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Interview: Bungie's Alexander Seropian
June 19, 2000 | Tuncer Deniz

It’s not very often that you get to interview your ex-boss. I first got to know Alexander Seropian when he and Jason Jones came over to my house in the spring of 1993 to show me sizzling new first person shooter, Pathways Into Darkness. Since then I've seen Bungie grow from two employees to over fifty today, I myself having had the privilage of being one of them for three years from 1996 to 1999.

A few minutes after the infamous announcement, Alexander Seropian, CEO of Bungie Software, was gracious enough to grant us this rather candid interview.

T.D. From a Mac perspective, what people really want to know at this point is what’s going to happen to the Mac version [of Halo]. Everything I’ve read so far is pretty ambiguous, it just sounds like a lot of…

A.S. Nothing answers?

T.D. Exactly. The overall impression I get is that Bungie is dancing around this question and anything can happen. What’s your response to that?

A.S. Well, that is definitely the party line. It’s kind of hard to answer that question, because honestly we don’t know. I don’t know if this is comforting or not to me and to everybody else who is a Mac fan, but it is going to be our decision. At the same time, we will hopefully be concentrating on X-Box stuff. So I guess the real question is how much we actually can do. It really doesn’t have to do with what we really want to do. If we end up with a Mac version, it’ll ship cause it’ll be entirely up to us.

The one misconception is that…like the people who think Microsoft bought us so that we wouldn’t do Mac stuff are completely insane. Then there’s another other shade of people who think when a decision gets made that it’ll be Microsoft who makes the decision. And that if we want to make a Mac version and they don’t want to do one, then we won’t get to do one…that’s untrue.

That’s about…it’s about as much as I know.

T.D. Fair enough. Can you tell me how this whole deal came about? There’s been some speculation, and my own belief as well, that you guys have been in a tight [money] situation since Oni has been slipping further and further and that may have ultimately forced a sale. Is it that? Or was the opportunity Microsoft presented just too good to pass up?

A.S. It really was a combination of two factors and in our judgement [the opportunity] was not likely to come around again. And that opportunity was to be "the shit" on a new console. If I were to look at the different platforms out there, I’d say the company I want to be making PC games is Blizzard, the company I’d want to be making PlayStation games is Square, the company I’d want to be making Nintendo games is Rare, and if we get to be the company making X-Box games, that kind of opportunity just doesn’t come along too often.

Our hand wasn't forced money-wise…but we were certainly in the same situation when we shipped Myth II which is failure would be met with catastrophe. And after we shipped Myth II, that’s when we did our funding deal with Take Two and we did that out of necessity. If we got ourselves into that situation again…we would have had to do something even more drastic than that. We would have had to sign a publishing deal just to survive. And that’s a pretty scary situation to be in.

One of the reasons why we’ve always fiercely fought for our independence was because we’ve never wanted our livelihood to be under somebody else’s control. So I’ve always had it in my head that if we were to ever get in a situation where we were gonna lose control, we might as well merge with somebody so that we can keep as much control as we can. Meaning, if we did a publishing deal with somebody we would lose control. One of the cool things about this deal with Microsoft is that we’re able to retain as much control as we can.

I spent most of the day on Sunday reading the posts on IMG and some other sites about the speculation that we were going bankrupt or something. That’s just not true. But it is true that there’s only so many times you can take the chances that we take and not be successful. So, if not now, maybe a year from now, two years from now we would have been forced with a big decision on how we’re going to survive, what kind of road we want to go down. So with that knowledge it made it…like…really easy.

When we started telling people here at the office, people were freaking out at first. But once I sent a note around to everybody about the deal and when people when out to meet the people at Microsoft, they were convinced that they weren’t pure evil.

T.D. Who approached who on this deal?

A.S. Microsoft went on a road show with the X-Box back in January/February or so. And we actually went over to a demo of the X-Box with the Take Two guys. Peter (Tamte) and I were there, we hung out with them all day, and went to dinner with them and stuff. And when they came back, I turned to Peter and said, "You know Ed Fries, right?", cause Peter did a deal with him on Age of Empires for MacSoft. He said "ya". So I said, "Well, this X-Box thing…I bet they’re gonna need to do something…who knows what…but I bet they have a lot of money."

