The worst-kept secret in the game industry isn't secret anymore... Sort of.
On Wednesday, Bungie and Activision invited the video game press, including Gamasutra, to tour Bungie's Bellevue, Washington studio and learn the first solid facts -- outside of that leaked contract, anyway -- about Destiny, Bungie's upcoming shooter.
The game currently consumes the vast majority of the 350-person studio's attention; the series it begets will be Bungie's principal project for 10 years.
Destiny involves "a lot of risk, a lot of frontloaded investment, and a lot of deep breaths," in Activision Publishing CEO Eric Hirshberg's words.
And words are what the press got a lot of. In truth, the day at Bungie consisted almost entirely of verbiage; only a couple of minutes between the press' arrival at 9:30 am and departure at 4 pm involved the game itself, and that svelte real-time demo consisted entirely of traversal of an unpopulated environment.
Some of that talk was promising; some of it was frustratingly vague. All of the presentations during the day were carefully crafted to paint a picture of an ambitious new title that will break expectations for the genre, paving a new path for triple-A console games -- but all information was very carefully controlled.
Bungie and Activision have good reasons to be tight with info. At the beginning of the PR marathon for this title, they don't want to reveal too much. And writing checks they can't cash -- Peter Molyneux-style -- could ruin the game's chances at success, which are clearly essential to its profitability.
But that does not change the fact that what the press saw (and didn't see) at the event leaves more questions than answers in the air.
The Hard Facts
Bungie is devoting most of its development staff to Destiny
While nobody went so far as to say that Destiny is Bungie's only project, their statements implied as much. The original LA Times contract stipulates that the developer can only devote 5 percent of its staff to a secondary project, and while it's also clear from statements made at the event that there have been revisions to that contract since the leaked version hit the net, that jibes with the impression given at Bungie HQ.
The game is nowhere near done
So little time was devoted to the game during the day at Bungie that it's clear that there isn't really much the company feels comfortable showing to the press. In fact, the press packet that Activision distributed contains nothing but concept art, and the brief demo was on a development PC, despite the fact the game won't ship on that platform. Virtually all representations of player characters and enemies shown to the press were in grey box environments and were not yet animated.
In terms of hard facts, Hirshberg reiterated to the press that there's "nothing in our 2013 guidance" regarding Destiny, meaning that the game will see release sometime in 2014, as the company's fiscal year mirrors the calendar year.
And it's an MMO shooter
The game is an MMOFPS -- more or less. The player character is not defined, like Halo's Master Chief, but instead player-created, with multiple classes available; gear found during play (and, perhaps, bought) can be used to customize this character; even if you're playing alone, the game will drop live players into your game; an online connection is required to play the game.
In fact, Hirshberg asserted that a persistent connection is "the only way to realize the vision of the game." Bungie COO Pete Parsons described the game as a "living world" and said that the developers "have to be able to change that week-on-week, year-on-year." Hao Chen, senior graphics architect, described massive changes in the world-building tools as compared to the Halo franchise because "the world is so big and complex and unique we simply cannot build all this content in the time we have."
"We've built this game from the ground up to be social and cooperative," said project director and Bungie co-founder Jason Jones. Meanwhile, Chris Butcher, the game's senior engineering lead, described a need to build technology that supports "millions of unique player characters" as well as advanced seamless matchmaking technologies that "just disappear into the background and become transparent."
It's for both current and next-gen consoles
Nobody talked about the game's target platforms during the event; Activision's press materials don't even list what platforms the game is due for.
Upon further questioning by Gamasutra, an Activision PR representative clarified that the game is currently announced for Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, and "is being developed for current and future potential platforms," but that questions on what future platforms those might be would have to be addressed "to the first parties" -- of course, that's because neither Sony nor Microsoft has announced them yet.
The Vague Promises
That's it for the facts, really. Much of Bungie's presentations dealt in vague promises, circumlocutions, and evasions. Below, we'll detail some of what was hinted at.
Despite its absence, the game is currently in daily playtests
While the developers were unwilling to show the press almost anything, they alluded to daily playtests, including one that occurred the very day the press was in the studio. Harold Ryan, the president of Bungie, spoke of a build of the game "we were playing last night." More interesting, perhaps, was footage shown of playtesters from the Bungie.net fan community playing the game, by invitation, in the Bungie offices.
