A Brief History of Bungie
Let’s start somewhere near the beginning. It’s 1990, nearly 20 years after the release of the first commercially successful video game, Pong (1972). Gaming companies Nintendo and Sega are locked in an aggressive battle for market dominance as the industry is once again poised for change. Enter the fifth generation of home consoles, and alongside it, 3D graphics and CD Rom technology. As prior industry giants rush to update their established properties with polygonal angles, new studios and transformative ideas rise to prominence. ID Software releases the grandfather of First Person Shooters (FPS), Wolfenstein 3D, in 1992, and puts a new type of video game experience front and center in the conversation. One year later, ID Software would further hone their craft and introduce another landmark FPS, Doom (1993), forever altering the course of gaming.
Enter Alex Seropian, a developer attending school at the University of Chicago in the early 90s. While majoring in mathematics, Seropian coded his, and later Bungie’s, first game Gnop (1990), a direct clone of Pong. A year later, Seropian founded Bungie Software Products Corporation and published his second game, a top down tank shooter, Operation Desert Storm in 1991. Looking to expand, Seropian befriended and welcomed his fellow classmate, Jason Jones into Bungie, and together the two of them published the role playing game, Minotaur: The Labyrinths of Crete, in 1992, the same year Wolfenstein 3D released. Inspired by the rise of the new 3D shooter, Bungie’s next production was Pathways into Darkness (1993), a first person shooter and action adventure game with an unusual and mythic narrative. From here, Bungie released their first trilogy, beginning with one of the first video games to feature free-look aiming (as opposed to Doom’s limited horizontal camera), Marathon (1994). Two well-received sequels followed, Marathon Durandal (1995) and Marathon Infinity (1996), before Bungie took a step back from the FPS genre. Their next project, a difficult but universally renowned strategy game, Myth: The Fallen Lords (1997), would be Bungie’s final game to release exclusively on home computers. Lastly, 2001 saw the release of Bungie’s Oni (2001), a third-person action game that garnered lukewarm reception, likely a result of difficult development due to a major company shakeup.
That major shakeup would be Microsoft’s acquisition of Bungie on the 9th anniversary of the studio’s founding, June 19th 2000. Bungie’s first title published by Microsoft would be a little-known game called Halo: Combat Evolved (2001). Initially conceived in 1997, Halo: CE was a real time strategy game likely similar to Bungie’s Myth, before development changed and it morphed into a third-person shooter, again likely akin to Oni. Ultimately, plans changed a final time before Halo CE was solidified as a first person shooter, with Bungie pulling inspiration from the gameplay formula of their renowned Marathon series. The results were landscaping altering. Where Doom and Wolfenstein had opened the doors for 3D gunplay, Halo: CE perfected it, modernizing the genre in both fundamental and unexpected ways. While Microsoft’s most prominent rival, Sony’s mighty Playstation 2 console, continued to climb sales charts for its myriad amount of acclaimed titles, Halo: CE’s exclusive launch on Microsoft’s own Xbox proved a genuine threat.
Not ones to rest on their laurels, Bungie followed up their landmark Xbox title with Halo 2 in winter of 2004. Offering a divisive narrative cobbled together from unused ideas from its predecessor, Halo 2’s most celebrated advancements were primarily made in the multiplayer sphere. Matchmaking, lobbies, and social features such as clans and score leaderboards propelled the Halo franchise even higher into gaming history. 2007 saw the release of Halo 3, one of the year’s most anticipated titles, grossing over $300 million within its first week and crushing any doubts of Bungie’s potential inability to improve on their flagship series. As Halo 3’s multiplayer offerings contributed to the rise of e-sports, its custom Forge maps opened up new creative outlets for short form video content on a budding and extremely popular online platform sweeping the globe, YouTube. While the mergers, acquisitions, and splits of the gaming industry were often rapid and unexpected, Bungie’s 2007 announcement that would be splitting from its parent company, Microsoft, was still a shock. Though now independent, Bungie remained in cooperation with Microsoft to close out their titanic Halo series before pursuing new paths. To do this, development would split into two teams, each working on separate projects to expedite the process. The first team would release Halo ODST in 2009, a spin-off game centered around narrative events within Halo 2. Though ODST was generally well received, it’s often agreed upon that ODST was the weakest offering from Bungie. Critics and fans cited the relatively short campaign and the notable absence of Halo’s titular protagonist, Master Chief, as the game’s major shortcomings. However, ODST still performed well, and Bungie’s second development team soon wrapped up work on their final installment in the Halo saga with Halo: Reach (2010).
