The legal battle between composer Marty O’Donnell and Bungie, the game studio that made Destiny and Halo, took a huge personal toll and it tore friendships apart, according to O’Donnell’s attorney. The story is like a plot from a video game — and not a happy one.
O’Donnell. an award-winning composer of the memorable music for both the Halo and Destiny series, won an 18-month legal fight on Friday when an arbitrator in Washington state ruled that Bungie broke its agreement with O’Donnell by firing him without cause in April 2014 and then stripped him of his founder’s stock. Bungie’s Halo games alone have sold more than 60 million copies, and Destiny, published by Activision, is also selling millions of copies.
Tom Buscaglia, counsel for O’Donnell at the Game Attorney, wrote a scathing blog post criticizing Bungie and O’Donnell’s former colleagues for betraying him and then failing to say anything good about him in testimony — even though he was a mentor for many of the employees. We’ve asked Activision, Bungie, and their lawyers for comment. We haven’t heard back.
“A great deal has been written recently about Marty O’Donnell’s arbitration against his former studio, Bungie,” Buscaglia wrote. “As his personal attorney and friend, I wanted to speak out about the personal toll this ordeal put him through. I hope this gives those who read it a little glimpse into the story behind the story. And how sometimes, you just have to fight the good fight.”
O’Donnell’s problems began when Activision, publisher of Destiny, decided to take back the duty of making the initial game trailer from Bungie in 2013. In doing so, it removed O’Donnell’s musical score, which was called Music of the Spheres and was co-created with former Beatle Paul McCartney. O’Donnell grew irate at this and publicized the fact that the trailer’s music wasn’t his own. He tried to disrupt the distribution of the trailer, and that set off his boss, Harold Ryan, chief executive of Bungie. Bungie filed a formal object to Activision, which overruled the complaint. O’Donnell considered Activision’s actions to be a breach of Bungie’s creative freedom, and he was also upset that it was slow about publishing Music of the Spheres as a separate musical product. Things went downhill from there. And Ryan then began the process that led to O’Donnell’s dismissal.
Buscaglia said he met O’Donnell many years ago at the Fairmont Hotel (presumably at the Game Developers Conference, which was held down the street from the hotel). Buscaglia introduced a student to the famous O’Donnell, and the kid was starstruck. Buscaglia went on to see O’Donnell at many events and asked him to do work on behalf of the International Game Developers Association. So it was no surprise when O’Donnell’s relations with Bungie fell apart, he went to Buscaglia.
By March 2014, O’Donnell reached out again.
“Things had gone south at work and he had been presented with a ‘Transition and Separation Agreement,’” Buscaglia wrote. Buscaglia helped O’Donnell find a trial law firm to take on the case, McNaul Ebel, Nawrot & Helgren.
Then O’Donnell got fired, and he was devastated.
“It was a huge part of his identity and in many ways he felt lost and abandoned by the team that he had been instrumental in creating,” Buscaglia wrote. “Sure, he had disagreements with others in management, but he had always felt that he kept the best interests of Bungie above his own and done his best to make every game that Bungie made the best it could be. The Metacritic scores on the games he finish while at Bungie backed that up. But right now, he needed an action plan. Ligation is a difficult path that should never be embarked on lightly. But, Marty had little choice.”
O’Donnell won his case. But Buscaglia said the toll on O’Donnell and his family was tremendous and the sense of betrayal was huge.
“The personal and financial toll this process took on Marty and his family was tremendous,” Buscaglia wrote. “Marty, one of the oldest employees at Bungie, is known as ‘Marty the Elder.’ He and his wife, Marcie, were always the ones to be there for other members of the Bungie team in times of need. Providing emotional support and mentoring his team members. Now these same people were turning against him. Taking the Bungie ‘party line’ against him.”
Buscaglia added, “In deposition after deposition Marty sat and watched as these people he thought of as among his closest friend, people he had stood by when they were going through rough spots, people he had personally hired and nurtured at Bungie, testified against him. To the man, almost nothing good was said about Marty personally or professionally, other than having to admit that he was a great composer, something that no one could deny. Each time Marty’s faith in his friends was crushed. Each time I cautioned him that people in law suits color their testimony. Each time he believed they would tell his story. Each time they failed him. The emotional toll on him was tremendous.”
Buscaglia said that Bungie’s law firm, Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati, buried O’Donnell in paperwork, with more than 100,000 documents produced in the case. Many of the legal maneuvers appeared to be aimed at burning O’Donnell’s resources and delaying the proceedings.
“Marty’s legal fees were tremendous. I suspect Bungie’s were obscene. Fees easily exceeded any possible recovery by Marty or exposure to Bungie. There was no rhyme or reason. But that’s the way it went down,” Buscaglia wrote.
He added, “Marty was finally vindicated, but at what cost. He will never forget the way those he believed were his friends turned against him. The way that those he had mentored and supported throughout their careers had hung him out to dry. Nor would he ever recover all of the money or any of time spent on the case. But I don’t think that was really why he did this in the first place. Throughout the case Marty was primarily interested in justice; in being treated fairly; and, in being able to tell his story.”