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Exclusive: Bungie's CEO Pete Parsons on Destiny 2 and the split with Activision

GameCentral sits down for an exclusive interview with Bungie CEO and Chairman, Pete Parsons, talking about everything from crunch to Destiny’s social benefits and the company’s split with Activision.

With the release of Beyond Light, Bungie has taken a bold new step for Destiny 2. What is intended to be the start of a new trilogy of expansions sees Bungie with a clear vision of where it’s headed, both as the creators of Destiny but also as a company.

Since their split with Activision in early 2019, Bungie appears to have a roadmap for its its future. In an unprecedented move, earlier this summer, the developer outlined Beyond Light and the two expansions after that. Next year, we’ll be getting The Witch Queen and a year later, Lightfall. It’s believed the latter will act as somewhat of a conclusion to the war between the Light and Dark that is currently brewing at the heart of the game.

It speaks to a confident company. With their newfound independence, Bungie is committing to Destiny 2 with a defined future. An open and transparent one with its community, that may have been impossible just two years ago.

So, how did it get to this point? We thought we’d go to the top and ask Bungie CEO and Chairman Pete Parsons about the future of the game, but also the legacy of the developer itself.

What followed was an earnest conversation about the pandemic, the power that Destiny 2 holds when social interaction is harder to come by, and Bungie’s approach to crunch and culture. And of course, how that split with Activision came about, why it happened, what Bungie lost during the transition, and what the future of Destiny, and new games, look like as an independent entity.

Pete Parsons: How is the pandemic treating you over there, Patrick?

Patrick Dane: Well, I mean… It’s been intense but pulling through. Destiny has helped.

Pete Parsons: Yeah, as a player, I think you will appreciate this. I get a lot of these mails where Destiny has been this place that started as a fun dumb thing to play and then became this collected community because of its non-toxic behaviour. It did become that third place for people, right? We used to talk about, playing Destiny is an alibi for talking about sports or the Academy Awards or Dancing with the Stars or what we did today. I’ve never had a game where I spent hours with somebody and I’m just helping them out. I feel like I’m getting rewarded, but what’s more rewarding is the story that I have with my friend, Katarina, if I help her do something.

Patrick Dane: Yeah, I run a clan as well. So, I totally get that. I get the most enjoyment out of going back and helping people through a raid for the first time and stuff like that. That’s what I enjoy the most.

Pete Parsons: I love that. What’s happened is, especially during a pandemic, and once again, I get these emails and in some cases, they are actually fairly heartbreaking, so I don’t want to treat it lightly – but in many cases, it has become a lifeline for people. And that kind of tapped into what you said, where people are afraid, and people are alone. They just do not have the interactions that they want. And because Destiny kind of meets you, wherever you are, whatever your mood. With a great group of friends it has become a… Yeah, it has become a lifeline.

Patrick Dane: Yeah, we all kind of congregated again around Beyond Light. And just last night, a friend I was playing with was talking about, like, it’s just so good to have people and just to be able to sit and talk again. So, as much as I love Destiny, it is also an incredible resource for me and all my friends.

Pete Parsons: Hey, if you do not mind, we do a team meeting every week. If you do not mind, can I share that?

Patrick Dane: For sure.

Pete Parsons: That would be awesome. We do this. We try to make sure that we bring the stories from the world of Destiny to the team. I actually have a segment that I have done every now and then called Stories That I Can’t Tell Without Crying. I am not kidding. I had some friends of mine actually read them for me.

In fact, I feel like I am name dropping right now but the first one we did – we do a significant amount of philanthropic work. Both in Make a Wish, but also we have a huge effort that we do with nine hospitals now around the country with iPads. Anyway, I got this incredible story. And I asked a buddy of mine, his name’s Tom Skerritt. He was in Top Gun and Alien and a bunch of others. And I was like, ‘Hey, Tom’ – I have known him for almost 25 years – ‘Hey, Tom, I need you to do this favour for me because I can’t read it. I cannot get like two sentences in without getting all weepy, and I need a pro.’ And then we asked Tom to do it, and he made it three-quarters of the way through a sentence before he got weepy, and his wife had to help him finish it.

