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Become legend? Ambitious Destiny aims for gaming superstar status

The minds behind Halo, one of the most successful game franchises ever made, hope to strike it again with a massive new game being bankrolled in part by Activision Blizzard.

Destiny for the PS4
Bungie, the team that brought you Halo, has something new to show you. Bungie

In Destiny, the newest video game from the creators of the blockbuster Halo franchise, players take the role of a "guardian," a being with other-worldly powers tasked with protecting the last human city.

"You are Earth's last hope," a voice says in a June trailer for the game. "If you fail, everything you know -- everything humans have ever known -- will be gone forever."

While nowhere near as dramatic, the stakes are similarly high for Bungie, which rose to fame in the gaming community through its Halo series of sci-fi shooters, and publisher Activision Blizzard, which has committed half a billion dollars over the next decade to the Destiny project -- a game that hits store shelves Tuesday.

Destiny is similar to Halo on its face: There's eerie music, visions of space, a tale of human civilization struggling to regain its footing in a distant future, a struggle between good and evil. They're both epic in their ambition, with a weighty and detailed story for the player to follow. They're both shooting games.

What's different is scope. With Destiny, Bungie is attempting to create a living video game world that many players can use to interact with one another and progress through the title's story. These massive games, such as Activision's own World of Warcraft, are rare beasts in the video game industry: Few of these types of games have found similar success to Halo, a multibillion dollar franchise ranging from books to toys and more, has sold more than 50 million copies since the first game debuted in 2001.

Bungie's vision of bringing a large and complex world to life in the game is part of what attracted Tabesh Ataie, a 21-year-old chemical engineering student in Berkeley, Calif., to pre-order the title before it even hit store shelves. He said he's always been a fan of Bungie's work, and enjoys in particular these large and intricate titles.

"I love any video game with a good storyline," he said.

He's not alone. Destiny is the most pre-ordered new game in history. It has also topped weekly order tracking surveys by industry watcher VGChartz for an almost uninterrupted six months. When it wasn't the most popular, it was No. 2.

It was a key piece of Sony's E3 presentation in June, with the Japanese electronics giant willing to create a specific colorized version of its $400 PlayStation 4 video game console to commemorate the game's launch (the bundle with the game costs $450). Consumers can buy their copy of the title starting at $60 apiece.

Michael Pachter, an analyst at Wedbush Securities, estimates the game could sell as many as 10 million units this year, and 5 million units next year, if it gets high praise from reviewers. That would come in lower than Grand Theft Auto V, which rung up 29 million units in its first six weeks on the market, cementing it as the fastest selling game of all time.

Even then, Destiny could be the next billion dollar franchise.

Making the next Halo

This idea of a detailed and constantly changing game world was at the heart of a planning meeting Bungie held in August 2009, two years after the company severed ties with Microsoft and nearly a decade after it launched one of the most successful game franchises of all time.

Alongside a couple of conceptual art drawings, the company discussed plans for Destiny, a game so packed with storylines, missions and other items that players had something new to do each day. One rule the company imposed: The game had to be fun both for enthusiastic players who spend many hours playing, and for distracted customers who fit in some time playing in between other responsibilities in their lives.

"We just wanted you to go in and have a great experience," said Pete Parsons, operations chief at Bungie, who was at the meeting.

To pull off the effort, Bungie had to grow its staff.

When the first Halo game launched in 2001, it was exclusively available for Microsoft's Xbox video game console, attracting a broad swath of consumers to the device and away from the computers, keyboards and mice they typically played games with. For many, Halo was the game that made the Xbox worth purchasing.

But Halo was initially created by a relatively small staff. At the time, Bungie counted 46 employees. When Halo 2 landed on store shelves three years later, Bungie's ranks swelled to 67 people. For Halo 3 in 2007, there were 118 employees on staff.

Today, Bungie has more than 500 people working on Destiny. And though it's hardly alone working with such large staff -- competitors such as Ubisoft are known for creating large groups to usher its top-tier titles to market -- the expansion speaks to Bungie's ambition to once again rewrite the rules of what a war simulation shooting game is.

