What's new

The Battle for Bungie's Soul: Inside the Studio's Struggle for a Better Work Culture

In September, Bungie made a huge announcement. After the developer spoke publicly about its desire to push back on toxic work culture, CEO Pete Parsons pulled back the curtain on a number of new initiatives in an effort to "recognize our shortcomings." Bungie would hire a Diversity & Inclusion director, update hiring practices, improve training and tools, allow anonymous HR reporting, and end forced arbitration. The announcement was lauded across the industry, appearing to be a set of proactive, forward-looking moves amid industry-wide working conditions scandals.

The response from within the company was different.

Many of its current and former employees felt that their experiences at the company — going as far back as 2011 and as recently as this year — dramatically clashed with Bungie’s virtuous self-portrait. While some praised the news, for many others, hiring a D&I director or ending mandatory arbitration in all employee contracts was far too little, far too late. For others still, it was only one step on a long journey to a potentially better future, but with roadblocks remaining along the way.

IGN has spoken to 26 current and former employees that have worked at Bungie within the last decade. Their accounts of the studio's work culture encompass a wide range of experiences. They span overt sexism, boys' club culture, crunch, and HR protection of abusers, as well as more complex stories of microaggressions, systemic inequalities, and difficulties in being heard. However, interviewees also include a number of more recent employees who, despite their own hurts, truly believe the studio is slowly but steadily improving, are candid about the immense challenge of trying to turn such a massive ship in a better direction, and whose accounts of change line up with statements made to IGN by Parsons in response to this piece.

Every source we interviewed joined Bungie because they wanted to be part of making video games they cared about. But all of them have been forced to grapple personally with a question: How does a massive, AAA gaming company of 800+ employees fully root out a toxic culture and become a truly safe, diverse, and healthy place to work?

There is seemingly no better microcosm for Bungie's historic, company-wide cultural troubles than its narrative team, which has experienced toxic leadership, issues with crunch, and at times unmanageable separation between ideas of ‘Old Bungie’ and ‘New Bungie’ culture, and more — all within the last five or six years.

We spoke with a number of individuals who were close to or part of the narrative team, and painted a picture of a severely divided group whose problems originated as far back as Destiny 1. Several sources spoke of a narrative team lead from that time who appeared to suffer massive burnout during the project, creating an increasingly toxic work environment for others on the team, enough so that team members kept a countdown of days since his last "explosion" on a whiteboard. Many people I spoke to were familiar with a story of him throwing a chair at a window because he felt others were ruining his creative vision of the game.

And yet, he stayed at the studio for several years, eventually leaving and then being invited back to do contract work on Destiny 2. Some sources who had encounters with him during this later period said that he would frequently issue narrative direction despite no longer being a senior team member, and would become angry when he felt the Destiny 2 writers were deviating from his original vision for Destiny 1. One source told a story of him yelling at her over the phone so aggressively that she was brought to tears, and she subsequently refused to be on phone calls with him without a third party present.

This lead was not the only narrative team member impacted by burnout on Destiny 1, and after much of that team left following its release, Bungie assembled a new team for Destiny 2 that, over time, became staffed by women and people of color at a ratio higher than many other teams at the largely white and male Bungie. However, it was run during this period by a series of white male leaders who, according to many of our sources, made life miserable for their writers for years. Most of those we spoke to were reluctant to have these people named in an article like this, fearing repercussions either for themselves or for others who had vocally complained about perpetrators in the past.

Writers wouldn’t learn about changes to their work until after voice lines had already been recorded. When people objected, he told them they needed thicker skins.

While the majority of our sources also wished to remain anonymous for fear of reprisal or harm to their careers, one ex-Bungie employee was willing to be named: Cookie Hiponia, a woman of color whose stories of the team’s turmoil were corroborated by a number of others. Many of our sources saw the plight of the narrative team from the outside, but Hiponia was mired directly within it. Hired initially as a contractor in 2016, she first started at Bungie as a copy editor, then later as a full-time employee on the narrative team through 2019.

Hiponia recalled that when she first stepped in, Bungie hadn't had a lot of editing oversight on the Destiny franchise, and had not previously focused very much on its story, consistency, or continuity. That led to a leadership that appeared to operate without normal professional boundaries. As Hiponia puts it, "They just had a bunch of people who wrote things and kind of had the run of the place."

One leader from earlier in this period was described by one of our anonymous sources as a "sexist nightmare" who yelled in meetings, and would throw papers across tables. Multiple people told us he would frequently rewrite things at the last minute, often on his way to voice recording sessions. Writers wouldn’t learn about changes to their work until after voice lines had already been recorded. When people objected to his demeanor, he told them they needed thicker skins, and to learn how to take criticism. He called one woman on the team an "unmanageable bitch." Another source said he was "literally the worst person I've ever worked for."

