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Destiny in the stars: Exploring Bungie's 10-year plan

Xav de Matos, @Xav

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Within the hollowed-out remains of a former bowling alley and movie theater, the creators of the Halo franchise huddle en masse at their headquarters in Bellevue, Washington, working on a new project. Inked to a decade-long agreement with publishing giant Activision – and dodging rumors and leaked documents for nearly two years – Bungie has finally revealed Destiny.

A first-person console shooter set within a persistent world, Destiny takes place in a future-vision of our own solar system: A great peace beamed across the system, after civilization spanned the galaxy.

"But it didn't last," a teaser trailer featuring concept art revealed.

Hit by an unknown force that nearly wipes out all of humanity, Earth's survivors take salvation under a mysterious orb that hovers over a part of the planet. This orb, referred to as "The Traveler," is roof to the final safe haven for humans. But as time passes and humanity begins to lift itself out of extinction, they learn they are not alone.

"Strange, deadly creatures have occupied our old worlds. And they're pressing hard against the city, probing for a weakness, trying to stamp us out for good." As a Guardian of Earth's last city, players will be able to wield some of The Traveler's power and set out to rid the galaxy of aggressors.

"If you can find a way to save the city, to reclaim all that we have lost, you will become legend. If you fail, the last light of civilization will go out."

Gallery: Destiny (Concept Art: 02/17/2013) | 13 Photos

Unlike its Halo franchise, Destiny does not focus on a single hero. Instead, Bungie has placed its attention on giving players the ability to create their own Guardian, outfitting him or her with different gear, weapons and abilities. Three classes were revealed during the event, each with their own looks and abilities. Bungie wouldn't detail plans for additional classes.

What Bungie would confirm, however, are some of the game's primary features. As a co-op-focused, persistent-world shooter, Destiny will require an internet connection to play on all platforms, whether you choose to play solo or with others. Activision Publishing CEO Eric Hirshberg says that the "desire for connectivity is the only way to realize the vision of the game," and denied rumors of a subscription fee to play the game.

There are "absolutely no plans to charge a subscription fee," he said.

Bungie promising the sun, the moon and the stars in 'Destiny'
According to Bungie President Harold Ryan, the company made a significant investment in establishing a network system that allows the team to produce the game they wish Destiny to be.

Though the game will have quests and an overarching story, Bungie hopes to create a world where players are constantly crafting their own stories out of shared experiences.

Describing how social interaction helps to tell these stories, Bungie's Joseph Staten outlines a scenario where his Warlock-class Guardian and his friend Jason's Titan-class meet up to explore the universe.

"Jason greets me with an emote, and we head for the hangar," Staten says, revealing concept art of a factory-sized environment featuring multiple docked space ships. "I know right away that Jason's been scoring big in competitive multiplayer because he's bought himself a new ship." Staten's description further reveals that ships – which players use to travel throughout the solar system – will also have multiple class types, and will be customizable. Whether Destiny features space combat, however, the developer would only tease, saying players should expect interesting situations.

The expansive frontier and promises of Bungie's 'Destiny'
The pair land on Mars and come across "an ancient city, buried in sand." But inching toward the city, the two are pitted up against the Sand Eaters, a cabal of "massive, armored rhinos carrying slug-throwers and driving big tanks." Within moments of death, a Hunter-class Guardian shows up on a land speeder vehicle known as a Pike, aids the pair in dispatching the foes and joins the pair on their quest to recover a rare artifact.

Destiny's world is made up of multiple public areas, "places where you just run into other Guardians." As players approach these sections of the game, the networking technology created for Destiny automatically matches players located within the same zone and injects them into each other's worlds. As players that don't stick together move away from the public areas, their avatars disappear from each other's games. This is perhaps Bungie's most expansive promise, a seamless connection with no need for menus or load times. An intricate, highly complex online system that will just work.

Networking technology, however, typically adheres to the chaos theory. It's impossible to qualify the success of the process without actually seeing it in action, and Bungie did not have it on display.

