Say you’re in charge of a 750-person company that develops and manages a massive, complicated video game. Every day you’re making hundreds of decisions both big and small. How do you decide which ones to share with the rest of the team? How do you make sure you’re up to date on everyone else’s decisions? And how do you know when it’s right to share them with the public?
Over the past few weeks the Destiny 2 community has been in an uproar, fuming over the game’s unsatisfying endgame, the bungled XP system, and an upcoming expansion pack (Curse of Osiris, out Tuesday) that seems light on content. It’s reminiscent of the early days of vanilla Destiny, and it’s all exacerbated by Bungie’s poor communication, both internally and externally. For three years now, the rapidly expanding studio has had a tendency to be as secretive as possible, only detailing future plans in response to widespread criticism. Bungie rarely opens up about its development issues and likes sticking to careful marketing dripfeeds, with high-level staff sometimes holding onto key information for long periods of time before sharing it with the rest of the office.
Sometimes that means hiding the true nature of the XP system behind misleading numbers. Sometimes it means waiting months before addressing a heavy ammo bug. Sometimes it means a designer promising that the PvP algorithm hasn’t changed, only to realise later that it had—he just wasn’t told about it.
It’s important to keep critiquing Bungie for its opacity. But it’s also worth zooming out and trying to figure out just why the studio has found it so difficult to communicate. Speaking on this week’s candid Bungie podcast, Destiny marketing director Eric Osborne made one point that I found particularly cogent.
“One of the things that makes communication so challenging is, we want to make sure we have all our ducks in a row,” he said. “Building experiences for Destiny—because of the number of players that play it and the variety of content they’re playing— means a lot of teams have to feed in, and a lot of teams have to be committed to making the content and fitting it into their schedules. And so it’s really difficult for us to come out quickly and say we’re doing, ‘X Y Z,’ because that means, ‘Oh, did someone tell the audio team that we’re doing that, did someone tell the QA team that we’re doing that?’ Because the scale is pretty huge, it’s a pretty sizeable endeavour in some ways.”
The more I’ve learned about how video games are made, the more I’ve come to appreciate how miraculous it is that any of them get made at all. Within a massive studio like Bungie there are dozens of autonomous departments—design, engineering, quality assurance, audio, concept art, and so on—and each of those departments is making new choices every day, juggling not just Destiny 2's live game but future expansions and other projects. (Don’t forget that, per the leaked Activision contract, Bungie is presumably still on the hook for Destinys 3 and 4.)
A decade ago, the studio had fewer than 300 employees. Now it’s got more than 700. Adjusting to that kind of growth—and figuring out how to wrangle everyone—is no small task. Short of sending out an e-mail or updating a task management system every time they make even the most insignificant changes, it’s hard to imagine how Bungie’s producers can keep everyone up to date on absolutely everything. The sheer logistics are almost inconceivable.
Then again, other studios don’t seem to have quite as hard a time. The Division’s developers are constantly communicating with their players, and Blizzard’s forums for games like Overwatch are sprinkled with blue posts full of interesting thoughts and responses. For decades now, Bungie co-founder Jason Jones has worshipped at the altar of secrecy, and the studio’s communication problems are in large part an ingrained cultural problem that its leadership will need to figure out how to fix.
At least there’s always Kotaku: