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Bungie is a pivotal weapon in PlayStation's online multiplayer assault | Opinion

Bungie gives Sony the live-service know-how it'll need to launch big online games

Shortly after last night's news of PlayStation buying Bungie, a friend of mine dropped me a text.

"Isn't it funny to see Crash Bandicoot, one of the icons of PS1, now owned by Xbox? And now Bungie, one of the defining studios that built the Xbox business, now owned by PlayStation?"

It's one of those little observations that might feel notable to gamers of a certain generation, but it isn't particularly symbolic of anything. After all, Crash hasn't been an exclusive PlayStation franchise for over 20 years, and Bungie has been an active partner to Sony for the best part of a decade.

Yet, in a small way, the observation does tell us a bit about what Sony values most when it comes to acquisitions: the people behind the games, rather than the games themselves. It doesn't own Crash Bandicoot, but it bought the studio responsible for creating it (Naughty Dog). Just as it doesn't own Halo, but it now has the studio responsible for building that.

"Sony may feel the need to acquire IP in the future, particularly with the consolidation in the marketplace and the growing significance of subscriptions"

Amongst the flurry of messages last night, there was a clear point of confusion around Sony's decision to buy Bungie. PlayStation had finally bought itself an IP of some significance, and it insists it has no intention of using it to sell PS5 consoles. Destiny will remain multiplatform, and yes, that includes on Xbox.

So, outside of a profitable and growing franchise, what does Bungie actually bring to the PlayStation business at large? To use a corporate term: what are the 'synergies' here that makes this deal make senses?

It comes down to the same reason the firm bought Naughty Dog over 20 years ago. And indeed, just look back at the more recent Sony deals: Firesprite, Bluepoint, Nixxes, Housemarque and Insomniac. Some of those studios have IP, but nothing particularly significant. Sony picked up these companies because of the teams and their abilities -- whether that's in making great games, remaking great games, porting games to PC, or utisiling new VR technology.

Even outside of the acquisitions, last year Sony signed publishing partnerships with Haven Studios, Deviation Games and Firewalk Studios. All three are new studios founded by talent that had worked on games like Assassin's Creed, Call of Duty and, yes, Destiny. They're all working on new IPs, and they may not all be successful, but the collective experience of working together will no doubt prove beneficial either way.

Of course, Sony may feel the need to acquire IP in the future, particularly with the consolidation in the marketplace and the growing significance of subscriptions. But up until now, the firm has largely focused its investments on people and teams, rather than established brands.

Sony isn't just buying Destiny, it's buying a team with decades of live-service multiplayer experience

Now back to the question. What does Bungie offer PlayStation at large? And the answer isn't Destiny, but rather the people and knowledge that has made Destiny such a success.

"When it comes to online, multiplayer, live-service games, Sony isn't merely experimenting"

In the interview we conducted with PlayStation and Bungie yesterday, Jim Ryan opened by telling us that Bungie is "one of the biggest and very best independent games developers and publishers in the world." It was a reminder that Bungie doesn't just make big online games, it publishes them as well. It's the studio that popularised Xbox Live back in the early 2000s, it created one of the biggest live service games on consoles and it has even managed the transition to free-to-play. It knows this space better than most.

Live-service games publishing is a complicated combination of data analytics, community management, careful monetisation, player feedback, continual updates and supporting events, and doing all that across multiple platforms. It's not something Sony has much experience with. It has its subscription business, it created a few promising online games during the PS3 era, and there have been unique concepts such as PlayStation Home. But over the PS4 generation, the firm primarily stuck to what it is (really) good at: making big single-player story games.

PlayStation is now on a mission to change that. Some of its big internal teams, including Naughty Dog, are working on online multiplayer titles. Those studio partnerships I mentioned earlier -- Deviation, Firewalk and Haven -- many (if not all) of them are working on live-service multiplayer games.

Ryan says he would back his current team to develop the capabilities needed to launch and maintain these live games. But in buying Bungie, PlayStation has picked up the experience and know-how almost instantly.

Buying talent is always a risk. When you acquire a game, there is something tangible there that has value. When you buy a team, you're at the mercy of it staying together and continuing to perform. $3.6 billion is a big bet to make, even if it does come with the Destiny IP.

But Sony has form on keeping creators happy. And in maintaing Bungie's independence, it'll hope it can avoid any of the difficulties that can arise from integration.

It'll be many years before we see whether the Bungie bet will pay off. For now, all that's certain is that when it comes to online, multiplayer, live-service games, Sony isn't merely experimenting, it's going all-in.

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Christopher Dring avatar
Christopher Dring: Chris is a 17-year media veteran specialising in the business of video games. And, erm, Doctor Who
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