Before 2001, when the first Xbox and Halo took the console industry by storm, redefining what a first-person shooter could be like with a controller (instead of mouse/keyboard), most mainstream gamers probably hadn't even heard of Bungie. More than a decade later, Bungie is now respected as one of the top developers in all of gaming. The company will forever be remembered for the iconic Master Chief and putting Xbox on the map, but the entire team - many of whom are still present from Halo 1 - hopes to make an even bigger mark with its next monumental IP, Destiny.
GamesIndustry International caught up with Bungie COO Pete Parsons to talk about the studio's grand ambitions for Destiny's 10-year arc, how the company is future-proofing itself, what next-gen really means and more.
There can be no doubt that the investment in Destiny by Bungie and publishing partner Activision is absolutely huge. Committing to a brand-new IP for the next decade requires a lot of resources and certainly a lot of confidence. While Parsons would not disclose budget to us, he made it abundantly clear that Bungie and Activision are shooting for the moon. The goal is to create something fans are so passionate about that it surpasses even Halo.
"We like to tell big stories and we want people to put the Destiny universe on the same shelf they put Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter or Star Wars"
"We like to tell big stories and we want people to put the Destiny universe on the same shelf they put Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter or Star Wars; we've already seen they do that with Halo. We were extremely proud of what we achieved with Halo... I'm pretty convinced we are going to do it again with Destiny in a way that maybe even Halo never achieved before," Parsons said. "What excites me is a number of years ago we talked with Activision and Activision believed in that vision, and that's why we like this partnership so much; these guys know big entertainment as well. They prove it over and over again."
While Bungie's dream is to reach a Star Wars-like frenzy for Destiny, the studio is making a game first and foremost. There are no plans to create novels or comics or movies... yet. If the property gets as big as Halo, though, Parsons isn't opposed to it so long as it truly does enhance the universe Bungie is creating.
"If they happen in a way that's exciting and helps propel the universe forward, I think that's great. But it's not the ambition and it's not something we set out to do. The thing we set out to do is to build an entertainment universe that people want to be a part of and continue to invest in," he noted. "And we didn't think of entertainment in the Halo world either - it was never something that we set out to do. Now, do we think it's exciting if we can help increase people's experience and investment in that universe? Yeah I think that's great. We have a number of talented friends who do more than make games and if there's an opportunity there that helps better the universe or propel it forward, that's awesome."
At a quick glance, someone watching Destiny may think it looks quite similar to Halo, but the game's focus on social connectivity takes the experience another step beyond Halo. It's really just an evolution of what Bungie set out to do as far back as Marathon. It's ultimately in Bungie's DNA.
"It's no longer just about the hardware. It's about these wonderful networks on both PlayStation and Xbox... The hardware is absolutely subordinated to those communities, and that's great for us because that's what we've been trying to do for a long time"
"I would say it looks very Bungie-esque. I mean that sincerely. We made Marathon before we made Halo; that's almost 20 years of making games, and when you look at our games I sure as hell hope that they have a Bungie look to them. Bungie created Halo, not the other way around. We love action games, we love the shooter mechanic. We're ambitious; we were ambitious and we brought people online with Marathon... And we successfully brought a shooter to the console and changed the way people played, and we changed it again when we brought out Halo 2 and made it online. And much of the code that was in Xbox Live at the time was code that we collaborated on with the Xbox Live team," Parsons said.
He continued, "And we did it again with Bungie.net in terms of bringing people together outside the game. And we did it with user created content for Halo 3. We have every intention on defining what the next generation of shooters look like - that it has a Bungie aesthetic to it to me is exactly what we want to be doing. What's different though is we're taking a huge, for us very logical, leap forward. We are saying, 'How do we take the core mechanic that we're known for, add to it elements like how do you use space magic, how you put deep server-side investment into that while retaining the visceral simulation of a shooter, and then how do we put that into a persistent world?' Those are big challenges that we're taking on, and how do you make all of that super complicated matchmaking happen completely under the surface?"
Parsons doesn't want people to think of Destiny as an MMO, however, just because people are coming together in the game's public space. "So when you think about the public space, we think less about MMO attributes and more about stringing together storytelling. Here are a whole bunch of people moving from one place to another but for a moment in time we all come together and say 'hey should we take down the enemies together?' I could just sit there and people watch. I don't need to join in, or I can join and get a reward for it. So for us, it's about how do we bring people together? How do we move social more to the center of what we've done? And I would argue we've been trying to do that for a long time, but the technology and learning wasn't there," he acknowledged.
