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Bungie Sold to Microsoft? What? Who? Why?

By MacEdition Staff, 21 June 2000

Yes, it’s true, and by now all of us out here in Mac-land are feeling it sinking in. I don’t know about you, but I was deeply affected by the Bungie/Microsoft deal. To have this visceral a reaction to what is really a simple business deal is a sign of how powerful a connection to Bungie most Mac gamers have. This connection is especially strong for those of us who were using a Mac during the Dark Times of the mid-90s – when Bungie was the little game company that could. They were irreverent, Mac-only, and they made the best games available on any platform. “Don’t make us kick your ass“ was emblazoned on their T-shirts at Macworld, which were always at a discount if you would swap what you were wearing with your new shirt. Not a porting house, but a Mac developer first and foremost, Bungie was who we could point to when the Mac’s gaming credentials were questioned. Bungie was, for lack of a better term, ours – a member of the family.

Bungie’s games had an aura about them that just oozed slick. Always with a story deeper than the mere nod that plot gets from most game houses, Bungie’s games simply kicked ass. What was great about the company back then was that you could fire up Marathon on the Mac and instantly draw a crowd of your PC friends drooling over it. The games felt crafted, as if someone cared about them beyond just the graphics and mechanics. Look, we could say, Bungie makes great games for the Mac. Myth was a huge hit on the PC, and shaped a lot of the games that followed it. Halo looked to be no exception.

But then, this.

So what happened? Jason Jones and Alex Seropian, the two founders of the company, say they sold the company to Microsoft to help shape the development of the Xbox, Microsoft’s much lauded foray into the console game market. They claim that competitive pressures have been relieved by this move, and that Microsoft’s QA, marketing, and PR departments will free them up to do what they do best – make great games. The issue for Mac gamers is whether the Mac version of the game will get the axe. “We care about the Macintosh, and we care about PC gaming, we just have some big decisions to make there,“ Alex Seropian said in a recent interview.

“Big decisions“ is an apt term for their dilemma. Make no mistake, Microsoft didn’t just buy Bungie. They bought Halo, and the underlying technology Jason Jones and crew have developed. John Carmack gets a lot of press, but Jones is at least as talented. Rumors about Bungie’s secret project currently in development abound, but the obvious conclusion one could draw is that it uses some form of Halo’s underlying tech. Buying the hottest game engine in the industry is a major coup for Microsoft, enabling them to milk the engine for years while Bungie moves on to better and better technology. Whether or not Microsoft will assert influence to squash the Mac version of Halo is anybody’s guess, although Seropian and Jones maintain that this decision is going to be made by the development team. Time will tell, and it would be foolish for any company to make Mac games if it doesn’t offer a profit on the back end.

But what upset many in the Mac community most was the perceived pandering tone of the FAQ released on Inspiring the greatest ire was Bungie’s claim that believing the company had some OS preference all these years was just a projection of the Mac community’s own desires. Really? Questions abound in light of this new information. Why make Mac games at all in the early days, since Seropian came from Microsoft? Why did Marathon II not make it to the PC until almost a year after it shipped on the Mac? Why bring Myth: The Fallen Lords to the Mac at all, in the late ’90s when it looked like Apple was surely in a death spiral? Why demo Halo at Macworld at all? Macworld! But, public relations prose often rubs people the wrong way, and surely a company with such a long history on the Mac deserves the benefit of the doubt. My feeling on this is that the decision to do a Mac port will boil down to whether or not there are the resources to do one within the new Bungie. “Shaping the design and development“ of the Xbox isn’t something that can wait, be done on the cheap, or happen without sucking up a lot of resources.

Xbox will be interesting to watch. Sony assuredly is watching, and concerns over Intel’s giant manufacturing operations must be on their radar screen. The console market is a high-stakes, high-profit game – a 250,000-unit sell-through for the PC game market is considered a triple A title, whereas on the PlayStation, 250k is a failure. The profits are certainly there, but so is the risk. The console market is getting crowded, and a major downside is that a lot of the buyers of consoles are teenagers, who usually only get one choice per console cycle. Mom and Dad Six-Pack won’t go for buying a PS II and an Xbox – little Johnny Six-Pack gets one choice. Which will it be? The platform with titles from the huge selection of proven console winners, such as EA, Midway, and 989 Studios? Or Xbox, with a much smaller pool of available titles? Of course, Microsoft could buy one of these console game developers. Correction: Microsoft could buy all of them, but they will probably only buy a few.

As for Apple? Part of the blame for Bungie’s seeming lack of commitment to the Mac may lie with Apple’s glacial adoption of better game technology and hardware. OS X may be a great platform for games and game development, but it won’t be out in force for at least another year. Furthermore, the drive for OpenGL as a game API has always been in direct opposition with Microsoft’s DirectX. This move by Microsoft can’t be escaping notice in Cupertino. In the best light, Apple is simply caught in the crossfire as the iMac’s market space is being challenged by the so-called “complex consoles“ like the PlayStation II and the Xbox. The downside of this situation is that this is only the first salvo in what will likely be an increasingly heated battle.

So where does all this leave Mac gamers who were hoping that Halo would reach the Mac? Well, they could look at the Xbox as a nice alternative to a high-end video card, or they could be bitter about it. Initially, I was determined that Bungie wouldn’t get another red cent from me, but on further consideration, I’m giving them the benefit of the doubt. Character is Action, Aristotle taught us. Time will tell whether or not the character of the company that brought Mac users so much pleasure will shine through. Will Bungie change? Who knows? Maybe Bungie will be the one that changes Microsoft.

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