Developer Dichotomy by Ehren Lewis

I just got off the phone with my friend in a long discussion about something that’s been on my mind since H4: the inherent dichotomy between the company cultures at 343 and Bungie. This is not saying that one or the other is better, simply that they are different and analyzing why this is the case.

As we all know 343 is an entity born entirely out of Microsoft’s management and as such, the company culture – at least from an outside perspective – is very corporate. Not suit and tie corporate per se, they definitely aren’t the cynical stereotype of a mainstream company. 343 is warm and welcoming. They foster great community interaction and hold so many great events for fans. They’re honestly one of the best game developers in the AAA scene currently. I really like 343 and feel like I’ve gotten to know what the team there stands for and what motivates them. But they’re very specific when it comes to company operation. Every interaction with the community feels well thought-out and crafted to convey a very specific message. This control over messaging also extends to what they choose not to say. Often in press releases and interviews you can see employees very carefully wording their answers to avoid giving away certain details about their game. This is where the big difference between 343 and Bungie lies IMO.

With Bungie you really felt like the doors were blown open on the company. You got regular updates on the development of the game, you got a podcast, you got long vidocs less about how the game was being made, but more about how the people at Bungie were affecting change in the game. Bungie started off as a bunch of friends making cool stuff together, and they retained that spirit for a long time. Resulting from that origin there’s this confidence between the people there that extends into the projects they work on. Early Bungie games are really funny because the creatives knew each other well enough to have long standing inside jokes and gags that make it into the games or media on Bungie.net, like Ling Ling the decapitated dog head preserved in a glass jar, or the Webmaster gorilla who basically just reads hate mail and yells back at their authors (seriously, read these). And that’s really cool because it gives the fans an inside look at the relationships forged at the company. If you followed the development of the Marathon games up to Halo: Reach, you really felt like “one of the guys” at Bungie and that impression stretches into the game experience; playing Halo 1 – Reach felt like play testing a game your buddies made and that you were part of this exclusive club that gets this killer software.

With an identity so strongly linked to the art though, there arises issues. There becomes less room for them to try new things because people have this expectation the games will always feel the same, regardless of the conditions of the company during development. Bungie made blowout games and afforded themselves opportunities to expand personnel and project scopes. The nature of a big game development though, is that positions are frequently shifted between new people, either within or outside the company. The next project won’t feel exactly like the previous one because different people are working on it. It’s impossible to avoid this – at least in the AAA game industry. Think about how much hate Destiny has gotten for being a “worse version of Halo” even despite that not being what Bungie set out to make. Yet this comparison holds some water because not only is the community so used to getting Halo games from Bungie for a decade, it’s all Bungie had been making. You can see in Destiny they have some trouble breaking free from the grip of the Halo game play experience, especially the combat loop. Bungie’s identity is so distinct that breaking from it to do something new is pretty difficult, both from getting fan backlash and from doing things a certain way for so long that old habits begin to die hard. When Bungie does something unheard of, it feels personal both to us fans, and the people who work there (Marty, Joe, etc.)

Which is where 343’s approach has an advantage I think. Never during any 343 developed Halo did I have any expectations of what the game was going to be like. That’s not to say I didn’t have hopes for how I wanted it to be, but the possibility that I could be getting a completely different Halo experience at launch was always very real. And we did end up getting 2 drastically different and diverse games from them (3 if you count Infinite). Halo 5 plays nothing like 4 and Infinite looks like it plays nothing like 4 and 5. And you know what? 343 mostly got away with it! It seems most fans of 4 didn’t feel betrayed when enhanced mobility rolled around, and even now I’m seeing so much excitement over Infinite’s play style from people who liked 4 and 5. 343’s fans never know what to expect because the company doesn’t have a distinct singular identity inexplicably linked to their games.

The inherent nature of 343 Industries gives them the arguable advantage of separation of the artist from the art. When Halo 5 came out I thought it was awful, but I never wrote off 343 because I knew the creatives were different this time around. For 4 they proved they could craft a compelling story line and well paced campaign. I was more so disappointed that I would have to wait years for the next cycle to see if I’d like the newest game. Regardless of what I thought about 4 and 5, I must admit I’ve stuck around this long for a reason: with 343, it seems anything is possible. I can always come back with the confidence that the next game could be great because 343 is ever-changing and elusive. We don’t completely know what’s going on there, and I don’t think we ever will; the Bungie fan in me is nervous at this prospect, I could always expect what comes next and take comfort in the familiarity. But being the creative I am, I yearn for for something new, to be blown away by something I never expected and to be taken away to new worlds and experiences. To me, Bungie is home, but 343 is the frontier yet to be explored.

I think it’s a useless folly to hope we’ll ever get a Bungie-style Halo again, the two companies are not and cannot be the same. No matter how close 343 can approximate a new Halo to Bungie’s work, they are so different as heralds of the franchise that even re-releasing Halo 3 feels like a distinctly 343 event now. We’re in a different era of Halo. It’s time to move on and embrace it, or stay in the past and try to obtain something always beyond your reach.

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