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Imagine yourself, back in 2001, playing the spectacular Xbox space shooter Halo. Now, imagine swooshing forward in time, to here, to 2014, playing Destiny.

As well as being impressed by the graphical fidelity of the new game you would understand, without being told, that these two very different games share a fundamental and intimate connection. Separated by 13 years of significant hardware and game design evolution, they are nonetheless family, very obviously so, in their looks, style and atmosphere.

Bungie has changed a great deal since it gave us Halo, one of the most important games ever made, the moment when epic hi-fi shooting transitioned to consoles. Gaming and the nature of games players has also undergone massive shifts. But here at the cutting edge of next generation game design, you are still running down corridors, leaping over barriers, firing laser blasts into the faces of squawking aliens.

The question is: What is Bungie doing with Destiny that moves shooting games forward?

Halo, first designed in the 1990s, was set in a universe dominated by structured military organizations. Destiny is about the power of individuals who come together organically. It is a tale of shining knights.

“That might say something about changing social norms,” said Bakken, “but it might speak more to the fact that Destiny is this place that you really want to feel like a living, breathing world that you want to continually go back to. We want Destiny to be such an inviting place that you want to come back to. Hardcore military might turn off a certain segment of the population. They don’t want to go in there and just be all about the military.”

“The reason I love Bungie games, is they try to cast you in the role of a hero,” said Osborne. “Some of it was really driven from looking back at pure fantasy stuff. Heraldic knights, Camelot, that idea of an idyllic city on a hillside, a white city surrounded by evil, and going out into the world and carrying that light. But our guys really love the fantasy of space travel and that new frontier. A lot of our guys are inspired by seeing JPL [Jet Propulsion Labs], the Mars rover guys, and the space race.”

“Obviously we love Halo, and that’s a lot about two military industrial mights coming together. And that’s not the world we were building,” said Parsons. “This is mankind that was just beginning to climb back towards and rediscover its lost golden age. And to do that, we need brave souls, brave guardians who are willing to go out and adventure in the wild. Destiny is about you and the character and the character you’re going to build. It’s not about the Master Chief character. You are going to invest time building and growing you, and so, to build that world, we wanted to make this rich, vibrant, interesting, hopeful world where you could become whatever you wanted to be as a guardian.”


“The way we like to think about it, is not everybody is going to want to play Destiny, but everybody is going to be able to play Destiny if they want to,” Parsons added. “We’ve made significant improvements to the way players are going to play. People are surprised at how quickly they master the controls and get up to speed and having a great time.”

“It might not feel new compared to some of the other things that have come out recently, like Titanfall,” said design lead Lars Bakken, who added that there are changes, like free-floating double-jumps that can last for a long time. “But we’ve been prototyping for a long time and we’ve created experiences that you’ve never been able to experience before in the previous games that we’ve made, especially because it’s inherent to your character.”

Supers are special powers that are earned and replenished by picking up loot. Each class (Warlock, Titan, Hunter) has a selection available in their progress tree. They are powerful weapons that, MMO-style, take a while to charge. Linked to multiplayer experience, and the notion of leveling up characters, Supers speak to the non-core shooter ideas that Bungie is trying to embrace.

“I’m partial to Arcblade for the Hunter class,” explained Bakken by way of illustration. “It allows you to summon this electrically charged energy blade, and then zip around the environment and cut the enemy to shreds really quickly. It allows you to go into a dangerous situation with multiple enemies and burn through them really quickly and clear out a space for your team to be more safe.”

“Supers allow you to channel magic and just literally lay waste to everything in your path at the press of a button,” added Parsons. Cooperative players can help to feed one another’s Super meter, adding to the heavy focus Destiny places on social gaming.

“I like the Warlock’s Nova Bomb,” said community manager Eric Osborne. “It’s a nice risk reward. You have to get aerial to use it typically, so you’re in the air, you’re exposed, but you throw down this awesome, epic blast of purple light. And if you play it right, you can really do some damage.

“The variety of our sandbox is hugely expanded from what we’ve been able to do in the past,” he added. “And that comes with a lot of opportunities for players to really figure out how they want to play and tweak the build for their own personal play style.”

SCALE

There is a nice navigational screen in Destiny that shows the solar system laid out as a schematic, with mission trees for each planet. It offers a glimpse of the game’s vastness, how it seeks to offer up a series of environments.

In Destiny‘s mythology, the worlds are decayed remnants of human expansionism, now infested with alien invaders. Humans and their allies are seeking to take back that which was once theirs. So each planet has its own take on crumbling infrastructure and a lost golden age.

Destiny Unveiled


“Destiny is so vast, compared to what we’ve done before, that it has forced us to rethink all of our existing mechanisms,” said lead concept artist Jesse Van Dijk. “It’s safe to say that we’ve built them all from the ground up. It’s definitely a challenge, but that was always the intent, to start with something fresh and start with something entirely new. Rethinking things that worked for us previously was absolutely a part of that.”

Van Dijk showed how one of the staged areas, an old Russian space-age launchpad, is dominated by superstructures that speak of Soviet-inspired heroic design and a dead era of confidence and hubris, before the aliens came. He showed the multiple rejected designs for a single space-launcher that sits in the background, how each failed version did not quite connect with Bungie’s unified vision of how this world should look.

“We don’t have any reference for what it’s like to live on Venus after there’s a breathable atmosphere for human beings and we’ve lived there for hundreds of years and then got destroyed by an alien race,” said Bakken. “What is that going to look like? What are the remnants of that civilization? How does it feel to walk through those halls that have been empty for hundreds of years? Those are all things that are fun thought experiences that we then get to turn into real spaces. What’s it look like to have that huge line of rusted cars that goes on for miles and skeletons in the seats and everything? That’s the kind of detail that the new consoles allow you to show. It gives our artists a lot of leeway to do some cool things that we never would have been able to do before.”

