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Halo Composer Marty O’Donnell Beats Bungie in Court Case, Reclaims Shares in Company

A court-appointed arbitrator ruled that O’Donnell should receive company stock—and the profit-sharing payouts that come along with that.

O'Donnell has made some major contributions to the soundscape of gaming.
O'Donnell has made some major contributions to the soundscape of gaming.

For many Bungie fans, the distinctive sound of Marty O'Donnell's music has been synonymous with the company itself. But in 2014 there was a mysterious falling out between O'Donnell and the Destiny developer, and O'Donnell found himself fired. From the outside, it all felt very abrupt. But now, as legal proceedings surrounding that termination come into light, it's clear that the journey to O'Donnell's removal was a long affair.

Dean Takahashi over at VentureBeat breaks down the whole case in close detail. It’s a good read, but if you just want the basics, here’s a timeline:

  • Throughout the 1990s, O’Donnell’s audio production company, TotalAudio, created music for Bungie games like Myth: The Fallen Lords and Oni. In 2000, O’Donnell joined Bungie as Audio Director, where he went on to compose the music for the Halo series throughout the next decade.
  • In October 2007, Bungie gave O’Donnell a big chunk of founder shares in the company.
  • On April 16 of 2010, Bungie and Activision struck a deal to make Destiny as a five part game series.
  • Around that time, Pete Parsons, COO of Bungie, asked O’Donnell to create all of the music for the franchise ahead of time. O’Donnell was given more stock in Bungie at this time, as well as an employment contract through 2020.
  • O’Donnell recorded the soundtrack, “a symphonic suite of eight movements,” called Music of the Spheres. O’Donnell wanted to release it all at once as a standalone work, but Activision disagrees.
  • In the lead up to E3 2013, Activision removes O’Donnell’s music from the debut Destiny trailer, and instead uses its own music.
  • O’Donnell, with the support of Bungie management, objected to Activision’s actions but Activision doesn’t budge. Because of this, “O’Donnell threatened Bungie employees in an attempt to keep the trailer from being posted online and interrupted press briefings.”
  • These actions create tension between O’Donnell and Bungie management, but he stays on and continues to work on the game’s audio.
  • Management felt that his work was not satisfactory, and eventually he was terminated on April 11, 2014. Bungie refused to pay O’Donnell for his accrued vacation time “unless he waived his equity interest.” O’Donnell sued them over this, and won the right to his vacation pay.
  • Bungie took legal action to strip O’Donnell of his shares of the company. But according to his contract with them, this could only be done if he voluntarily resigned, which he did not do.
  • Now, O’Donnell has re-secured that stock. As Takahashi notes, “the value of that stock isn’t clear, as Bungie itself isn’t a publicly traded company,” but his payment for the first year of profit sharing is $142,500. In exchange, O’Donnell has to give Bungie any CDs he’d made of Music of the Spheres.
  • Bungie has appealed this ruling, but the appeal has already been shot down.

All said, this is a pretty big win for O’Donnell, who can count on that profit sharing for as long as Destiny continues to be a success. And that's not the only payday for O'Donnell, either. In a related case, the composer additionally received $95,000 in unpaid wages from his former employer.

With it all out on the table, it feels like a split between O'Donnell and Bungie was far from abrupt. O'Donnell clearly wasn't comfortable with the direction Bungie was headed in, and some of his more aggressive and public actions ran against what was best for his studio (and, obviously, for Activision too). It really is a complicated story, so if you're interested in the nitty-gritty, reading the VentureBeat article is definitely worth your time. And if you're really curious, you can go ahead and read through the court order too.