How Bungie’s Destiny Became the Poster Child for Next-Gen, Always-Online Gaming

Always online. Deeply social. Companion mobile experience. These buzz phrases are like poison to the hard-bitten gamer. But if you're talking about Destiny, from the creators of Halo, they're easier to swallow.

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Always online. Deeply social. Companion mobile experience.

These video game industry buzz phrases are like poison to the hard-bitten gamer. But if you’re talking about Destiny, the next big game from the creators of Halo, they become a lot easier to swallow.

Bungie, which is developing Destiny under a 10-year publishing deal with Activision, has designed its next game to be constantly connected to the Internet. It will not work offline, and players will routinely cross paths with other players, even if they prefer to fight alone. A companion smartphone app will keep players connected to Destiny‘s world.

Yet you won’t find much grousing about Destiny in gaming forums–at least not anything like what Microsoft has endured for pushing the Xbox One as an Internet-based game console. That’s because Destiny, and its connected, social brand of shooting and looting, actually sounds like a lot of fun.

In the first public demo of the actual game, players are seen raiding an alien base, picking up rare guns after a huge battle, then meeting up with other groups of players to take on a massive boss together. It sounds like a cross between Borderlands, Halo and Guild Wars–all highly addictive on their own–and just the kind of game that makes sense of all those slimy industry buzzwords.

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Activision

It’s no surprise, then, that Bungie helped Microsoft and Sony shape the next generation of game consoles, as I learned from Harold Ryan, Bungie’s president. Just as Bungie provided input on Microsoft’s original Xbox and its Xbox Live online service, the studio provided similar input to Microsoft and Sony for the Xbox One and PlayStation 4, Ryan said during an interview at last week’s E3 Expo.

“As it turned out, our aspirations for Destiny were very aligned to a lot of the tech that’s going into the new consoles, and so it’s actually been a great opportunity for us to push forward,” he said.

Ryan couldn’t provide many specifics on how Bungie actually influenced the design of the Xbox One and PS4, citing non-disclosure agreements and things that haven’t been announced yet. But he did say that focusing on building communities, rather than just pairing people up for the odd multiplayer match, has been important for Bungie.

“It’s just building the ecosystem where you can carry friends, meet friends, hold onto friends,” Ryan said. “Building communities around the people that you share entertainment experiences with is one of the things we’ve definitely been a strong proponent of, pusher of, and advocate for. Both Sony and Microsoft are putting a lot of investments in and trying to make good social communities.”

Although the Xbox One and PS4 won’t launch until later this year, you can already see the how community-driven, online gaming is spreading. An early contender to Destiny will be Ubisoft’s The Division, a third-person shooter with team-based coop and random encounters with other players. Ubisoft is also working on a racing game set in a large multiplayer world, called The Crew, and developer Insomniac has talked about creating a “living world” over the Internet in its upcoming stylized shooter Sunset Overdrive.

One might argue that “persistent-world multiplayer” is just a fancy name for MMORPGs–hardly a new style of gaming–but games like Destiny and The Division are a bit different from World of Warcraft¬†and its ilk. Instead of piling players into one massive world, and then ferrying them off to a dungeon or battle arena together, these games will tightly control how players come across one another, and create events based on random encounters.

In Destiny, for example, players may form a party with other players for certain missions, in which no outside players may join. But they’ll also come across challenges where they may be joined by several other random parties.

“We design how many players can play at once in a public space, and it’s a balance of AI count vs. players,” Ryan said.

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Activision

This kind of random, group event also turns out to be one of Destiny‘s main social hooks. Bungie is hoping that low-ranked players will see the “amazing-looking stuff” on higher-ranked players, and either join forces or pick up ideas on where to go next.

“We believe what’s going to happen then is, you’re going to see those players, and you’ll be able to, if they’re willing to let you interact with them, to go look up the gear they have, figure out where they got it, and plan an adventure to go get it,” Ryan said.

And for those players who prefer to play the entire game by themselves? Ryan said it’s possible, but even these players will stumble upon public events. They’ll just have to move along if they want to keep going it alone.

“We’re going to encourage you to meet other people, you’re going to see other people. But one point that should come across in that public event is, you couldn’t get in anyone else’s way,” Ryan said. “It’s a fully-cooperative activity that’s optional.”

One thing that’s mandatory, however, is the Internet connection. That’s partly due to technical reasons–Ryan said Destiny will offload certain computational tasks to Bungie servers to provide a consistent experience across platforms–but mainly because being part of a larger world is what Destiny is about.

“We really want it to be a place, a world that you belong to as you build your character in the universe,” Ryan said, “Not just a disc that goes in the drive.”

Those words, if uttered by your average video game industry suit, might sound like a condemnation of everything gamers once cherished. Coming from Bungie, it sounds more like a promise of what’s next.

Destiny is coming to PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4, Xbox 360 and Xbox One in 2014.