Wednesday, February 27, 2013

What is Destiny? Even Bungie Doesn't Seem Too Sure

Bungie's ambitious new shooter defies description. But is that a good or bad thing?

Earlier this week, Bungie invited the press corps up to their new studio in Bellevue with the intention of taking the wraps off Destiny, their long-rumored follow-up to Halo. As everyone sat down, the anticipation over what Bungie had to show was palpable. Several hours later, the excitement was still there, but there were plenty of questions as well.
What is Destiny? It's not entirely clear. Bungie chief operating officer Peter Parsons seems reluctant to classify it as an MMO; he refers to it as a first-person shooter with a heavy emphasis on co-op that makes use of social media and mobile technology. A first-person shooter that also happens to be an always-connected shooter in which people can meet up in large social areas, form into parties, and go on quests together.
If Bungie seems vague on this point, it may be because they aren't quite sure how to classify what they're creating themselves. They talk of a massive open world that will be at once appealing to both solo and cooperative players, fully-featured PVP with tangible rewards like special spaceships, and mobile apps from which it will be possible to interact with the game... somehow. Right now all that's really clear is that it's going to be big; big enough that Bungie now has more than 300 employees -- triple their Halo 3 levels. They think that they can define an entire generation of shooters with Destiny, much as they did with Halo. And all hyperbole aside, they may even be right, assuming that Destiny is everything they say it (might) be.
Let's start with the setting, which was one element that Bungie was willing to delve into in some detail. The story is set on an Earth of the far future, which saw its golden age ended by an attack by a mysterious race. Humanity was saved by something called The Traveler -- a giant sphere that now hovers over one of their last cities -- and are only now venturing out into space again. The heroes of humanity are called Guardians, all of whom wear fully customizable Dr. Doom-like power armor and wield a variety of sleek, futuristic-looking rifles.
Beyond Earth, it will be possible to explore every planet in the solar system in your customized starship. The moon, for instance, features an ancient base that seems to have been taken over by an unknown intelligence ("Something has turned the lights on," says Bungie art director Christopher Barrett as he shows off the concept art). Mars is being run by a cabal of monsters called... The Cabal. There are time-traveling robots, space zombies, and also mile-long "tomb ships" floating through space. It's what Bungie terms "mythic science fiction" -- a mix of technology and fantasy set within a recognizable (but noticeably altered) solar system.
It's an appealing universe -- the kind of stuff that would make for a great tabletop RPG. But when it comes to actually experiencing that world, things get a little murkier. Bungie is willing to confirm that each planet will have its own arc, for instance, but it's unclear just what form Destiny's overall narrative will ultimately take. Right now, Bungie design director Joseph Staten is referring to Destiny as if it were a series of novels like Game of Thrones or Harry Potter, even going so far as to show an image depicting a series of dusty-looking tomes featuring the Destiny logo, which raises further questions. Are they planning a lot of sequels? Do they plan to lean on expansion packs? Bungie won't say.
We do know is that Destiny will have much more in the way of RPG elements than Halo, though Bungie says that elements like traditional mechanics like the progress bar won't be present, likely to avoid scaring off FPS fans. There will be character classes, three of which were unveiled at the briefing -- the gun-toting Titan, the Warlock, and the Hunter. All have class-specific skills, and if a few early shots of a proposed mobile app are any indication, each will feature an extensive amount of armor customization. Bungie is cryptic on this front as well though. When asked how deep the stats and customization will ultimately go, Staten's only response was, "As deep as you want."

What it feels like is that Bungie and Activision are trying to craft a sort of end-all game that will try and snag RPG fans, shooter fans, and everyone in-between. It feels like they want it to be the console's answer to World of Warcraft -- a game so popular that it transcended gaming and became a fixture of pop culture. They want it to be less a game than a platform; the sort of thing that people will be playing 10 years from now. There won't be subscription fees, but some form of monetization feels inevitable.
At this point though, it's all guesswork, because Bungie is keeping their cards pretty close to their vest. They won't elaborate on how the quests will work; what we can expect from the loot system (outside of lots of cool weapons like a spiky black handgun called "The Thorn"), or how extensive the space travel will be (according to Staten, we can expect to travel between planets in a "fun, compelling, and timely manner"). All we have is a vague vision of World of Warcraft with guns and space travel; a world rich with secrets and loot, where everyone is living their own adventure at their own pace.

It's a vision with some serious potential. It feels like a next-generation vision, even if it's only been confirmed for the Xbox 360 and PS3 so far. If Bungie actually pulls this off, they have the potential to dominate gaming for a decade or more, which is surely why Activision opted to bankroll this project in the first place.
Whether they can actually succeed is the question. Destiny will have to walk a fine line between pleasing Halo fans and more traditional RPG lovers, which generally go together like oil and water. They will need to have a ton of content up front; and being an MMO-like experience, they will need to think about how to keep fans engaged after completing the main story content (whatever that might be). The world needs to be big, but accessible. It needs to be relatively bug free at launch, which is a tall order for any massive online game. Fail at any of those things, and Destiny could end another Star Wars: The Old Republic -- one more game that dreamed big dreams, but ultimately couldn't deliver.
If Destiny does fall flat though, it won't be for a lack of resources or effort. Bungie has the pedigree; the technical infrastructure; some of the best developers in the business, and the backing of the industry's largest publisher. If anyone can do this, it would be Bungie. And admit it, it really would be neat to jet around the solar system in a customizable starships, wield rifles with names like "The Fate of All Fools," and take down space zombies from the back of speeder bikes.

As far as next steps go, Destiny has all the ambition one would expect from a Bungie title. It has all the potential in the world. We'll just have to see whether Bungie has the faintest idea how to turn these big dreams into reality.

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