How Halo And Destiny’s Composer Got Fired From Bungie

How Halo And Destiny’s Composer Got Fired From Bungie

In April of 2014 Martin “Marty” O’Donnell, then Bungie’s audio director, was fired from the company “without cause.” A court ruling issued last week in a case between the composer and his former employer sheds light on the events leading up to his termination and the hand Activision played in souring their relationship.

What seemed like a shockingly abrupt parting of ways last year had actually been brewing since events taking place during E3 2013, according to legal documents uploaded by Venture Beat’s Dean Takahashi, who’s been following the O’Donnell/Bungie situation closely since the April 2014 termination.

After working as a contractor on several Bungie titles, Marty O’Donnell joined the company as an employee in 1999, days the developers’ purchase by Microsoft was finalised. As a member of Bungie Studios he was responsible for crafting Halo’s iconic theme music, working on all aspects of sound design for essentially everything the studio produced.

In 2010, three years after Bungie’s 2007 split from Microsoft, the developer entered into a ten-year development and marketing deal with Activision for its new first-person shooter franchise, eventually named Destiny. Rather than create the music for each planned instalment of the game, it was suggested that O’Donnell compose a score for the entire franchise all at once — music that would span an entire decade of games.

Over the next two years O’Donnell composed a symphonic and choral suite in eight parts, collaborating with Paul McCartney of The Beatles fame in the process (McCartney even recorded an original song for the game). The work, collectively called Music of the Spheres, was recorded in early 2013. O’Donnell considers the project one of the high points of his career.

So imagine his disappointment when, shortly before E3 2013 as Bungie was preparing a trailer for Destiny featuring O’Donnell’s music, Activision stepped in and took over trailer creation, supplying its own music instead.

O’Donnell was furious. He believed Activision had overstepped its role by taking over creative control of the trailer. Bungie CEO Harold Ryan and the rest of management agreed and filed a complaint with Activision, but the publisher overruled it. The audio director’s frustrations were compounded by the fact that his desire to see Music of the Spheres produced in its entirety as a separate audio release, a prospect that neither Activision nor Bungie seemed keen on.

O’Donnell responded to the Activision-scored trailer by tweeting during the game’s E3 presentation that the music was not Bungie’s, threatening fellow employees in an attempt to keep the trailer from being posted online and interrupted press briefings.

O’Donnell believed the Bungie spirit was being compromised by the Activision agreement, and perhaps they were. But management saw his actions as disruptive and harmful. O’Donnell was given a poor employee review in the spring of 2013. In lieu of his next review in February 2014, Bungie drafted a termination agreement.

Under the proposed agreement O’Donnell would continue working on Destiny until work was complete — no later than July 31 of 2014. Considering the deadline unrealistic — sound design could not be completed until the game was in a largely finished and bugless state — and feeling some of the clauses in the agreement, including one that would see him forfeit stock ownership and give up his rights as a company shareholder, O’Donnell declined their proposal but agreed to continue working.

It was pretty much the end. By early April the audio work was piling up, members of O’Donnell’s team were complaining to management that his presence was frustrating completion of work and he wasn’t contributing as much as he was expected. The Bungie board of directors terminated O’Donnell’s employment without cause on 11 April.

Since then two lawsuits have been filed, one by O’Donnell against CEO Harold Ryan over unpaid benefits, which was resolved in July, and a suit against Bungie itself over the forced forfeiture of his company stock upon his termination. Earlier this week the arbitrator of the second suit determined that Bungie had violated its contract by forcing O’Donnell to surrender his stock and forego participation in the company’s profit sharing plan upon his termination. He’ll be receiving 192,187.5 shares of vested Bungie common stock and payments from the profit share plan, the first of which is a little over $US140,000.

And that’s what happens when art clashes with business. It’s the sort of situation where I can see where both sides are coming from, and something had to give.

Marty O’Donnell, fresh from launching his own game studio, is ready to put the whole affair behind him.

In an interview with GamesBeat, O’Donnell said, “I”m happy this is over, and I’m ready to move on.”

Image via Martin McDonnell/Venture Beat


    • Ultimately, it’s not his call because it’s not his game. His music was just one part of a bigger picture; he shouldn’t have been a prima donna about it. Dinklage didn’t throw a tantrum because his lines got cut. They got paid, Bungie isn’t obligated to use their recordings/music.

