Few arrivals in gaming history have been ushered into existence with quite the same level of scrutiny as Bungie's Destiny.
Apart from Bungie and its anxious paymasters at Activision, no-one will have watched the game's arrival with as much interest as 343 Industries. Located just eight miles from Bungie's offices, 343 is Microsoft's manufactured 'new Bungie,' a development studio entirely created to replace Bungie, when it quit the company's fold. 343's job is to take over the future of Halo, the franchise that Bungie created, and that made Bungie.
The relationship between the two studios can safely be described as "competitive," though there is an element of mutual respect and even interdependence. They are both competing in the high stakes space age first-person shooter market, and they both require the other to continue contributing to the good name of that genre.
Microsoft is readying Halo 5: Guardians (below) for a beta introduction later this year, and launch in 2015. Halo 5's fortunes are closely aligned with Xbox One's fortunes. For Microsoft, there is no more important game.
For 343, Destiny's arrival carried a number of potential nightmare scenarios.
If the game had been terrible, or sold badly, we might now be reading doomsday predictions about the future of space-shooters. Let us not pretend that Destiny is anything other than a successor to the original Halo games from Bungie, both stylistically and spiritually.
If the game had been a commercial and creative triumph, Halo might have quickly seemed like a thing of the past, a herald for the arrival of the true space-shooter king.
As it is, things have worked out pretty perfectly for 343 Industries...
Destiny Sold Really Well
Destiny's commercial success, including sales of $325 million in its first five days, is a clear sign that large numbers of people still want to play Halo-like shooting games in a sci-fi setting. This may seem like a constant given, but tastes change, especially during console transitions.
Although the console shooter has remained a favorite for a decade-and-a-half, subsets within that genre have glowed and faded. Destiny is the best market research Microsoft is likely to receive.
Hype Springs Eternal... Still
Activision showed that an expensive and carefully staged hype campaign still works wonders. Lots of people were enthused by the hype and did not wait for reviews, many of which turned out to be negative.
In reality, Activision showed very little of Destiny before its launch, made a great deal about its high-level aspirations, and reaped major benefits. Even if you do not agree with the reviewers, it is certain that if the sub-80 percent reviews had been available on day one, that $325 million figure would have been diminished. Destiny is Bungie's lowest rated game since Oni, in 2001.
In the social media age, the ability to control messages through expensive and highly controlled marketing is still highly prized by large companies, and they don't come much bigger than Microsoft. It is highly probable that Halo 5's pre-launch marketing campaign will follow the same drip-drip pattern as Destiny's.
Central Characters Have Appeal
One of the questions constantly put to Bungie execs in the run up to Destiny's launch was the lack of a central figure like Master Chief. The execs had a canned response about how the game was really about the player and his or her own identity. This is a reasonable direction to take.
However, Destiny's story, and the characters introduced throughout the game, were pretty yawn-inspiring. This was a surprise, given Bungie's pedigree with Master Chief whose stories, while convoluted and confusing, have always seemed appropriate to their setting and enjoyable in the moment.
Microsoft's 2014 play with the Halo franchise is a re-issue of the games associated with Master Chief, a reminder of the rich fictional world underpinning the franchise. Bungie tried to co-opt some of this heritage by talking up the Destiny narrative setting as a classic in the making, but the reality felt flat and empty. When it comes to personality, Halo still has a significant lead over Destiny.
Bold New Ideas, Ripe for Revision
Despite its flaws, Destiny was an impressive creation, especially in terms of its world-building and the ways in which its designers sought to integrate single-player and different kinds of multiplayer experiences together.
There were other bold ideas that entwined role-playing elements into emergent character creation, all wrapped up with enemy loot drops and mission choices. Some of these ideas worked out better than others, but few were decisively brilliant.
343 can make use of Bungie's innovations and shape them to their own designs, without looking like they have basically copied their rival's ideas. Destiny has innovated, but it has not innovated so far as to change the entire landscape of shooter design. No-one is really saying, 'how the hell is 343 going to top this?'
Destiny has Failed to Rewrite the Rules
Most of us who like video games tend to cheer for new properties. We want to see something other than sequels, and so we root for the new guys. Games companies make use of this laudable instinct, by affirming our desires with promises that, frankly, turn out to be untrue.
343 will consider Destiny's launch, its successes and its failures, to be a win
When I went to a Destiny press day a few months ago, I expressed my disappointment that so little of the actual game was being shown, while journalists were assailed with a constant stream of interviews all saying much the same thing; that Destiny was a new kind of game that would make everything before it seem smaller and lesser.
Bungie is not the only company to do this. Witness the contrast between Watch Dogs' ludicrously overblown arrival in 2012, with its actual launch in 2014. The media and consumers must take some responsibility for the continued success of these strategies.
Both these games have created enjoyable entertainment and, in their own ways, have progressed the idea of what video games can do. But the level of their progression is not so significant that developers working on other games have been caught unawares.
343 is a fairly new studio, and none of its work to date had come close to the demands placed upon it by Halo 5. But the 343 team members working eight miles down the road from Bungie should consider Destiny's launch, its successes and its failures, to be a win for their own project.