Destiny PS4 feature: a brave new world with Bungie’s hugely ambitious online shooter
And it’s not just the high concept behind Destiny that pushes Bungie out of that Halo-shaped comfort zone: it’s the entire infrastructure of technology used to build and maintain the game. “In order to meet this challenge we’ve had to rebuild almost every part of our game technology,” says technical director Chris Butcher. “We’ve been working on this for six years and we’ve built our largest, most talented engineering team ever.” There’s a wealth of new server-side tech, a bespoke level-building tool affectionately known as Grognok, Creator Of Worlds, and a graphics engine designed with ten years of tread on the tyres.
“If you guys have somehow been able to read our contract with Activision, and I don’t know how you’d be able to do that,” jokes Joe Staten, “you’d know we’ve got our work cut out for us. Our contract signs us up for a lot of games over a really long time.” The contract, now available on all corners of the internet that aren’t taken up by cats and pictures of people’s lunches, requires Bungie to produce four games, one every other year from 2013 (although Activision has now confirmed Destiny won’t release until 2014). We won’t see the ceiling of the new tech on PS3, but Bungie’s ten-year plan for the franchise involves not only maxing out the current machine, but also stretching the limits of PS4.
“It’s by design multi-platform – it’s highly multi-threaded, scales very well to the current generation and the future gen of hardware”
Hao Chen is Bungie’s senior graphics architect, and offers the most tangible info on how ambitious Destiny is on a technical level. “Over the last four years we have built a truly state-of-the-art engine,” he says. “It’s by design multi-platform – it’s highly multi-threaded, scales very well to the current generation and the future generation of hardware. We have a ton of new features, from our multi-resolution terrain systems, to our forests and trees, to rivers, to real-time lighting, visibility… lots of cool technology.”
The challenge for Chen and his team, first posed in 2009, has been not just to create next-gen visual fidelity, but to give level artists and designers a toolset that makes it possible to work efficiently enough to build a universe of the size Destiny promises – our solar system, bruised by years of conflict with an unknown or forgotten alien force. “The main reason why we needed to write an entirely new engine is because the sheer amount of content that we have in this game is just impossible to build in the way we needed to build [it].”
In the old days, he explains, building something as simple as a room meant precisely stitching the walls, floor and ceiling together. Adding a door meant cutting out a hole, and an object the exact same size: “It’s a very painstaking process, it’s a technical process and it’s also error-prone.” Using Bungie’s new toolset, Chen describes the process as more like, “Jamming the ceiling together with the floor, and if you need a door, move it over there and drop it.” What’s more, the team created the first Halo game without even an ‘undo’ in its toolset.
But there’s no question of the studio losing its unique identity in the wash of all this new tech. “It will be a Bungie game and absolutely will have our fingerprints all over it,” says Parsons. “We want to make a game that we want to play. We want to build a universe we want to be in.” And after all the dust settles from Destiny’s reveal, the most exciting aspect of it all remains Bungie itself. Anyone can tell you they’re making a shared-world shooter spanning the solar system, with seamless competitive and party play, but would you really believe them unless they happened to have the Halo series on their CV, six years of work tucked away under their belt on the project, and funding from the publisher that World Of Warcraft and Call Of Duty’s sales go to?
That, above all else, is an indication of just how momentous Destiny is likely to be. Until that partnership’s ready to come forward with more concrete evidence of Destiny’s potential, Bungie and Activision are asking us to take a leap of faith with them – but in an industry of yearly release cadences, sequels and reboots, this genuine attempt at something completely new is worth taking that leap for.