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socialnorms avatar 11:41 AM on 04.29.2010  (server time)
Bungie, Activision, and Corporate Entropy

In 1999, a handful of demos included on a disc within Myth: The Total Codex included a video for another new direction Bungie Studios was taking. The idea behind it was to improvise using a small force of humans to survive on an open, alien world. The implication was you would be warrior-badass and play as force commander, making decisions as on a chessboard rather than gliding down a predefined hallway, shooting baddies. As with its predecessor, it was a lofty concept, and like its predecessor, it had some of the very best minds behind it.

In 2000, Microsoft acquired Bungie, and that project changed. It became a first-person shooter alone. What complexity and historical depth came with Myth did not follow with the Halo series. Fortunately the level of gameplay quality did not suffer, perhaps because both companies knew gameplay was key.

Still, Bungie's then CEO Alex Seropian told stories about running interference between Microsoft and his creative team. Initially, he reported being given a lot of creative freedom, but that changed later on.

If you're a Halo nerd, as I am, you may remember the initial preview for Halo 2. I still maintain that is what Halo should have been - the same, but with more depth. As the Master Chief walked through the Marine hospital, marines could be heard trying to fix up the wounded. When he entered the combat zone, marines were interacting. "Is it dead?" one asked. A grenade went off. "You tell me!" another shouted back. Simple and sublime.

When the game was released, little of that initial charm remained. Its replacement was mostly a cartoon with dialogue distilled into the simplest formula. It was worse than hokey. But the quality gameplay remained, along with the soundtrack that was too good for the story, and it remained enjoyable.

What happened? I suspect "market targeting" happened.

Others here have already argued as much, saying the target marketing will continue to provide games for obnoxious kids, but we'll benefit because the games will remain enjoyable. It's true they will make money, it's true that will be good for business. It is cynical, submissive and pathetic, however, to sacrifice the quality of your favorite media to the same phenomenon that turns out 30 Rock and "The Bounty Hunter."

Why not hope for extended gameplay and memorable moments? Why not ask for memorable characters and broader environments? And why not demand quality?

The absence of these virtues is not a guaranteed result of Bungie's deal with Activision. Another incarnation of Seropian may run interference against Activision to prevent it from becoming as generic as Call of Duty. But as you've seen from other IP's absorbed by Activision, that's not typically the case. There is reason to be skeptical. And there is reason to lament the bloating of what was once a fast and ferocious company.

I'll finish with an anecdote on corporate entropy. Two days ago I found a problem with some of my company's product. Essentially, instead of having a button for users to switch between two screens of the interface, the developer has placed a large, unlabeled rectangle. It's so unintuitive that it's essentially an Easter Egg. When I reported this inadequacy, I was met with nothing but resistance.

I think I can name three or four Dtoiders who could label a button and tie it into the back end of a SQL-based product in less than a day. Maybe less than an hour.

The woman in charge of this has had four years to make this thing work. She gets paid over $65,000 for this. Her boss likely makes over $80,000. But neither of them wanted to both this week, or even this month, to make the product better. Because they don't have to. They're going to get their money either way.

Is that what you want your favorite game developers doing?

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