So Peter called them up and then we got together to show them Halo and they showed us the X-Box stuff. We really didn’t know what we were going to do…we thought we’d maybe do a publishing deal, distribution deal, who knows what. Then we started talking to them about acquisition. The more we met with them and the more we talked, the more it made sense. They said things like, "We need to have a really good plan for internal development and we don’t have that yet. And Halo could be the killer app for X." That’s when we started to get excited.

T.D. So, when’s the move?

A.S. Our first day [in Redmond] is going to be July 17th.

T.D. Having worked at Bungie for three years, I knew that one of your goals was to eventually sell the company. Was this sale everything you had hoped it would be? I understand you’re not leaving the company but will stay on to keep on running Bungie. What else do you hope to accomplish?

A.S. This surpasses anything I ever had thought would be an end-game. My best-case vision was that someone would come along with a large bag of money and it would be all over. This is much better than that.

I’m flattered that, during these conversations, that the thing that they liked was of course Halo, and they think all of us are really smart. But the one obvious thing is that they respect how we do our job. When they bought Fasa they stuck them all in private offices and they ‘matrixed’ them into their management structure. They did a lot of stupid shit like that.

The first thing they said, after they came over here four or five times, was, "you know how to do this better than we do, we don’t want to screw it up. So, you tell us what we need to do."

So they’re going let us build out our own space. They’ve never done that before. They’re going to let me run Bungie…the deal doesn’t happen unless I go and I run Bungie…and that’s sort of flattering to me. Heh, I never I was important (laughs).

So I think it’s going to be pretty cool. A lot of it will depend on how successful the X-Box is and Jason is pretty convinced that it’s going to kick ass.

T.D. Any regrets? Fears? Inhibitions?

A.S. I have one personal regret is that I’m leaving Chicago just as I’m building my dream house…but that’s a pretty minor regret. I think this is going to be great for everyone.

I’m hoping at some point in the future that we’ll be able to do something with Marathon and really make it the biggest thing ever. But we have no plans to make a Marathon game at this point, but we could...and wouldn’t that be cool.

T.D. Bungie has always had this sort of mystique about it…the Bungie community has always been very loyal. And as you’ve probably seen, there’s been a lot of anger among Bungie fans, especially Macintosh Bungie fans, as evinced in the various forums. How do you respond to people who just label you as a sellout?

A.S. There’s many levels on how to respond to that. But at the core of it is that what the mystique is all about are the people…the people who work here…the people who play the games. The people who work here are sticking around and if the fans stick around, that’ll still be there.

The two things that I figured out about Microsoft is that they’re very smart. And more importantly, the people who do the work, do the work. In other words, the decisions don’t get made top down, they get made bottom up. We’re at the ground level. We’re going be talking to the fans and making the games. So it’ll really be up to us. Maybe that’s a leap of faith for a lot of the Mac people to believe. That’s why I’m going. I think that if that weren’t the case they wouldn’t want me there.

T.D. What is it about the X-Box that makes it so cool?

A.S. For us, it’s really easy to develop for and we’ve basically been developing for it, or close to it. And the X-Box has a lot of power.

T.D. Is Halo going to be delayed for the X-Box launch. Reports had it originally coming out in March 2001 and the X-Box is launching in the Fall of 2001.

A.S. No. Even if that was the goal...to ship it in the Fall of 2001, which is when the X-Box is supposed to come out, I don’t think there would have to be any delay to get it there. We don’t even know when it’s going to be done so saying that it’s going to be delayed doesn’t make any sense.

T.D. Are you going to Macworld Expo in July?

A.S. Oni is going to be at Macworld in the Gathering of Developers booth. And one of us from Bungie will probably be on hand.

T.D. And finally…did you get to meet Bill Gates?

A.S. No! (laughs), but I’m told that it will eventually happen.