Halo: Reach was, unsurprisingly, a massive success, grossing $200 million on its launch day. Though the development team initially planned on expanding on the narrative of Halo 3, Reach ultimately became a prequel to the first Halo, opening the pathway for new characters and original settings not already apart of the IP. Reach’s multiplayer offerings continued to be a crowd pleaser, and as sales numbers climbed higher and faster than before, Halo seemed an unstoppable force for Microsoft even with Bungie’s absence moving forward. With the successful launch of Reach, Bungie’s split was finalized and the company was entirely free to explore new frontiers. Growth, was the first priority for the studio, and as the development team added staff, it became obvious that a new partnership would further enable the company to pursue its dreams.
The Start of Destiny
In April of 2010, Bungie announced its partnership with Activision Blizzard, a move that allowed for swift expansion of teams and offices, while still guaranteeing that Bungie’s newest IP’s would remain solely with the company in the event of another fateful split. It was an unheard of deal, with a decade long contract and an estimated $500 million in investments, Bungie was once again emboldened to take the next leap. This new Bungie, ripe with passion and burgeoning new ideas, would step away from the limelight for three years. Honing their skills until they unveiled their next project, Destiny, in February of 2013. That initial trailer, titled Pathways Out of Darkness, no doubt an allegorical homage to Bungie’s history, was one part gameplay showcase, one part insider documentary on the aspirations of its new team. It showcased and promised a groundbreaking, first person science fiction adventure, brimming with unexplored worlds, formidable foes, and built from the ground up with deeply integrated social features. Expectations were astronomically high.
On September 9th, 2014, Destiny released, and millions of guardians started their journey into Bungie’s new world. After the years of waiting: the expansive features teased, the countless promises of improvements, and the stunning production work displayed in its myriad of trailers, Destiny launched to immensely controversial ratings. Critics hailed its ambitious attempt to bridge the gap between the Massive Online Multiplayer experiences of World of Warcraft (2004) with the tight and responsive gunplay of Bungie’s prior efforts, but the core world of Destiny itself was barren. Though its gameplay was superb, Destiny was all but a narrative failure, crippled by the departure of its own narrative lead amongst internal disputes only a year before the game was set to ship. Its remaining story was disparate, frustrating, and nonsensical. Destiny was the single largest new IP launch of all time, with 10 million copies sold in the first day, yet player retention became a serious concern. It simply cannot be understated how broken Destiny was on launch, how banal and grindy its world was, how poorly its story was told, and most importantly, how disrespectful it was to its player’s time investment.
Yet, invest we did. Because for as catastrophic as its launch state was, Destiny still hooked us with its best-in-class gameplay, endlessly creative world design, and the promise to improve. For as routine and subpar as its mission design was, Destiny’s central gameplay loop was too addicting. It’s in this divide, the tactile feel of Destiny and its wondrous power-fantasy, and the painful absence of any real incentive to continually engage with its narrative or end game content, that Destiny simmered in. The casual gaming market quickly abandoned Bungie’s threadbare project, and though many hardcore fans stuck through, Destiny had forever lost a portion of the optimistic goodwill its consumers initially approached it with.
Though the release of Destiny’s first post-launch content, a raid activity titled, The Vault of Glass, aided the optimistic theory that Bungie could “save” Destiny with continued support and expansions, these feelings were proven wishful thinking. The first full DLC, The Dark Below, launched in December of 2014 to even worse reviews than Destiny initially did. Though The Dark Below did feature an exciting new raid, and introduced characters that have continued to remain within the franchise, Destiny stood on unsteady ground without the public’s faith behind their vast sails. Destiny’s second expansion, The House of Wolves, released in May of 2015 to better reception than its previous content, though players and critics alike were cautious to endorse it wholeheartedly. The success of the House of Wolves downloadable content (DLC) was due in large part to its equal expansion of both Destiny’s PVP and PVE offerings. Trails of the Nine, a more intense and team-focused PVP gaming mode, once again propelled Destiny back into the competitive gaming conversation and YouTube algorithms. Prison of Elders, an arena-style, team-based PVE experience with varying modifiers and difficult bosses to conquer was a success. With the first year of content for Destiny wrapping up, it seemed the game still hadn’t awoken from its catatonic state of mindless repetition and disparate narratives. Yet, Bungie had seemingly just located a pulse and were ready to give the franchise a much needed shock.
