Demon: The Untold Story of Bungie’s Forgotten Franchise

Demon: The Untold Story of Bungie’s Forgotten Franchise

October 17, 2019 44 By William Hollis


[Moriarty]
Halo, Destiny, Myth, & Marathon: Bungie’s Legacy. Credited with helping create the modern first
person shooter with Marathon and it’s spiritual successor Halo, and then introducing and refining
the looter shooter for modern consoles with Destiny. Bungie today, is an independent studio, recently
leaving Activision Blizzard to publish Destiny 2, it’s DLCs, and sequels itself. This will be the first time in two decades
that Bungie would release a game that they’d had complete control over, with no strategic
partnerships or multi-year publishing deals in place. In that time, Bungie released two major brands
that changed and shifted gaming in dozens of ways, altering the landscape of the first
person shooter. Halo was a masterpiece that influenced an
entire generation of first person shooters with it’s regenerating shields, one button
melee attacks, effortless multiplayer, & leaderboard system. It standardized the console controls: Left
stick to move, right stick to look, right trigger shoots, A button jumps. This is the language of Halo. It also ushered in a new and refined era of
Machinima, and if you’re a fan of any of the Rooster Teeth channels, you’ve got to
thank Halo in part for that. Destiny furthered this by taking the Looter
Shooters popular on PC, games like Hellgate: London, Borderlands, & Warframe, and translated
that into a MMO-esque package that allowed console players to enjoy an experience otherwise
never presented to them. Before these, they helped move the Doom Clone
genre into its own with Marathon and Marathon 2, games for Mac that were so popular and
so well received that even PC gamers wanted to play them. They even took on the Real Time Tactics genre,
a genre that today almost exclusively consists of Total War & Close Combat, and Bungie is
widely considered to have laid the foundation with their Myth series of games. In fact, almost everything that Bungie’s
done has been incredibly popular, & incredibly influential. However, there is a single game that time
seems to have forgotten. It’s a unique product from a unique time. It was made in conjunction with Rockstar and
Take Two, it influenced Halo’s production–and there’s still traces of it in there today,
and it stands alone as one of the only attempts to create any game quite like it. This is the story of Bungie’s forgotten
franchise, the story of a demon and her ghost. [Music] Oni was Bungie’s attempt to make another
groundbreaking title, and in order to do this they decided to start up a new offshoot Studio,
Bungie West. In 1997, Alex Seropian and Jason Jones, the
founders of Bungie, reached out and brought on a talented 3D engineer from Apple named
Brent Pease, and handed him the new studio filled exclusively with developers. Brent took inspiration from Mamoru Oshii’s
Ghost in the Shell, and with co-Developer Michael Evans, who had also joined from Apple
and had experience working with input devices and control schemes, they got to work building
a brand new engine which would drive their new game. This game would be Ghost in the Shell, but
obviously without the license, but that would all come later. They weren’t too worried about making a
game just yet, they had to develop the tools. While working on that engine, they would also
bring in a multi-talented staff to begin creating assets, and getting prepared for the eventual
production itself. Of course they needed a codename, something
to refer to the project by. Bungie loved cute codenames, for example Halo
was known as Blam. One night, Brent asked his girlfriend how
to say “Ghost” in Japanese. His girlfriend replied “Oni,” and the
codename was set. Oni doesn’t actually mean “Ghost,” but
that didn’t stop anyone from agreeing to use it, and if anything it further hid the
actual influence of Ghost in the Shell-which would be helpful for legal reasons of course. And so from 1997 to 1999, Bungie West began
working on their brand new project–Codenamed “Oni.” During this time, Bungie started to experience
major money issues. Myth II was sold with a hybrid installer on
it’s CD, so that a single copy of the game could install either to Mac or Windows–an
attempt to bring costs down and improve profitability. Unfortunately, the Windows installer had a
major bug that could, under certain circumstances, delete a user’s entire computer. Bungie recalled the discs, and reprinted them. This caused Myth II to miss it’s holiday
release window, and additionally the recall itself was rumored to have cost over one million
dollars. Bungie was, at the time, a completely independent
game developer. It was, admittedly, well respected on the
Mac market–in fact, when Halo was originally announced, it was introduced by Steve Jobs. [Steve Jobs]
Welcome on the stage Jason Jones, who is the co-Founder of Bungie, and the Halo project
lead. Halo is the name of this game, and we’re
gonna see for the first time..Halo. [Moriarty]
However, respect doesn’t pay the bills, and Bungie was respect-poor. Myth 2 needed to sell in order to fund Oni