So, I guess the point I am making is that it’s so fantastic to be able to work with this team. And it’s so great to be a part, not only to have a community, but to be a part of that community, and both how rewarding and inspiring that is. And frankly, I mean, I’m locked away in my own place, and how important it is to me.

Patrick Dane: 100%. It’s strange because most developers I know, don’t work, go home and play the game that they’ve been working on. That seems to be something that’s very unique to Destiny. Bungie developers I’ve talked to talk about playing in their off time, which is kind of bizarre. It’s neat that you guys work on it, and you’re not so burned out from it that when you go home, you still dedicate your off time to it.

Pete Parsons: Yeah, it is really interesting in that way. I think it’s because of what we talked about before, which is that everybody wants to create – the stories that come out of Destiny, aren’t the Destiny stories. We create the canvas that our players can write their journey amongst the stars on, and the stories become about them and about what they’ve done together.

And man, holy crap. I have so many of those stories. Literally, I am going to be playing with my friend Jack a little bit later today. Jack’s in Munich. And we will probably pick up Katarina a little bit after that and it’s incredible in that way. So, you know, when the stories are about human interaction, they never get old. And so, I don’t burn out on Destiny. I ebb and flow like everything, but I don’t burn out because it’s about the social interaction.

To say this in a self-serving way, those are the kinds of games for us. Destiny was an evolution of what we had done before. When we look to the future, not only do we look to a bright and long-term future with Destiny, and the Destiny universe, but also new games. Those engaging worlds that are non-toxic, that welcome you, whoever you are, wherever you’re from and no matter how you identify, it feels like a place that you can be. That is super important to us.

One of the things that’s different now is that because the platforms are taking it seriously, is I can add – I only like to do three things, but I will add a fourth – which is, no matter what platform. So, that you have the ability to not only play on console or PC but also to ultimately bring it to your phone, for us, is a pretty big deal. I think long-term, what we want, because it builds on the concept of Destiny as a platform, is to build that larger, unified community of people who just want to go and share experiences together and extend that out to what we do next.

Patrick Dane: Would you say cross-play is a longer-term or shorter-term goal?

Pete Parsons: So, it’s a really good question. What we have right now is you can seamlessly move between platforms; any platform instantaneously with your character. We also have cross-generational play with the platforms.

We have actually talked about that. We desire to do cross-play. It is a little more complicated for us, but that work is being done. I wish I could give you a time and a date for when we are going to make it happen, and I can’t. That said, it’s a thing we do care about.

And, most importantly, which is the thing I said before, Destiny is a community game. Destiny is about the stories that we write together. So, the more that we can consolidate that audience into one larger, unified community, the better it just makes it for everybody. Once again, I say that as somebody who not just runs the company, but is also one of Destiny’s biggest fans.

Then, in a longer-term sense, in a more business sense, we desire to make games that are not just other Destiny games, but we definitely – a common denominator will always be this sense of social engagement. This concept of, we can provide that patina of lore and mythology and fiction and heroes and gods, but ultimately, the best stories are going to be your stories.

Patrick Dane: Going back to the culture of Bungie, again, I mostly hear passionate things from Bungie designers and how they enjoy working there. That is not true of everywhere. How do you go about creating a positive development environment? Especially with conversations about crunch going around the industry, how do you go about looking after your team?

Pete Parsons: Well, we have been super fortunate. We learned some painful lessons going all the way back, just for a moment, to 2004. Well, with both Halo: Combat Evolved and Halo 2, we learned some painful lesson as related to crunch and just how hard that can be. The thing that we realised, and I’m really proud of the team for realising this early on, is if we want to make these highly engaged games, that, at the risk of sounding like I’m saying buzzwords, when you make a game like Destiny, or you make the game that we have on deck next, you realise that the moment you launch is the starting line, right?

