A few weeks ago, I went to Bellevue, Washington to visit the offices of Bungie and see Destiny. I hoped to come away with a better sense of what Destiny is, and why I should be excited about it. I wanted to know what's going to set this game apart from other shooters. Alas, much of Destiny is still shrouded in mystery, and there were many promises that a good deal more will be revealed about it at this year's E3, but here's what I learned about Bungie's latest game.
My time at Bungie began with a presentation by studio COO Pete Parsons, who described in broad terms the universe in which Destiny takes place. "In the very near future," he said, "humanity is visited by a mysterious, moon-sized sphere. We call it the traveler. It breathes new life into our solar system, paving the way for massive human expansion. We rush into the stars, building great colonies on Mars and Venus. It's an amazing era of unbounded human progress. We call it the golden age. It's a time of miracles. But it doesn't last, for the traveler has an enemy. It's a great evil that's been haunting it for eons. It's a darkness you couldn't possibly imagine. And when it finds us here on Earth, it nearly destroys us. And just when all hope is gone, just when the darkness has taken everything, the traveler sacrifices itself to save us all, and the darkness is defeated, at least for a while. The traveler's sacrifice leaves it silent and immobile, hanging above Earth. Beneath it, we begin to rebuild."
I loved the way that the world of Destiny appears to tell the story of humankind's alternately glorious and troubled history. In Old Russia, rusted cars, centuries old, cluster desperately around a tunnel entrance. Those people probably didn't escape from whatever fate it was they were running from. Also in Old Russia, I glimpsed a massive rocket with multiple space shuttles strapped to it, a remnant from a time when humanity had set its sights on conquering the stars, a symbol of dashed hopes and unfulfilled potential. It's details like this that make me yearn to explore all of Destiny's landscapes--those on Earth, the moon, Venus, Mars--and discover more about humanity's past.
"We are going to be reacting with the community, we're going to be working with the community to continue to support this game, and develop it and evolve it."
But it's not just the built-in narrative that Bungie hopes draws players to Destiny. The game's designers want the stories that players create for themselves to be at least as important as the fiction that Bungie has developed. Tyson Green, the game's investment lead, said, "We want to make sure that there's a story that people tell about sort of the longer-scale game, where they say, 'Were you in the tower on this day when that happened?'... That is something we're excited about. That's how I think we want to evolve the, I guess I would call it the metastory of the game. There's a narrative that we're gonna tell that's really core to the campaign experience but there's a metastory that's gonna be, I think, core to the actual player experience."
Investing in action
It's also vital to Bungie that aspects like character classes and loot enhance the central action rather than interfere with it. Green said, "As [Destiny] evolved and firmed up--we're talking years ago--we really said, OK, first and foremost, this is a straight action game. We have, I guess, a reputation to live up to. And so that's really what we concentrate on delivering. And we have tailored the investment systems to support that rather than replace it."
I got a chance to play Destiny, but was limited to a frustratingly narrow slice of the game. The mission I played was called a strike; strikes are three-person, replayable missions that culminate in boss battles and that reward you with material you can use to upgrade your characters and your gear. (They're like a smaller, less challenging variety of the six-person raids that will be part of Destiny's endgame content.) Along with two other players, I ran through the same strike three times, once as each of the game's three different character classes. All three classes felt formidable and the diverse assortment of weapons I used, from straightforward rocket launchers to exotic fusion rifles, felt powerful. But I had little opportunity to explore the different abilities of each character class. I asked Brandi House, a workflow engineer on the game, to shed some light on the different classes for me.
"I love the warlock," she said, "but I tend to enjoy a lot of really RPG-style games, so it's the one that is kind of the traditional RPG-style character where you get abilities that are much more toward the fantastical side. He wields the power of the traveler in a literal sense. On the other side of the spectrum is the titan, which tends to be much more of the heavy armor--more prototypical shooter-style gear where it's just a very heavy character. And then in between is the hunter where you get a little bit more roguish-style capabilities, a lot more abilities around knifing things and trying to maneuver around enemies."
The abilities of the classes differ, but not so much that any well-balanced team will need to have one of each. Any class can use any weapon, and Green doesn't want players to feel like they need one warlock, one titan, and one hunter on every strike. "We don't have the so-called holy trinity from MMOs," Green said. "Titans aren't tanks and warlocks aren't healers. Thinking in those terms, it would be fair to say that all of our classes are hybrid DPS, where they have some ability to help each other by rezing each other and defensive abilities like the titan's void barrier obviously benefit everyone in that group, but there's certainly nothing that requires you to have a balance or punishes you for not having a balance."
Building a social world
I couldn't shake the thought that Destiny seems to be covering a lot of the same gameplay territory as Borderlands. It's a shooter in which you have class-based abilities, you level up characters, and you find loot. Where Destiny has a chance to distinguish itself is in its emphasis on creating a world that's alive with other players. Taking a cue from massively multiplayer online role-playing games like Guild Wars 2, you might be doing your own thing in one of Destiny's environments when a public event occurs nearby, perhaps the appearance of a larger group of enemies than one or three players can reasonably handle on their own. These are opportunities for players to work together, but often in games, having to share a world with other people can have a negative impact on the experiences of some players. I asked House how Destiny attempts to ensure that other players can't spoil your fun.
"I know some of the people who are social design-style people here have thought really hard about that question," she said. "They've done a lot of great things that I think help with that situation. One: if you don't choose to party up with someone, you cannot hear their voice. So voice chat is only by choice. Two, there's no friendly fire, so you're never accidentally thrown into a PVP match or multiplayer match because you showed up in a public space. So they can't come and start trolling you and trying to kill you. And then you're just given incentives to help each other, so really mostly all they can do is good things for you. [We've] worked pretty hard to try to ensure that, worst case, it's a neutral experience, they're just there, and at best case, it's a really good experience where you actually work together and beat a battle that you probably couldn't do on your own, that sort of thing."
For Green, involving the community is a necessary part of making Destiny as good as it can be. "This game is absolutely going to be the community's," he said. "We are going to be reacting with the community, we're going to be working with the community to continue to support this game, and develop it and evolve it." He also wants to make sure that this is a game and a universe that players can stay invested in for a long time, and he doesn't want the fact that it's being released on consoles from different generations to stand in the way of that. "We're really interested in making sure that a last-gen character can move to next-gen" he said, "just because there's gonna be a lot of people that buy Destiny on, say, a PS3 or a 360 and then they get a PS4 for Christmas and it's like, well, 'Don't tell me I've just wasted my last hundred hours there.' We don't want to lock people in."
Another feature Green wants Destiny to include to empower its players is a player economy, though this won't be part of the game at launch. "We're really excited about doing a player economy," he said, "but for launch, we're going to be restricting it to trading items between your own characters. We have a lot to learn about the way the economy works, and also the security situation, both for our own systems and platforms."
I still don't have quite as clear a sense of what Destiny will be as I would like. Player-versus-player combat will be a big part of it, but Bungie is waiting until E3 to reveal details about how this aspect of the game will work. Still, the universe in which it's set already fascinates me. I'm intrigued by the image of the traveler, that massive sphere hanging in the sky, and by the secrets of the long-lost period of human history known as the golden age. We'll find out if Bungie has truly given us a solar system worth exploring when Destiny is released in September.