and Halo, and it had just missed the Christmas sales window, so the recall was required–if
there had been rumors of people’s PCs being deleted by Bungie’s game on top of that,
there wouldn’t be a Bungie. And in fact, there almost wasn’t a Bungie
even after saving the recall of Myth 2. [G4 Icons]
Bungie has certainly had its share of trials and tribulations. Working on Myth 2 was one of the big trials. We ended up having to recall Myth 2 because
of a bug. Essentially, when you uninstall the game it
would wipe the directory that you installed it to. If you installed it to the root level of your
hard drive, and then uninstalled it, it would proceed to actually wipe your entire hard
drive. It was a bad bug, fortunately we caught it
just days before the game was supposed to be on store shelves. Just that one action of not wanting our customers
to have their hard drives erased cost Bungie about a million dollars, and being a small
independent developer that’s was a lot of money. We ended up selling a small stake in the company
to Take Two actually, just in order to get developing capital. And from that point on there was always this
sort of knowledge that we weren’t invincible. That, you know, we could make mistakes. [Moriarty]
Myth 2 went on to sell better than any Bungie game had previously, almost half a million
copies in the first few months alone, and with these strong sales and the current batch
of projects being worked on with Oni and Blam, Bungie was able to sell almost 20% of the
company to Take Two. This money would allow them to better fund
the two projects, and hopefully not worry about cashflow while they did it. The world would see Oni in 1999, when Bungie
would announce it to journalists at E3. Oni was going to release in 1999, and it was
going to be the biggest baddest coolest melee fighting game ever created. Journalists saw it, and they loved it. Oni represented the first melee fighting game
that also had gunplay, and huge open environments, a wholly unique [wink] Anime story, and some
very cool looking designs. Gamers were excited to play Oni, especially
online in multiplayer kung fu battles, and on consoles. This would be Bungie’s first foray into
console games, and console gamers were very excited to get their hands on the Mac-only
Bungie’s games. [E3 Footage]
One of the games we’ve seen at Computer Game World that really strikes us is Oni. It’s by Bungie Software. It’s a third person perspective title, which
means you’re viewing the action from over the primary character’s shoulder. And you’re fighting against up to four or
five other people at a time, it’s like a multiplayer Quake but Tomb Raider perspective. [Moriarty]
Unfortunately, this was all a lie. Trouble had started brewing in Bungie West. It was mid 1999, Pease had been working on
Oni for two years, and there was no game. The demo shown at E3 was a complete fabrication
created by Bungie’s press teams to show off their development–none of it was real. Bungie, certainly feeling the pressure after
having been forced to sell nearly a quarter of itself just to survive, created a new position
at Bungie West, Design Lead, and they hired the level layout senior designer from Namco’s
Pac-Man World, Hardy LeBel. [Hardy LeBel]
Hi, my name is Hardy LeBel. I was the Lead Designer on Oni, and I’m
a long-time creative designer and director in the video games industry. I was brought on specifically because the
Oni team had been kind of wandering in the wilderness. Brent really had no idea how to build a video
game. He had ideas about building something that
was, you know, anime-influenced, and he had ideas about how to build this technology,
but he had no idea how to make a game. I was brought in to basically say “Ok, here
are the elements we have in terms of technology, the engine, an animation system, assets that
have been created, some idea about a story. Here’s how we’re going to fuse all those
things together and turn it into a video game. Because they didn’t actually have a designer,
all they had was technology and some kind of creative impulses, it was my job to sort
of say “Alright, here’s how you take those things and make them into a video game.” I pitched the design, and the story, and the
characters and everything else to the team, and the team said “Yeah, we really like
that idea. That sounds great, that’s a game we can
make. We understand how we’re going to approach
making it. Now get rid of Brent.” You know there had been a lot of conflict
on the technoical side, there had been a lot of infighting between Brent and the other
programmers that were on the project. And once they had a vision for a game that
they could really wrap their heads around, and the clear roadmap that I had provided
them of how we were going to make that game, at that point they just saw Brent as an obstacle
to them being able to move forward and they just removed him. [Moriarty]
And get rid of Brent Bungie did. Two years had been spent, and yet nothing
had been produced. The game was intended to release at the end
of 1999, they had done interviews and given press junkets on the game, and yet there was
no game. The only tangible product was a 3 page bullet
