It's a game of superlatives.
The studio's biggest game. Its longest development cycle. The first with new publishing partner Activision.
It will also be the first game many at the studio have made that isn't Halo. Imagine having a ten year career in game development and knowing nothing but Halo. Some of these people can say that, or at least they could until now.
They could also say they hadn't designed for anything but a Microsoft console in over ten years. This game will be Bungie's first multi-platform title since Oni, and its first new IP game since regaining its independence in 2007.
For Bungie, this latest game represents the culmination of decades of growth and years of hard work. It is Bungie's best — and possibly only — chance at shedding the mantle of "former Halo developer."
If the game fails, then so, probably, will Bungie. That's game development. If it succeeds ... that's something else.
Success can prove once and for all that Bungie's particular flavor of game — and method of making them — works. It can prove that this is a long road that has not yet come anywhere near the end. It can prove that "making it" with Halo, over a decade ago, was only one step in Bungie's journey, and that there is and always has been more to come.
Fitting, then, that it's called Destiny.
Step one: Ship the first installment of the Destiny series, some time next year. So far that's still a work in progress.
After more than three years and a lot of prototyping, testing and exploring, Bungie has finally settled on what it wants the game to be. Some of that we saw this week at E3, but most of it is still either under wraps or not yet built.
"We still have a lot of heavy lifting to do in some areas," says Design Director Joe Staten. "You can just see my eyes, like, glaze over with the work. We've got a big studio. We've got a lot of really talented people. But, I mean, for us it's a big mountain. Not only are we gonna ship (hopefully) a great thing out of the gate, but we've gotta pace ourselves for ... a really long time."
Destiny is to be the opening salvo in what's being planned as a multi-part franchise, similar to Bungie's last project, the Halo universe. Unlike Halo, however, Destiny is being built from the ground up to be a blockbuster serial, several full-length campaign releases, with co-op and multiplayer components, all of which fit together into a seamless whole.
Staten calls them "books."
In an PC-based MMO, this would be called an "instance." In a console-based shooter, it's called a game changer.
"The real ending is many, many years from now," he says. "We've put some big stakes in the ground way out there, so we know where we're headed, but for this first release ... if you're just talking about the cinematic story campaign, we absolutely know where the first book ends.
"We know you're going to take the first [book] off the shelf and play it through and [then] pull the next one off. We have a pretty good sense of where it's going, and now we're just laying down track in front of us."
That track, three years long, still has a ways to go.
Bungie showed its first glimpse of playable game footage at the Sony E3 press conference in Los Angeles. The short demonstration showed a three-player co-op group, called a fireteam, exploring an ancient ruin on a distant-future Earth.
One player began the demo and was soon joined by a second, falling from the sky out of a personal spaceship. The two were later joined by a third, after exploring the ruin and unleashing a swarm of enemies. What happened next revealed some of what might give Destiny a legitimate claim to the title of true successor to Halo, a game that in many ways still defines the console shooter experience to this day.
Upon emerging from the ancient ruin, the fireteam entered into what's called a "public area," where it witnessed a "public event." A spaceship arrived, causing damage to far off structures, and landing a new swarm of enemies. But these enemies weren't alone. With them came a group of new players, summoned in-game to participate in the slaying of the enemy. Seamlessly.
There was no loading screen. There was no progress bar. There was no lobby. What had previously been a private co-op experience instantly became a public one.
In an PC-based MMO, this would be called an "instance." In a console-based shooter, it's called a game changer.
"We definitely think of Destiny as being the next level of shooter experience," Butcher says. "The high level for us, is that we're playing the game all the time and we're really having a lot of fun playing. I mean, I just ... I wish I was there playing it right now."
Any color you like ...
First things first: In Destiny there is no Master Chief.
Destiny is an entirely different experience from Bungie's best-known games (which are still being iterated upon at neighbor 343 Industries). Yet beyond merely not being Halo, Destiny is an even further departure.
Not only is the main player character not Master Chief, there also isn't one. At all.