The expansive frontier and promises of Bungie's 'Destiny'
Based on concept art and information provided by Bungie during the event, Destiny appears to pull from multiple sources. Those familiar with its Halo series will recognize the first-person shooter elements, Bungie says, but the game's characters are reminiscent of those found in Mass Effect. The addition of a promised, robust loot-gathering system – with the ability to find new gear and weapons – reminds me of series such as Borderlands. Weapons vary from shotguns and hand cannons to sniper rifles. Gear varies from interchangeable boots, to cloaks and capes, and more. Traveler abilities promise to be massive showpieces of Guardian power. Each piece of loot you earn or collect, according to Bungie, is meant to tell your story.

"The most important stories we tell won't be told by us," Staten said. "They'll be told by players. Personal legends built from shared adventures."

Further expanding the world of Destiny are plans to launch mobile apps to help players remain connected to the universe while away from their consoles. Showing screens of the proposed app, players can check their stats, read about their adventures, and receive notifications about real-world events and when friends invite them to sessions. Though will house pages of information about a player's progress, just as it has in the past with Halo, Bungie's focus isn't "so much on stats," but on the stories' experiences.

The expansive frontier and promises of Bungie's 'Destiny'
Destiny is powered by a new, internally developed set of engines, the product of six years worth of development, according to engineering lead Chris Butcher. "Our engine is fully multi-threaded for performance on all platforms, both today and for the next 10 years," Butcher said. As part of a partnership with NVIDIA Research, Bungie has worked to develop a new process of lighting known as large-scale ambient inclusion. This allows lighting – which senior graphics architect Hao Chen calls "the foundation for all visuals" – to use real-time lighting without sacrificing illumination techniques used to make parts of an environment's lighting appear more realistic.

As Destiny features day and night cycles, Bungie expects players to see more authentic lighting when the game transitions from sunrise to sunset.

"Destiny is a living, breathing universe," Bungie's technical art director Ryan Ellis promised. "You're going to hear that a lot. In the same day you can watch the sun rise over an acid lake on Venus, then take your Fireteam to Earth and watch the sun set over the ruins of the Golden Age."

Much like the open world of a Skyrim, each destination is meant to tell a story and house something exciting for players to discover or accomplish. To complete this task, Bungie had to throw away all of its previous tools and create new ones. "That was terrifying," Ellis admitted, "that meant leaving behind the old and comfortable tools we knew so well."

The foundation of world development in Destiny is a tool dubbed "Grognok," which Ellis called "the nexus of art and design at Bungie." The world-building tool reduces the process of development, allowing artists and designers to collaborate on ideas without fear of extending the time it takes to create in-game environments. Ellis showed off the tool by presenting a time-lapse video of a moon base being constructed. The process was quickly completed with natural and man-made geometry, lighting, and on-the-fly textures.

Bungie promising the sun, the moon and the stars in 'Destiny'
Currently, Activision confirms Destiny will ship on the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 only; however, the game isn't expected to launch until after the next generation of consoles are rumored to hit store shelves. Activision Publishing CEO Eric Hirshberg was asked about next-gen, but decided to plead ignorance, going so far as to make the audacious proclamation that he'll learn about next-gen consoles "when [he] reads about it on [gaming] sites."

Despite the day-long event, Bungie has really only revealed a skeleton. There's what seems to be a well-developed lore, new engines and tools to power its ambition, and an intricate and perhaps risky multiplayer strategy; it has haunting music from a collaborating team that includes Marty O'Donnell, Michael Salvatori and Paul McCartney, and an aggressive partner footing the bill. Bungie's ambition is to develop "the best shooter you've ever played," according to one of the many PowerPoint slides on display during the presentation. The house that built Halo certainly has the ability to create the next generation of shooters, but simply announcing they have ideas isn't enough to incite excitement for an actual product.

But the studio's passion is legendary in its infectiousness and Bungie's willingness to dive into challenging waters – as surely will be the case with shutting out disconnected gamers – points to a studio with an uncompromising vision for its future.

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