How Bungie Got Paul McCartney to Write Music for Destiny

Photo: Activision

Even by the expensive standards of modern blockbuster video game making, Bungie's new release Destiny — a first-person shooter set in a massive, Star Wars-like universe, out today for current and last-generation PlayStations and XBoxes — still seems pretty extravagant. The game's voice cast features Peter Dinklage and Nathan Fillion. The ad campaign includes a slick live-action commercial directed by Oblivion's Joseph Kosinski and soundtracked by Led Zeppelin's "Immigrant Song." And maybe most impressively, Paul McCartney contributed music to the score. We spoke with Bungie's Community Manager Eric Osbourne about how they pulled it off. 

Suppose that I’m a casual player of video games and I’m trying to figure out exactly why Destiny is such a big deal. I know that it is, because your TV ad has a Led Zeppelin song, which couldn't have been cheap. But I’m not sure exactly what separates Destiny from other recent shooters like Titanfall or Killzone in a way that’s pushing a genre forward. What would you tell me?

I would say it’s a game made by Bungie. We made Halo. It’s an action game, it’s got great story and a great universe, and you get to feel powerful in a world filled with enemies that are really fun to fight. It’s a blast to play. On top of that, it’s a living world. Typically the shooter path is to hurtle you down a rollercoaster of A-to-B missions that have been stitched together for you. Our worlds are not only huge and worth of exploring, but they’re also filled with other players. Running into people on the fly, that makes the game incredibly dynamic. It’s optional whether you connect with them. Some people call this “mingle-player.” Also, the other secret sauce is, we don’t put you into the boots of a super soldier, we give you a pair of boots and you earn a whole bunch of different pairs of boots. We’re borrowing from RPGs.

On the “living world” thing. Can you give me an example of something unexpected that might happen when I interact with another player? 

There was a professional player everybody here was watching because he was fairly entertaining—Tyler Blevins, who goes by Ninja. Our expectation was that, on his Twitch, he was going to live 24/7 in competitive multiplayer, because that’s his bread and butter. But he spent an inordinate amount of time hosting dance parties in the tower. He was having a blast, putting on silly hats, and you could see other players get sucked into that magnetic energy he was exuding. He’s up on a fan in the tower, dancing and playing Lil Jon’s “Turn Down for What,” and soon enough every single person in the tower is over there dancing. We’ve seen people do slow walking, we’ve seen people doing parkour, we’ve seen duck duck goose.

Paul McCartney wrote the score for this game.

He contributed orchestral elements to the game. We have a team of composers here in the building who actually score the game to the action, so they put in a lot of work. We don’t want to dismiss those guys. But Paul contributing to the soundtrack is amazing. And he wrote a new single for the game as well.

Yes, but the guy wrote “Hey Jude.” How on Earth did you convince him to do music for a video game? How did you pitch this to him, and why do you think he did it? I'm guessing that there was an enormous check involved.

There was no check involved, big or otherwise. He’s in it for the creativity. He got a wonderful opportunity to reach an audience that wouldn’t typically be immersed in Paul McCartney. They might hear the name — of course he’s everywhere, the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee, the Olympics, obviously he’s touring and recording nonstop — but he sees it as a way to reach a new audience that might not otherwise hear his music.

You have to be connected to the Internet to play Destiny. How confident are you guys that your servers will hold up tomorrow under the crush of everybody trying to play? This is the most anticipated game of the year and the demand is huge. [NOTE: This interview happened on Monday at 11 a.m.]

We’re so confident because we had a thousand people in the play test that we did in alpha, then we did the beta, and we’ve been running tests behind the scenes since beta with our employees, making sure our servers are up and running. We have a lot of smart people, and we’ve invested a lot of resources into making sure the online nature of the game works. It’s incredibly important. But we’re not taking any of it for granted. The teams have been on and live and locked in rooms here for a number of days anticipating our launch, so we’re not taking it lightly.

But just to be safe and avoid some griping, why not offer an offline mode, too?

You can go back all the way to Minotaur: The Labyrinths of Crete in 1992 to find a connected game that Bungie made, so it’s definitely in the DNA of the studio to make social, connected experiences. The reason we do that is because people add the most rich, dynamic, and unpredictable elements to any game. You think about the best gaming experiences you’ve ever had, and for most people it’s things like sitting around a table with your college roommates playing spades, or playing Monopoly with your brother and your or something like that. It adds that unpredictable layer, it’s going to be different every single time because it’s different people playing. It adds a level of richness to the experience that, quite frankly, you can’t get when you’re alone.

By requiring an Internet connection to play, you effectively prevented Destiny from being properly reviewed before its release.

If we had turned on the servers for, let’s say, 250 [members of the press], the first few dozen would have experienced an empty world as they pushed ahead of everyone else. And that’s not the way we wanted people to experience the game. We put so much time and effort into making sure those social elements really sang and made the world so rich and alive. It would’ve been a big betrayal of all the hard work everybody did to let critics experience it any other way.

But we fought long and hard about this. How do we find 5,000 people out there that we can give a disk to early, and whitelist and turn them on? How do we hire a group of contractors somewhere to just play the game when we want them to? And it turned out pretty much all those ideas were not feasible. So we made the risky to say A. We are going to get some day-one reviews and they’re probably not going to be thorough—they’ll be from somebody who played 8 hours, and that’s not the full game by any stretch of the imagination. And there will be some players waiting on IGN’s review, and they’re not going to get one on launch day. And that’s a risk for us. But we had felt that it was most important to let people experience it, whether you’re a player or reviewer of the game, the way it was intended to be experienced.

Some early reports said that Destiny’s development and marketing budget was $500 million, which I saw was walked back later. Where did that number come from? And is Destiny the most expensive game of all time, like some have claimed?

None of that is true. You really have to get a quote from [Activision head] Bobby [Kotick] to fully understand it, but I suppose what he was getting at was what Activision was willing to invest in the project and the IP over its life. There’s no P&L statement anywhere where all these numbers add up to $500 million. It’s not even close at this point, for development and marketing. I’m assuming that “most expensive game ever made” claim is a derivative of that $500 million figure, but I don’t believe that either of those things are true. We’ve invested a lot of time, a lot of resources, a lot of energy into making Destiny. It’s a big game, the biggest game we’ve ever made. As a studio, our success is bound to Destiny’s success. But there’s no check written for $500 million.

Some players criticized the alpha version of the game for Peter Dinklage’s flat voice acting. Bungie even sold a t-shirt poking fun at one of his line readings.

I almost wore it today.

Did you really make him come back and re-record his lines for the final version? 

Not specifically for that. In the alpha version, there was no processing done to the audio levels. If you go back to that version, you’ll hear a bunch of lines that didn’t get into the final version. But you’ll also hear that the decibel levels are all over the map. The rest of the game, too, you found a whole bunch of broken embarrassing stuff. So yeah, we’re gonna get some negative impressions. But you have to allow design and engineering to do what’s needed. We’re no strangers to those little hiccups. We’re fallible, we make mistakes. But we got some laughs out of it, and we turned it into some charity dollars, too.