So, one of the things that we want to do is we want to make sure that Bungie as a company is a centre of creative and technical excellence. And you can’t build a centre of creative and technical excellence where people – once again, I said this about our community, I will reflect the same words for employees – where you feel like as an employee, you can come no matter who you are, where you’re from, which is actually even changing for the better with the pandemic, or how you identify that you can come and feel like you can do your best work. And you cannot do your best work if you’re crunching.

So what I’m so proud of is that the team and I look at people, certainly people on the line, but you also Patrick O’Kelley, Mark Noseworthy, David Allen and our production crews, Nya Shirzard. I mean, these are people who understand that this journey is really important if we’re going to get the best of people, and we’re not going to get the best of people if we’re crushing them, so we can’t do that.

And, so I think, you know, Destiny is an expression of what happens when people can do their best work. And by the way, as you know, as a Destiny fan, it’s not all perfect. [laughs] But it is an expression of what we can do when we are our best selves. So we try to be our best selves. We do try to really make sure that the people here understand, and I’ll say this but, I come to work every day, I don’t come to work for the money. I come to work because I care deeply about making magical, beautiful things. Doing it with people who, every day, whether I walk physically into the studio, or whether I’m signing on to another Teams meeting, that I am so inspired by those people.

It is not just me, Jason Jones, the original founder of the company and creator of Halo and Destiny, he feels the same way too. We see our job as, as a legacy, how do we create that centre of creative and technical excellence. That’s super important to us.

We actually have this vision, and the vision is to become one of the world’s great entertainment companies, and that is through lean, happy, healthy teams. We go out of our way to make sure that we’re not crushing our teams because you cannot do your best work when you are.

Just as an example of that, I mean, Beyond Light didn’t come out in September, right? It came out in November. And it came out because of the pandemic, and because of the work that we had to do, and we made that decision and it was not an easy decision. Particularly with the console launches and everything else, that we chose the wellness of our people over the date that people would expect us to launch.

I think this is an important point, just because you’re part of the community as well: when you spend time building a relationship with your community and communicating with them, you can have that conversation. You can say, like, ‘Hey, we are moving this date. And we are doing it because of the team and it’s the right thing to do and we want you to understand it’s the right thing to do.’ And that’s what we did.

I feel like – well, one, it was the right thing to do, and we would have done it anyway – but you know when you look at the reaction of the community, it was also the right thing for us to do. Particularly as you pointed out, the stories of other teams that are just kind of crashing against the rocks of really, fairly devastating crunch.

I do not know about you, man, but it’s harder when you’re not in the studio, it’s harder when you’re not in the office, it’s harder when you’re on the screen. So, that is a bunch of other things that we have done just on the backside. But, you know, we bugged out in March. I just am so proud of the work that our IT operations group, and then certainly our creatives team, our ability to move out of the studio and our ability to keep working and our ability to create something fairly magical during the pandemic has been pretty inspiring. But it doesn’t come without costs, right?

I will give you an example. So, one is we have had extra people wellness days as a result of the pandemic. We have given people extra time. Once again, we are very, very fortunate as a studio in that Destiny, the business of Destiny is absolutely thriving. It’s great for us. But we’ve done things like, I actually did it, we cooked jambalaya. The IT team has stacked up all… like, they ordered it from a catering company and the catering company has built like 500 packages, not kidding, of jambalaya ingredients. You drive up and you pull up like they have your name and stuff, and then they give you the packet you go home, and then a chef does it online. It sounds way more expensive than it actually is. It’ s just we’re like really rethinking about how we are working in the pandemic.

Then we are doing a significant amount of work. We are thinking about what the post-pandemic world looks like. We’re actually reconfiguring our studio. We’re rethinking about the way that we work with people. That rethinking of the way we work with people, I believe has significantly opened the aperture for the level of talent, global talent, that we can hire. The level of diversity that we can bring on that may not have been able to relocate to Bellevue, Washington of all places. So, you know, I think in many ways, out of darkness, we have seen some pretty exciting light.