He was eventually let go, but was replaced by what our sources say were similarly antagonizing men. One lead frequently made sexist remarks, but also complained about "reverse sexism" and on at least one occasion made homophobic remarks to a queer colleague. He would openly mock his team members’ ideas in meetings then play his mockery off like a joke, and would frequently take credit for work others had done. Hiponia recalled an occasion when said lead attempted to hand off her editing duties to a relatively new employee during a meeting with top Bungie leadership about the need for story continuity, asking her, "What is it you do, anyway?" When Hiponia confronted him about it later and asked why her task was being given away, he told her he was "just joking around."

A third narrative lead was called a "callous, hierarchical, authoritarian, incurious, cruel leader" by one anonymous source. Hiponia said he would frequently ask her to do secretarial and administrative tasks like taking notes at meetings or looking up information he could have looked up himself — despite her position as a writer and editor on the team. Others recalled that he frequently insulted people who stood up for themselves, including publicly dressing down the narrative team after they accommodated a last-minute request and asked that such a rush not happen again. On another occasion, he separated and cornered an employee who stood up to him to yell at them. Multiple sources say he also regularly made racist remarks, including a lunch where one source recalled him making a number of inappropriate quips about Latin American gangs.

The narrative team worked 60, 70, 80, even 100 hour weeks during some expansions, frequently with no breaks in between crunch periods.

Even aside from its turbulent senior members, the narrative team was in chaos throughout the development of Destiny 2 and a number of its follow-up expansions, constantly having to ship new content. It saw high turnover and burnout as a result. Hiponia recalled an ongoing struggle to get narrative contractors hired full-time to help ease the burden on the team. Even though the department was overwhelmed, it was repeatedly denied requests to bring on new full-time team members, and contracts would often not be renewed or extended in time, resulting in months-long periods where the department was left understaffed.

Those close to the team describe its members working 60, 70, 80, even 100 hour weeks during some expansions, frequently with no breaks in between crunch periods. One team member crunched while so sick they were unable to type, and had to have someone else type for them while they dictated.

Another source said that the team had been told not to crunch as part of a growing studio push to eliminate the practice — the idea was that the studio would simply cut features if crunch was the only way to get them done. However, many of the writers felt they had been backed into a corner after the painful release of Destiny 2’s first DLC expansion, Curse of Osiris.

Curse of Osiris' story had been lambasted on Reddit, with a few female narrative team members being singled out by the community for harassment, death threats, and vitriol. Our sources say these women didn't receive support inside the studio or from the community team for what they were going through, and multiple sources were aware of one member of leadership still at the studio who emailed Reddit comments about these women to other company leaders in a seeming bid to tear down the narrative team because players didn't like the story.

The same leader is also said to have been dismissive during a meeting about the controversy, explaining that no one should be worried because they were just going to bring back the Destiny 1 writing team to solve everything. In fact, multiple people familiar with the writing team related stories of its members being treated poorly by other departments at the studio, being consistently derided when the game was received badly.

One member of leadership emailed Reddit comments about these women to other company leaders in a seeming bid to tear down the narrative team because players didn't like the story.

As a result, the narrative team was afraid of what would happen if it shipped something else that appeared to the community to be incomplete or not up to standard. So they continued to crunch, some of them going so far as to hide the overtime from their leads so they wouldn’t enforce story cuts.

Crunch was exacerbated by the constant need for revisions and last-minute changes, often worsened by constant conflicts over who had control of the story. Creative direction, overall, was fraught due to the pull of different groups and powers at the studio. Some of Bungie's old guard were especially precious about the vision of Destiny 1, and reluctant to change anything about the tone, characterizations, or direction of the story as the game moved into Destiny 2 and its subsequent expansions. This was especially frustrating for the team in cases where that vision had never been explicitly defined in the game or elsewhere, but only existed as ideas in the heads of people who no longer worked in narrative.

Another issue was with the development of cinematics, which were considered a prestige project. Largely written separately from the main writing team in a "star chamber," the cinematics team frequently tried to operate independently from the main narrative team, resulting in disconnects between established lore, planned quest narratives, and major story beats. The cinematic team’s decisions, Hiponia and others recalled, would override decisions made by the narrative team, forcing last-minute rewrites and more crunch.

