A Look Back at “Marathon” and Bungie’s Pre-Halo, Chicago-Based History

Bungie actually had eight years of developing games here in Chicago under its belt before work began on Halo in 1999 and would take the developer to California. While University of Chicago student Alex Seropian’s Pong clone “Gnop!” is often seen on lists of Bungie-developed games, technically the company known as Bungie was first set up to publish Seropian’s self-made game Operation: Desert Storm in May of 1991. He recruited his U of C classmate Alex Jones shortly after, in part because he already had a near-complete game of his own that needed publishing. They’d release Minotaur the following year.

It wasn’t until the pair decided to take the 2D dungeon crawling action of Minotaur and evolve it into a first-person 3D dungeon crawler with guns and an actual story that the seeds of what would become Bungie’s legacy were planted. Pathways into Darkness not only scored rave reviews and a multitude of awards, but it also earned the team – now expanded to a third person, Colin Brent – enough cash to move the operation from an apartment to an actual office. And it was in this office that Bungie laid the groundwork for their eventual sci-fi-based first person shooter world domination. Marathon actually began as a sequel to Pathways, but it eventually became its own game entirely. What remained from the Pathways framework was the emphasis on story and atmosphere to compliment the action-based gameplay, especially as contrasted with its closest contemporaries, Doom and Wolfenstein 3D. Marathon was also technically impressive for its time – and again, when viewed against its peers – as it was one of the first FPSes to allow for vertical aiming  – although Jones later admitted this was just an optical illusion. The geometry of the environment simply warped to give the appearance of looking up and down. Dynamic lighting and texture mapping on every single surface in the game were also on Marathon‘s long list of things it was among the first in its genre to do.

So why doesn’t Marathon have the kind of mainstream recognition for its accomplishments that a Doom, Quake or Unreal does? The answer is simple: It was a Macintosh game, at a time when Apple computers weren’t the kinds of devices that people camped days in advance to buy. It was certainly a huge hit amongst Mac gamers, and is widely regarded as one of the best games ever released for the platform, but not being a PC game really hurt its chances at the huge mainstream success it deserved. Marathon 2 was made available for Windows, but with the average PC gamer not really knowing anything about the franchise it didn’t really have much crossover success. Not surprisingly, Bungie porting the original Marathon to the ill-fated Pippin console (as a compilation with part 2) also failed to get the gaming community at large to embrace Marathon the way it did its peers. Still, while mega blockbuster status had eluded Marathon, it was far from a flop, and earned Bungie enough money for a bigger, better office on Ontario Street. It was here that the team worked on their next new IP, Myth. The strategy game was released on both PC and Mac simultaneously and found a large audience on both, finally getting Bungie the true mainstream recognition that had alluded them up to that point. It was at that time that Bungie also established Bungie.net, a service that set new standards for online gaming.

By 1997, Bungie had grown so successful and had such high ambitions that they decided to spawn a second team. The California-based arm was known as Bungie West, and their first project was the third-person action title Oni – although both teams worked on the game in tandem. Oni lead to a deal with Take 2, which officially put Bungie in the big leagues as well as taking them into the world of console gaming for the first time. However, once Microsoft saw the early footage of Bungie’s next game, they knew they had to have it, and not only that, but wanted it to be the launch game for their upcoming foray into the console world, the Xbox. Now working feverishly on a AAA launch game for a brand new console and under the Microsoft umbrella, it just wasn’t practical to still have a Chicago office. And with that, Bungie’s time in our fair city was at an end. Still, technically speaking Halo was conceived of and actually began development in Chicago, so what the hell, I’m going to go ahead and claim partial ownership of the franchise in the name of the Windy City.