Patrick Dane: Yeah, you guys put out a ViDoc of you all working from home. I can’t imagine moving an entire multi-million dollar company online is easy.

Pete Parsons: Yeah, I went to the studio for the first time in a few months. And I have this special – we have a – it is interesting… at any moment in time, there are about 20 people inside the studio. They are the IT operations securities team. Their job is obviously ongoing security, maintenance, and managing our online environment. But they are also quite literally rebooting machines as they crash.

It’s hard to express the feeling for me as somebody who takes this all so personally, where you walk in and you see the sea of empty desks. It looks like everybody scrambled out of the office and it’s been left as it was. And that’s true. But what is also true is that their machines are on and they are running as they VPN into them. I walked into the office early last week and I made it like halfway down the hall before I broke into tears. [laughs] I am so inspired by the work that’s done, and yet cannot wait for this to be over.

Patrick Dane: I assume, there is only going to be so much you can say about this, but going independent from Activision, how did that decision come about and where did that come from?

Well, I mean, you are looking at definitely one of the people who did that. I was about as intimately involved in this as anybody else in the company.

I think the real thing, and we talk about this a lot, is the desire for creative independence. That’s ultimately what we want as a studio. I think it’s a lot less about not being with a publisher, or not being owned by another company. But it is about the creative freedom to build the worlds that we want to build, that connect people globally, across any platform, and from all walks of life. That is actually a huge deal for us.

So, when you are limited in that way – and once again, I am not going to throw shade at anybody – but when you are limited in that way, it really presents a challenge creatively to a team.

So, I am going to tell you the secret sauce to every Bungie game. And because this is only us, I am sure this is totally not on the record, I’m going to give you exactly what you need if you want to make a Bungie game. Are you ready?

Patrick Dane: I am.

Pete Parsons: The first thing is, build a place where you want to be. Where you want to spend time in, right? And then you fill that space with a bunch of fun stuff to do. And the third and final thing is you make sure that anything that’s fun to do, is more fun to do with or in front of your friends. There you go. That is the whole secret sauce around a Bungie game, you now know all of our secrets.

So what happens is that when you don’t feel like you can do your best work and achieving those things, when you can’t feel like you can become one of the great entertainment companies of the world or where you can’t – and I know I’ve repeated it probably three times already – where you don’t believe that your legacy will be one of creative and technical excellence, where people from every walk of life can feel like they can come and do their best work, then you need to make a change. And so that is what we did. Decisively.

Patrick Dane: One of the things is it seemed Bungie wanted to commit to Destiny 2 for years to come. Was that part of the decision?

Pete Parsons: We love Destiny. I mean, we loved Halo too. We really felt like there was – we wanted to take Destiny in the direction that we kind of always wanted to take Destiny which was more of the continuum. What you see today, which is the calendar events, the calendar of content, like we’re able to publish that out ahead of time to have the freedom to create this larger Destiny universe – and by the way that extends beyond just Destiny the game – but to really kind of lean into the building out this cohesive world that has this amazing, highly engaged community. That was the direction that we wanted to go in.

We felt like we were not able to pursue that direction at the level that we wanted to and so we needed to make a change. So, I think you are seeing the fruits of that labour. And, you know, we still have a lot to learn. Oh my gosh, we still have a lot to learn. But, it is about that creative freedom.

In some cases, as you see, we’re breaking some big bones with the Destiny universe. We’re making changes, and that’s what people need if they’re going to continue to be part of this vibrant, energetic and highly engaged community.

It’s the thing that’s always kind of really fun to do and also, like, terrifying. You have this open, transparent, ongoing dialogue with the community. And sometimes you kind of look right before you hit the send button. And you’re like, “Are we are good? Yeah, we are good”.

What we want to do is what we are doing right now. That’s what we want to do. And honestly, – I don’t need to say honestly, I’m always honest – what we also want to be able to do is to begin exploring, not only where the limits of the Destiny universe is on a number of different levels, we also want to bring new titles to bear with that secret sauce of what a Bungie game is.

Patrick Dane: Can you elaborate a little on those?

