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Destiny: Bungie's Brave New Worlds

Michael McWhertor is a journalist with more than 17 years of experience covering video games, technology, movies, TV, and entertainment.

One safe city remains on Earth, shielded from harm by a mysterious entity known as The Traveler. This cracked white orb hovers silently over the last remnants of humanity's Golden Age, protecting us from total annihilation. Knights known as Guardians, protectors empowered by the Traveler, seek to uncover the mysteries of humanity's downfall and keep it safe from persisting threats.

This is the setting of Destiny, the beginnings of a decade-long collaboration between Halo creators Bungie and publisher Activision. It's a world "where any story is possible," Bungie says, and where players — as the Guardians of Destiny — will become legend.

Players will explore our solar system in Bungie's new first-person shooter, crafting personal stories as they travel Destiny's surreal, fantastic places.

As Guardians, players will battle alien species with exotic names like Sandeaters, War Rhinos and Spider Pirates. They'll wage war with time-traveling robots and evil space zombies. They'll have shared, social experiences that complement a crafted, mythic science-fiction universe.

Bungie and Activision officially unveiled the game last week at an event at the developer's Bellevue, Wash. headquarters. Bungie offered a high-level, conceptual look at Destiny's fiction, detailing the game that's the been the subject of numerous leaks and great speculation.

In a series of presentations, Bungie offered a glimpse of Destiny's concept art, its new graphics engine, its in-game character models and its music. Bungie developers and executives walked us through the development of the first-person shooter and the studio's grand multiplayer ideas. But we were not shown any gameplay from Destiny, leaving us with many unanswered questions about how Bungie's next series differs from its most famous, Halo.

Without having played or seen Destiny for ourselves, here's what we know about Bungie's new universe.

Destiny, bound for PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360, is a "shared-world shooter," says Activision Publishing CEO Eric Hirshberg. He explains that as the game’s concepts gelled, Bungie and Activision didn’t feel it fit into a pre-existing genre. Part first-person shooter, part open-world sandbox and part persistent universe, Destiny is constantly evolving but retaining players' persistent progression, Hirshberg says.

Part first-person shooter, part open-world sandbox and part persistent universe

Players will grow and customize their characters with new armor, clothing, weapons, vehicles and spacecraft, items that players will acquire and equip, objects that flesh out the lore of Destiny's 10-year narrative arc. The game's personalized gear will persist throughout single-player, cooperative and competitive modes.

Destiny is "always connected." Players will meet each other online to fight, trade, gamble, socialize. While Hirshberg says there are no plans to charge a subscription fee to play Destiny, the game will require an internet connection to experience.

Most importantly, Destiny is not Halo. Players will not assume the role of Destiny’s equivalent of Master Chief; instead, they’ll create, grow and customize their own personalized characters, playing as Guardians of Earth’s last remaining city. The stories Bungie wants players to tell will be of their own emergent experiences, guided by their interactions with other living players.

"Even in story mode, you will encounter other players on their own adventures, inhabiting and affecting the same world," Hirshberg says.

"We're really putting players at the center of the world and giving them control of their experience," says Jason Jones, Bungie co-founder and Destiny project director. "From the ground up, we've built this game to be social and cooperative.

"We've learned a bunch of lessons from MMOs and Facebook games … but Destiny is a console shooter."

Destiny’s multiplayer modes, both competitive and cooperative, are designed to be seamlessly merged with its single-player experience. Players will come together and adventure together naturally, Bungie promises, without visible matchmaking. They’ll pair up in the City’s Overwatch district, form bonds, visit distant worlds. At times, they’ll cross paths with strangers, their separate adventures overlapping to become one.


The Seven Pillars of Design

A world players want to be in. "This is a question players ask themselves," Jason Jones says when approaching a new universe. "‘Do I want to be in this world? Is it cool? Do I want to stay here?’ That led us to create a world full of mystery that people can explore."

A bunch of fun things to do. Bungie calls Destiny "a sandbox with a lot of tools" that puts players in situations "where they can be successful." Jones says Bungie has been deliberate about creating a broad range of activities for players to enjoy in groups or alone, in casual or intense scenarios.

Rewards players care about. "Imagine you could spend an hour and accomplish something," Jones says. "We have a lot of great things [in Destiny] to find, earn and make. Everything you do generates these rewards to customize your character."

A new experience every night. Bungie wants players to have a different experience every time they play, planning rare, time-limited and emergent activities. Jones hopes that players will sign on for a game of Destiny, but get distracted by the variety of content and activities within.