The clashes of these different interests caused further troubles as underrepresented writers and allies on the team endeavored to make Destiny's story more inclusive and thoughtful in its portrayals. Those familiar with the writing team were aware of numerous scenarios where higher-up male narrative team members wanted to portray women in ways that were degrading, tone deaf, or casually sexist. The non-lead writers — both women and allies — would push back, fighting to tell the kinds of hopeful and empowering stories with Destiny's women that were so often told through its male characters.

While they did have a number of successes on this front over the years, it was often extremely challenging and painful for those bringing these issues forwarded to be heard, sometimes requiring assistance from sympathetic individuals with clout outside the team. A number of sources told stories of male narrative leads at the studio who pushed forward storylines for characters like Eris Morn, Mara Sov, Ana Bray, Ikora Rey, Suraya Hawthorne, and others that leaned on harmful stereotypes of women and mental health struggles, often despite objections from women and supportive allies across the studio.

"I could go on for a long time about all the ways women have been made to stand by as the men on the team have written characters in baffling, unrecognizable ways," said a source familiar with the matter.

Another example of a time when the diverse members of the writing team were not listened to is in the instance of Devrim Kay, a scout players meet in the European Dead Zone location who provides missions and talks about his love of food and tea. At one point in Destiny 2's development, a member of the writing team added in a tiny piece of dialogue for Devrim referring to missing his "partner." It was a single, small line among many other lines intended to be said by both Devrim and many other characters, who would comment on similar circumstances about their relationships, thoughts, and feelings. The line passed multiple edits and checks and was put into a build of the game before someone high up at the studio noticed it and demanded it be taken out — or else they couldn't ship the game in Russia or China because of the mere implication of a gay romance.

"I could go on for a long time about all the ways women have been made to stand by as the men on the team have written characters in baffling, unrecognizable ways."

The issue received attention across the studio when it was sent to a QA tester to fix as a "bug," causing an internal uproar. Eventually, the line was adjusted to have Devrim just talk about someone named "Marc" without any reference to who it was. This made it into the final game, and Bungie ended up being lauded for including a gay character, especially as Devrim's voice actor confirmed their relationship to media not long after, unaware of the stir it had caused within the studio. One source recalled being furious: Bungie's writers had tried to gently make their story more inclusive with Destiny's first canon gay relationship, Bungie leadership had tried to stop it, but then got to enjoy positive attention anyway.

In all of these situations, the members of the writing team who fought for change would routinely be told they were difficult to work with, not supportive enough of their leaders, or were aggressive or abrasive and needed to be better at taking criticism. These criticisms were often used as feedback when the team pushed for promotions after each new challenging release period, with several being turned down time and again.

Hiponia specifically was told she couldn't get promoted because she "wasn't good enough at the game," despite the fact that her core narrative responsibilities were unrelated to gameplay design. But when she asked to be given time at work to play and improve, even offering to tie those hours into a specific work task, her request was denied.

She also said that her own stress levels skyrocketed during her time at Bungie, increasing her need for anti-anxiety medication and therapy, and ultimately resulting in stress-related gastrointestinal issues that required surgery. Hiponia was not alone — other sources close to narrative saw their colleagues grow increasingly stressed and broken down as they experienced more health issues as time went on.

In 2019, the situation became untenable. The entire writing staff tried a last-ditch effort to mediate their constant conflict with their leads with HR, but were once again told they needed to try harder to work with the people who were making their lives miserable daily — despite the team reiterating that the leads did not appear to be making efforts to build these same bridges on their end. Many wrote letters to CEO Pete Parsons, begging for help. They never heard back.

It wasn't until multiple writers quit or threatened to quit all at once — including every woman on the narrative team — that Bungie finally dismissed the leads responsible for the chaos and began to take the team’s concerns more seriously. Those connected to the narrative team today say that things have improved, with more funding and employees to share the load, and new leads specifically tasked with helping the department recover. But it ultimately took a sacrifice of many people's careers and mental and emotional wellbeing to get it there.

While it may be the best example, narrative is far from the only department to have suffered this way. In fact, our sources pointed to issues within almost every major team at the company. Some noted the hypocrisy at work here — of Bungie's seven stated company values, first on the list is this: Teams are Stronger Than Heroes.

"We hold ourselves and each other to the highest standard of mutual respect, inclusivity, and support," reads the company statement on that idea, "knowing that teams whose members speak their mind and take risks will accomplish what no individual ever could. Our wins are always team wins."

According to those we spoke to, this translated to a bit of a shorthand internally, namely that Bungie "doesn't tolerate assholes." Leadership, including Parsons in his response to this article, says Bungie doesn't put up with the kind of "rockstar" culture that, at other companies, has led to problematic, popular individuals taking advantage of their position to harm others, be that through harassment, toxicity, or other forms of abuse.

