Bungie's Destiny: Life After Halo

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This piece originally ran in Paste Issue 102 and on our site on July 21, 2013.

In September 2007 Halo 3 made $170 million in its first 24 hours of release. It pulled in more money in one day than some hit movies make during their entire run, reinforcing how vital the franchise and its developers were to Microsoft’s business. The game designers at Bungie were responsible for the Xbox’s most iconic franchise, the series that turned Microsoft’s box from a boondoggle into the industry’s most important console within a single generation. Forget Call of Duty and GTA: Bungie invented the modern-day videogame blockbuster, and saved the Xbox along the way.

In the immediate aftermath of that nine-figure jackpot, Bungie’s future seemed set: They’d crank out a constant stream of bigger and more technologically advanced Halo games, perhaps with an occasional side-project or one-off to keep them creatively happy. The money was in Halo, and it seemed clear that was enough to keep Microsoft, Bungie and Halo together forever.

And then, a week later, Bungie and Microsoft split up.

First rumored by an unknown (and long since dead) fan site on October 2, 2007, the official divorce was announced on October 5, just eight days after Halo 3 came out. Bungie made two more Halo games for Microsoft, Halo ODST and Halo Reach, but the glory days were over. Bungie was moving on from Master Chief, and in 2010 signed a massive publishing deal with Activision that lets Bungie own its own intellectual property and brings its post-Halo games to both the Xbox and the PlayStation.

With that sweetheart deal in place Bungie was able to call its own shots. What sort of game would one of the best-selling development teams in the world make after earning its freedom? A team that developed almost unparalleled cachet within the industry after making five Halo games in a decade? Where do you go when you leave the most successful sci-fi shooter behind? If you’re Bungie, you come up with…a sci-fi shooter.

Bungie broke away from Microsoft and Halo in order to make a game that, at first glance, looks a lot like Halo. Destiny adds fantasy elements into its sci-fi, but Bungie’s first game under its deal with Activision fits snugly within the developer’s comfort zone. There are practical explanations for Bungie sticking closely to what they do best, and obvious business considerations (companies like money and don’t always like risk), but it’s not hard to find online comments that decry Destiny as an example of the lack of creativity and risk-taking within the game industry.

According to Bungie president Harold Ryan, leaving Microsoft wasn’t necessarily about branching out from Halo. “The biggest upside to being independent and working with a publisher like Activision is… being able to share [a game] with multiple platform holders,” he says. “When you put your heart and soul into something creative you want to share it with as many people as possible. Being on the Xbox was great but it limited the group of consumers that could play the game and put a damper on how well we could share what we’ve built.”

As Ryan explains, there’s also a simple reason that Destiny is a shooter: That’s what Bungie’s employees wanted to make. “Most of the people who work at Bungie came to work here because they were fans of Bungie, fans of Marathon, fans of Halo,” he says. “They largely came here because they wanted to work on a shooter. This is the kind of game they want to make.”

Shooters take a lot of fire, both from inside and outside the industry. Pundits and the NRA blame them for real-life violence, while some game designers and critics complain about the glorification of guns and the lack of innovation and inspiration within the genre. It’s easy to understand why they’re popular, though. Ryan argues that games are largely about power fantasies and the thrill of victory. Few genres are as overt about that as shooters, where the player is often an unkillable machine dedicated to the pursuit of ostensible justice.

By Ryan’s admission, Bungie’s design philosophy is to cater to those power fantasies. “We define the core drives for humans as a basis for when we think about design,” Ryan says. “When you think about the ability to project power, the ability to achieve things, most people don’t often in their life get to be powerful. It’s through games that people are often achieving victory, that they’re projecting power, that they’re demonstrating skill.

“I know a lot of my friends’ kids that like to play videogames with their dad when they can beat their dad, because it’s a position of power that they don’t have otherwise. I think socially games are a place where people go to connect and experience things that are basic human needs for happiness, that they don’t necessarily get every day as they go to work or on their daily basis. But they can get that in a game.”

Ryan also makes the case that science fiction provides a good context for violent games like Destiny because the genre combines that feeling of power with believability and a sense of progress. “It’s about something that’s believably fantastic,” he explains. “Since we’ve seen progression of technology in our lifetimes, no matter what age you are—it’s going so fast now that ten-year-old kids have seen progression in technology—so it’s believable that a ship is going to fly into space, because they do. And it’s believable in the future that you might have a personal ship that will take you to space. So the science-fiction side is that easy step up. And the fantasy side, the unbelievable things that can happen, are the interest and the intrigue and the emotional pull for players into the story.”

To further expand on how science fiction unites the relatable with the fantastic, Bungie set Destiny on Earth. Halo largely took place off-world, but Ryan clarifies that Destiny’s setting isn’t just a reaction to Halo. “The goal is to make something familiar, where people are comfortable, and then to present them with something amazing and interesting and that drives them to question [their surroundings],” he says. “Earth is a great place to set up the familiar. A tree is a tree. Cars can be cars. It’s also makes sense that the last place humanity would still have a stronghold is on Earth, because that’s the only place we are right now.”

Most of these observations apply to Halo as much as they do Destiny, though. What sets Destiny apart from Halo, cutting through the many obvious similarities between the two, is the depth and scope of Destiny’s online components. Destiny rethinks how a shooter lets players connect and play with one another, promising a complex but easily understood integration of various online modes.

Halo is known for its multiplayer modes and co-op campaigns, but they’re largely walled off from one another. Destiny aims to unite single-player, multiplayer and co-op into a single experience that Bungie calls a “shared-world shooter”. Not only can players opt in to Destiny’s co-op campaign at almost any point during the story, but that campaign regularly brushes up against optional multiplayer excursions. It’s similar to how instances work in an MMO—the opportunity to join multiplayer battles will arise as you play through the campaign. In the hands-off demo shown at E3, a three-person co-op party encountered a large-scale battle as they were pursuing a campaign goal. One of them split off to join the battle while the other two continued on the storyline path.

This seamless combination of single-player, co-op and multiplayer is built upon a persistent online world made up of public and private spaces. When a player is in a public space a multiplayer event might be triggered or a friend might join in on co-op. When a player or party is in a private space they are momentarily locked into pursuing a campaign goal. The two spaces flow together without interrupting the story or disrupting whatever sense of immersion the player might feel. Ryan says there will be hundreds of public spaces throughout Destiny, offering players easy access to impromptu multiplayer skirmishes.

Forget the guns and the sci-fi shibboleths. Bungie’s true goal with Destiny was to advance its own approach to multiplayer game design. With Destiny the company hopes to redefine how players come together to share their power fantasies or pit those fantasies against one another. These ideas could have fit into Halo, but altering the structure of that series could have divided Halo’s fanbase. The part of the industry that Bungie works in is highly iterative, with innovation arriving gradually through sequels and rip-offs. Perhaps Bungie had to make a clean break with Halo to fulfill its own power fantasy.

Garrett Martin edits Paste’s games section and reviews games for the Boston Herald.

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