Bungie believes the next step in shooter evolution is player choice. It uses the word "choice" repeatedly, like a mantra. Destiny will allow you to choose the character you play, how you want to play them, what they will look like, what weapons they will have, how those weapons will be upgraded and, upon wielding those weapons, what types and lengths of missions you will embark upon.
Bungie's goal for Destiny is to create nothing less than an action shooter sandbox in which you can experience practically any type of game you would ever want to experience.
Hence, the public event. When you're playing Destiny, you can skip the public events if you want to. Or you can play nothing but public events. In Destiny, says Bungie, you can do anything you want and Bungie has been working for years to make whatever you might want a reality.
Bungie's goal for Destiny is to create nothing less than an action shooter sandbox in which you can experience practically any type of game you would ever want to experience. Part shooter, part MMO, part open-world action game, Destiny is hard to define succinctly, by design.
"We don't use the term 'MMO' because we think that where players engage with this and where they spend their time is in that great action gameplay," says Lead Engineer Chris Butcher. "We think of destiny first and foremost as a first-person shooter. It's a great action game; it's got a really visceral combat to it. and then we've added a lot of elements of this living, persistent world with a lot of socialization and customization."
The main Destiny story campaign will be designed primarily for co-op play, but you can play it alone if you want. Or you can invite friends to play — at any time — and they will join you wherever you happen to be. Destiny will inform you if you are entering one of the public areas, and you can then stick around to see what happens and who shows up, or you can go about your way and ignore it.
Bungie hopes that the rewards it provides will encourage players to stick around and make new friends, but as much as they believe that games are more fun with other people (and as much as they realize games played with other people make more money) they stand by their belief that "choice" is the key.
"Shooting aliens in the face is supposed to be relaxing, right?" says Staten. "At the end of the day ... the important thing about it is choice. And we let you pick your challenge. We let you pick the kind of activity that you want.
"Do you want to be more by yourself? Do you want to be super social and coordinated? We have a big spectrum of choice there. Do you want to be competitive multi-player, or do you want to be story-driven? We've got a big spectrum of choice there. Do you want to challenge yourself or do you want to just hang back and just relax, just watch the sun rise and wait for a public event to kick off, spend 20 minutes and then put your kids to bed and get a good night's sleep? We have all that choice."
So long as you're playing Destiny, Bungie doesn't care how you're playing Destiny.
The public events could theoretically be anything, but the examples we've seen involve large monsters emerging from the ground, or aliens appearing via dropship. Once whatever is going to happen happens, the game will then perform seamless, behind-the-scenes matchmaking, teaming you with other groups of players to tackle whatever the challenge may be.
According to Staten, many of these events will be brief, and there will be other activities not yet announced, presumably offering even greater variety and length of engagement.
The idea, again, is to provide you with a choice in how you play the game, for what length of time and for what purpose. So long as you're playing Destiny, Bungie doesn't care how you're playing Destiny.
"Frankly, if you want to just go someplace," says Staten, "not on a story activity or any of the other activities — just fly to the moon, or fly to Mars and travel around the world, hitting the public events, meeting people, just hanging out, sitting on a tank ... thats' the fun of a big world."
Warlock, Hunter, Titan
The story is this: You're on Earth, many, many years in the future. Humanity has experienced a golden age, which is now over. Colonies on nearby planets in our solar system, which were once home to thriving human populations, are now in ruins, or have been taken over by outsiders from beyond the stars.
The Earth is a teeming wilderness, colonized by invading aliens who are ravaging the planet to excavate the ruined golden age settlements. They're looking for ... something. Just what, exactly, Bungie won't say, but it's clear that this mystery will be the driving force of Destiny's campaign story.
You are a Guardian of the last safe city on Earth. A giant wall protects your city from the outside world and the aliens and monsters beyond, and a mysterious entity called "The Traveler" hovers over the city, protecting it in ways that aren't yet clear.
"[Guardians] are special," says Staten. "[They have] either been chosen because of their skill, [or] maybe they've been chosen by the mysterious Traveler in a way that we don't quite understand yet. But they are the knights of the city, metaphorically. The protectors of all the innocent people inside."
