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

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austin_walker

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Edited By austin_walker
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.

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finaldasa

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#1 finaldasa  Moderator

The details coming out of this decision are so dejecting. Activision's relationship with Bungie, Bungie's changing work culture, and Destiny's clunky development all paints a very strange portrait.

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Homelessbird

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Thanks for the timeline, Austin. I'll be getting to the VentureBeat article, but it's nice to have a bite sized summary in the meantime.

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colourful_hippie

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Good, I didn't even know he was cheated out of money in the first place

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johnnymcginley

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Halo is basically Music: The Video Game for me so fair play to him.

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coltondaniels45

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Really sad to hear this type of split with two parties I grew up with. Almost like seeing your parents getting a divorce. At least Marty now has his own studio Highwire Games.

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Madara117

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@colourful_hippie: As far as I understand it Bungie basically said "You're a dick we're not giving you money for the music anymore." and left it at that.

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WesternWizard

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@madara117: Except they were trying to deny him things already owed based on his contract. Which is why Bungie lost so hard in court.

Have to say, Marty seems like a bit of a dick, but Bungie/Activision were even bigger ones. Whole thing is a sordid mess, yuck.

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Itwastuesday

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#8  Edited By Itwastuesday

So, Activision decided to cut his music from the trailers? What, were their businessmen making creative decisions about the direction of the game? What else about the game did they meddle with?

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Pudge

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It is a damn shame, all of this is. Bungie was one of my favorite developers for years and years, with a unique culture surrounding it, and employees who cared about their fans. The forums on their website were always active and filled with great discussion, and they used to take matchmaking suggestions for gametypes directly from there in the Halo 2 and 3 days. It's like watching an old friend turn into a bitter and greedy old man before your very eyes.

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pause422

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Activision being the problem from the beginning was no surprise, but him turning around threaten Bungie employees after the company was on his side against Activision in the first place, seems like a dick move. Seems like Marty is a bit of an asshole himself, don't think he deserves this win, but whatever.

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finaldasa

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#11 finaldasa  Moderator

@colourful_hippie: As far as I understand it Bungie basically said "You're a dick we're not giving you money for the music anymore." and left it at that.

Sorta? Bungie claims O'Donnell returned from a vacation at the end of 2013 and wasn't providing the audio he said he could do (sound effects, smaller music cues, ect.) and that was the basis of the termination. O'Donnell had also done out on twitter and to other coworkers when Activision changed out the music in the Destiny E3 trailer. That was the beginning of would eventually be seen by Bungie as an employee possibly damaging their game and corporate relationships.

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mashzapotato

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Having been in a situation where a former employer has refused to pay me back wages; this shit is the worst.

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inevpatoria

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This, along with the byline-long "significant revision of the game's narrative" confirmation, just reminds how fascinating and tumultuous a Destiny development postmortem would be.

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GaspoweR

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Having been in a situation where a former employer has refused to pay me back wages; this shit is the worst.

Yeah...that stuff really messes with you. It sucks.

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Pogman

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Everyone always blames the publisher, but the developer decided to jump into bed with them...

DICE and Bioware are other examples of people making excuses for the developer making shit decisions.

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Lucifer

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Having not played Destiny I speak from a point of ignorance; but I can't help but feel it marked a point were video games had officially gotten too big for their own good.

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sammo21

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Basically here's the best summation of what happened: Activision screwed him over and his direct bosses, Bungie, didn't do anything to fight for him. Then when it came time to let him go Bungie took it even further and actually tried to dick him out of stuff he rightly earned before Destiny was a thing.

Not cool.

Who to blame? Activision AND Bungie. Typically the publisher sucks but Bungie sucked pretty bad in this too. Honestly though, this feels pretty lockstep with how they've treated everything in regards to their company and Destiny in the last 2 years, so...

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Mr_JPeps

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Man, never thought id say this but, FUCK BUNGIE! They lost me on Destiny anyway, glad i never picked it up now, this just ensures i wont, ever. Keep gargling Activision's seed while turning your back on the people that helped get you where you are today.

Fight on Marty!

Sadly, I feel something like this is right around the corner for Blizzard as well. Anyone who does business with Activision seems to be cursed with this sort of thing.

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Cybexx

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I saw him talk at PAX Dev, he was on an audio panel. All the panelists were very adamant that establishing the sound identity for a game in the reveal trailer onwards is quite important, so seeing this stuff come up gives some context to that.

He said he was pretty happy to be back working in the indie scene on a limited budget since it inspires creative solutions.

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Oldirtybearon

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Good for Marty. That's some Jesse Ventura level shit he just pulled.

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BigD145

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@pause422 said:

Activision being the problem from the beginning was no surprise, but him turning around threaten Bungie employees after the company was on his side against Activision in the first place, seems like a dick move. Seems like Marty is a bit of an asshole himself, don't think he deserves this win, but whatever.

Being a dick or not doesn't enter into being paid for your work.

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Clockwork_saint

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Thanks for breaking it down, Austin!

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AMyggen

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Good for him.

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sudo_melon

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Destiny continues to be a success.

What a sad world we live in.

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MeAuntieNora

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Yeah, good for him... Denying him of stuff he earned (and was apparently contractually entitled to) seems so skeezy.