point summary of potential key selling points and possible competition at time of release. So, the staff of Bungie West led a coup, Brent
Pease was removed, and the staff went forward with producing Hardy LeBel’s version of
Oni. Hardy changed things, rewrote the story, completely
tore apart assets and set Oni on a path to actually being released. [Hardy LeBel]
The Oni team had, sort of, separated out into different disciplines. Each of which was doing what they wanted on
their own. And that’s what had happened. We actually had three architects on staff,
at Oni, who were building virtual spaces with no [blank]ing idea of how to turn them into
video games. I mean no profoundly no idea. The ones who wanted to do the learning, stuck
around. The ones who resisted, they left, and that
was that. [Moriarty]
Around this time, Microsoft would be looking to start building up a First Party development
team for their, as of yet secret project, the DirectX Box. This led them to talk to Bungie, and Bungie
was interested in selling. Being independent, yet still having to answer
to Take Two for project length and profitability, and being forced to consider things like PS2
console ports when they might otherwise have waited, well the idea of being part of a $500
Billion company and not having to worry about making payroll was an intriguing concept. However, as much as Bungie might want to sell
to Microsoft, Take Two still owned their 20 percent. So Microsoft made a deal. They would pay Take Two the $5M that they
purchased Bungie for. They would also give them access to the Halo
game engine. They would give them the entire Myth franchise. And they would give them Oni. Take Two valued Oni at $2.8M, so it wasn’t
simply a grab for them. Oni was something they expected to produce
a lot of profit. But, they also felt that it should be done
already. It was announced at E3 1999, so it should
be done in 1999. And, of course, it wasn’t. The deal was necessary so that Take Two wouldn’t
block the sale, but Oni was supposed to be a Bungie game, being released when it’s
finished, and instead what happened is Take Two demanded that the game be released by
Christmas of 2000, or no sale to Microsoft. So, Bungie West began Crunch. [Hardy LeBel]
We had very limited resources, incredibly limited resources. Incredibly limited time, too. When we were trying to hit the Take Two deadline,
we’d had meetings where members of the team were sitting around the conference table just
icing our forearms to try to stave off tendonitis. It was that kind of crunch, just grueling
grueling hours of crunch to get the game done. Chris Butcher, he’s a tech director at Bungie
right now, he’s big time, you know, bigger than big. But at the time he was a doctorate student
of graphics at the university of New Zealand, and then Alex Seropian convinced him to take
a leave of absence from his doctorate program to come over and help us work on Oni. One night, it was 2AM, and I really had to
go home. I was exhausted. I said, “Chris, you know, I gotta get out
of here.” And he said “No, I can’t leave, I have
another hour of work before I can leave. Go home and get some sleep.” Well, Butcher had rented an apartment that
was diagonally across the football field of the local high school that was right across
the street. He was like “It’s no problem, I’ll just
walk home.” I was like “All right, that’s cool, I
guess it’s not that fair.” So that night Butcher stumbled out the door
of the office at who knows what time, and on the way back to his apartment got exhausted. So about halfway across the football field,
he sat down to take a rest, and fell asleep, and woke up the next morning surrounded by
the high school football team who thought he was a meth addict, because he was pale
and he so like… I don’t share this with anyone, really,
but to be honest with you, after we shipped the game, in the process of moving up to the
Pacific Northwest from San Jose, I remember going out to the movies with my wife. And it was a drive-in movie, and I was sitting
in my car and I just started to get that PTSD waves of anxiety. I’m like “Ahh. Ahh.” And she’s like “It’s shipped, It’s
shipped. It’s over. Just let it go.” And I’m like “Ahh. Ahh.” Yeah dude, it was as bad a crunch as there
has ever been in the video games industry to get that thing done. You know, I look at that game now, and even
though it had warts and even though it was graphically not necessarily what we wanted,
and all the rest of that type of stuff…I’m so proud of the team. So proud of the effort that we put in to make
something that we could be proud of. It wasn’t everything we hoped, but under
the circumstances it could not have been better. [Moriarty]
Oni did not meet their Christmas deadline. But they were close, and they did release
January 26 2001. Oni was over a year past due, it released
outside of the Christmas sales window, Take Two refused to put any more marketing dollars
into the game, citing that they had spent plenty in 1999, and worse still: The console
port that Rockstar had done was bad. [Hardy LeBel]
For god’s sake, if you’re ever going to play Oni, do not play it on console. It [blank]ing sucks on console. I mean, Rockstar ported it in the braindead
