- See Credits for a complete list of the names behind Oni as well as links to interviews with key members of the Oni team.
Work on Oni began in 1997 when Bungie decided to found a second studio, Bungie West. The concept for their first project was devised by Brent Pease and Michael Evans, whose primary influence was the animé film Ghost in the Shell. Pease and Evans had been working at Apple on 3D game technology, and so their first step was to begin work on the engine, gradually hiring employes to produce concept art and author content for the game. The name "Oni" was originally intended only as a code name during development; Pease intended it to be a reference to their inspiration, believing its meaning to be "Ghost".
The designs for Konoko and Commander Griffin can be seen to resemble the characters of Motoko Kusanagi and Daisuke Aramaki. Early development even presented Konoko as a cyborg, which, together with the tech-crime-fighting setting, resembled the world of Ghost in the Shell. In August of 1999, Hardy LeBel was brought in as Design Lead, and revamped the story. The final version of Oni abandons the cyborg heroine and instead introduces original concepts such as Daodan and SLDs.
Oni was originally expected to be released in the fourth quarter of 1999, but as that date approached, the release date was pushed back. This occurred repeatedly, until finally the rumored release date was as late as March 2001. Much of the uncertainty over Oni's status came from Bungie's well-known reluctance to disclose or adhere to fixed release dates. Some of the delay may have come from staff turnover and development issues; a Design Lead position was created in the summer of 1999 for newcomer Hardy LeBel, who immediately began rewriting the story. Pease left at the end of 1999 (with his Project Lead title being passed to Michael Evans) and Bungie West also lost one of their two level designers and replaced the AI programmer in the same six-month period between the summer and the end of 1999.
Possible additional factors in the delay were the introduction of a PS2 port to be released in tandem with Oni for Windows/Mac, part of a deal struck with Take-Two Interactive (T2) in August of 1999, and the acquisition of Bungie by Microsoft, which was announced in June of 2000 and which led to the acquisition of the Oni IP by Take-Two just as the game was finishing development. The details of the MS/T2 situation are explained in the "Post-release" section below.
The earliest online hype came from the existing Bungie community, particularly Marathon fans. As the Oni project gained popularity, a dedicated online community emerged in the form of Oni Central and the Oni Central Forum.
Interviews conducted with the staff of Bungie West promised various ambitious features such as smart AI, sophisticated melee combat, realistic level architecture, complex particle dynamics, battles with a large mech (the "Iron Demon") and multiplayer abilities. Two trailers were made for Oni, one in 1998 and one in 1999, reflecting the visions for the game during its time in development. These trailers and various screenshots were analyzed eagerly for evidence of Oni's ground-breaking features.
At E3 1999, Oni received the Game Critics Award for "Best Action/Adventure Game", even though the game was still in pre-beta stage at that point.
Due to the delays in Oni's development, Bungie suspended the advertising of the game for a time, so as not to expend their budget before the game was even released. In the meantime, the game under development at Bungie's HQ in Chicago, which was previously known only by its code name "Blam", came to be known as Halo and slowly drew attention away from the oft-delayed Oni as images and trailers for it began to appear.
As Oni finally neared completion, Bungie resumed their advertising, now partnered with Take-Two, who were in the process of taking over the Oni IP as Bungie prepared to join Microsoft (see "Post-release" section below). Promotional artwork was produced by Lorraine Reyes McLees and a four-issue comic book was produced under T2's supervision and published by Dark Horse. T2's PR efforts, however, seem to have been focused mainly on the PS2 version of the game.
After a short period of beta testing (starting just before September), development of the Windows version was finished in November and the Mac version in December 2000. Oni was finally released, much later than originally expected, at the end of January 2001 (possibly Spring 2001 in Europe). Oni was translated into other languages, including Russian, German, French, Italian, Spanish, Chinese and Japanese. These localizations were critical to building Oni's fan base, which today is largely based outside of nominally English-speaking countries.
Oni's storyline is fairly straightforward, although it has been called "understated". Because the story takes place over about a week and a half in the game's timeline, there is little room to develop the characters or setting, although large amounts of additional information are to be found in consoles scattered throughout the levels.
The developers achieved a unique blend of gunplay and hand-to-hand combat, with fluid controls and a camera that ensures that the action is always visible. Gunplay is fairly standard for the action genre, with some added emphasis on realism (Konoko only carries one weapon at a time, and a gun's ammo is tracked persistently whether it is being handled by the player or an enemy).
The melee component of the game is particularly complex, using over 2000 unique animations, and is frequently the main element that fans point to when praising the uniqueness of the gameplay (the short list of games with comparably deep melee includes GUNNM, Lugaru, and State of Emergency).
Oni also uses a custom graphics engine optimized for handling levels with lots of open space, and the levels were designed by actual architects, giving them a much more realistic feel than many game worlds. The actual texturing in the game is minimalist, a style chosen to try to match the look of animé.
The overall consensus of the critical reviews was that the game was good, but not great; Oni has a metascore of 73/100 from critics, but a 9.1/10 from the website's voters.
