As Bungie celebrates its 30th anniversary this week, a new report has painted an unflattering portrait of the company’s internal work culture and also details recent internal efforts at Bungie to reform itself.
“The Battle for Bungie’s Soul,” by long-time games reporter Rebekah Valentine, published on the media outlet IGN Friday morning. It contains accounts from 26 current and former employees of Bellevue, Wash.-based Bungie, discussing the apparent systemic problems that they’d encountered at the company.
These reportedly included toxic leadership, mandatory overtime (known within the games industry as “crunch culture“), poor communication, outright sexism, and an HR department that actively protected bad actors, particularly long-time members of the company.
In reaction to the IGN piece, Bungie CEO Pete Parsons published an open letter on Bungie.net Friday afternoon. It begins with an apology to current and past employees who have “ever experienced anything less than a safe, fair, and professional working environment at Bungie,” and goes on to detail recent steps that Bungie has taken toward addressing concerns like those raised in the IGN piece.
This includes better planning on release dates for major Destiny 2 expansions such as Shadowkeep and Beyond Light, to allow developers to work at a reasonable pace without having to put in mandatory overtime; reforming the internal Bungie Diversity Committee; and hiring more women and people from underrepresented communities. Parsons had previously written a news post in September to reveal and discuss Bungie’s ongoing efforts toward diversity and inclusion.
Bungie is the latest video game developer to come under fire for systemic issues with its internal culture. In the last few years, similar accusations have been leveled against many studios and people in the games industry, such as Ubisoft (Far Cry, Assassin’s Creed), Paradox Interactive (Stellaris, Crusader Kings), Riot Games (League of Legends), Quantic Dream (Detroit: Become Human), the Fullbright Company (Gone Home, Tacoma), and Lab Zero Games (Indivisible).
The most common charges have included harassment, pay discrimination, an “old boys’ club” culture where long-time employees of the company could get away with anything, and stories of workplace misconduct.
This had been bubbling under the surface since 2018, but shifted into a new gear in July when the state of California filed a lawsuit against Activision Blizzard, the merged development studio that publishes both Call of Duty and World of Warcraft.
The lawsuit, which followed a two-year investigation into Activision Blizzard by California’s Department of Fair Employment and Housing, alleges that both halves of the company, Activision and Blizzard, fostered a “a pervasive ‘frat boy’ workplace culture” where female employees were subjected to “constant sexual harassment.”
The charges being laid at Bungie’s door are significantly milder than the dysfunction vortex that Blizzard had reportedly turned into, which is not a high bar. The primary difference appears to be that by the time Bungie’s issues went public, Bungie was already several months into a series of active attempts to address them.
While Bungie seems to have been at its worst during production on the original Destiny, there’s a sense among the respondents in the IGN article that Bungie’s workplace culture is slowly improving. Steps taken include the use of town hall meetings with the ability to ask anonymous questions of the company’s leadership; the adoption of agile development; diversity & inclusion work; and deliberate attempts to avoid problems that would lead to crunch.
“We are not yet the studio we have the potential to become, but we are on our way,” Parsons wrote in his post. “And we will not rest or slow these efforts because we recognize that the journey of inclusivity, diversity, and equity is, in itself, the destination we all strive towards. This is critical to achieving our vision and fulfilling the potential of the welcoming, equitable home of creative and technical excellence Bungie should be.”
Bungie might be best-known for being the studio that originally created Halo, the series which is generally credited for putting the Xbox on the map. Bungie was founded in 1991, purchased by Microsoft in 2000, put out Halo: Combat Evolved as an Xbox launch title in 2001, went independent in 2007, and stopped developing Halo games in 2010 after the release of Halo: Reach.
Its current project is the massively-multiplayer online shooter Destiny 2, which Bungie began to self-publish back in 2019. This has apparently been a lucrative move for Bungie, which announced plans for a major expansion, including a new headquarters in Bellevue, Wash., earlier this year.
Independent population trackers estimate that 38 million players sign on to Destiny 2 on a monthly basis. Its next major expansion, The Witch Queen, is scheduled to launch in February, with a new trailer debuting at the 2021 Game Awards show.