way possible. They just did it in the [blank]iest way possible. I mean they literally were like “Well let’s
just plug it in, in the most dumb way.” It’s horrible. On console, people are like “Oni? Oni sucks.” And that was one of the reasons why Bungie
was interested in getting acquired by Microsoft. Was because we wanted to jump into console
development with both feet, in a kind of one way transition. Like here we go, we aren’t making games
for Mac anymore, at least not exclusively, we’re going to console here we go. There are a lot of things about Oni that lived
on in Halo, you know like some of the stuff about you could only carry two guns. Is something that people often miss about
the fact that…oh yeah, that got carried over to Halo. That was a kind of cool design constraint. I dunno. There’s a lot stuff that we did in Oni that
lived on in the Halo franchise, stuff about the AI and the voice over barks, and all the
rest of that type of stuff. But yeah, the gameplay it never really was
adapted well to console. Maybe, maybe some day, who knows. [Moriarty]
There’s a lot of evidence from LinkedIn and other sources that the employees at Bungie
only worked with Rockstar for a total of two weeks before Rockstar took over entirely,
and most critics and gamers agree-the PlayStation port is almost unplayable. It is a bad game on console, and that was
the end of Oni. It released, it reportedly sold less than
100,000 copies, and it was promptly forgotten because only a few months later Bungie would
release Halo on the XBOX, and completely change everything. As soon as Oni was shipped, the team at Bungie
West packed up their gear and moved to Redmond Washington to settle into the Microsoft offices. They would immediately start working on Halo,
and since Take Two owned Oni, there would never be a sequel. Oni is unique. It is a game that stands alone in its genre,
a genre which it created, and which it alone inhabits. There’s nothing quite like it. There are no Oni Clones. And other than Shogo Mobile Armor Division,
there weren’t even any other mainstream Anime games. This is a title which by any metric should
be considered at the very least a cult classic. Beyond even that, Oni was a pioneer of gender
equality in gaming. It is a female protagonist, but unlike games
like Lara Croft which were out in the same time period, the main character of Konoko
is not overtly sexualized. [Hardy LeBel]
We deliberately set out to make a character not hyper sexualized of femininity. In fact, just as a shout out to my boy Chris
Hughes, he was the one who designed the original Cortana for Halo, and if you remember Cortana
in the first Halo game, he modeled Cortana after Nefertiti. You know, the immortal queen of Egypt. To not be hyper sexualized, you know..big
tits, whatever, curvaceous thing. But rather, you know, she’s a creator of
the mind. So he’s like “I want something sort of
classic, and interesting.” So yeah we set out specifically to do that
with Konoko, to make her not hyper sexualized. [Moriarty]
So why is it that we don’t have another Oni? It’s not like Take Two is afraid to sequelize
a game, and the answer there is two fold. First, Take Two says they don’t own the
copyright, and Bungie says Take Two does, but even though it seems incredibly obvious
that Take Two does in fact own Oni, they aren’t in a hurry to find out because it’s a failed
game to them. And that leads into the second reason, which
is that Oni as a brand has no value. It’s worthless. However, if Bungie were to call and say “Hey,
we’d love to buy that Oni property back from you,” suddenly Oni would go from worthless
to priceless. It would, as it was originally, be worth a
lot of money to Take Two. This is the same reason that Bungie couldn’t
just…make another Oni. Take Two would find they had an interest in
proving and admitting they own the copyright for a lawsuit. The other argument that someone could make
is that there’s no audience for another Oni game, but this is one argument where they’d
be wrong. During my research, I came across Oni Central,
a community of Oni modders and fans who continue to produce fan made content and updates to
the core game even today. They have debates around the history of the
game, and they theorycraft and break down parts of the lore. They datamined every image and piece of text,
and their Wiki has back ups of every press promo image and video from the time. It’s arguable that at this point some of
these modders and community members know more about Oni than any single developer who worked
on the game. And while there are lots of games that find
a few passionate superfans, Oni Central boasts hundreds of fans. The Oni Anniversary Edition, a community created
mod installation, hosting, and update service–essentially a Steam exclusively for Oni–has updates as
recently as March 8th of 2019. For those of you watching this video when
it goes live, that’s Friday, three days ago. And they see hundreds or thousands of active
downloads. This is an insanely active community, almost
as alive as the modding scene of any AAA title. In fact, the Halo modding scene is less active. And why does Hardy LeBel think these gamers