All this takes a lot of labor. “We’ve invested exponentially more resources into this universe than we ever have before on a game,” said Osborne. “We shipped Halo: Reach with 150 people. We’ve got about 500 now working on Destiny. It takes a lot of people, and a lot of smart people to make a game that measures up today.”

STORYTELLING

The Russian Cosmodrome launch-pad is an example of how the environment is doing all the talking. And it’s not just the big stuff. At one point in the demo, I drifted away from my two co-warriors just to have a look around. I found myself gazing at the floor, at some hardy little lavender weeds poking through the ground where old tin cans had been crushed into the dirt.

In years past, we might have expected some exposition to be dumped via a tiresome dialog section, with Master Chief and some military functionaries bemoaning alien calamities. New consoles allow more organic ways of communicating ideas. Everything you see in Destiny tries to speak about the world’s troubles. Story has always been a big deal to Bungie. It is unthinkable that this company would skimp on the details of why you are fighting these aliens.

Activision boss Bobby Kotick has set down an ambition for Destiny to be “a billion-dollar franchise” and “the best-selling new videogame IP in history.”

Kotick, intimately connected with Hollywood and based in Los Angeles, is undoubtedly looking to expand his property into other areas. He’ll want to avoid the unfortunate experience Halo had with Hollywood, when Microsoft blew its chance to get a movie made, back in the last decade (the book to read is Generation Xbox: How Video Games Invaded Hollywood.)

For now, Bungie is being coy on future plans. “We’re probably spending less time on that than you think we are,” said Parsons. “What we are spending a lot of time thinking about is the stories; not to turn them into something else, but to really help ourselves invest in this universe, and hopefully we can help other people be excited about it.”

“The great thing about Destiny is we have all this room to grow,” said Bakken. “We’re introducing a bunch of new things, like the fact that, what would it be like if humans were actually able to colonize Mars really easily and live there for a long period of time, and what would that space look like if it had been abandoned for hundreds of years? But the great thing about this particular IP is that we’re going to be able to look at things like that when we launch and then continue to look at new and crazy science fiction ideas as we go off into the future too.”

My Strike mission could not easily have been completed by a player on their own, but on those occasions when I (selfishly) decided to wander off and explore, while my teammates faced down a new wave of enemies, they seemed to cope well enough. It’s this level of elasticity in the multiplayer design that represents a large proportion of the labor that has gone into this project, since it began life more than five years ago.

“It’s been an enormous challenge for our engineering and design teams to solve,” said Parsons. “How do you tell a great story, and yet build it in this larger, living universe? The moment we decide to head out on story, whether I’m by myself or with some of my friends, the first thing that happens is, we’re gonna get in our spaceships, and we’re gonna land in a public combat space where there are multiple people. There’s combatants, there’s aliens that you’re shooting.

“You don’t need to do anything with those other players. You can continue on to your own story, but it is a living vibrant place.”

Matchmaking goes on inside the game. During my Strike mission, I spotted a glowing portal leading to a Public Event with a clock counting down to when the fight would begin. It was just an example, but it showed how me and my team could have popped through that portal into an intergalactic cluster-fight featuring multiple teams against a powerful baddie, presumably with lots of loot up for grabs.

This fight (we saw an example of a Public Event at E3 last year) would have been woven into the timeline of my experience as a person living inside the world. It is something other than a multiplayer mode in which the campaign is suspended while I go play with some real people. The real people are always there. This is something that we are becoming accustomed to here in 2014. Our Halo-playing selves from 2001 would surely see this as a radical innovation.

“When a public event kicks off, you can choose not to participate,” said Parsons. “But you know what, if I realize it’s an exciting moment and I can be a part of it and I can get some loot, that’s gonna be great.” Moving between campaign and events is an almost imperceptible process. “There’s nothing the player needs to do. They’ll just realize they are back with people again. Players continue to move from private to public spaces as they move through their adventures.”

SO, THAT HALO QUESTION

Wandering around Bungie’s offices it’s clear that Halo still holds a special place in the company’s collective psyche. Despite the fact that the franchise is now handled by rival 343 Industries, located just a few miles from Bellevue, Bungie’s offices are plastered with Halo memorabilia.

At any mention of the old game, the standard Bungie response is that everyone is very proud of their work in the past and, of course, it informs the work of the present.

“The games we’ve made before and the games we make next will always have that Bungie feel to them,” said Parsons. “Just like you can often identify a Pixar film, hopefully people look at the entertainment we make and say, ‘well, that’s clearly a Bungie game’.”

Destiny: The 10 key questions


Unlike Halo, it is being crafted from the ground up. While Halo‘s lore and narrative was reactive to the series’ success, Destiny projects itself into the future. The nature of its sequels are already understood, in broad terms, according to everyone I spoke to, even if the particulars still need to be defined.

“The thing that is ultimately going to blow people’s minds when they first experience Destiny, is having this really tight action first-person game,” said Bakken. “When they travel down to these destinations, they will have things happen to them that they haven’t seen before. They’ll actually witness other players doing things in the world that has nothing to do with what they’re doing at that particular time. So it adds this life and chaos and interest to the world that wouldn’t normally be there, just by having other human players there for them to interact with or to decide that they don’t want to have anything to do with them, and go on their own way.”

“This is our next big thing,” said Parsons. “This is the thing that we’ve been thinking about for more than a decade. This is the game, honestly, those of us in the building who’ve been around for awhile have always wanted to make. I mean, genuinely. If we’ve done our jobs right, people are going to feel like they are playing some of the best entertainment they’ve ever had.”

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