The planned ten-year contract between Bungie and Activision has ended two years early. Bungie announced in January that it would be taking full control of the Destiny franchise going forward. The separation of the two companies comes as a surprise, although the signs were there. Late last year, Activision expressed its disappointment with the latest Destiny 2 expansion, Forsaken, which failed to meet the publisher’s sales expectations. While we don’t know the exact reason for the split, it stands to reason that Destiny was becoming a riskier investment for Activision while Bungie felt more creatively restricted by the publisher’s sales goals. Perhaps the breakup was mutual.
Bungie and Activision have reportedly disagreed regarding Destiny’s direction since day 1, according to Kotaku. It hardly needs to be said that Activision doesn’t have much good will in the Destiny community: the publisher is generally seen as the money-grabbing big corporation trying to push scrappy little Bungie around. Both reputations are understandable. Activision works on World of Warcraft and Overwatch, the former the grand dame of the subscription MMO market and the latter a very popular (and lucrative) esport. On the other hand, Bungie is still beloved among fans who remember the Halo days.
Whatever the reasons, the response from the community has been overwhelmingly positive. There’s a belief among Destiny fans that without Activision looking over its shoulder and encouraging microtransactions and season subscriptions, Bungie can work the Halo magic and make Destiny the way the studio wants to make it.
One thing is for sure: things are going to change.
At best, Bungie taking Destiny fully under its wing might remove the pressure for in-game transactions, including less emphasis on the Eververse shop where items can be purchased with real money. Fans have been happy to buy expansions, but less so cosmetics (players already have more shaders than they know what to do with).
Although I’m optimistic about Bungie being able to take a more creative direction as an independent studio, there is also the problem of whether Destiny still has a strong enough player base to revitalize the series. According to Activision’s earnings call last November, Forsaken wasn’t enough to bring back all of Destiny 2‘s “core” audience.
“We have not yet seen the full core re-engage in Destiny, which has kind of led to the underperformance against our expectations to date,” Activision COO Coddy Johnson explained. “Some players we think are still in wait-and-see mode. So when you’re in, you’re deeply engaged. If you’re not, we’re hoping now’s the time to bring players back in and win them back.”
Bungie’s freedom isn’t a blank check. Without Activision’s marketing power behind it, Bungie could struggle to bring a wider playerbase back to Destiny 2, let alone sell it a new copy of the game, even with organic advertising sources such as streamers who tacitly encourage people to buy or return to the game. Over the years, Bungie and Activision have cultivated a close relationship with streamers and YouTubers, a population which requires a steady drip of game content to give their own audience something fresh. That content is still coming, but the updates are largely finite. After all, Destiny isn’t an esport or a phenomenon like Fortnite. Streamers can only carry the marketing of the game so far, with the exception of viral moments such as this week’s days-long Niobe Labs excursion.
Bungie will have to figure out other ways to keep Destiny 2 fresh after Activision’s exit. The upside is that whatever Activision was already doing for the game clearly wasn’t working, according to the publisher, so change might be good. Otherwise, without the playerbase of days past, there’s a chance that the Destiny franchise will crumble earlier than it might have otherwise.
But until the day the Tower falls, the future is bright — especially when it comes to the release schedule. The pace of Destiny content releases changed after The Taken King, presumably under Activision’s direction. It was Activision, Kotaku says, that encouraged the regular release of a substantial Year Two expansion each fall, with Destiny 2 itself also falling on that schedule. Meanwhile, events in 2018, such as giving away Destiny 2 for free as well as letting players who don’t own Forsaken play Gambit, one of the expansion’s exclusive multiplayer modes, looked like increasingly desperate attempts to lure in fans who were on the fence.
The Annual Pass, which costs $35 to unlock additional DLC otherwise locked behind a paywall, seemed especially designed to get people to shell out more money for a small amount of content, and even some die-hard fans aren’t willing to take that step. While I’ve enjoyed the Season of the Forge (disclaimer: I received a complimentary press copy of the Annual Pass), the content itself is a grind, the Forges feel half-baked, and there isn’t enough story to justify lore fans taking a closer look. What’s there is good — the Truth to Power saga is deliciously baffling and the new vendor, Ada-1, has a neat personal connection to the Guardian — but Ada’s story is told in short bursts behind activities that just aren’t very much fun.
Without Activision pushing Bungie to upload more content in smaller chunks, the studio could finally change Destiny 2‘s release schedule so that it feels like there’s always something substantial to do in the game. Bungie could revert back to a schedule of seasonal expansions, as was the case before Forsaken. Or maybe it could switch to something completely different.
“We’ll continue to deliver on the existing Destiny roadmap, and we’re looking forward to releasing more seasonal experiences in the coming months,” Bungie said in a blog post announcing the split, “as well as surprising our community with some exciting announcements about what lies beyond.”
Bungie has been pretty good about responding to the community’s requests for more content without following a tired trend: last year, instead of adding a battle royale mode, the team rolled out Gambit, a unique PvPvE mode that’s kept me hooked to the game. Content is undoubtedly where Bungie will really be able to make the most difference sans Activision.
On the lore side, the possibilities are relatively slim in the short term. Destiny’s story, which underwent major changes before the series made its debut as most stories do, won’t necessarily be directly affected by the change while Destiny 2 is still the current installment, which will itself probably continue to wind down over the next year. But what about Destiny 3, which is rumored to be in development as we speak?
A jump to a brand new sequel could see the return of concepts from the original, scrapped draft of the first game’s story, such as Uldren working as an ally to the Guardian — especially likely now that he’s been reborn as one himself. There are also rumors that a theoretical Destiny 3 might find Guardians using Dark powers as well as Light, although you’ll have to take that bit with a grain of salt.
And what of Bungie’s next IP? The studio announced last summer that it had partnered with Chinese publisher NetEase to create a brand new franchise, which is rumored to be called Matter. NetEase invested $100 million in the developer to make it so. How will Bungie’s work affect continued work on Destiny? We won’t know the answer to that question for a while yet.
What we do know for sure is that, without Activision, Bungie will now carry the full responsibility for Destiny in the eyes of its fans. If Bungie hopes to bring back the core player base (and some new players along the way), the studio is going to have to set new benchmarks — and I’m dying to know what those might be. With Anthem coming out in February, Destiny 2 might struggle to hang on to its remaining audience — but the people who remain have a trust in Bungie that’s even stronger now that Activision is out of the picture.
Megan Crouse writes about Star Wars and pop culture for StarWars.com, Star Wars Insider, and Den of Geek. Read more of her work here. Find her on Twitter @blogfullofwords.