The Taken King
Destiny’s largest expansion to that date, The Taken King, premiered on September 15th, 2015, barely a year past the first launch of the game. Strengthened by the multitude of tweaks and changes Bungie had made to its core structure and bearing the daunting and culminating weight of redemption, The Taken King proved that not only was Bungie aware of what they had gotten wrong in the past, but that with earnest dedication and industry-leading finesse, they had polished their diamond in the rough into a dazzling wonder. The Taken King brought Destiny into the conversation again with truly enjoyable missions, even after a dozen completions. A brand new patrol space welcomed and rewarded exploration with lore revelations and new loot. A new enemy type, the Taken, revitalized combat. Character personalities were fleshed out as new favorites such as Nathan Fillion’s Cadye-6 and Lance Reddick’s Zavala were emphasized. The story was admittedly tame, but mercifully linear, direct, and understandable (a rare occurrence in the Destiny universe). The list of improvements stretches on, ad nauseam. It wasn’t perfect, after all, it’s Destiny, but The Taken King served as a rallying beacon for the community. It was payoff for the hardcore fans who had endured both the deserved and undeserved ridicule of the broader gaming community, and it was also an invitation back for those who saw whispers of greatness within Destiny’s core design, but couldn’t stomach the barebones content of its premiere state.
Destiny rode the high of The Taken King until its final expansion in September of 2016, Rise of Iron. Despite its raid activity, Wrath of the Machine, being praised for its creativity and technological achievements, its story was regressively lackluster. It was clear that the major shakeups to the Destiny formula had come to pass with The Taken King expansion, and though Destiny was in a significantly better spot overall, its final DLC was more content to rest atop the shoulders of a franchise that had already achieved so much, then reach dangerously for the stars. So, here Destiny remained, a journey characterized by Bungie’s distinctive vision. Destiny is a study in contrasts: its quality ebbing and flowing but never its commitment to try, its lore pulled apart by eager enthusiasts and obsessive fans, its lowest points continually lambasted by reactionary YouTubers and rightfully disappointed consumers, its deep and customizable player systems that enabled the mightiest of power fantasies to come to life, and its muddled and confusing narratives and rarely interesting or multifaceted characters. Through Destiny, both Bungie and its players grew in and learned in impressive strides, seemingly never before had such a major IP undergone such massive overhaul at the behest of its fans and the chagrin of its leaders. With all its lessons seemingly learned, its hard work rewarded with a flourishing community of welcoming players and advocates, Bungie looked to raise the bar once again. Just as Halo: CE served as a fundamental and influential advancement on first person shooters, so too did Destiny function as a display of impossible and influential combinations. At its best, Destiny was far more than the sum of its borrowed parts, it was entirely its own experience. And as the player base finished their final quests and collected their penultimate god-rolls, questions remained. Where would this series go next? Will Destiny start over? And, most importantly, will Bungie have learned from the past?
Destiny 2 launched on consoles September 6th 2017, followed shortly by its PC release in late October, marking the first time the Destiny series was available for the PC market. While critics would rate Destiny 2 a bit higher than its predecessor (85 on Metacritic as opposed to Destiny 1’s 76), fan reactions were complicated to the say the least. The campaign was a tighter experience, with more varied missions and a more linear structure. There was an increased focus on cutscenes and character interactions. Graphics and performance, particularly on PC, were significantly better than Destiny 1’s offerings on prior consoles. And yet, as the first few weeks of the launch window passed by, concerns and complaints began to pile up. It appeared that in an effort to broaden their appeal, Destiny 2’s systems were too streamlined. Though not unexpected, many players were frustrated with Destiny 2’s entirely fresh start, with only the cosmetic appearance of their Destiny 1 character(s) continuing forward. Gone too were randomly rolled weapons, crippling any sense of excitement for new loot drops. Subclasses nodes concerning the different super abilities were now conjoined, offering only a choice between three bundles instead of Destiny 1’s myriad of possible builds. Across the board, there was a substantially decreased focus on player agency and build-crafting possibility. For all its technical advancements, Destiny 2 at launch was more akin to a soft reboot than a direct continuation of what Destiny 1’s final year so successful.