So we started about three years ago, Jason and Jonny Ebbert and Zach Russell and a few of us started working on new incubations. The way to think about that is not just on new games. I think that is often the parlance people use. Actually a process around how we want to incubate the potential for new titles, but more importantly, new and amazing talent. So, I will give you an example. M.E Chung, she was the designer on most of the social systems inside of Destiny and she is going on and she is working on a project. She’s fantastic.

So, we have these incubations that are a lot more about – they’re certainly about building games, but their focus is on really building teams. How do we build up teams that know how to work together and most importantly, can create magical things?

By the way, I would be amiss if I didn’t say, we’re hiring. [laughs] Part of the benefit of having a game like Destiny that’s thriving and new incubations that continue to really show promise – actually, ironically, we expected a decently high failure rate from the incubations and what’s happened is, we are pretty excited about the work that’s being done not just on continuing the Destiny universe, but because we’ve been able to build such a deep bench of talent, these incubations are really amazing.

I think, I am not sure if I am allowed to say, but we are hiring probably at a faster rate than we thought we would. Now, I’m going to give you a crazy stat. We moved out in March – and when I say this, this is not bragging about team size, because it is never a thing I brag about. It’s a bragging about our ability to have talent, both the technic al talent from our IT operations security team, as well as the resiliency of the talent, the artistic and creative talent that we have hired – there is something like almost a quarter of everybody who now works at Bungie has never set foot inside the studio. Which breaks my heart, but it is also a testament to the work that the teams have been able to do. And to continue to make progress.

I was actually just on the phone right before we called with one of our incubation leads around their project. I think you will be pretty excited. I wish I could say more, but I think you will be pretty excited.

Patrick Dane: Talking about expanding leads into something I wanted to talk about. When you split from Activision you lost several support studios in the form of Vicarious Visions and High Moon Studios. How has that transfer been for you?

Pete Parsons: That is a great question, and I am going to double down on it too. There were really two big things that happened. I cannot tell you how much we appreciate the work of the teams at Vicarious Visions and High Moon Studios. They were just fantastic partners to work with. It was a long process. It took a couple of years to get to where we all kind of trusted each other, and knew how to work with each other, and great work came out of it.

So you’re right, that when the split happened, from my perspective, the only downside was the loss of some teams that we really had a great amount of respect for. We had to and have had to – we continue on that path – have continued to think about to bolster the work that went away.

In fairness, Activision was really good about it – there was continuing work that we kind of feathered, that we tailed down over time. But yeah, it’s been a real heavy lift to make sure that we can continue on the content roadmap that we’ve tried to focus on with people.

A big part of that has been focusing on the central vision of Destiny and building the game that we want to build. That continues to be content-heavy, and certainly feature heavy, but it’s not just about the one big moment. It’s about having these moments that have a high player impact, high engagement, and that players trust us that when we publish that roadmap of what we’re doing, that they’re both excited about it and they feel like they’re a part of it.

So, that is the first part. Losing Vicarious Visions and High Moon Studios was hard, because they were our friends and they also did some great work, and we have been able to build that back.

The other thing that is a really hidden part of it, but incredibly important, was that we always have had a very strong, both not only relationship with our community, but community expertise. So, we retained that, actually. That was something that our former publisher did not control. But all the rest of it, like the entire publishing, business insights, analytics, a lot of that kind of frameworks of what it means to be a fully independent business, did not exist. We had to build that from scratch.

In fact, Jonty Barnes just moved back to Bath with his kids, he is from London. But Jonty was one of our most senior producers in the studio, and we asked him to really take one for the team and build, along with a number of other people, a publishing org where one did not exist before. And globally. And he did, and I cannot thank him enough for that work.

That was a really heavy lift for us and not just in the hiring of people. In the really wrapping our heads around what it means to not only build a game but to continue to build, grow and engage our community and this kind of unified approach that we want to have to our worlds with both Destiny and new ones going forward, but what it means to bring something to market, and do all that work on our own. And it is not easy by the way. But it’s working!

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