But many of our sources say that this company line has, up until very recently, simply not been true. Almost everyone we spoke to had stories of at least one, if not multiple individuals with long histories at Bungie that seemed to be able to get away with anything, protected by either those above them in the leadership chain or long-serving HR employees.

"When I read [Bungie's] response [to Activision-Blizzard] I laughed," one former employee said. "This was not my experience there [...] They have that core value that they don't tolerate assholes even if they're rockstars but they totally do. All that's aspirational. Those are the values they want to get to, but they're not enforcing them."

The stories of Bungie's problematic rockstars go way back to its success as the creator of Halo. Some names only came up once or twice — others we heard repeatedly, across multiple different departments and over many years of Bungie history.

"They have that core value that they don't tolerate assholes even if they're rockstars but they totally do...Those are the values they want to get to, but they're not enforcing them."

One top-level company leader who had been with Bungie since Halo was described by sources as an "asshole" who would constantly disparage others, was dismissive of those who brought up the company's toxic culture, didn't bother to learn anyone's name, and whose inappropriate work wardrobe at one point included a shirt that advertised 'free lap rides'. He was also seen getting incredibly drunk at company events, and would clip his toenails at his desk. Notably, this person rose to the company's topmost levels before being quietly let go after years of issues.. An ambiguous company email announcing his departure referenced the company's zero tolerance policy for bad actors and offered employees mental health support if needed.

A different individual — who was mentioned by a number of sources — had also been at Bungie since Halo 3, eventually rising to a director-level role throughout the Destiny games’ production. Sources described him as excessively abusive to his team, with some noting that his team seemed to work more late nights than others. One described him as "just torturing" his staff, while another described multiple instances of sexist and racist remarks. Another source close to his team described numerous instances of him intimidating employees in one-on-one meetings and viciously berating his team when work didn't meet his standards.

The stories shared here are far from the only examples — we heard a number of other similar tales of behavior from not just Bungie leadership, but other employees across multiple departments who were often enabled by their superiors, who would ignore or dismiss bad behavior or complaints against those they favored. In the vast majority of these cases, sources felt their stories were too specific to share in this piece without personally identifying themselves and risking either retaliation at work or violating a non-disparagement agreement – which many former employees we spoke to say they felt pressured to sign upon departing the company.

Their fears may not be unfounded. In almost every story we heard, sources say that numerous reports were made to HR and leadership about these individuals, but to no avail. HR’s seeming unwillingness to help those who complained about toxic team leaders was a recurring theme in our interviews. Some felt their reports were ignored entirely, while others told us they’d been brought into meetings to unexpectedly find the person they’d reported sitting in the room to discuss the issues.

There was at least one long-standing Bungie employee in HR, still with the company, who almost all of our sources described as actively protecting harmful individuals. Multiple people said that their job seemed to be to "make it all go away" whenever someone had an issue with the company. One person recalled them as incredibly insulting to various employees behind their backs and being "catty" toward women about how they dressed, including calling a woman a "slut."

"It's a well-known fact, if you talk to HR you're putting your own job on the line."

The influence of this individual, coupled with numerous other negative encounters with other HR representatives over the years, resulted in a near-universal mistrust of HR from almost everyone we spoke to. Many of them noted that they struggled to trust HR anywhere as a general rule. HR, they pointed out, generally exists to protect the company rather than its employees, but Bungie's HR was, for many, on a different level.

"It's a well-known fact, if you talk to HR you're putting your own job on the line," said one person. "HR has never been there to protect employees. They've always been there to protect the company. I've watched it happen a few times at Bungie, where someone went to HR and things went completely sideways for them."

Aside from the obvious issues inherent to having a number of people in positions of power at Bungie who were known as toxic, sexist, or otherwise problematic, their behavior and beliefs over the years permeated the company's culture in other, less immediately obvious ways. For instance, in deciding what kinds of people would, over time, get to wield power and creative influence at the company alongside them — and what kinds of people would not.

Women especially have struggled at Bungie over the years. Multiple women I spoke with described an environment where many men cultivated a pervasive atmosphere in which women were inferior. Multiple sources said women were disproportionately talked over in meetings, had their ability to do their jobs questioned, had their ideas ignored and then used by men who later took credit for them, or simply had their questions or input dismissed — issues that also seem to have impacted people of color at the studio of all genders, though women of color were especially impacted. One woman recalled numerous meetings where she would give feedback or ask a question and it seemed as though no one had even heard her: "I was completely invisible."