Shared with other people. "Everything that’s fun to do is more fun with other people," Jones says. "Even if you do play solo — which is a totally valid way to play — you’re going to see other people in your game."

Enjoyable by all skill levels. "We want everybody who wants to play, to play. If you have the basic coordination to play a shooter," Bungie says, you can play Destiny.

Enjoyable by the tired, impatient and distracted. Bungie believes that players don’t play games to "work hard, read or go the internet to figure out our bullshit." The core experience, Jones says, has to be delivered as simply and easily as possible. And that pillar led Bungie to "throw out a bunch of dearly-held ideas."

The design of Destiny’s online interactions recall similar concepts explored by games like Journey and Demon’s Souls, games in which the distinction between a solitary experience and a shared one is blurred.

Joe Staten, writer and design director at Bungie, likens the stories of Destiny to that of a series of books. "Each one has a strong, narrative spine," Staten says. "They’re adventure tales with real weight and depth." And they’re all personal, he says, because "the most important stories we tell, they’re not going to be told by us."

Staten recounted his own personal Destiny story, a shared journey with Jones as they traveled to the planet Mars. After meeting in the City's social district, they visited a hangar, where Jones' newly purchased starship awaited them. Together, they traveled to Mars to explore the ancient remains of a lost human civilization and recover an artifact in Charlemagne's chamber, a bounty commissioned by the Queen of the Reef.

After reaching Mars, the pair ventured to the Dust Palace, a public meeting place, before venturing into a Cabal exclusion zone guarded by a group of heavily armored foes colloquially known as Sandeaters. Outgunned, the duo encounter another player, a Hunter, on her own mission on Mars. They decide to join up.

"Every time this happens," Staten says, "when you run into another player, a real person, it's amazing ... it just doesn't happen in other shooters."

The Technology Powering Destiny

Bungie rebuilt every part of its game technology, says technical director Chris Butcher, for today "and for the next ten years."

Destiny will be powered by an all-new graphics engine designed for use across multiple platforms, says Hao Chen, senior graphics architect. That includes future, unannounced consoles.

The major innovation Chen seems most proud of is Bungie's new real-time lighting technology that powers the sunrises and sunsets of Destiny.

"For the past four years, we've worked hard to build a state-of-the-art graphics engine," Chen says of the engine tailor built for Destiny's "big, unique and complex" worlds. In addition to real-time lighting and large scale ambient occlusion, new terrain, forest and foliage systems will help shape the jungles of Venus, a decimated Earth and the cracked surfaces of the Moon.

The studio also developed a new world-building tool, Grognok, to work with its new graphics engine. Technical art director Ryan Ellis calls it "the nexus of art and world design at Bungie." Ellis says his team threw out all of its existing world editing tech and started over, creating a tool that was capable of building worlds so much faster and was "such a leap forward for us, that when we first started building it, the most requested feature was 'undo.'"

"We actually built Halo without an 'undo' feature," Ellis joked. "So you can imagine with that advance technology in our hands, what we can pull off now."

Now a fireteam of three, they survive their battle against the Sandeaters and claim their prize: exotic weapons looted from Charlemagne's chamber. Those recovered weapons, an onyx, spiked "hand cannon" named Thorn, and a sleek, angular shotgun named Invictive, are part of Destiny's narrative. They'll tell their own stories, tied to players' own unique experiences. Weapons with colorful names like Fate of All Fools, Pocket Infinity and Super Good Advice will tell tales of their own.

"The breadth and depth of Destiny's world encourages me to find my own adventures," Staten says, adding "at its core, Destiny is a hopeful world" that encourages players to forge their personal legend.

Bungie is careful to emphasize that Destiny's new networking technology is fundamental to its shared-world shooter experience. Chris Butcher, technical director, boasts that Destiny has no loading screens, nothing that will take players out of the experience. The connections between players will be invisible to the user, he says, thanks to "complex but totally hidden technology."

"The goal of any advanced technology is to seem effortless," Butcher says.

"We've developed [our technology] over the last ten years of working on online action games. Now when you put them all together, it turns you get something special. These technologies disappear into the background. There's no sign they're working, no progress bars, no UI spinners; you just sit back and play. The networking engine does everything behind-the-scenes [and] the player experience of Destiny just emerges.

"We think this may be the first time anyone has put these technologies together at this scale, in a game or anywhere else."


