Destiny: Bungie's ambitious new world
Rumour has dogged Destiny ever since it was first hinted at over two years ago.
After all, a ten-year collaboration between Bungie and Activision is the sort of thing that sets speculative minds to work.
The former is the celebrated creator of Halo, a game that revolutionised and popularised multiplayer first person shooting on consoles; the latter is the most shrewd, successful - and, perhaps, notorious - publisher in videogames.
On Thursday, Destiny was finally unveiled at Bungie's new studios in Seattle, an act that at once dispelled much of the misinformation surrounding the game, and explained the vagaries that swirled across the Internet: there has never been a game quite like Destiny.
We're all able to identify its constituent elements - things like science fiction, matchmaking, and character progression across a persistent universe - but the way these pieces come together and interact is new and staggeringly ambitious.
Destiny demonstrates the inadequacy of the way we try to categorise games. Activision CEO Eric Hirshberg calls it a "shared world shooter".
Destiny is set far in our own future.
For millennia, humankind's civilisation had spanned our solar system, but we were knocked back by an unknown force or foe and only a few survived.
Those who did believe they owe their lives to an object called The Traveller, a huge sphere that legend says sacrificed itself to save humanity.
Now The Traveller sits in stasis, low in Earth's orbit, and beneath it humanity has built its last city.
Now, once again we've begun to explore the Earth and nearby planets, only to find hostile creatures have claimed much of the former empire. Each player in Destiny creates a Guardian of the city, a soldier who is able to channel some of The Traveller's immense power.
The game is designed to be social and cooperative. It's an always-online shooter, but it's not an MMO.
As players progress their class-based Guardian and travel through the rich worlds of Destiny in what will largely appear to be a singleplayer campaign, they'll encounter other players on their own adventures.
"In these public areas the game is matchmaking you just like in other games, but it happens all the time, seamlessly, and totally invisibly," says Bungie engineering lead Chris Butcher.
"There are no loading screens, nothing to take you out of the experience. The goal of our technology is to make it seem effortless.
"The player experience of Destiny just emerges from the interactions of this incredibly complex but totally hidden technology. We think this may be the first time anyone has ever put these technologies together at this scale, in a game or anywhere else."
Project director Jason Jones describes seven pillars that have guided the development of Destiny since 2009, and each feature considered for the game is measured against these core design tenets.
The first is to create a world that players want to be in, says Jones. "People have a lot of choice in entertainment, they're not going to waste their time. It's a world that's hopeful, but full of mystery."
Next is ensuring that Destiny always presents the player with something fun to do. "We want to put players in situations where they can be successful," says Jones. "We're creating a wide range of experiences from cooperative to competitive, from solo to group, from casual to intense.
"Destiny will greet you with something fun no matter what your mood is. We think this is incredibly important: not all players are the same, and players don't always feel the same all the time."
Similarly, it must be a rewarding world, says Jason. Every activity, whether it's finding, earning, making or killing, will reward players with ways to change the way their character looks, fights, or plays.
An example comes via story lead Jason Staten, who describes a scenario wherein an advanced player has purchased a sleek new scout class ship from the foundries of the Dead Orbit after finding success in competitive multiplayer.
Destiny will deliver a new experience every night, continues Jones.
"I don't mean new content every night, even with Activision behind us, that game would be too expensive. Our goal here is that every time a player sits down to play Destiny, they have a different experience to last time."
The power of novelty is critical to engaging players over the course of 10 years, and this pillar has caused Bungie to slaughter many sacred cows. For example, there is no main menu in Destiny.
The game is focused on interactions between people, because people are interesting and unpredictable in a way that artificial constructs never can be.
It's a fact that defines the next pillar: the game should be shared with other people.
Everything that is fun to do is more fun to do with a friend, says Jones.
"Even if you do play solo, which is a totally valid way to play Destiny, you're constantly going to see other people in your game. Think about how awesome that is."
"The last two pillars are really hammers to simplify the game, to ensure we're reaching out to as many people as we can," says Jones.
Bungie wishes to ensure that Destiny is accessible to players of all skill levels.
All the core activities in Destiny can be enjoyed by everyone - even the more complex ones such as six player cooperative raids.
Experienced gamers will have winced here, and Jones acknowledges as much.
"This isn't the hard part," he says. "It's easy to make a game accessible. What's hard is keeping it interesting for your advanced players when you do that. We're going to succeed because we're advanced players."
The final pillar is recognising that players will come to Destiny when they're tired, impatient and distracted. It's designed to remind Bungie of the mindset players are in when they come to games.
"They don't want to work hard, they don't want to read, they don't want to have to go to the Internet to figure out our bullsh-," says Jones.
Players come to games because they want to be entertained, to be heroes, to experience something extraordinary. Destiny has set out to fulfil that desire for years to come.
A DECADE OF WORLDS AND STORIES
Committing to a 10-year development contract must be daunting for all parties.
Destiny is coming to Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, and it will most certainly transcend hardware generations.
"We signed a big deal that lasts for a long time, but if you're a storyteller that's not terrifying, it's exciting," says story lead Jason Staten.
"What it means is that we can plan for the future, we can drive giant stakes into the ground. We can build a big world rich with histories and mysteries that in some cases aren't going to get unravelled for years to come."
Already, those worlds and stories have sharp appeal. The universe of Destiny is what art director Christopher Barrett describes as mythic science fiction, a futuristic world with lots of history.
Destiny's Earth has many touchpoints that firmly ground the game within the realms of our understanding. Huge high-rise buildings loom over the swamps of Old Chicago, and elsewhere, piled-up cars hint at a sudden, devastating event.
"What once was a 12th story window is now a doorway to a dungeon buried beneath the snow," says Barrett. The worlds of Destiny feature wind and weather, days and nights. A perpetual storm looms over the borders of the European dead zone.
Beyond the confines of Earth, players will discover even richer and more fantastical locations.
Much of the game's concept art gives us more than enough evidence that Bungie is aspiring to create something spectacular and deeply varied.
Two hours exploring the premise of Destiny asks far more questions than it answers. We know now that it's an expansive work of science fiction, a world of mystery, colour, hope, and adventure. It's a world with space zombies and assault rifle-wielding Warlocks, Titans and Hunters.
It's a place where competitive first-person shooter multiplayer will bleed seamlessly into first-person role-playing and exploration in a mysterious world that won't truly be understood or explained for the better part of 10 years.
It's a product that, if it can achieve its ambition, could be revolutionary. But perhaps most importantly, it's one we're already desperate to lose ourselves in.