bungie is also working on a new, unannounced project, funded in part by a $100 million NetEase investment from 2019, that is likely a major factor in Sony’s decision to scoop the studio up.
- Bungie has maneuvered almost every phase of the gaming industry and managed to maintain not only its identity and culture, but also its creative freedom. It’s safe to assume the studio has made a deal with Sony that’s as mutually beneficial as possible.
- Just look at Bungie’s blog post on the acquisition, in which Sony seems to have given it the green light to communicate unprecedented promises about supporting competing platforms well into the future.
It’s all about the content (and the talent that makes it). We’re long past the days when console-makers can rely on the allure of newer, better hardware to draw in more customers. Now, it’s all about software, including exclusives but also games that can survive for many years and live anywhere, and the technical know-how to make those titles. Bungie has that in spades.
- Bungie has mastered the live service model after seven years of constant experimentation with the Destiny series. The original game and its sequel have amassed more than 187 million unique players over the last decade and spawned a vibrant community of diehard fans. (I’m one of them, with thousands of hours logged in both games over the years.)
- Along the way, Bungie has helped pioneer once-unheard-of technical feats like cross-save and cross-platform play, and used a variety of different business models to sustain Destiny, straddling a unique line between free-to-play giants and subscription-based MMOs. The company’s infrastructure is also mind-bogglingly complex, supporting nearly a dozen different hardware platforms (including Google Stadia) across nine expansions for Destiny 2.
- In Bungie, Sony is also getting one of the most celebrated first-person-shooter developers in the industry. With Microsoft’s plans for the Call of Duty franchise up in the air now that it owns Activision Blizzard, Bungie can step in to help fill the gaping genre hole in PlayStation’s lineup.
Sony’s exclusivity strategy is becoming more flexible. Sony won the PS4 era by focusing on making really enticing games you could only play on its console, and then behind the scenes vigorously defending its ecosystem lock-in to keep PlayStation prosperous and Xbox stuck in second. But the industry is shifting toward a live service, cross-platform future and Sony appears to be adjusting to this new reality, albeit in very careful fashion.
- Sony and Bungie execs are promising that the studio will remain independent and multiplatform. But why would Sony pay nearly $4 billion to keep putting games on Xbox devices? For one, Bungie has the technical skills and talent pool to help other PlayStation studios create games that can live on other platforms, the cloud and perhaps even mobile devices.
- PlayStation boss Jim Ryan was open with GamesIndustry.biz that “the way people play games has changed a lot over the last few years,” and that Sony looks at Bungie as a way to “significantly decrease the time it will take to get it right” with regards to live-service, multiplatform gaming.
- “Bungie’s successful track record in multi-format publishing and live game services will assist us in realizing our ambitions to take PlayStation beyond the console and increase our potential audience,” Ryan wrote in a blog post announcing the sale.
- What we can point to today is that Sony is finally breaking out of its traditional business model trappings to try new approaches. Sony’s new MLB The Show 22 will support cross-platform play and cross-progression on Nintendo Switch and Xbox. And Sony has begun publishing first-party games to PC at a faster clip, with resounding success as Steam sales for the newly released God of War PC port suggest.
Up until now, Sony’s acquisition strategy has felt straightforward. It bought small- and medium-sized studios known best for making really good PlayStation games, turning those studios into exclusive powerhouses that have helped define its console brand.
The Bungie deal feels different. It’s not in reaction to Microsoft’s Activision Blizzard purchase; Ryan confirmed that the deal has been in the works for months. But it feels very much like Sony has woken up to the direction the games business is headed, and why studios like Bungie, long at the forefront of social and technical world-building, might be the kind of secret weapon the PlayStation platform needs to chart a path forward.
A version of this story also appeared in today's Entertainment newsletter; subscribe here.