Indeed, this social aspect may be the "killer app" of next-gen gaming, if you ask Parsons. Everyone knows that games look pretty nowadays. Improving the social connection, though, could be the next big step.
"For us, that is next-gen," Parsons remarked. "We're going to be on all consoles, and we've been working on this game for five or six years, maybe even longer, so long before there's even been a thought of next-gen we've been thinking about what kind of universe we want to create. I would argue that next-gen games are going to be wonderful in terms of visuals, but I believe that unlike prior console generations that have really been about the hardware, it's no longer just about the hardware. It's about these wonderful networks on both PlayStation and Xbox; they created these wonderful, vibrant, gigantic communities."
"The hardware is absolutely subordinated to those communities, and that's great for us because that's what we've been trying to do for a long time. Every advancement they make there just helps make our universe better. That's what's really exciting about next-gen. I think the big advancements are how do we keep bringing people together? How do we make a game that's not just about 'here are a bunch of people in the same room together', but it's about what we want to do, which is to give you really finely crafted storytelling and competitive multiplayer and remove the barriers between those two," he added. "Think about all of our previous games in the LAN parties... Those were all attempts really to bring people together. At the end of the day we were shipping three separate games on the DVD - we were shipping campaign, cooperative and multiplayer, and they are arguably different games. Well, now we don't have to do that; now we can actually have people crossing each other at different points. You can build your avatar for weeks, months or years while enjoying storytelling and then move into multiplayer in that same build."
This focus on social interaction and merging the worlds of campaign and multiplayer have been somewhat liberating for Bungie as well. Instead of obsessing about what the next-gen platforms would be like, the studio was more concerned with preparing for the future and setting up the 10-year arc it has planned for Destiny. The future-proofing Bungie engaged in automatically meant that the company could be prepared for whatever platform was thrown its way.
"We knew we were making this game on a 10-year arc and we did a bunch of planning around that. We had to plan what our team would look for such an ambitious project, what we had to do with our technology to be future proof. We didn't say we have to plan for the next-gen consoles, but we said we have to plan to be on any platform possible," Parsons said. "We didn't set out to think just about the consoles, so we actually changed our development philosophy. What we decided to do was make one central design build, and then understanding how we export that to each of the individual platforms - that's the right way to future proof our technology, particularly when you're making a much more living, persistent world. That allows us not only to think of the platforms of today and tomorrow but also other platforms as well."
"We've always admired people like Pixar, and we are finally in that moment where we have this raw, amazing talent that I think rivals entertainment creators anywhere across any entertainment ever"
Part of that future planning involved developing a new, proprietary engine for the Destiny universe. Parsons noted that the investment in technology is already paying off, making development much smoother for the team.
"This is an enormous universe that we are building and that we will continue to build over time, so yes the engine helps us gain a lot of efficiency. The Halo set of tools was really powerful but really at times unwieldy, and we knew that we would need to be able to make content at a rate that was much faster and achieve much more collaboration between designers and artists. Now we can have designers and artists working in the same space. Really improving our workflows in our content pipeline was job number one. Also, every time we build a new object it goes into a library to be used or referenced at a later date, which is exciting for us," he said.
The extreme level of preparation Bungie is able to commit to Destiny and its own future is a nice luxury, one that most studios don't really have, and one that Bungie didn't have either for quite some time. There was a lot of uncertainty during the Halo days.
"We have a pretty good understanding of what we want to do over a ten-year period with Destiny, which is not to say we know exactly where the gameplay and story will go, but we've future proofed ourselves on a number of levels with technology and how we built the team and how the team interacts, and what we think our narrative arc looks like. Imagine many many thousands of pages on how we future proof ourselves in a way we never did for Halo because we didn't know what came after Halo 1. And we didn't know what came after Halo 2. It was like 'alright it's Return of the King for Halo 3!' That was the pitch to the team. So what happens is you're not prepared in the way that you want to be, so you can do things like paint yourself into a corner with canon and do all these things that sort of set you sideways," Parsons admitted. "So I think we've learned a bunch there, but were continuing to learn a lot and I don't think you ever stop making mistakes and learning - it's just the nature of our business."
In the end, Parsons is just eager to let Destiny do the talking for Bungie. It's being released at a time when there's more interest in games than ever before, and the medium is able to stand toe-to-toe with just about any other entertainment out there. "We've always admired people like Pixar, and we are finally in that moment where we have this raw, amazing talent that I think rivals entertainment creators anywhere across any entertainment ever, and Activision is helping us bring that reality to life," he said.