      The actual dick move is them trying to cut him out of company shares.

  • So he threw his toys out of the pram over the music for a trailer, then got reprimanded, and start to be lazy at work. Sounds stupid and petulant of him, but bungie not giving him his stock when they fired him is pretty crappy.
    Activision sounds like the evil step parent in this, but still, if they wanted different music for a trailer for a game they are publishing, yes protest, don’t then go air your issues in public, what employer would ever sit back and let you do that?

    In short, all parties in this come off as idiots.

    • Or the underlings knew he was on the outs with management, and started complaining to open up his spot for them instead.

        • Office politics are just plain shitty – especially for companies at this level. The fact he won his case tells me some kind of shenanigans were afoot, rather than it just being a case of “he’s a prick who had it coming.”

    • I can see where Marty is coming from. When a Bungie trailer debuts it is, for many like myself, the chance to soak up Marty’s newest audio creation. It was really common for Bungie to release the raw music from each trailer as an audio file because his worked is greatly revered. So I understand why he tweeted out that the (extremely generic) music wasn’t his. After all, trailers don’t have credits and I wouldn’t want everyone to think that music was mine if I had Marty’s pedigree.

      As far as unprofessional behavior and laziness goes I’m not convinced. The court upheld Marty’s end of the contract so he wasn’t considered to be in breach of his duties. Also Marty is a statesmen of Bungie and video game music. He was invested in Bungie. What it sounds like is the coorporate way of getting rid of someone who works for you when you can’t just sack them. I did it when I was a manager for a large West Farmer’s company. You get asked to write negative employee reports on someone on vague terms that are subjective and not direct policy breaches (bad attitude, not committed) so you have grounds to sack them after a few bad reports. Other employees usually roll over and back you up because it’s intimidating to call out your bosses for lying. That’s my hunch. I could be wrong. But it sounds pretty weird to have the guy compose a 9 part symphony then issue him a bad review for not being committed …

      • Totally agree, it’s bullshit tactics to get him fired.

        I’ve been on the receiving end of that kind of treatment, but it kind of backfired. lol.
        incoming story… omg how much did I write! :O

        I worked for a small company as part of the ‘service team’ building projects for clients. It was simple, there were 4 of us who reported to the team leader and we’d all sit down weekly for a meeting with the CEO – to make sure time management and delegation etc. was all ok.

        The service team were all close, we went for lunch together every day and often went out for drinks etc. outside of work. We all loved what we were doing and were passionate about it! Things were working well and we were all happy!

        In addition to the service side (which I was on), the company was working on software to take in a new direction (away from service work) – the CTO (half owner of the business) was working on this area of the business.

        I’d been at the company a few years when the CEO (who was an clown by the way) went and hired a Lady as a full-time ‘Finance officer’ without thinking about what was involved with the role (it should have been 2-days/week max position, not 5-days/week) – he didn’t even consult the CTO, because the CTO had already said he didn’t like her.

        When she first started she thought I was fantastic because I was polite and gave her the benefit of the doubt, and I got the impression she wanted to ‘take me under her wing’ and ‘mentor’ me; she would talk about how “she will help me do ‘this’ and achieve ‘that’ and help me progress my career in company” and she was super nice to me (preferential treatment) – at this point she was ok towards, but a little ‘dismissive’ of my team leader.

        After a couple months the CEO finally realized there was not enough work for a full-time ‘finance officer’ so he made her ‘business manager’ instead and put her in charge of the services team (Us).

        Our meetings were basically the same, just with her instead of the CEO. She would throw in some comments to ‘assert her authority’.

        After several months as ‘Business Manager’ she still didn’t understand anything about the service side. However she would come up with ‘big ideas’ and ‘master plans’ without consulting anyone and then present them to the whole company at company meetings (literally everyone would be there) every 1-2 months. The service team would generally shoot down her ideas. We were not being hostile or mean, simply her ideas were terribly flawed because she didn’t understand anything. She started to resent all of us, but I was the most vocal and often the first to point out flaws so she started to HATE me.

        Eventually I became more involved with the other side of the business – 2days a week I’d help the CTO with things and I was being invited to random design meetings (basically the CTO was the boss of this side) – previously he didn’t want to get involved with the issues with this lady, but he was starting to open up and listen to more, but still not jumping in.