As history would repeat itself, Destiny 2’s first DLC offering, The Curse of Osiris, would be critically panned on its release in early December of 2017. Fan vitriol and disappointment was at an all time high. Many within the community abandoned Destiny for other games more deserving of their money and rewarding with their time. Major content creators totaling millions of viewers expressed their concerns on the stability and longevity of the series. Destiny 1 was never perfect, but its final form left a foundational blueprint ripe for perfection and advancement. Upon launch and into late 2017, Destiny 2 had seemingly been created in a vacuum, its development team inexplicably alienated from the necessary lessons that Destiny 1 should have taught them. Many fingers were pointed at Activision, with journalists and fans theorizing that the publishing company’s long history of anti-consumer game systems and micro transaction greed had wormed their way into the core pillars of Destiny 2’s gameplay systems. Similar to the launch of Destiny 1, it was a difficult time to be a fan of the franchise.
Nevertheless, Destiny 2 trudged onward. Slowly hype began building for its upcoming second expansion, Warmind, though expectations were exceedingly tempered by the current climate of the game. Warmind released in early May of 2018, and in extremely similar fashion to Destiny 1’s House of Wolves DLC, reviews were mostly positive. The story content, explorable planet, public events, and seasonal activities were far better than Curse of Osiris. But the problems of Destiny 2’s launch still persisted, causing the game to lose appeal faster than ever before. It was clear that once again, Destiny could not sustain itself or player interest long enough in its current form, both in regards to its release schedule and its fundamental reward structures. If only there was a major content release, larger than the previous two expansions, that would premiere one year after launch and bring with it a sharper and renewed focus on story content, a thoroughly retuned sandbox, and additional supers and new weapon archetypes to further incentivize players to return…
Destiny 2’s first major expansion, Forsaken, released on September 4th 2018. It brought alongside it a massively overhauled player experience: new subclass supers, randomly rolled weapons were back, a longer and more impressive campaign, two new destinations to explore, and arguably the best raid the Destiny series has seen thus far with The Last Wish. Gambit, a brand new activity, merged the competition of PVP with the build possibility and power fantasy of PVE to mixed results, but it remained a welcome addition to round out the core activity playlist alongside Vanguard strikes and Crucible. Most notably, Forsaken featured real stakes in its campaign, with its opening mission featuring the permanent death of the Destiny series’ most beloved character, Cadye-6. Forsaken was the ace in the hole, the Ace of Spades in Destiny’s long line of expansions, the thorn in every doubters side. Forsaken propelled Destiny 2 back into the limelight in much the same way The Taken King did for Destiny 1. Bungie continued to build on its new foundation, introducing the Annual Pass, which brought in consistent, new seasonal content to help mitigate the lull between expansion releases. Destiny’s first dungeon, The Shattered Throne, released on September 25th, offering a more intensive gameplay experience designed around a 3 player fireteam. Destiny was again firing on all cylinders, proving to its dedicated community that their feedback was listened too and addressed, and that the series would once again commit itself to the right track.
Split from Activision & Shadowkeep
Off the back of their most successful expansion yet, Bungie and Activision were poised to perfect greatness. The problem? Activision didn’t care about critical consensus, fan retention, or even Bungie’s own goals for its beloved creation, Activision cared about sales figures, and apparently Destiny 2 wasn’t generating enough money to keep the behemoth company appeased. Tensions ran high between the two, and with Bungie’s initial contract keeping the Destiny series squarely on their side of the custody battle, Activision and Bungie split in January of 2019 to relatively positive reactions. Now, for the first time in nearly a decade, Bungie was free to take complete controls of the reigns to its massive IP.
During Bungie’s transition into sole operator of the license, Destiny 2 would continue to sustain itself on seasonal content until ushering in its third year of content with Shadowkeep on October 1st, 2019. Reprising the Moon destination from Destiny 1, Shadowkeep brought an expanded focus on Eris Morn’s character and a return to the supposed birthplace of the Vex, with a new raid entitled The Garden of Salvation. Shadowkeep was well received, although it would fail to reach the highs of Forsaken’s campaign and its major content offerings. The largest content offering that Destiny 2 brought at this time, was in fact not even related to its major expansion, but instead a total conversion of its original 2017 campaign and a majority of its core activities into a free to play model. This experience, titled “New Light” would premiere alongside another major change to Destiny’s foundation, full cross play across all platforms. Both of these monumental changes, in addition to the simaulteanous release of Shadowkeep, proved that Bungie had no intention of abandoning their franchise in the wake of leaving Activision. On the contrary, Destiny 2’s player base was expanded and extensively interlinked like never before and the breadth of Bungie’s social features saw their potential finally realized. While the Shadowkeep expansion itself will likely never be counted amongst the pantheon of Bungie’s best efforts, the adjacent and supplemental changes made to Destiny 2’s structure at the time elevated the entire package.
Year 4 of Destiny 2 began with the next expansion, Beyond Light, on November 10th, 2020. This would be Bungie’s first DLC made entirely without Activision’s support and one that marked a distinctive shift in narrative delivery. Gone were the contained mini-stories of prior expansions and seasons, instead Bungie refocused on the interconnectivity of Destiny 2’s narrative moving forward. Each season would connect with the previous, each building upon each other with more interactive character moments and higher stakes. Beyond Light itself would feature a new, original planet, Europa, that saw Bungie dabbling with dynamic weather systems and further fleshing out the story of characters in unique and surprising ways. Further raising the bar from the prior major expansions of The Taken King and Forsaken, Beyond Light would introduce a brand new type of super ability for guardians to wreck havoc with, stasis, gifted to us by dark and unknown forces. We can only theorize how the expansion would have been received had there not been a major problem that coincided with Beyond Light’s release. Destiny 2 had simply become too large of a game to go on unedited. Destiny 1 had finished production with 4 DLC expansions, totaling hundreds of hours of repayable content. With the release of Beyond Light, Destiny 2 would eclipse that number and in turn, the game’s engine, performance capabilities, and storage, were suffering. Choices had to be made.
Enter, the Destiny Content Vault, a supposedly last ditch effort to free up hard drive space for consumers and give Bungie the necessary breathing room to increase their focus, expedite their game tuning, and work on new content. All of Destiny 2’s original campaign was discarded, in addition to the first two expansions, Curse of Osiris and Warmind. Players would also lose access to a number of strikes, crucible maps, raids, and 4 of the game’s planets (Mars, Io, Titan, and Mercury). Player feedback to this decision was unsurprisingly, exceptionally rough. Never before had an MMO (yes, Destiny is an MMO) removed so much content, especially when a year prior, Bungie had opened the door to new players with its free to play model. Now, that door was being unceremoniously slammed shut, and millions of players were left with only Bungie’s apologies and promises that this move was necessary.
Where the Destiny Content Vault rightfully frustrated players, the ongoing narrative of the seasonal content starting with the end of Shadowkeep (Season 11, Season of Arrivals) and continuing with Beyond Light, delivered a rich and compounding swathe of story to dig into. Season 12, Season of the Hunt, saw the return of Cadye-6’s killer, Prince Uldren, now resurrected as a guardian with no memory of his prior self. Now referred to as the Crow, the storyline centering around this surprise reveal has continued Destiny 2’s refreshing insistence on the muddled line between friend and foe, light and dark. While the Crow struggles to find his place amongst new friends, he’s routinely confronted with the consequences of a previous life.
Season 13, Season of the Chosen, brought forth Caiatl, a brutal Cabal chieftain who leads with equal respect and ferocity. And though guardians and Cabal had seemed mortal enemies throughout Destiny’s collective history, Caiatl’s tactical, but no less radical, approach to peace brokering with the Vanguard came as a genuine surprise to the Destiny community. Proving its commitment to a more connected narrative, the Crow also remains a key figure in the struggle for rallying Caiatl and her followers against upcoming threats.