"A lot of women [...] were put on what I would call unappealing projects that were going to end up having major crunch issues, maybe even potentially quality issues, thing that were not even funded very well," said another source. "Things that were not going to succeed in a way that would allow them to shine in a review period."

One woman pointed to these and similar scenarios as clear examples of why Bungie has historically had so few women in leadership. Too often, she said, it boiled down to who the top level men at Bungie were friends with, and then who those people were friends with, and who was in the "in" group. And because it had been white men from the start, that was how it historically tended to stay.

Another source recalled upper management men at Bungie having "code names" for the women at the studio they found attractive, which they would openly use at the studio without the women knowing. Some of these names were references to their physical form, hair color, or outright derogatory terms.

"A lot of women...were put on what I would call unappealing projects...Things that were not going to succeed in a way that would allow them to shine in a review period."

One producer was frequently mentioned by sources for routinely making sexist comments and openly talking about his love life and asking his colleagues to comment on images of women he brought up on Tinder. This producer is said to have "skyrocketed" through the ranks at Bungie and was very charismatic and well-liked by Bungie's old guard — enough so that any reports to his managers about his behaviors seemed to fall on deaf ears. Though he was eventually fired, one former employee recalls a number of his colleagues discussing his departure shortly after as "a good guy who got taken out by political correctness," suggesting the women who reported him just needed to get a sense of humor.

Another male employee was observed by a number of sources repeatedly harassing his female direct reports with sexual comments and unwanted hugs, while simultaneously belittling them and shutting them down in meetings. These women eventually had to post signage at their desks reminding both him and others to stay out of their personal space. Another source recalled a story of the same manager commenting to his female direct report that the only reason she had her job was because she was a woman. This manager was eventually let go, but it took a number of years of inappropriate behavior for it to happen.

Other underrepresented groups had different struggles. Several recounted stories of managers and leads making racist remarks or even using slurs to refer to more diverse Destiny characters or, in at least one instance, an individual at the studio. Several employees also witnessed discrimination against transgender individuals at the studio, including questions about which bathrooms they were using, refusal to use correct pronouns, and other inappropriate questions.

From 2016 to 2018, Hiponia became part of an internal diversity committee that had been formed the year before. The committee was an official Bungie group that, because of company restrictions on allotted hours for meetings and the lack of considered support for this particular group’s needs to be successful, met only during lunch breaks rather than working hours. About half of the original committee was made up of diverse individuals from various departments who were there to push for change. But the other half was made up of company leaders, all white, who Hiponia and other sources say put roadblocks in at every turn. Pushes to add a gender-neutral bathroom to the company, to support the Black Lives Matter movement, and to complete a survey that would rate Bungie on its LGBTQ+ equality and inclusion were all stymied or rejected. Hiponia and other diverse members began to quit the committee in 2018. As the committee bled members, Bungie eventually decided that it was overall ineffective and shut it down entirely.

Another group that met extraordinary challenges at Bungie were those who dealt with physical or mental health issues. While Bungie's company health benefits were lauded by many we spoke to, a number of people also mentioned struggling or knowing people who struggled with physical or mental health problems for which Bungie was not just unaccommodating, but sometimes even hostile. One individual with health issues was forced to self-medicate with leftover medication from a previous surgery, because they weren't allowed to take any more time off to address or alleviate these issues during crunch.

"When you look at it all compiled together…All these things that are indicators that there is a problem, not just being content that you've never heard anyone say anything racist."

One person who was dealing with grief over a death in the family said they were penalized in a review period for being abrasive and uncommunicative during that time despite their manager knowing the context. Multiple sources knew of individuals on the autism spectrum who struggled with receiving negative feedback without concrete direction on how to improve communication. Still two other individuals described situations where they took time off to deal with either personal or familial health issues, only to return and seemingly be penalized by being moved onto a less desirable project.

Numerous people we spoke to, all who were no longer with the company, described high levels of anxiety brought on by their work at Bungie, with some attributing it to crunch — which continued to occur despite studio claims to the contrary across departments like QA, localization, audio, narrative, and others — and others referencing a toxic work environment or abusive managers. Many said they became depressed, eventually having to increase existing therapy sessions or start therapy for the first time. Some were prescribed medication, others began drinking more. Several reported being suicidal.

Among many of our sources was a cognizance that, in a strange way, Bungie was better than many other game studios. Few people were aware of any overt physical harassment or assault, and a few barely encountered any inappropriate behavior at all during their time at the company. But as one woman put it, it's not necessary to have a "Cosby Suite"-level scandal for a company's culture to be problematic.

