Destiny, Bungie’s answer to Halo, is always online, social, and it could be the future of shooters
Disclosure: Bungie (or Activison?) paid for airfare and two nights of a hotel stay Bungie tests everything. They test where your eyes look when you play their games in their lab. They take videos of your reactions while you play. We were shown video of two players enjoying Destiny during a recent press event at Bungie's new offices. Destiny is Bungie's follow-up to the Halo series, and we watched the players as their faces broke into smiles. One player leaned back to try to find the other in the room. The game had thrown them together, and they began to work as a team without any prompting, and without any menus or party system getting between the interactions. This was the sort of emergent co-op game play that Bungie is looking for, and you could tell how proud they were of this snippet of video. This is the heart of Destiny: An always-on, persistent, social first-person shooter. There will be no monthly fee. There could be microtransactions. The first game will be available on PS3 and Xbox 360. You need to be online to play it. Welcome to the future.
The power of social interaction
Bungie’s new offices are located in Washington; the company is situated in a building that used to house a movie theater. Everything is new, modern, and inviting. A climbing wall can be seen over in the corner. The theater is comfortable and high tech. Awards and memorabilia line the walls. The desks are on wheels, as they are in many modern offices, and they are often moved in different formations to deal with the changing nature of the work. The scale of the operation is amazing; during a time when many studios are struggling to stay open, Bungie is thriving. The developer has signed a 10-year deal with Activision to bring the world of Destiny to life, and they’ve spent a reported six years rebuilding their toolset and creating the new engine that will drive the game. We’re shown a video of an artist using the world-building tool called “Grognok” to create a base on the moon. By using existing models and assets, and then putting them together in new ways and stretching and deforming the environment, the scene was brought to life surprisingly quickly. We then watched as a character walked through the environment in the live game, running on Bungie’s development hardware. This is obviously a prepared, rehearsed way to show off the tools, but it's effective. Destiny is meant to be huge, and it's important to have tools that allow a large amount of content to be created quickly, easily, and have that content look distinct for that area of the game. Ryan Ellis is Destiny's technical art director, and he claimed that the success of the tools lies in their ability to have artists and designers working together, at the same time, on the same area of the game. Those wheeled desks are going to come in handy. The game is coming to the Xbox 360 and the PS3, and there is at least some hope of a PC version, although they’re being cagey in that area. The engine is being built to look great on current consoles, but we’re also told that it’s designed to grow into the next generation of consoles as well. Eric Hirshberg, chief executive of Activision Publishing, stated that he reads coverage online to learn more about the next generation of consoles and their abilities, and you’ll have to excuse my supreme skepticism at this claim from someone who should have no shortage of access to next-gen development kits.Bungie calls Destiny a “shared world shooter,” and promises that you’ll encounter other players even when playing through the campaign. It’s a fascinating combination of many genres. You won’t log into a specific server, as you do when you play most MMO titles, but it also won’t be a single-shard universe like we see in EVE Online. Instead it will use matchmaking that is completely seamless; your game will be populated your with human players on the fly. You won’t realize it’s happening but, like Journey, the game will simply add players continually for you to interact with, speak to, and help. Competitive multiplayer will be part of the game world as well; there will be no leaving the game and going through menus to get to competitive play. It's all one big experience. It sounds incredibly ambitious, and most of the questions about how all this will work were met with enthusiastic non-answers… and a note that more will be revealed later.
