I met Pete Parsons before Halo came out, as he was going around the country evangelizing the first-person shooter on the Xbox game console that Microsoft was about to launch way back in the fall of 2001. I recall his enthusiasm as marketing director at Microsoft, always promoting the idea of doing a pioneering shooting experience on consoles that, frankly, were inferior to the PC. Now, Parsons is still doing the same thing, only he is promoting Destiny, the next shooter from developer Bungie.
As chief operating officer at Bungie, Parsons must help lead the 350-person team do the enormous amount of behind-the-scenes work in bringing the persistent world of the always-connected Destiny to life. Activision Blizzard is planning on publishing a series of Destiny titles over the next decade, and Parsons will play a big role in making that happen.
Parsons left his job at Microsoft to become the COO at Bungie after Halo launched. In 2007, he left Microsoft to start Meteor Solutions, a viral-marketing startup, and worked double duty for a time. As Bungie prepared to leave the Microsoft fold and move on to a new franchise, Parsons came back. He returned to the studio in 2010. Parsons is now fully focused on getting Destiny out the door and managing the culture and talent inside Bungie’s 80,000-square-foot headquarters in Bellevue, Wash.
After a few years of secrecy, Bungie finally revealed concept art from its new game universe while announcing that Destiny would debut on the PlayStation 4 (and likely other platforms). We visited Parsons at Bungie HQ last week, and here’s an edited transcript of our conversation.
GamesBeat: You must feel good right now.
Pete Parsons: [Laughs] Well, I think it feels good to be Bungie right now. We’re always about doing great things and ambitious things. That’s because we have such a great team, because we can do that. It’s a great time to be at Bungie. It’s an energy that many people haven’t felt since some of the earliest days of Halo. That’s exciting. We still have a lot of the old guard around, but we’ve been able to bring on a massive amount of new talent.
GamesBeat: Did somebody in particular sell you on the idea of Destiny? I think you came in after it started, right?
Parsons: No, we’ve all been working from the very beginning. Well, it depends on how you look at it. Destiny has been an idea bouncing around since even before the technology to make it existed.
Destiny is very much a product of everybody at Bungie, but its inception comes from Jason [Jones, co-founder of Bungie]. This is very much a vision that Jason has. Then, he gathers a small group of really talented people who have been here a long time, and they begin hammering on it. It’s had multiple incarnations until it finally landed into what it is today. That’s fun to watch. Not just on technology, but art and story.
GamesBeat: It sounds like you did have options, though. Was there a point where you bought into Destiny and said, “I want to do this too?” For 10 years or whatever it will be.
Parsons: As naïve as this may sound, if Jason believes in something and he’s ready to go for it, I’m in. No joke, I still walk in the door every day and think, “Who gets to do this? This is awesome, to be a part of this thing.” Even when I’m having a shitty day, I feel that way. There are so many other things I could do that, for me, wouldn’t be as satisfying or as interesting. They might be enriching. They might satisfy some level of my curiosity. They might be exciting. But there’s something about these people and this place.
GamesBeat: Did you feel any tug when Halo went off in another direction, with Microsoft’s 343 Industries, and then Bungie went its separate way with Destiny?
Parsons: Personally, I did not. I love the Halo universe. I think it’s great. It inspires me. It inspires my children. They’ve never played, but they know the universe. One, though, I’ve spent a lot of time with Halo. Two, the mythic science fiction of Destiny immediately attracted me. It was that first image … It’s a simple image, but it took weeks of back-and-forth to put together. There were a few images already, maybe three or four, but they didn’t speak to what it was. The moment that image was done, it was like, “That’s it.” That’s the game. That’s the idea. That’s a place that I want to be.
GamesBeat: Is that published now? Which image is that?
Parsons: I don’t know if it’s ever been published. It was just this very striking image that had that feeling of — this is not purely a science fiction universe. It’s not just about two big military-industrial complexes smashing into each other. It’s a place with myths and lore. There’s a guy with sci-fi armor on, and yet he’s got a rifle that looks like it’s from an ancient desert somewhere. It was super cool. That certainly spoke to me. I didn’t look back.
At the time, we were working on both Halo: ODST and Halo:Reach. I still love the Halo universe. It’s an interesting place. But I think what we’ve been able to do is create an incredibly deep fiction and a place that you’re going to want to be in.
GamesBeat: You had a leak. You had some interesting reactions. What was it like, looking at the reaction from the inside?
Parsons: You’re never really excited when you first learn that a leak happens. Then you get to see the reaction. We had this really quick thing. We said, “There’s a leak happening. We can either say nothing, or we can say, ‘Yeah.’” Instead of looking at images that we didn’t want you to see, let’s give you one that we want you to see. So, we released the picture of the Fallen. When our community, who we love, reacts so positively to an image — “Oh my God. That’s so great. That’s a place I want to be in. I can’t wait to learn more about that” — we go from, “Oh, man” to “Sweet!” Within less than half an hour, we were like, “This is the course of action. Let’s go.”
GamesBeat: What was it like in the run-up to the revelation announcement here?