As a Guardian, you will venture beyond the walls, harness the power of the Traveler, get into scrapes and blow shit up. That's the game part.
Bungie has announced three classes of Guardian in Destiny: the Warlock, the Hunter and the Titan. If those sound exotic (and they do) it may help to think of them as wizard, rogue and tank. Each has special abilities and weapons which can be customized along an upgrade tree. You can also, no matter which character class you choose, upgrade the appearance and abilities of your character with various armor and item upgrades.
The idea is to grant the player, in addition to the choice of how to play the game however they want, the freedom to be whoever they want while playing.
"The character classes we're showing at E3 are the Titan, the Warlock and the Hunter," says Chris Butcher. "The character class of the titan, they're the main defenders of the city. they're the ones' that originally built the towers that protect the city. They express the power of the Traveler mostly through physical ... protection abilities.
"The Hunters are kind of a bit more the outlaw character class. the build that we are showing at E3 for the hunter is a gunslinger. You can see they've got kind of flashy, showy type of things.
"The Warlocks are the character class that channels the power of the Traveler more directly. So we showed off the abilities of the Warlock ... solar flare is one of his abilities that makes this sun-type damaging effect. He also has a nova bomb. He channels the power of the Traveler directly and kind of flings it at his enemies."
"We definitely considered, 'Would we want to have a single, named player-character in Destiny?'" says Butcher. "But for us really this game is about letting players express themselves, and they're going to interact with this world how they see fit. They're going to make their own path and we want to put the player at the center of the experience. So we felt that we could best do that by giving them the ability to customize and choose."
"Guardians are special. They are the knights of the city."
According to Staten, this flexibility doesn't come without a cost. A single main story character (instead of a potentially unlimited variety of character options) would allow the designers to focus both the story and the technology around a single, known variable. Introducing choice, however, introduces complexity.
"It's definitely more challenging than one single central character," Staten says, "but those challenges make it better, I think, it makes it more personal.
"The cool thing about having flexibility is that whatever you choose — man, woman, robot, alien, human — to play, that's your character in the cinematics and the rest of the story, too. So it's wonderful to have that variety."
90 seconds of fun
Destiny plays like Halo. It's smooth and fun. Movement is fluid, if slow. Weapons make with the shooty without delay or confusion. Enemies die in well-animated ways. All of which provides a solid, satisfying feeling of mastery over the environment.
As far as the weapons, we saw three in action. The hand cannon is slow, powerful and accurate. The "Thunder Lord" heavy machine gun deals big damage, but chews through ammunition and takes what feels like ages to reload. The submachine gun does some of all of the above, in equal measure. Like you'd expect.
There are, according to Bungie, many, many more weapons although the company declined to comment on precise weapon counts. We did see a sniper rifle and a rocket launcher, and we can assume that there will be many variations of (and upgrades to) all of the weapon categories.
When it comes to enemies, it's also safe to assume there will be lots. Bungie mentioned four different alien races at E3: the Cabal, the Vex, the Hive and the Fallen.
"There are many different units in each race," says Staten. "We've got way more AI combatants that we've ever had in a Halo game. In terms of just the difference of what they can do and how they look ... when you make a big world, you've gotta fill it with a lot of different, cool things."
In the short demo mission shown to us behind closed doors, those different, cool things all exploded in colorful and satisfying ways.
The demo was more or less the same as was on display at the Sony press conference held the week of E3. After exploring a tunnel-like structure inside of what Bungie calls "New Russia," we broke into a large open area, witnessed the arrival of a Fallen drop ship and became immersed in a public event in which the objective was to "kill the big monster."
We killed it — and many other things.
In it's E3 demo at the Sony press event, Bungie unveiled a companion character called the Ghost. In the level that was show, it scouted ahead of the player, cast light down a long corridor and warned the player (albeit a bit late) of approaching enemies.
Part Guilty Spark, part Iron Man's Jarvis, the Ghost will serve many purposes throughout the player's adventures in Destiny.
"The Ghost is your companion in the world of Destiny," says Chris Butcher. "He does a variety of things for you. Yes, he can serve as a flashlight, but he's also able to hack into and manipulate golden age technology for you that you find. And he also serves as a connection back to your personal spaceship as well. He does a variety of other things that you'l see over the course of the game."
Headshots caused Fallen enemies to lose their craniums in sprays of blue gore, and well-placed shots to the glowing weak spots of an armored boss enemy caused it to (eventually) succumb in a shower of radiating death energy (while dropping loot). The action was pleasingly intense and satisfyingly difficult. Yet, at the core, it was the fluid, moment-to-moment console shooter experience for which Bungie has become known.
While not enough of a demonstration to give us the feel of exactly how all of the still theoretical parts of Destiny will play together, the 90-second shoot-fest was enough to remind us that, while Destiny may not be Halo, Bungie is still Bungie. Whatever else Destiny is or will be, it is a near certainty that the shooting will be simple, furious and fun.
"Look, it's the same kind of great sandbox game that we love to make," says Staten. "So the AI's super devious and the physics are really strong and if you've played our games before, if you love that visceral, kinetic sandbox shooter experience, you're gonna find that in Destiny."
The other side of the mountain
Beyond the player choices, the changeable characters, the seamless in-game matchmaking, the various player activities and the myriad new enemies and weapons, what Bungie believes will sustain Destiny over the long years ahead is the fact that it is built to be a living world.
"If you go back to a mission that you've played in a normal shooter, it's either the exact, same scripted thing that happened or it's a ghost town," says Staten. "And neither one of those experiences is super great.
"In Destiny, if you fly to Mars and just plant yourself in one of the public areas, you'll see people streaming in. You'll see monsters dropping from the sky. You'll maybe even see a monster that shows up once a month, that people have only told you rumors about on forums. But that stuff just happens in our world, and it's pretty magical."
Butcher says that all games go through stages of concept development, pre-production and production. Destiny is currently at a "pre-alpha" stage, meaning it's playable in pieces, but not yet complete.
"It's hard to see past the challenge to the reward, frankly. But usually they're one in the same. Just a different side of the mountain."
Destiny will be released on four console platforms simultaneously: Xbox 360, Xbox One, Playstation 3 and Playstation 4. That's four separate console architectures running four separate server environments, and Bungie is making all four versions internally. They will all be released on the same day.
As Staten says, it's a "big mountain" the studio has yet to climb.
"We're pretty good at running sprints," Staten says. "We know how to do the 50 meter dash. [Now] we're running a marathon.
"As my good friend [composer] Marty O'Donnell says, 'Rule number one is: don't die. Rule number two is: make an awesome game that people enjoy.' And we're trying not to die, but it's hard. We pour everything we've got into these games, but we know that we have this much longer goal."
The biggest challenge, for Bungie, is not simply making the game, but making it smartly. Making Destiny, the first, the game it needs to be and saving up enough killer ideas for Destiny the Second, Third, Fourth and whathaveyou.
"It's hard to see past the challenge to the reward, frankly," says Staten. "But usually they're one in the same. Just a different side of the mountain. The most fun I've had — the biggest mountain that we've climbed — is really trying to build this new world. Trying to come up with something that's familiar, that welcomes people in, but then is really good at showing them mysteries and possibilities for adventure.
"I mean, anybody can google an image of Mars and see generally what Mars looks like, but you can't google an image of Mars and see an old, human city buried in the sand and off in the distance some alien war base that's coughing up big clouds of evil. And up in the sky, weird sky mines and like stuff on Phobos that you wouldn't otherwise see.
"Creating this world, where it's just filled with cool questions: 'Where did those towers come from? How did they get buried in sand? And what so those aliens want? What are they searching for on Mars?' Constructing that world has been a huge challenge, but it's also been really, really rewarding."
Video: Adam Barenblat, Jimmy Shelton
Editing: Charlie Hall
Image Credits: Activision
Design/ Layout: Warren Schultheis, Russ Pitts
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