Destiny's development began in earnest in 2009, and it partnered with Activision Blizzard to help bankroll the game. It cost $180 million to make, estimates Wedbush's Pachter.

The Activision tie-up is the first such partnership since Bungie spun out from Microsoft in 2007. Microsoft had purchased Bungie in 2000, after Apple CEO Steve Jobs introduced an early Halo prototype demonstration on stage at one of his company's events a year earlier.

A new world

Destiny isn't just Bungie's first new game since making Halo. It's also an attempt to meld two different game genres: The large in-depth games like World of Warcraft and the fast-paced action-oriented shooter games like Call of Duty.

Eric Hirshberg, head of Activision's publishing arm, calls this new effort a "shared world shooter," where players interact with one another throughout the game. It was also one of the hardest technologies to build, he added.

When Bungie invited gamers to play a prototype of Destiny in June, developers watched to see what elements of the game, be that exploration or fighting, would be most popular. Hirshberg said players appeared evenly attracted to each part of the game.

"There are so many different styles of play," he said. "People were pretty omnivorous with the content, and that's a great sign."

One of the biggest challenges facing Destiny is the industry itself. Video games have changed significantly from when the first Halo landed more than a decade ago. Many of the best-selling games in that era, such as the theme park building game RollerCoaster Tycoon and world-controlling game The Sims, didn't have as intricate storylines, nor epic ambitions.

Fast-forward to this year and nearly every top game spins an epic story: Ubisoft's Assassin's Creed, which tells of massive conspiracies and two groups fighting over the future of humankind. Watch Dogs, another Ubisoft title, centers on a hacker out for revenge on the streets of Chicago. Grand Theft Auto V, from Take-Two Interactive Software, follows retired thieves as they get back in the game. Even Wolfenstein, a decades-old simplistic shooting game in which a World War II-era prisoner breaks free and goes on a rampage killing Nazis, gained a Hollywood-like plot in its latest rendition from Id Software.

Of course, plowing money and effort into a game doesn't always make it a hit. Star Wars: The Old Republic, a large online game from Electronic Arts, initially struggled to attract a large following when it was first released three years ago. In November 2012, EA began offering a free-to-play option, which helped make the game operationally profitable.

And perhaps the most pressure comes from the changing shape of the industry. Games made for mobile devices have become a key driver of higher game sales, with new business models of charging customers for tiny bits of a game, such as a way to finish it faster or for a different colored jacket for their character, have allowed some titles to gain considerable mass-market appeal. Strategy games on PCs have also made a comeback, in part due to the new business models that allow publishers to initially hand the game away for free.

bungiefacilities10.jpg
Halo's main character, Master Chief, looms large in Bungie's offices.

Meanwhile, despite the blockbuster launches of both Sony's PlayStation 4 and Microsoft's Xbox One, consultancy PricewaterhouseCoopers said in June that sales of games for consoles will likely rise just 7 percent this year to $26.9 billion, up from $25.1 billion in 2013. That's better than the 4 percent increase seen last year, and the nearly 11 percent decline in 2012. But it's far below the 28 percent growth the industry notched in 2007, the year after the last batch of new consoles debuted.

The slowing growth means Destiny will increasingly have to poach customers from its competition to stay ahead. And it won't be attempting to use any new business models to do it: Players will plunk down money to buy the game, and then they'll likely play additional fees for new storylines and other items as they're released, a rather typical model for console games.

One of those customers will be Jeremie Gregory, a 33-year old in Baton Rouge. He's devoting three days vacation time to play the game as much as he can when it's released. Gregory said he already played the game for 90 hours earlier this summer when Bungie offered the public a chance to try a pre-release version of the game for a limited time. He'll probably spend up to another 150 hours playing the game after it's released.

"I don't think I'll get disappointed, I really don't," he said. "I just have that feeling."