Catching up with Bungie now that the fight’s been finished.
As a composer, Marty O’Donnell (with Michael Salvatori) is responsible for one of gaming’s most memorable scores. As audio director at Bungie, he’s seen the company bought by Microsoft then break away again. He took time out from a holiday after his 30th wedding anniversary to discuss Halo, independence, and what it’s like to work at ‘bloodthirsty’ Bungie.
Uncommonly for videogames, Halo’s score is a crucial part of the experience. How did that happen?
Coming from the jingle business, I know how powerful music can be in an iconic way. When I started in games I thought: ‘Nobody’s thought about the music that way: as a marketing tool as well as something that can enhance your gameplay experience’. When, in 1999, we launched Halo at MacWorld, I said: “Pay for the orchestra, let’s do this right.” I’ve controlled the music for all marketing from that point on, so I could make sure that those iconic musical statements show up.
moscallout“Bungie’s a strange place: there’s a ‘survival of the fittest’ mentality. Sometimes it’s several people jockeying for a similar position”/moscalloutYou’re audio director at Bungie, but you get involved in areas like scripting and story, too. Does Bungie encourage that kind of collaboration on a game?
I’ve always been upfront: I’m not just going to compose music. I’ll work on story, with the actors, on the script, I’ll be doing sound design and, while the game is coming together, I’ll think about what the music is going to do, but I’m not going to actually put the music in until later. Bungie’s a strange place: there’s a ‘survival of the fittest’ mentality. You don’t necessarily get blessed with a role. Sometimes it’s several people who are jockeying for a similar position and have great ideas and you put them into a room and see who wins. It’s a little bit bloodthirsty at times, and there is some shredding of souls that goes on. I’ll stand back and wait to see who comes out of the door and say: “OK, you won, great. Let’s work.”
You joined Bungie full-time ten days before it was sold to Microsoft. Now that Bungie’s independent again, do you see your life changing much?
Oh, yeah. Friends used to say: “You’ll never work for a corporation.” So when I ended up going to work for Bungie who were then bought by Microsoft, they said: “This won’t last.” It’s never been a goal to stay as an employee of a large corporation. And that’s also the spirit of Bungie: we stayed separate from Microsoft. And I think Microsoft always treated us that way: they allowed us our own building, they never tried to interfere with us, for the most part, creatively, and the relationship worked fine. But it was inevitable that independence was such a strong part of the DNA of Bungie, it was something we all knew had to happen again. And I think Microsoft agreed.
Was Bungie feeling slightly stifled by being part of Microsoft?
I don’t think we had gotten to the point where we were being stifled, but I think Microsoft agreed that they would get the best stuff to publish if they had this independent company that they had a good relationship with. This is the problem being wholly owned and being employees: the mechanisms for reward and for penalty are just not strong enough. We really just thought it’s going to be healthier for us as a small company to be closer to success or failure.
How does it feel seeing other developers working on Halo?
On my level, if I write a piece of music, that’s mine forever. If I sell it to this guy over here, now he owns it. But spiritually, creatively, it’s my music. Bungie invented Halo, that’s our baby. Microsoft owns the IP, and we at Bungie are completely aware that that’s the reality of the situation.
It’s possible that if it were completely under our control then we might be thinking about doing different things with the Halo universe than Microsoft is, but that’s a choice we all made. So that’s one of our motivations to say: “For the next IP we make, do we want somebody else to own it, or do we want to be the ones who control it?” We’re Bungie, we’re not Halo, but certainly Halo is our favourite child right now.
So what comes next?
We have incredibly talented people working on brand new games that I can’t talk about. I can say this: we’ll own the IP.