        Her hate of me continues and she starts poisoning the CEO about me “he doesn’t do his work, he lies about you. Etc.”

        Then BAM! one day she crosses the line and it all changed!

        The CTO brought in his son to test the script system in our new software and while he’s introducing his son to the CEO, she bursts in and cuts the CTO off saying to the CEO “anon has not been doing any work, he’s a terrible employee and…” the CTO jumps in at this point and says “STOP AND DON’T SAY ANOTHER WORD! HOW DARE YOU! THAT WAS UNACCEPTABLE AND THIS WILL BE DEALT WITH LATER! NOW GET OUT!” he was furious!

        The next day he sits the service team down in his office and asks us to tell him everything related to her. He responds “right… well I’m deeply sorry for my lack of attention in this area and that I have tried to keep out of it until now… she will be dealt with and she she’ll no longer have anything to do with the service team. If she says anything to you, or about you, bring it to me immediately”

        !!! BAM !)@#(!@)

        Her job title was changed back to “finance officer” the next day and we never spoke a word to her again – she would stare at us in the morning when we came to work and we’d just smile and wave! haha! ah it was great. She left about 2 months after that 😀


        Sadly for me, the CEO still believed everything, all the poison she spewed about me. So he kept taking stabs at me in passing chit-chat about “not doing work” and he would not give me ANY credit for projects I (alone) made and would ignore me – so basically I quit!

        About 4-5 months later they ended up letting the rest of the team go, so I bailed at a good time anyway! 😛


        Biatch’s eventually got what she deserved. However, it was to late for me.

    • Content gets cut from games and media all of the time. I don’t know why he took this particular case so personally that eventually led to his dismissal.

      • Imagine you worked hard for two years, doing something you loved with great people, on something that you knew or believed was going to be part of something big when a bunch of executives suddenly replace the fruit of your labors with someone else’s work, just on a whim.

        I know I’d be pretty pissed.

        Yes, it’s one thing to cut content as part of decisions made in the development cycle by those working on the project, but when ‘outsiders’ can so easily decide to replace work that took 2 years of your life with someone else’s, it’s then quite easy to see how he could be a little disillusioned, if not outright pissed off.

        Stories like these make me so very glad that I work for a company that cares for its people and values the work they do.

        • Like I said, this kind of situation is not unique in the games industry and it happens more often than you think.

  • You know what in that whole story everyone seemed to be acting a conscience until u read that they were going to make him forfeit his stock – what a pack of bastards – I’m glad he sued them and won

  • I dunno. Once vital part of your company’s creative process has been around for over a decade, you should start treating their creative choices and participation with respect. It’s pretty clear that people at Bungie had the clear choice of siding with a faithful, talented and valued staff member, or with sugar daddy Activision and they chose the latter. Trying to forfeit his stock pretty much proved where the balance tips on the Business/Art and Money/Ethics scales for them.

    It was a bit petty of him to not maintain a good work ethic afterwards, but it’s easy to understand how wounded and disappointed he felt. Despondence is almost inevitable.

  • The most disappointing thing is finding out all that music is going to be sat on and not released. I love Marty’s music and I’d have happily paid for that release.

    • HALO 2 OST is awesome! (I don’t know if it’s his work, I’m just assuming? lol)

      I don’t generally find game soundtracks to be overly listenable on their own – not like a normal album, but it’s great. 🙂

      • Halo 1-3, ODST and Reach was his work. Also Myth and Myth II. In all cases they’re a collaboration between him and Michael Salvatori (back in the Myth days, the two were their own business specializing in advertising music, Bungie contracted them for soundtracks) and I think some of the stuff on Halo 2 onward is collaborations with them and other artists.

  • So even though they agreed with O’Donnell, they didn’t back him and instead were yes men for Activision and then didn’t encourage him to move on and then just fired him and illegally refused to pay him what he was due and pretty much stole stock from him.

  • It’s a shame a similar case wasn’t brought before the courts to explain what the fuck happened (ie: expose publisher interference in the creative process) to Destiny’s story.

    • I’d have loved to read a “Final Hours of Destiny” from Keighley, the way he wrote one for Titanfall.

      It was an excellent piece.

  • If Activision made that choice and then overruled the complaints, imagine what else they have done to this game.

Show more comments

Comments are closed.

Log in to comment on this story!