Season 14, Season of the Splicer, sees our guardian once again team with an unlikely ally in Mithrax, a Fallen leader who partners with the Vanguard in return for the promise of sanctuary. Again, Destiny’s narrative team brought new depth and surprises for series fans; Fallen guide us through Vex worlds, Cabal strengthen our armies, and old villains are welcomed as the new and better people they seek to be.
Season 15, Season of the Lost, is Destiny 2’s current season, focusing on Mara Sov’s fight to return her lost Awoken Mystics in order to face the next major villain in Destiny’s story, Savathûn. Season of the Lost has been the longest gap in content since the start of the seasonal model, due in no small part to the effects of Covid-19, but also due to the intense preparations the development team has made for the upcoming major expansion, The Witch Queen (due February 22nd, 2022). As the final season wraps up before that time, it cannot be understated how impactful Destiny 2’s insistence on a better and more cohesive narrative has been for the series.
Why Destiny Matters
That is all of Destiny as we know it. A series routinely marred by internal tensions amongst studio heads, departures of key figures during development, and its own expectations for perfecting a type of game experience that had simply never existed prior. Destiny has been on the market for 8 years, and still, there remains little to no legitimate contenders within its genre. The series has clearly stumbled along the way, even outright fallen flat on its face. But in an era of game studios routinely abandoning their projects after poor reception or sales, Bungie has stayed true to Destiny out of a commitment to do right by its consumers and also elevate the creativity, imagination, and hard work of its internal team. It’s rare that a game entering its 8th year of content feels this refreshing and this motivated to innovate and improve. In fact, Destiny 2’s community managers and developers provide so much public insight into their rationales behind balance changes and tweaks that the information can often be overwhelming. Yet, that overwhelming invitation into the depths of the creative process is often part of the appeal of Destiny. The absolute wealth of patch notes, developer insights, ViDoc’s, and YouTube commentaries just goes to show the love that remains for this game and why it continues to add new players.
All of this history listed above helps explain the rocky road that made this series great. The proof that Bungie has nearly always worn its heart on its sleeve is right there. And though anyone could jump into Destiny 2 right now and begin enjoying themselves (the confusion of the New Light experience aside), Destiny also remains an extremely special and unique game to me because I have quite literally grown up with it. I was a Sophomore in high school when Destiny 1 launched. I spent hundreds of hours driving my sparrow in circles around the Cosmodrome, learning the farming routes of planetary materials so I could upgrade my gear. I grinded Trails of Osiris with a good friend until he lost too many matches and broke his PlayStation in a fit of lag induced rage. And while I fell off of Destiny shortly after the Rise of Iron, I still vividly remember the highs of The Taken King and the impressive scale of its King’s Fall raid.
When Destiny 2 launched in 2017, I was eager to get back into the series. It didn’t take long to convince my partner to also download Bungie’s latest effort and together we dove into the vanilla campaign and tackled Forsaken. I’ve joined a handful of clans throughout my time with the series, and have always been impressed by the way in which Destiny 2 either directly teaches cooperative play or simply provides the necessary pieces for it. I love this series dearly and deeply, and as my desire to critique and criticize media content has grown, so too has my appreciation for Bungie’s seminal achievement. Make no mistake, Destiny is simply too large to ever be perfect, and the constant state of flux necessitated by its live-service model further guarantees the permanency of this grain of salt. But there is undoubtedly greatness without perfection, light in all darkness. When, not if, Destiny’s future content exceeds expectations even despite its shortcomings, don’t be surprised. Instead, be welcomed. For as confusing as the new player experience is, I promise you, there will be guardians to lead you along, lifelong friends to make, and beautiful and unique experiences specific only to this series. Destiny 2 is far from over, and there is truly no better time to be a guardian.
I hope to see new faces amongst the tower come the release of The Witch Queen on February 22nd, and if you ever need help enjoying the best of Destiny 2, send me an invite (z0934#9651). Unless you want to play Gambit..
Destiny 2 is available now on PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and Windows PC.