The Unknown

What you'll be doing. We know Destiny is a "console" shooter and Bungie has some bona fides there ... but we don't know what it looks like, how it plays, whether or not there will be space combat, how interstellar travel works, how characters level up, et al. We don't know much about the moment-to-moment gameplay at all.

When it's coming out. Activision and Bungie have not announced when Destiny will come to PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360, or when it will come to next-generation platforms. Activision says it's not factoring Destiny into its financial guidance for 2013. "We'll have announcements about release timing when we're ready," Activision says.

What else we'll be paying for. There are "no plans" to charge a subscription fee, and Bungie's leaked contract with its publisher revealed plans for downloaded expansions, but further plans to monetize the game, through microtransactions, for example, weren't disclosed.

How classes work. Bungie talked about three classes (Hunter, Warlock, Titan) but wouldn't confirm how many class types Destiny will ship with or how players will modify and grow those classes.

How competitive multiplayer works. "There won't be anything that's necessarily separate in Destiny," Bungie's Pete Parsons said, but wouldn't detail how players will engage in competitive multiplayer battles.

The extent of Destiny's mobile connectivity. Bungie teased iOS integration with Destiny and in the form of notifications, but was tight-lipped on details. "We're not going to play it safe," said Parsons. "We have a bunch of great ideas. When we say Destiny will meet you wherever you are, whatever your mood, and not just with stats, but with meaningful activities that allow you to have a great window into the world that maybe you can only have on a mobile device. We're going to create experiences that are only on mobile that go far beyond what you've seen on in the past."

"We truly believe we can change the way they play games together."

Destiny's connectivity and social hooks will carry over to and planned mobile apps created to augment the always-connected nature of the game. accounts can also be linked to PlayStation, Microsoft, Facebook and Google accounts, social connections that will push Destiny's reach beyond the console game.

But the web is just one part of Destiny's narrative, says Eric Osborne, writer and community development manager at Bungie.

"Destiny mobile can reach players in ways we never have before," Osborne says. "We can notify people when there's new stuff to do in the world, connect them with their friends and social groups. We can help them share their stories and ours."

"We truly believe we can change the way they play games together."

Bungie says it has focused on the visual art of Destiny with the same fervor as it has the technology, generating more concept art for its next game than all of its previous games combined.

Christopher Barret, art director, showed us dozens of pieces of concept art that offered a glimpse at the deep character customization Bungie has planned: helmets, boots, cloaks and exotic rare capes. He showed Destiny's enemy aliens and mechanical beings, and the bizarre architecture of their evil lairs and visually striking capital ships. Only a fraction of it has been publicly released, but much of it is gorgeous and unlike anything we've seen in Halo or Marathon.

Pete Parsons, COO of Bungie, says he looks forward to "blowing peoples' minds" with Destiny.

"I look forward to when they start playing and realize they don't have just a new shooter from Bungie," Parsons says, "On top of it, they have this rich player progression system that allows them to customize their character. I look forward to the first time people see a stranger in a public space and realize at that moment they're playing with other human beings. Or the first time a group of friends realizes they can come back to Destiny week after week and have these great cooperative experiences.

"I really believe we have a chance to change the way that people look at shooters again."


In Search of the Heart of Bungie

By Russ Pitts

Pete Parsons is giving the tour. As chief operating officer of Bungie, it's one of his many semi-official responsibilities. We're told he's the best at it.

Parsons shows us the two massive trophy walls, filled with awards from over 20 years of game-making. The glass-encased shelving is built into separate walls, divided by a corner. Each is more than 30 feet from end to end, more than 10 feet high.

There's the plaque commemorating Halo‘s first million sales. The Video Game Awards, each with their fat, smoking monkey holding a controller. The metal AIAS swooshes holding their crystal spheres. The many crystal tablets, laser-etched with whatever caused them to be issued.

Parsons struggles to name a favorite, then seemingly punts, pointing out the massive trophy given pride of place at the junction of the two walls. It lists the names of every winner of Bungie's annual "Pentathlon," the internal game competition the developers look forward to all year, where they will test their mettle against their colleagues.

This year, the Pentathlon will feature Johann Sebastian Joust, the chaotic, intensely physical indie game in which players must hold a vibrating PlayStation Move controller and move in time with music while attempting to knock the controllers out of each others' hands.

As the tour moves into the off-limits second floor production studio, Parsons shows us the small Joust arena sketched out on the floor in blue tape, between the cluttered desks of Bungie's two office managers and the famous rock climbing wall.

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