- See Oni (myth) for the mythical oni, and see Oni (folder) for info on the installation of Oni on Windows/Mac.
- 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 game-related technology, and so their first step was to begin work on the engine, gradually hiring employees 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 the Daodan Chrysalis and SLDs.
Bungie West initially promised various ambitious features such as human-like 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 development at that point.
Due to the delays in Oni's development discussed below, 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.
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 announce or adhere to fixed release dates.
However, unbeknownst to the public, development of Oni was troubled from the start. The team was young and inexperienced, and development suffered from a lack of direction. A great deal of code had been written, and assets created, without producing a playable game with a story. By mid-1999 it became clear to management back in Chicago that the game was not going to be ready by year-end, so Hardy LeBel was added to the team with the goal of bringing focus to the development efforts and producing a shippable product.
The second half of 1999 saw the replacement of the AI programmer and the departure of one of the level designers, followed by Brent Pease himself at the very end of the year (with his Project Lead title being passed to Michael Evans). LeBel and the team began honing the gameplay, shaping the final story, and figuring out what features or content would have to be dropped in order to ship the game before it was too late; Bungie was secretly suffering from serious money problems (see "Change of ownership" section below). In May of 2000, it was announced that multiplayer was being removed from the game due to latency issues and lack of time to create suitable arena levels for netplay. In June of 2000, it was announced that Bungie had been acquired by Microsoft.
This caused an upset among Bungie's fan base, which mostly consisted of Mac users. They considered Microsoft to be Apple's nemesis, and now the publisher of Windows had taken the most popular game developer from the Mac world and would be incorporating them into their headquarters in Redmond, Washington. However, the effect this had on Oni's development was dire; it meant that Bungie West needed to finish their work as soon as possible in order to join the rest of Bungie in Redmond. Suddenly a hard deadline had been put in place, somewhere before the end of 2000. In order to meet this deadline, the Bungie West staff worked massive overtime for several months. According to Hardy LeBel, "It was as bad a crunch as there has ever been in the video games industry." It was only due to this final push that a playable and enjoyable game was forged out of over two years of prior work.
Oni went through a short period of beta testing, starting just before September 2000, during which a leaked beta build of the game surfaced on the Internet. Development of the Windows version was finished in November and the Mac version in December of 2000. The Windows demo, released in mid-December, contained Chapters 1 and 4. A later demo was released with levels 1 and 2 instead. The Mac demo, released a few days after the original Windows demo, only ever contained levels 1 and 4.
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 "Change of ownership" section below). Promotional artwork was produced by Lorraine Reyes as well as artists commissioned by Take-Two, and a four-issue comic book was produced under Take-Two's supervision and published by Dark Horse. Take-Two's PR efforts, however, seem to have been focused mainly on the PS2 version of the game.
Oni was finally released, much later than originally expected, at the end of January 2001 (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 primarily-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.
Oni uses a custom graphics engine that was optimized for handling levels with much more open space than games typically had at the time, and the levels were designed by actual architects, giving them a more realistic look than many game worlds of the time. 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 an 8.6/10 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 featured in playable demos at expo booths in 1999 and 2000.
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 an entire planned 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 this was mainly 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. Thus, it was left to the fans to create modding tools after investigating the inner workings of the game on their own.
Change of ownership
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 even their domination of the Mac's small game industry meant limited success in real financial terms (but eventually, Bungie began releasing games for Windows too, starting with Marathon 2). Bungie also took advantage of their indie status to avoid the strict deadlines which are normally enforced by video game publishers, refusing to release their games until they were totally satisfied with them.
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 would acquire 19.9% of Bungie in exchange for the publishing rights to Oni and the upcoming Halo. Take-Two also began work on a port of Oni for the upcoming PlayStation 2 console.
This deal didn't seem to change business much for Bungie, especially since Take-Two was having the PS2 port performed by another studio. 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 Take-Two's influx of cash, and so MacSoft founder Peter Tamte had been hired by Bungie to find a buyer for the company. Take-Two acquired (among other things) all rights to the Oni and Myth IPs in exchange for its stake in Bungie and its publishing rights for Halo. Take-Two valued the Oni IP at $2.8 million, and the Myth IP at $1.5 million.
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 contribute to the Halo series, such as LeBel, while others moved on to different game studios.
Further reading: Rights.
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 Canada (now known as Rockstar Toronto) to start work on a PlayStation 2 port of Oni in 1999, and it was released alongside the Windows and Mac versions of Oni; however, the port has been 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. More significantly, it was rumored that Take-Two had put Oni 2 into production; however, no sequel was ever officially announced. In 2016, an actual development build of the cancelled game was leaked. Interviews with former employees of Angel Studios revealed that the game had been in development for about two years without a clear direction, and the troubled project was finally cancelled when Angel Studios was acquired by Rockstar in 2002.
Further reading: Oni 2 (Angel Studios).
The future of the property
Take-Two has sold off some dormant franchises to outside developers, although Oni is not one of them. Upon the separation of Bungie from Microsoft in 2007, there was fervent speculation about Bungie returning to their older franchises. In an interview, Bungie's CEO at the time, 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 group that produced Oni (there are only three Oni developers still working at Bungie – Chris Butcher, Dave Dunn, and Lorraine Reyes McLees – as of February 2019). There is probably little sentimental or monetary incentive for Bungie to buy back the IP and produce a sequel.
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 applications for Windows and macOS are also maintained and improved through patches. Various fan projects have taken on the subject of an "Oni 2" storyline.
- 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.
- 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?".
- 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.
- See CryMor Gaming's documentary Demon: The Untold Story of Bungie’s Forgotten Franchise, 16 minute mark.
- OCF thread, "New news groups?".
- OCF thread, "ONI gone GOLD", Nov. 20, 2000.
- See OCF thread, "Re: It's coming... soon", Dec. 18, 2000, which showed that the Mac demo would not be ready until the Mac version of the game reached Gold Master status, and OCF thread, "MAC DEMO!!!!!!!!!!!!!!", Dec. 22, 2000, celebrating the release of the demo.
- OCF thread, "ONI DEMO!", Dec. 17, 2000.
- Oni Central News Archive, Jan. 2001.
- OCF thread, "What language is your copy of Oni in?". These localizations generally included re-dubbing the game's dialogue in that language, except for Chinese.
- OCF post by Hardy LeBel, "Re: More questions... (mainly for chef...)".
- OCF post by Matt Soell, "Re: general questions....".
- Dean Takahashi's book "Opening the Xbox" claims on page 238 that a Bungie game never sold more than 200,000 units, but that number may be based on a misunderstanding, because the Chicago Reader article "Monsters in a Box" talks about an initial shipment of Myth II numbering 200,000 units.
- 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 MS CEO Steve Ballmer immediately after the Bungie acquisition was announced; sources within Bungie have stated 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 publish a port of Halo for the Mac in 2003. (, , )
- Fastest Game News Online, "Oni Prequel Announced".
- Oni Central News Archives, Apr. 2001.
- Documented by the game preservation YouTube channel PtoPOnline here.
- 4players.de interviews Shane Kim and Harold Ryan (translated).