"It's very easy to be like, 'We don't have pictures of naked women postering the office, therefore we're not sexist,'" she said. "Well, you are, but it's a lot of subtle things you haven't picked up on. It's pay discrepancy. It's looking at the data and seeing how many women leave, how many minorities leave. They discount each individual story, saying 'They weren't happy, they weren't a culture fit.' It's harder to see, harder to quantify these things. There's not a silver bullet, not a smoking gun, but when you look at it all compiled together…... white men at the top, promoted, paid well, minorities more likely to leave. All these things that are indicators that there is a problem, not just being content that you've never heard anyone say anything racist."

The stories we've shared so far represent some of the worst of Bungie's history — a work culture with deep roots that cannot simply be dug up overnight. But in response to IGN’s request for comment, Bungie CEO Pete Parsons -- who has been with Bungie for almost 20 years and CEO since 2016 -- reiterated that Bungie does want to try. In a lengthy reply, he opened by apologizing to anyone who had "ever experienced anything less than a safe, fair, and professional working environment at Bungie."

"I am not here to refute or to challenge the experiences being shared by people who have graced our studio with their time and talent," Parsons said. "Our actions or, in some cases, inactions, caused these people pain. I apologize personally and on behalf of everyone at Bungie who I know feel a deep sense of empathy and sadness reading through these accounts."

He went on to detail a number of actions the company has taken in recent years to change its culture, many of which were also mentioned to us by current and recent employees of the studio. A number of these employees told us they believe that, slow though it may be, Bungie is trying to move in the right direction — largely thanks to the growing number of diverse individuals and their allies within the studio who have been tirelessly working over the years to change its course through individual action, company groups, and growing employee pressure for a more diverse, healthy, inclusive workplace.

Sources tell us of a quiet but deeply significant change that began taking place in the last few years — they began to notice a number of more powerful, problematic individuals leaving the company one by one. Many left quietly and professionally, giving the appearance of a voluntary departure, and a few even left on publicly positive terms, celebrated with fond farewell letters to the entire staff or Bungie's community. Most of them still have high-ranking positions elsewhere in the games industry. While some sources claim that certain individuals among them were quietly asked to leave, the exact circumstances around this seeming house cleaning are unclear. Parsons confirmed to IGN that departures had happened, admitting the company had not been as transparent or swift as it could have been in removing individuals, and adding that Bungie was only able to do this "when brave people come forward or when bad behavior is conducted out in the open."

"We believe the people whose behavior warranted removal from our company have been terminated or are no longer working for Bungie, but if new information comes to light – whether through this story or by named or anonymous people coming forward – we will act on that information and investigate with integrity," Parsons said.

"There's no catharsis...when bad actors are thrown out, there's no awareness... of who's a bad actor to avoid. [...] Without that, I don't think it's possible to build trust at a wide scale."

While this may be good news for the future of Bungie, their former victims who were aware of this exodus told us they felt betrayed and left behind. Their careers, mental health, and emotional wellbeing were repeatedly damaged for years, they said. Meanwhile, the people who harmed them have moved to other companies and will continue to largely be celebrated by their colleagues and the gaming public — and because of their non-disparagement agreements, there's no way to safely call them out, even in an article like this.

"You do need some kind of [justice]," said one person. "That's what's absent. There's no catharsis...when bad actors are thrown out, there's no awareness... of who's a bad actor to avoid. [...] Without that, I don't think it's possible to build trust at a wide scale."

Broadly, company culture is always a work in progress, but Bungie has taken some specific actions in the last few years in the right direction. Several sources note that, in 2018, when Bungie brought on a Diversity & Inclusion (D&I) lead, there appeared to be a significant push by the studio to start having measurable goals for the amount of diverse individuals in leadership positions. Though some people within the studio pushed back, these goals were put in place.

And while there's still work to do, Bungie's previous blog post maintains that there's been progress at the topmost levels of the company. According to Parsons, women or people from underrepresented communities comprise half of Bungie's board of directors, and 40% of Bungie's executive team are women or people from underrepresented communities.

More recent employees we spoke to have indicated that this more diverse shift has been apparent not just at the company's leadership levels, but throughout most departments as well. While Bungie did not share older statistics for comparison, it did provide some recent numbers: 20.5% of Bungie employees are women, and women made up 31% of Bungie’s new hires in 2021 as well as 22.5% of people at the leadership level. People who identified as members of underrepresented groups make up 18.6% of the company, 23% of new hires in 2021, and 20% of company leaders.

"People are trying, and they see the need for many perspectives, but they don't always know how to do it. Sometimes they get in their own way."