Changing the face of shooters… again
Jason Jones is the project director of Destiny and he’s not shy about his pride in what the Halo series accomplished. “We did a bunch of ambitious things on Halo deliberately to reach out to people. We limited players to two weapons, gave them recharging health, we automatically saved and restored the game, almost heretical things to first-person shooters,” he said. “Now nobody plays shooters the way they used to before Halo, because nobody wants to.” The question was what came next. “How do we take the genre we love so much, the first-person shooter, and turn it on its head?” he asked. The answer was Destiny. It’s a weird message. Jones claimed that they learned lessons from MMOs and Facebook games, but this is a game designed to be “the best shooter you’ve ever played.” It’s important to the team that the game is enjoyable for gamers of all skill levels. He stated that the hard part is keeping the game interesting for advanced players. “We’re going to succeed because we’re advanced players, and we play the game all the time,” he assured us. He also brought up the distracted, modern gamer who may not have a large gaming time budget. “They don’t want to work hard, they don’t want to read, they don’t want to go to their Internet to figure out our bullshit. They want to be entertained, they want to become heroes, and they want to feel things they don’t feel in their everyday lives. Our core experience has to be delivered as simply and directly as possible.”
The world of Destiny
The game deals with the last safe city on Earth, a hopeful place where humans work together behind a massive wall, underneath a giant sphere called “the Traveler.” Players create their own characters who work to defend the city, and each one gets part of their power from the Traveler. This allows systems that work almost like magic. “It’s like hitting someone in the face with a piece of the sun,” Joseph Staten explained, when describing his own in-game character. The game takes place in our own solar system, and you travel from place to place and sometimes planet to planet, fighting different races of enemies, trying to keep the city safe. Everything you do, from adventuring by yourself or with friends, to playing multiplayer modes, allows you to earn items in the game, including better weapons, armor, and aesthetic upgrades that help you tell your story. And you will be telling a story. In fact, much like EVE Online, the game seems to be set up to allow you to create your own stories and adventures on the fly. The other players will help you do so. “In these public combat areas the game is matchmaking you with other players, just like in other games, but it happens all the time, seamlessly, and totally invisibly,” Chris Butcher, the game’s engineer lead, told the press. “There is no UI, no loading screens, nothing that will take you out of the experience.” Butcher likened the technology to our cell phones. As we walk down the street we’re constantly connecting to different cell towers, information is being received and sent, but we take it for granted. What’s important is that we’re able to turn on our phones and make a call, or access our information. The game is the same way; all the tech is designed so that your world is constantly populated with human characters for you to interact with. It’s complicated for Bungie to produce, but the player never has to think about it. “Having built Destiny, it’s clear that this is the next step. In the future, we think all games will be social in this way,” Butcher stated. “Once we put this technology together, we knew had something transformative on our hands.”
The investment in technology, infrastructure, and even concept art has been huge. Bungie has created more concept art for this game than it has for the rest of their titles combined. The server and render farms require cooling equipment the size of mobile homes on the building’s roof; we were told they had to be picked up and installed using cranes. Marty O'Donnell may have composed one of the most epic scores in gaming history when he wrote the music for the Halo series, and he's working with none other than Paul McCartney for Destiny. We may joke about AAAA development, but the funding, ambition, and vision required to play at this level are immense. Destiny is a game, or series of games, that will begin in this generation and end in the next. Activision is hoping this is going to be the next big thing in shooters, and they’re making a rather large bet in order to prove that theory. The 10-year deal, according to Staten, is allowing Bungie to “drive giant stakes in the ground.” They will introduce plot lines and mysteries that won’t be unraveled for years. The always-on requirement means that the game can’t be pirated, cheating will be nearly impossible, and the experience can be specifically tailored to each player using Bungie’s new technology and the seamless matchmaking system. We only saw a small part of the game, many of our questions were politely but firmly shut down, and what little actual game play was on display looked stunning. Bungie and Activision simply wanted to place the basic ideas behind Destiny into the heads of the press, and it worked. The game looked exciting, new, and fascinating. The art we saw was stunning, and the engine is a cut above what we’re used to seeing in the current generation. We also left the meetings and presentations with more questions than answer. The future is here, or at least it’s close. Bungie may be taking away as much as it’s giving, especially if you’re a gamer who dislikes the idea of games that must always be connected online, but I get the slightly exciting and/or uncomfortable feeling that this is going to be the now reality of modern first-person shooters. According to Bungie and Activision, that’s the entire idea.