Parsons: It’s a much longer run-up to our reveal, right? It was part of our reveal. It was very exciting. These are the times where you’re tired. People have been working around the clock. Jim McQuillan [director of visual identity at Bungie] and his team upstairs making videos haven’t left in days. You guys probably said it earlier, but everybody here considers themselves a storyteller, no matter what discipline they’re in. That means it’s entertainment. This is big entertainment. When you’re about to go on stage, as tired as you are, you get pretty pumped for it. It was super fun last night. We sat down right before the Sony event and got the team together for a quick meeting. Everybody’s feeling it. Most important, though, people are playing the game. That’s what’s most exciting.
GamesBeat: Are you interested in working with a new platform?
Parsons: Yeah. From the very beginning, we said that we want to be able to bring our stories and our adventures to as many people as possible. That was something we’d been planning on for a very long time. It’s exciting and hard and interesting when you’re learning about other platforms. At the end of the day, though, it’s part of what we set out to do.
That’s not just PlayStation. That’s mobile. We came out with Bungie.net in 2004, and it was revolutionary. Now we’re saying, “How do we make sure that we can connect you, wherever you are and whatever your mood, to the Destiny universe?” That meant a big exploration of mobile. I think they showed you the user-testing lab next door. The very first thing that was tested in that lab was mobile. We’ve made some big investments there, because we think that, as awesome as stats and groups and messaging and all those things are, we just think there is so much more there. When we’re building a universe that has so many more stories and so much more depth, there are too many stories to tell just inside of that.
GamesBeat: The PlayStation 4 is a “nice piece of gear,” Jason said? [Laughs]
Parsons: I think that if Jason Jones says it’s a nice piece of gear, that’s a huge compliment. The team here is excited about it. We’re excited about the future in general. When we had a chance to say, “What do we want to do? How do we want to do it?” not only did we think about the stories we wanted to tell, we thought about how we make sure that we could be wherever we want to be. What does that mean to the way we’re going to build our game and the way we’re going to build our technology and the way we’re going to design our stories or the way our community interacts? Then you have the much more practical question of, “How do we future-proof? What do we think the next steps look like?”
GamesBeat: The one thing that seemed to cause some confusion out there was whether this could be called an MMO or if this is more like a single-player campaign-ish thing. Is there a new name for whatever this will be? “Universe” is a little vague.
Parsons: It’s Bungie’s next first-person shooter. That’s how I think of it. For consoles, we came out with Halo, and it certainly was the start of something really big for first-person shooters. Then, with Halo 2, we brought it online. With Halo 3, we started to bring in a whole bunch of how the community interacts with each other. We want to take the next big step forward in first-person shooters. The way we think about that is, we’re going to bring people together in a really interesting way. We’re going to be able to throw in a whole bunch of adventure and a whole bunch of competitive multiplayer, and you’re going to have a great time, whether you like to play by yourself or whether you play in groups, from intense to casual to solitary.
GamesBeat: You left for a while, and you got sucked back in, right?
Parsons: Yes, I did. You might call it a leave of absence because I was still hanging around Bungie. But yeah, I left for 16 months to do Meteor, which was acquired in November. You wake up in the morning, though. As much as I loved doing Meteor, I wasn’t waking up in the morning thinking about high-end analytics for publishers. As awesome as the team is today, with Ben Straley and company, I was waking up thinking about games. So I came back to the family.
GamesBeat: Do you feel like you learned something from that?
Parsons: Oh, yeah, doing a startup? There’s nothing like making new technology, getting funding, and then watching as you start running out of funding and have to change your course. It’s a great story. I can’t tell you how much I learned. The other thing is, coming back to Bungie, I knew that we were going independent and knew that this was going to be like a large and ambitious startup. How do we think about that? What do we need to do to change? How do we prepare for the talent we know we’re going to need to bring on?
I don’t know if you know, but this theater was not built for family movie night. It was specifically designed knowing that the team was going to have to get significantly larger. We were thinking about those kinds of things — the kind of theater we were going to build, what the production floor would be like, making sure we have a free-lunch program so we can make sure new employees meet old employees. We even have something called Bungie University where there’s more than 60 hours worth of video. Starting from when we kicked off Destiny to the team at large in August 2009, you can watch all the way until now.
GamesBeat: Is it like scaling up the culture of the company?
Parsons: That’s an interesting way of putting it. I think it’s more about an evolution of the culture. How do we keep Bungie Bungie? When you do that, not everything is going to make it. Some things are going to need to change. You’re going to need to bring new things into the fold, and some things are going to go away. I’ll give you some examples.
New things that need to come in: the free-lunch program. There’s even an internal website. For the first six months you work at Bungie, if you pay for your own lunch, you’re a chump. You can walk up to anybody and invite them out to lunch, or they can walk up to you. You go out, have a nice meal, talk about whatever you want, and expense it. It’s a huge expense, but it has a huge impact on the team as you get larger. People feel like they know each other. When they’re up against a milestone, instead of reaching out to a stranger, they’re reaching out to a friend. That’s a powerful thing.
As much as possible, I give every new employee a tour of the studio on their first day. Four to six weeks later, I take them out to lunch. What I want to know is, how are we doing? What sucks? What’s awesome?
We take those ideas seriously. I want to do it in that four to eight weeks because that’s before they become cynical and jaded. [Laughs] You want to get that perspective. It’s great to hear the feedback, including that Bungie has remained a place where, whether you’ve been around for more than a decade or whether you’re just a few weeks in, what you do matters.