still play the game? [Hardy LeBel]
That game is alive. I mean, that game has some of my soul in it. Some of all our soul. It’s alive. It has that lifeforce to it. Oh got, that makes me almost tear up because
I’m so impressed. Although I would tell those people, I mean
like if they get joy out of it that’s fine. I’ll just use the Marie Kondo thing, if
it gives you joy, do it, but there’s a lot of newer games out there. [Moriarty]
Oni strikes a chord with the people who played it, and it’s a strong connection. I myself played this game years ago, and ever
since I think of it frequently, and fondly. I remember Oni as a game with incredibly cool
melee attacks, and also a game that I’ve never played anything like before or since. It is a unique experience in my past, and
that experience is something I found out that thousands of others got to share, and they
share it together on Oni Central. I’m not even the first to be shocked by
the incredible community that exists around this game, there are literally dozens of videos
that exist exclusively to express their shock at finding that this community not only exists,
but is as incredibly active and involved as it is. Sadly the community showed up a little bit
too late for Take Two, and Oni, but is it really the fault of the game? Take Two did not market the game, there was
next to no advertising. The game was rushed to meet an arbitrary annual
deadline for investors rather than given the space it needed to be truly polished into
a Great experience, and worse still that rush and crunch, which so devastated the developers
who experienced it, was all for naught when the game wasn’t even released during the
Christmas holiday. At that point, why Take Two wouldn’t simply
delay the game out of Quarter 4 so that it could actually have a chance to sell. It’s a question that boggles the mind–surely
investors would rather have their golden goose healthy laying eggs instead of laying passed
out in a football field. Or, does the blame lay squarely on Rockstar
for producing a beyond terrible port of the game to PlayStation? Do we blame Rockstar for taking the easy money,
knowing they were devoting most of their resources to Max Payne and Grand Theft Auto III instead
of making a truly good console version of Bungie’s Oni? The saddest thing for me, as a creator who
researches and interviews subjects for these videos, a fan of the game and somebody who
is in awe of the devotion of the fanbase this game has wrought, well..the saddest thing
is that dozens of people experienced some of the worst times in their lives pushing
this game out in the hopes that fans would find the little bits of their souls left in
the coding, and today neither Take Two nor Bungie even acknowledges the game they created. [Hardy LeBel]
Years in development, and nothing had come of it. And then, we managed to turn it into something. And ship a game that we could be proud of. It’s not the mega-hit that a lot of other
Bungie products have been, but I don’t think of it as a failure. All throughout my career, I’ve encountered
people who just say “God, I really loved that game, and it’s so cool.” And I dunno, it just really means a lot to
me that that’s still out there. [Moriarty]
There are plenty of ways that you can find Oni in order to experience it today, and a
quick search of Google will lead you to it. If you get a chance to install the game, you
can follow the links in the description in order to find Oni Central–which is almost
essential if you want to play the game on a modern computer. I promise, they are incredibly friendly. Allow me the pleasure of butchering someone’s
name but I encourage you to speak to Iritscen. I’ll show you his name on screen since,
that was butchered I’m sure. He runs the Oni wiki, and the Oni discord–which
is also linked below–and was a key help in unraveling the story behind the development
of the game. There is no doubt that he can fill in extra
detail if you’re interested in it. Hardy LeBel today no longer works for any
game developer, however he has influenced you in many ways. That Halo multiplayer which was so influential
to so many games? Hardy was the lead designer for it, and Oni
was his first real baby–so it’s not surprising that Oni continues to live in Halo in little
ways, all forgotten but still there nonetheless. He worked on SOCOM 3 and Fireteam Bravo as
the Creative Director, and you’ve seen his work in Dungeon Siege 2 and Far Cry 2. He’s been influential to video gaming, and
probably influential to you in some way, and if you’d like to learn from him, I’ve
linked his Level Design Playlist down below, where he’s done some very interesting learning
modules about how to design a video game. Finally, if you’re interested in seeing
the full interview with Hardy LeBel, let me know. I found it incredibly interesting, and there’s
over an hour of additional content that simply didn’t make it into this video, covering
incredibly interesting Bungie trivia, history, and more. If you comment below that you want to see
it, I’ll reply to you if I upload it. If you enjoyed this video please consider
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