A legal adviser to the veteran composer Marty O'Donnell has come out in support of his friend, penning a blog post in which he claims the 18-month legal battle between him and his former employer, developer Bungie, took a significant personal toll and tore friendships apart. It was essentially betrayal, Tom Buscaglia alleges.
Buscaglia runs a Washington-based law firm dedicated to the computer and video game industry. He is known as "The Game Attorney," and is a professional friend to O'Donnell, the Halo and Destiny composer.
In late summer 2013, Buscaglia says O'Donnell called him to set up a lunch meeting to discuss some issues he was having at work. O'Donnell was one of seven Bungie founders and played a part in Bungie's spinoff from Microsoft in 2007. Buscaglia described O'Donnell as "the heart of the new Bungie."
Buscaglia says O'Donnell took a short sabbatical to mull over his options, and then returned to work on Destiny. In March 2014, O'Donnell reached out to Buscaglia again after things had "gone south" at work and he received a "Transition and Separation Agreement" from Bungie. Buscaglia reviewed this document and advised O'Donnell that it would be smart to seek the opinion of a litigation attorney, as Buscaglia's law firm was not equipped to handle the case.
He provided a shortlist of potential law firms and they eventually settled on McNaul Ebel, Nawrot & Helgren. The terms of Bungie's separation agreement with O'Donnell were non-negotiable, so he rejected the proposal and continued to work at Bungie on Destiny. He was fired "without cause" just a few days later, on April 11, 2014.
"Marty was at a loss. He had been with Bungie since before it was acquired by Microsoft, 15 years earlier," Buscaglia said. "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. 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."
In the legal proceedings that followed, Bungie attempted to strip O'Donnell of his Bungie shares and refused to pay him his unpaid wages. Ultimately, Bungie lost this battle, and awarded O'Donnell $95,000. But the case did not end there. Ensuing depositions related to restoring O'Donnell's Bungie shares were marked with betrayal, according to Buscaglia.
"The personal and financial toll this process took on Marty and his family was tremendous," he said. "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.
"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," Buscaglia added. "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 lawsuits color their testimony. Each time he believed they would tell his story. Each time they failed him. The emotional toll on him was tremendous."
For its part, Bungie hired a giant law firm called Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati. Its attorneys "used every trick in the book to burn resources and delay the proceedings," according to Buscaglia.
"In the process, the financial toll on Marty was unbelievable. We had expected this case to settle rather quickly. But that never happened. Instead the case dragged on."
Bungie reportedly produced about 100,000 documents for the case, and each needed to be reviewed by O'Donnell's counsel. In addition, there were "numerous motions and hundreds of pages" of back-and-forth between his legal team, as well as last-minute counter-claims from Bungie. All of this delayed the case further and made O'Donnell's legal feels balloon.
"Marty's legal fees were tremendous," Buscaglia said. "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."
Ultimately, O'Donnell won the case. An arbitrator ruled that Bungie violated its contract with O'Donnell when it fired him "without cause" and made him give up his company stock and drop out of Bungie's profit-sharing plan. He will be awarded at least $142,500 through the first payment of the profit participation program. In addition, he is entitled to recover 192,187.5 Bungie shares, the value of which is unknown (Bungie is not a publicly traded company).
"Marty was finally vindicated, but at what cost?" Buscaglia said. "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. And the Judge agreed with him by holding that Bungie breached its duty of 'Good Faith and Fair Dealing' in the way it fired Marty. And now that finding has been made public. Too bad for everyone that the management of Bungie did not do right by him to begin with. It is certainly difficult to understand why. But I doubt that story will ever be told."
You can read the full ruling here.
It's important to note that Buscaglia is a friend of O'Donnell's, so is personally invested in the situation and presenting one side of the story. GameSpot has reached out to Bungie to see if they have any response to Buscaglia's claims.
Earlier this summer, O'Donnell founded a new video game studio, Highwire Games, with a team of former Bungie developers. The next Destiny release, meanwhile, is The Taken King, which arrives on September 15.