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violet_

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fuck bungie

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mems1224

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sounds like he didnt like bungie turning into the soulless anit-gamer developer its become. can't say i blame him.

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#28  Edited By AngriGhandi

So, according the that Venture Beat article, they decided to change the entire story only a month before the game was originally supposed to come out? We all knew it was changed in some kind of haphazard way, but that's crazier than I personally imagined.

What the hell was that original story? What the hell happened?

And, moreover, why did Activision feel the need to stir up all this bullshit just so they could use this generic-ass trailer music?

Loading Video...

It's almost like they just wanted to piss off a highly-paid employee to force him out, after tricking him into doing all his work up front, and they hoped they could screw him out of what was rightfully his in the process!

Almost.

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wrecks

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#29  Edited By wrecks

One for the good guys!

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JonnyBlunts

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Thank you for laying this all out Austin, it's much appreciated.

Fuck Bungie, fuck Activision... and while I'm at it fuck Machinima and fuck Konami too.

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soulcake

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Sad to see Bungie in this state. You used to mean something. now you're just a other slave of activision.

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zdgro

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I wish I didn't enjoy playing destiny because it really sucks.

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jejoma

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I wonder why Joe Staten left.

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Rotnac

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#34  Edited By Rotnac

It's pretty sad what Bungie has turned into. I'm glad that Marty got what he rightfully earned.

It would be cool if he found employment at 343i and did music for Halo again. The soundtrack for Halo 4 is really forgettable.

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Sil3n7

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Destiny day only meant O'Donnells pay day.

Loading Video...

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exogen

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get rekt corporate interests

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exogen

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@sil3n7: you only 90 pounds when you wet 'n wearin' boots

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SumMexican75

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5 part series for Destiny..... D:

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GrandHarrier

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#39  Edited By GrandHarrier

Bungie severed its ties to Microsoft because it didn't want to make Halo anymore for this Activision shit where they'd make generic Halo clone for the next ten years.

Yeah.

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KaneRobot

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343 is far more Bungie than Bungie is at this point. I don't know what the hell Bungie has become. It's unrecognizable.

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personandstuff

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You know, I'd never thought I'd say it but Microsoft got the better end of the deal in the Bungie split. They get to keep making Halo games. Bundle has to make Activision games.

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turboman

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What a mess. So is Destiny still supposed to be a five part game series? Are we still on part one?

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finaldasa

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#43 finaldasa  Moderator

@turboman said:

What a mess. So is Destiny still supposed to be a five part game series? Are we still on part one?

I wondered that as well. I'm guessing that includes DLC and Activision probably owns the Destiny IP (I think I'm remembering that correctly from their initial partnership announcement) so any sequels would be Activision's anyways. Question is do they count all DLC or only major expansions like Taken King?

Seems crazy to make a 5 game deal, that contract could last decades in that case.

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Shtinky

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@sil3n7: I think everyone got the joke in text form, didn't need to post the video, just saying.

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hassun

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l4wd0g

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If nothing else, O'Donnell's music is what't stuck with me more than anything else in the Halo games. I think Bungle and Activation screwed up. Imagine how insulting that would be, to make a work of art, and then having a marketing/pr guy say, "we're going in another direction."

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micsab

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I'm glad O'Donnell one and he deserves the shares and profit sharing because of the work he put in. But seriously, losing your shit because your music didn't make it into an e3 trailer? Give me a fucking break. It would be one thing if Activision had tried to replace some of his in game music, but who gives a fuck about a trailer once the game is actually out, nobody! To get so mad that you then start becoming hostile to people you work with definitely makes it seem like he's as much at fault for this split as Bungie.

Again, as long as they're gonna continue to use his music he deserves to get paid, but seriously to get so bent out over a trailer just seems really petty.

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OurSin_360

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Activision's known for shitty business practices and fucking over employees, so this is nothing new. Bungie is part of Activision now so it's funny how you work with somebody for 10-15-20 years or and all of sudden in a 6 month time frame they become impossible to work with.

Bungie severed its ties to Microsoft because it didn't want to make Halo anymore for this Activision shit where they'd make generic Halo clone for the next ten years.

Yeah.

I believe they wanted to make a halo mmo, and that's what destiny pretty much is.

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Cold_Wolven

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Any news I read about the development behind Destiny just makes it sound like a big joke. Half of the soul in those Bungie Halo games was Marty O'Donnell's music.

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Chillicothe

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@micsab said:

I'm glad O'Donnell one and he deserves the shares and profit sharing because of the work he put in. But seriously, losing your shit because your music didn't make it into an e3 trailer? Give me a fucking break. It would be one thing if Activision had tried to replace some of his in game music, but who gives a fuck about a trailer once the game is actually out, nobody! To get so mad that you then start becoming hostile to people you work with definitely makes it seem like he's as much at fault for this split as Bungie.

Again, as long as they're gonna continue to use his music he deserves to get paid, but seriously to get so bent out over a trailer just seems really petty.

That degree of him losing his shit is definately on him, but he did see troubling signs of manipulative backseat driving of creative work (a problem at more than just Actiblizz). Think of it like the Konami/Kojima thing.

I do wonder if the rest of that massive opus will be the OSTs to the later Destiny...things.

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