Though its first D&I lead departed at the end of 2020, Bungie replaced her just recently with a brand new D&I director to continue to spearhead these efforts, including ongoing work with ERGs such as Black at Bungie, Women at Bungie, Trans at Bungie, and the newly-formed Accessibility at Bungie, as well as improvements to company benefits, bringing in diverse speakers, and taking on new charitable initiatives. Bungie has also reformed the diversity committee Hiponia and many others quit several years ago, which has been working in tandem with the ERGs to make small but meaningful adjustments to company culture. And just this year, Parsons told us, it’s begun conducting reviews of its hiring, compensation, and promotion activities, including hiring a third-party to audit its compensation practices.

Many of our sources as well as Parsons also confirmed that Bungie’s crunch issues had actively improved over the last several years, though sources said some teams still struggled here and there. Team collaboration was cited as another active development. A few years ago, there was a push studio-wide to move to "Agile development," effectively a methodology where teams come to development solutions through collaboration and teamwork. Opinions on the initial move to this technique were mixed, but current employees we spoke to felt it had ultimately made a difference.

"When you combine [Bungie's irreverent past] with a culture that's about being the best or building aspirational moonshots, I think there was a tolerance for people being mean to each other," one person said. "It was like stones sharpening stones by throwing them at each other. […] In terms of work culture there's been a shift to being nuanced and empathetic about people's personal growth. People are trying, and they see the need for many perspectives, but they don't always know how to do it. Sometimes they get in their own way.

"It's getting better, and our responsibility is to make things better for the future."

One internal vehicle for this has been the company's town hall meetings, where individuals can ask questions of leadership and then effectively vote on questions others pose, with the most popular questions, in theory, getting answers. This system has been a useful venue for many to voice frustration, though to mixed success over the years. In an earlier incarnation, this system didn't provide anonymity, and several sources felt they couldn't be candid, or recalled being dogpiled by their peers or even leadership if they asked a question others disliked.

With the addition of anonymity, sources said, more people felt comfortable asking questions about issues of diversity, burnout, and toxic studio behavior, and while some felt it had been helpful in voicing concerns to management, others noted that leadership often gave very lukewarm responses to serious issues. Several people recalled a senior member of the company responding to a question about a toxic work environment by saying no one had ever come to him about toxicity and that the issue wasn't a serious one. Others remembered questions that appeared to be dismissive or derogatory toward Black Lives Matter and the Employee Resource Group (ERG) Black at Bungie, with one source feeling that management didn't shut these remarks down effectively.

"People are willing to learn, but wouldn't it be so nice to be somewhere where everyone already knows?"

There is a sense among our sources that Bungie is on the way towards a truly safe, inclusive workplace, but that it still has a long road ahead to get there. Many employees we asked about the overall work culture problem believed that company leaders like Parsons wanted to try and make things better, but just genuinely didn't know how.

One current Bungie employee said, "The studio is full of well-meaning people, even at a leadership level. They do care about social causes. The criticism we have at a studio-level is that they don't know how to push these causes forward. They aren't sticking their feet in the ground and saying, 'No, we'll never try anything.' It's kind of this well-meant confusion of, 'How do we do this?'"

A former employee remarked that it was all too often the job of the minorities at the studio to educate everyone else — a job that inevitably meant doing extra unpaid labor at best and which some sources who did that work say was often dismissed or ignored. Another source put it concisely: "People are willing to learn, but wouldn't it be so nice to be somewhere where everyone already knows?"

A few people I spoke to expressed worry that this article would scare away more diverse individuals who wanted to apply to Bungie, further exacerbating the studio's problems. Though some of those who expressed this fear were the victims of incidents like the ones described above, they had a firm belief in the studio's consistent movement in the right direction.

"Even though it shouldn't be on their shoulders, the truth is that the closer we can be to an accurate reflection of our community the better we'll be as a company," one said. "Our workplace could always be better; I'm glad that as a company we recognize that and we're addressing it."

One specific area in which many current and recent employees expressed optimism for the future was with Bungie's current incubation projects — and one in particular. Bungie hasn't kept it secret that multiple non-Destiny games are in development, though the ones our sources were aware of have gone through some shifts and even cancellations over recent years. One of the projects — currently greenlit and the one closest to release — was frustrating to some of our sources, who felt it was largely staffed through nepotistic practices of only hiring veterans and good friends, reinforcing a culture that had already proved harmful on Destiny.

