The making of Bungie's Halo successor: Destiny

CNET goes behind the scenes to learn about the much-anticipated next title from the creators of Halo.

Halo's Master Chief watches over Bungie headquarters in Bellevue, Wash. Bungie

BELLEVUE, Wash.--Halo, the multibillion-dollar-grossing video game franchise, set an incredibly high bar for its creator, Bungie, to meet with its next title.

"After Halo, a bunch of us thought, 'What comes next?'" Bungie co-founder Jason Jones told a group of journalists visiting Bungie's Bellevue, Wash., headquarters Wednesday.

Jones and Bungie's leadership, who sold the company to Microsoft in 2000 and then spun it out of the software giant in 2007, wanted to find a project worthy of the groundbreaking work in Halo. They wanted to come up with not just a new game, but a new model for gaming, something that could change the way gamers play.

Jones thinks Bungie's Destiny is exactly that. Destiny is something of a first-person shooter with bits of massively multiplayer online role-playing gaming mixed in. Bungie, which has kept mum about the title while gamer sites fulminated for the last two years about what it might be, is beginning to rev up the hype machine for its next title.

Eric Hirschberg, the chief executive of Activision, which will publish Destiny, said the game defied typical genres, giving it a new one -- "shared-world shooter." Even so, there are plenty of parallels with the Halo franchise, particularly that you're still shooting up aliens. Players guard the last city on Earth, while exploring the ruins of the solar system, moving from Mars to Venus, in order to defeat Earth's enemies.

One of the big differences this time is that the game is a persistent online universe, where players come across others, matched to their skills. They're encouraged to work together to rout evil, visit new worlds, and earn rewards.

"This is one of those areas (collaborating with strangers) where I was most skeptical," said Hirschberg, whose company has also published such franchises as Call of Duty and World of Warcraft.

Bungie concept art for its next game, Destiny. Bungie
But gamers don't have go through the awkward dance of hooking up in a lobby before setting out on their adventure. They naturally come across allies and, if Bungie and Activision succeed, feel entirely comfortable teaming up with complete strangers to set out on the next adventure. While Bungie didn't share how those interactions come about, it could be similar, perhaps, to the wildly popular indie title Journey for the Playstation 3, which did away with the premise of playing with your friends in favor of encountering others randomly.

"It almost feels scripted," Hirschberg said.

Gamers also will be able to play solo. But Bungie Chief Operating Officer Pete Parsons said the goal for Bungie is to get gamers working together.

"If you want to do it yourself, that's totally OK," Parsons said. "We want to slope the floor and prove to you that there are a bunch of cool things you can do with others."

One thing gamers won't be able to do is play Destiny without an Internet connection, a bold move for the console gaming crowd that expects to be able to play offline. Even so, Activision has no plans to charge subscription fees to play the game. And while he wouldn't talk about a release day, Hirshberg told analysts on the company's earnings call earlier this month that the new Bungie game was not factored into the company's 2013 guidance, implying that the game won't likely arrive until 2014. It will be available on both the Xbox and Playstation platforms.

Bungie showed no game play during the presentation and gave little detail about how far along the development actually is. Instead, executives talked in sweeping themes about the new universe Bungie created, while highlighting production art, engineering details, and some of the music in its plans for its first post-Halo effort.

It's not just the first time Bungie has talked about the new game; it's really the first time Bungie has given a glimpse into its post-Microsoft life. Two years ago, the company moved from Kirkland, Wash., to an old movie theater and bowling alley in the Bellevue Galleria retail complex. It rebuilt the site, adding a theater, a fireplace, and a climbing wall. Bungie also added a motion-capture studio dubbed Spandex Palace, as well as a massive production floor where 280 of the companies 360 employees work on game development and design.

It's one of those new-age workplaces, where every desk has wheels, so that teams can be reconfigured on the fly as problems or opportunities emerge. The floor has a neon blue glow and is eerily quiet as the crew develops Destiny. Nothing on the floor is more than 6-feet high, so that everyone can see where the action is, where they might be needed. "This is a great space for making a great universe," Bungie's Parsons said.

The main production space at Bungie's Bellevue, Wash., headquarters. Bungie
There's little doubt, when you walk in the door at Bungie, that this is the company that Halo built. A giant Master Chief, the hero of that series, stands watch in the hallway. And a massive trophy case, brimful of awards for the Halo series, with a few other titles sprinkled in, greets every visitor.

The company is focused solely on Destiny now. The Halo franchise is now entirely handled by Microsoft Studios. And Bungie has cast its lot with Activision .

Last year, the Los Angeles Times dug out details of the deal with Activision from a legal dispute between the publisher and Call of Duty developers Jason West and Vincent Zampella. Activision's contract with Bungie, unsealed in that suit, calls for Bungie to develop four "sci-fantasy, action shooter games," under the code-name Destiny, released every other year, starting in the fall of 2013. The deal also called for Bungie to release four downloadable expansion packs every other year starting in the fall of 2014.

Under the terms of that contract, which may have been modified since it was unsealed, Bungie was to receive royalties of 20 percent to 35 percent of operating income from the game. Activision was also to pay Bungie $2.5 million a year in bonuses between 2010 and 2013 for meeting quality and budget milestones. And the deal called for Activision to pay Bungie $2.5 million if the first Destiny game scores 90 or higher on GameRankings.com.

The executives didn't address the unsealed contract, except for a few passing quips during a question and answer session. But there's little doubt that much is riding on Destiny for both companies.

And Bungie is putting its resources, much more considerable now with its Activision partnership, behind the new title. Its audio director, Marty O'Donnell, is working with Paul McCartney on the music for Destiny. O'Donnell played a few of the pieces recorded at Abbey Road Studios in London with a 106-piece orchestra and a choir of more than 40 singers.

O'Donnell, whose music is as responsible for the tone of Halo as the graphics and gameplay itself, gushed about collaborating with McCartney. Rather than dictate the way a piece should work, McCartney has shared ideas with O'Donnell and left it up to him how the final arrangements should work.

"He said, 'Some of my melodies, some of your spooky bits, it's going to be great,'" O'Donnell said. "So far, he's been really happy with it."

Bungie Audio Director and Computer Marty O'Donnell Bungie
About the author

Jay Greene, a CNET senior writer, works from Seattle and focuses on investigations and analysis. He's a former Seattle bureau chief for BusinessWeek and author of the book "Design Is How It Works: How the Smartest Companies Turn Products into Icons" (Penguin/Portfolio).

 

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