At the same time, there were references to how the studio's pod-based physical setup and the new Destiny engine allow for quick iteration, and how the game is currently being heavily reworked by designers everyday. There was a hesitancy to answer some questions that was clearly based not on a desire to hide info, but instead comes from the fact that many details of the game aren't set just yet, and can't be talked about with any level of confidence, let alone shown to the press.
Activision and Bungie's first trailer for Destiny
How much of an MMO is it?
Eric Hirshberg talked about Activision bringing its expertise in backend technology to the project, noting that it currently runs "the world's biggest backend for a multiplayer game" with DemonWare, which powers the Call of Duty franchise -- not an MMO, obviously.
But Parsons spoke of "a living world," and Hirshberg alluded to a persistent one. He also called the game "the world's first shared world shooter." However, the game will only allow players to encounter a "design controlled" number of fellow players at any time, Parsons said.
At the same time, there were continual assurances that Destiny will deliver the kind of action Halo and Call of Duty fans love, and that the game will be accessible to anyone who already plays single-player console shooters. Yet answers about a traditional campaign were always cagey, with talk of many plot mini-arcs rather than a single overarching story.
Hirshberg was quick to note that Activision has "absolutely no plans" to charge a subscription fee for the game, though he also refused to discuss business models whatsoever. With persistent gear -- and even personal spaceships, used to traverse the solar system -- there's clearly the potential for microtransactions.
The leaked 2010 contract mentions DLC packs, but talk during the day much more clearly implied live events and incremental content drops: Jason Jones promised the press "a diversity of activities... emergent activities, rare activities, time-limited activities." Of course, these two approaches are not mutually exclusive. Jones also said "we've learned a lot of lessons from MMOs and Facebook games, for example, but it's a console shooter."
Here's one example of why it's hard to pin down: On one hand, the presentation told of Earth's sole surviving city, where players will congregate between their solar system-wide adventures; on the other hand, the developers repeatedly said that the game has no lobbies.
The mobile app
The presentation included mockups for an iOS app for the game, but here, the promises reached both their most fulsome and least specific, with Parsons promising that Bungie is "not going to play it safe" and will offer "meaningful activities that allow you to have a great window into the world, into our universe, that maybe you can only have on a device."
Yet it's also clear Bungie doesn't yet know what form it will ultimately take, as Parsons said that the companion app is continually changing form as the game itself continues development.
What it All Means
It's still a bit difficult to say what Destiny precisely is, but it's not too hard to determine what it means.
Much of the presentation was a discussion how Destiny is both an evolution of what Bungie started with the original Halo -- the technological basis is, in Butcher's words, a culmination of "the last 10 years of working on online action games" -- while Jones talked of how the original Halo redefined the console shooter, and then asked "how do we take this genre that we love so much, the FPS, and turn it on its head again?"
His answer, of course, was "Destiny." There's also much implied by the fact that the studio has gotten into bed with Activision for a decade, and has put the vast majority of its resources behind the game; Destiny is Bungie's shot at defining its future. Even the title of the game is, quite obviously, portentous.
For Activision, it's an extension of its current strategy of making big bets and leaving the smaller games to other publishers. It has World of Warcraft, Skylanders, and, of course, Call of Duty; meanwhile, Square Enix ended up withSleeping Dogs, which began its life as a True Crime title until Activision cut it loose.
The thing is: while Activision's current franchises are massive brands, they grew. Call of Duty didn't start out this huge. World of Warcraft was, of course, expected to be big -- but nobody at Blizzard assumed it would be this big. And Skylanders took most of the industry by surprise. Activision increased its investments in these franchises once success was proven.
The company's initial investment in Destiny, meanwhile, means it must become truly massive at launch.
"Activision's approach has been to do a few things exceptionally well," Hirshberg said. "Very few games transcend their medium and genre to truly become a part of popular culture. We believe that Destiny could become one of those rare games."
The game was packaged and presented to the press as the next evolution of Bungie's network, graphics, design, and community expertise -- "a chance to change the way people look at shooters again," in Jones' words.
The truth is that the studio does have a vast array of talent, and Hirshberg was clear that Activision has furnished it with the resources it needs. Success does seem all but assured, because it's tough to imagine a stronger pairing than Activision and Bungie. But the path towards a massive hit is treacherous and difficult, and there's a steep uphill climb toward an end product that, at present, it still nebulous.