But another project, not yet greenlit, was spoken about glowingly by those in the know. One described it as "a huge divergence from what Bungie has done before." Others told me about its incredibly diverse team of developers, with a significant number of leadership roles held by underrepresented minorities. One person said it was "the kind of team I want Bungie to have everywhere."

Someone close to the project described the group as having a positive, supportive culture, in which everyone was proactive about being sensitive and thoughtful about the content they made. They described it as a new culture within Bungie being created intentionally as a model for what the studio wants to be. Another explicitly connected the values of the team working on it to Bungie's company values, saying that while people will likely be surprised when they see the project, they will eventually understand how it truly upholds the values the company has been trying to stand for since they were introduced in 2014.

"If there was to be a change, it would have to be on the incubation projects showing that things can be built differently," one source said.

Sources told us that there were a number of other small teams within Bungie, both within incubation and outside of it, that showed similar promise, with diverse membership and multiple women in leadership roles. These teams, while smaller, were microcosms of the kind of culture they believed would allow Bungie to thrive both internally and publicly, as teams of comfortable, safe, respected individuals worked together on bold new ideas. These, combined with the more public and widespread company-wide shifts, gave many of our sources tentative hope for change, even as they emphasized the job was far from finished.

While a number of those who were deeply hurt by the studio expressed cynicism in response to its recent tweets, others issued a challenge: Don't just talk and make statements about these issues.

Parsons, in the conclusion of his statement to IGN, seemed to agree:

"At our core, I believe we are made of good people who are here to drive good change in the world," he said. "I’m proud of the progress we have made, but it is not enough, and it has taken too long. It also does not sweep away the bad experiences people have had at our studio.

"As CEO, it is my job to factor both the past and the future and be accountable for all of it, here and now. Speaking with the team at Bungie, reading the stories, and seeing both known and newly surfaced accounts, it is clear we still have work ahead of us.

"I am committed to it. We are not yet the studio we have the potential to become, but we are on our way. And we will not rest or slow these efforts because we recognize that the journey of inclusivity, diversity, and equity is, in itself, the destination we all strive towards. This is critical to achieving our vision and fulfilling the potential of the welcoming, equitable home of creative and technical excellence Bungie should be.

"Our motto, ‘Boldly, to the stars’ has been our creative engine since the beginning. We take this same spirit of hope and improvement to the crucial human work in front of us. Our current and future actions around the care of our people will define Bungie's future and is our most important purpose. We are grateful and humbled to continue this work and are energized by the journey ahead."

Ultimately, every single person we spoke to had, at least at one point, loved Bungie. Most thought its pay and benefits were good. They loved their teams and colleagues, and they loved Destiny and the other projects the studio was working on. Many still do. While a number of those who were deeply hurt by the studio in the past expressed cynicism in response to its recent tweets and blog posts about becoming better, others issued a challenge to Bungie: Don't just talk and make statements about these issues.

"Listen to your employees that have been giving this feedback instead of just saying, 'Please give us feedback,'" summarized one more employee who had joined the company more recently. "Listen and act on it and tell us what actions you took. It seems like we're talking to the void. And especially listen to people of color and women."

"Own your failures; stop hiding them. We know. It is known. Show us industry-defining progress in the treatment of marginalized employees that can’t possibly be mistaken for virtue signaling."

That challenge, one pointed out, isn't just leveled at company leadership. It's directed at the entire company, top to bottom:

"That’s the problem Bungie needs to solve. Admit their failures here, and show us the roadmap for creating a working environment safe for marginalized genders [...] These slow roll-out, reactionary changes maintain stability of a system that keeps bullies and abusers comfortable at the expense of their victims."

Two days after the public beginning of the Activision Blizzard scandal, Bungie posted a series of tweets decrying the behavior described, but distancing itself somewhat from those same behaviors. While the internal response was mixed, knowing that Bungie’s culture has echoed some similar themes, there was simultaneously a recognition that it is also some of the way towards improvement. Still, for those who have worked at Bungie, there is a very clear line between saying and doing — and they want to make sure the studio does the latter.

"The tweet was so frustrating," said one source, "because positioning yourself as 'we’re not the problem' in response to systemic, industry-wide misogyny perpetuates the problem. And the passive mention of wrongdoing [...] is disingenuous to the victims who were harmed on their watch. Stop denying the harm done to your current and ex-employees. Own your failures; stop hiding them. We know. It is known. Show us industry-defining progress in the treatment of marginalized employees that can’t possibly be mistaken for virtue signaling.

"I want Bungie to be what it relentlessly, repeatedly required me to be. I want Bungie to be brave."

Rebekah Valentine is a news reporter for IGN. You can find her on Twitter @duckvalentine.

Continue reading...