Professional critics tended to dislike the ambitious melee element, complaining of counter-intuitive or unresponsive controls (if they found the game too hard), or the easily accessible basic combos (if they found the game too easy). Some reviewers were unimpressed by environment graphics that were not as rich as other games of the time (the simple look of Oni was partly due to the attempt to mimic animé backgrounds, and partly a result of the game mostly taking place in offices and other man-made, realistic structures).
Upon Oni's release, many felt cheated because the game did not deliver on all of its promises (a not uncommon issue in game development). The most notable shortcoming was the absence of LAN multiplayer, which had been demoed at hands-on booths at Macworld Expos in mid-1999 and early 2000. In May of 2000, it was announced that multiplayer was being removed from the game due to concerns over latency issues.
Some previously-hyped features were missing, such as smart gunfire dodging and alarm behavior on the part of the AI. On the Oni Central Forum, Design Lead Hardy LeBel blamed this on Oni's original AI programmer, saying "She made a lot of boastful claims about what the AI would end up being able to do that she couldn't deliver on". Interestingly, some hidden AI abilities have been found in Oni's engine, either disabled, slightly buggy, or not utilized by the game's mission scripts.
Some of the game's content was cut as well. This included at least one entire level (BGI HQ), and the highly anticipated Iron Demon, the large mech shown in-game in the 1999 trailer. Gaps in the numbering of the game files led fans to believe that at least five chapters were cut before release, but, besides the BGI HQ level that was cut from the story, this was simply due to content that was moved around or consolidated into other levels.
Finally, Bungie did not hold to their usual practice of releasing level-building tools for their games, since a professional and costly CAD program was used to produce Oni's levels. As Oni's release neared, it was pointed out by Matt Soell, Bungie's PR person, that since Bungie no longer owned the game, they were unable to release whatever supplementary tools had been developed. Early statements about releasing the file formats were probably also impossible to follow through on once ownership had transferred to Take-Two. This factor, coupled with the lack of multiplayer, meant that Oni's full potential was not obvious.
Thus, it was left to the fans to create their own modding tools, after investigating the inner workings of the game on their own.
Oni and the makers of Oni went their separate ways. First we look at the direction Bungie took, then we come back to the game.
Bungie had seemed to enjoy great success as an independent publisher ever since they released Pathways into Darkness in 1993. However, Bungie was initially a Macintosh developer, and the Mac's limited market share meant that their sales never went above 200,000 units, even after releasing Marathon 2 for both Mac and Windows. Bungie also took advantage of their indie status to reject the strict deadlines which are normally enforced by video game publishers, refusing to release their games until they were completely finished.
It is believed that Bungie began suffering from a shortage of cash around 1998 when the Myth II uninstaller bug was discovered and cost them at least $1 million to correct. This might have been difficult to absorb for a studio not accustomed to a disciplined release schedule. The next game to release after Myth II was to be Oni in 1999, but as Oni's release date began to slide more and more, it became clear that Bungie had underestimated the time required to finish the game by more than usual. In the meantime, Bungie was bankrolling two studios instead of one. Thus, the decision was made to partner with Take-Two Interactive; on August 13, 1999, it was announced that Take-Two had acquired 19.9% of Bungie's shares in exchange for (1) payments to Bungie of $4 million now and $1 million the next year, (2) the North America publishing rights to Oni, Myth, and two additional future titles for the PC, and (3) publishing rights for a PlayStation 2 port of Oni (and console versions of future, unannounced Bungie games).
This deal didn't seem to change business much for Bungie, but considerably more shocking news was revealed on June 19, 2000, when Bungie announced its acquisition by Microsoft. It turned out that Bungie's monetary woes had not been solved by T2's influx of cash, and so MacSoft founder Peter Tamte had been hired by Bungie to find a buyer for the company. Bungie worked out the following deal with Take-Two in order to be free to join Microsoft: T2 sold its 19.9% stake of Bungie to MS for its original purchase price of $5 million; T2 then traded its publishing rights for Halo back to Bungie for (1) $4 million in cash, (2) a license to use the Halo engine to make two future titles, and (3) for full "right, title and interest" to the Myth franchise and Oni. T2 valued the IP acquisition of Oni at $2.8 million, and the Myth IP and Halo engine license at $1.5 million each.
The acquisition of Bungie by Microsoft also meant the dissolution of Bungie West as Bungie moved their employees to Redmond, Washington. Some Oni developers stayed with Bungie and went on to work on the Halo series, while others ended up at independent game studios, such as Giant Bite (co-founded by Chu & Evans) and Tyrant Studios (founded by LeBel).
In October of 2007, Bungie separated from Microsoft and moved from Redmond to the nearby city of Kirkland.
Clearly Take-Two expected big things from Oni (see their valuation of Oni above, as well as their promotional efforts under the "Hype" section). They had assigned Rockstar Toronto to work on a PS2 port of Oni around the end of 1999, and released it alongside the Windows and Mac versions of Oni; however, the port was considered to be an inferior version of the game due to technical limitations and control issues.
At first, Take-Two seemed intent on investing in Oni as a franchise. Shortly after Oni's release, a simple game billed as an Oni prequel (developed by Quantum Sheep) was released for WAP-enabled cell phones. It was then rumored around April of 2001 that T2 intended to make an Oni 2 (developed for PS2 by Angel Games, later known as Rockstar San Diego), but the game was apparently canceled at an early stage of development, possibly because Oni itself did not meet T2's expected sales quotas.
Since Oni's release, the fan community has been working on mods and writing gameplay and modding tools for the game. Gradually, the modding abilities of the community have extended to encompass nearly every aspect of the game. The game apps on Windows and Mac are also maintained and improved through patches.
The future of the property
Take-Two has sold off some dormant franchises to outside developers, although there is no evidence that Oni is one of them. Upon the separation of Bungie from Microsoft, there was fervent speculation about Bungie returning to their older franchises (since, after all, Bungie could buy back an IP from Take-Two if they desired). In an interview, Bungie's CEO, Harold Ryan, was asked specifically about Oni:
- Since we're on the subject of strong franchises: is there perhaps a chance to bring back Oni?
- Harold Ryan
- (laughs) Oni isn't currently one of those projects we're looking at, but one should never say never.
We'd be happy to work with the individuals who made Oni.
One thing is certain: the current Bungie staff has little in common with the Bungie West that produced Oni (there are seven Oni developers still working at Bungie as of May 2012). There is probably little sentimental or monetary incentive for Bungie to produce a sequel. Furthermore, it was announced in May 2010 that Bungie was developing a new IP, to be published by Activision under a ten-year contract.
However, there are fan projects which may or may not become unofficial "Oni 2"s.
- ↑ Pease discusses his role as Oni's creator and GitS' influence on the game here.
- ↑ The meaning of "oni" is usually given by those familiar with Japanese myths as either "demon" or "ogre". Pease explains the origin of the code name here, and seems to still think the word means "ghost"; however, Hardy, his eventual replacement, indicates here and here that he understood "oni" to mean "demon" and had re-written the story with that in mind.
- ↑ At one time during development, the name "Mnemonic Shadow" was considered. (http://marathon.bungie.org/story/newjan-feb01.html)
- ↑ IMG interview with Hardy LeBel.
- ↑ Discussions on OCF of: a fall 1999 release date, a summer 2000 release date, a fall 2000 release date, and finally a spring 2001 release date. These "release dates" were generally rumors, ephemeral dates used by online stores for pre-orders, or vague estimates by Bungie PR, not official statements. Nevertheless, it was clear that Oni was taking longer than planned to finish, which was a cause of some concern among Bungie fans.
- ↑ Oni discussion on the Marathon Story Page. Bungie fans first started talking about the newly-announced Oni (and the E3 1998 trailer) back in May-June 1998, unaware that it would not release for another two and a half years.
- ↑ OCF post by Matt Soell, "Re: Matt- could you address this?".
- ↑ OCF thread, "New news groups?".
- ↑ OCF thread, "ONI gone GOLD".
- ↑ OCF thread, "Re: It's coming... soon", which showed that the Mac version would not reach GM until the demo came out; OCF thread, "MAC DEMO!!!!!!!!!!!!!!", marking the release of the demo.
- ↑ Oni Central News Archive, Jan. 2001.
- ↑ OCF thread, "What language is your copy of Oni in?".
- ↑ 13.0 13.1 OCF post by Hardy LeBel, "Re: More questions... (mainly for chef...)".
- ↑ OCF post by Matt Soell, "Re: general questions....".
- ↑ "200,000 units" figure taken from page 238 of Dean Takahashi's book "Opening the Xbox", which also provided some of the details for the Apple story given below.
- ↑ See Bungie's 20th Anniversary documentary, O Brave New World, 6 minute mark.
- ↑ SEC 10-K filing for Take-Two Interactive, 10/31/99.
- ↑ SEC 10-K filing for Take-Two Interactive, 10/31/02.
- ↑ The sale of Bungie to Microsoft has an interesting historical footnote: according to Ed Fries, who was VP of game publishing at Microsoft, Steve Jobs angrily called Steve Ballmer immediately after the Bungie acquisition was announced; sources within Bungie state that Apple themselves had been close to offering to buy Bungie at the time. In order to appease Apple (a business partner of Microsoft) over the loss of a major Mac game developer, a new company was formed to port Windows games to the Mac, named Destineer, and headed up by none other than Peter Tamte of Bungie. Destineer would go on to port Halo to the Mac in 2003. (, , )
- ↑ Fastest Game News Online, "Oni Prequel Announced".
- ↑ Oni Central News Archives, Apr. 2001.
- ↑ Kotaku article, "Joust 3D Cancelled, And Other 'Secrets'".
- ↑ 4players.de interviews Shane Kim and Harold Ryan (translated).
- ↑ The employees in Oni's credits that still work at Bungie are Butcher, Dunn, the McLees, Marty O'Donnell, Staten and Wu. Only Butcher and Wu actually worked at Bungie West.