The Seattle Times Brier Dudley column [The Seattle Times]
(Seattle Times (WA) Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) Feb. 18--If you'd like a glimpse of what digital entertainment may look like in a decade or two, finagle your way into the Bellevue offices of acclaimed game studio Bungie.
Bungie's army of programmers, artists, musicians, architects, testers and others have spent more than four years creating a massive new entertainment franchise that's expected to go on sale later this year.
Called "Destiny," it could create a new genre of video game, blending solo and multiplayer action. It uses new server and rendering technology to slip other players into the action as you're playing, and it adjusts its lush, vivid virtual world on the fly.
Based on a limited preview shown to the media last week, "Destiny" appears to be truly next-generation game software, with advances in design almost as intriguing as the elaborate sci-fi story on which the game is based.
"Destiny" will debut alongside the next generation of game hardware from Microsoft and Sony, including the PlayStation 4, expected to be unveiled Wednesday. It will also run on today's consoles as long as they're connected with broadband.
Bungie became a household name among gamers with the "Halo" franchise it created for Microsoft, generating $3 billion in sales since 2001. Now it's trying to make an entirely new action game that's more fun, dynamic and accessible to a broader range of players.
It's also trying to advance the state of the art, similar to the way it did with "Halo," according to Bungie co-founder Jason Jones, who made a rare media appearance to explain "Destiny" last week.
Jones said they set out to "take this genre we love so much -- the first-person shooter -- and turn it on its head again."
Bungie took lessons from Facebook games, massively multiplayer online games and other console titles to develop a game that's adaptable to a player's preferences and mood.
"We've been really deliberate in 'Destiny' about creating a broad range of activities, from cooperative to competitive, from solo to group, from casual to intense, so 'Destiny' will meet you with something fun no matter what your mood is," Jones said. "We think this is incredibly important -- not all players are the same, and the same player doesn't feel the same way all the time."
Bungie's also among a handful of Eastside game developers that are exploring ways to broaden interactive entertainment over the next decade.
They're turning their big franchises into extended features that draw players back week after week, month after month, like TV shows and book series, hoping they'll become staples of our entertainment diets.
Microsoft is doing this with "Halo 4" by producing a series of live-action, TV-like shows based on the game's sci-fi story. These are released on a regular schedule, along with new episodes of the game.
A block away from Bungie, Valve Software is in discussion with movie directors on films and games that draw from each genre.
Bungie has not provided details about whether "Destiny" will also get movie or TV treatment. But studio boss Harold Ryan confirmed that it's building a franchise to compete not just with other games but other forms of entertainment.
"We're competing to be your entertainment -- whether that's sports or movies or TV or other games or interactive games on your phone," he said.
That led Bungie to design the game to be "compatible with real life," Ryan said, so that it appeals to gamers immersed in the game or casual players who drop in now and then.
Bungie, owned by Microsoft from 2000 to 2007, also designed the fictional world of "Destiny" to have enough breadth and flexibility to expand on the franchise for perhaps a decade with new games and adventures.
In 2010, Bungie signed a 10-year deal with Activision to fund and distribute "Destiny."
Activision, the Santa Monica, Calif.-based publisher of the blockbusters "Call of Duty" and "World of Warcraft," has told investors that "Destiny" is among its largest and highest-margin opportunities. That suggests it could be another $1 billion franchise, at least.
Is Activision hoping "Destiny" becomes its version of "Star Wars"
"I certainly think we're striving for something of that level of merit," said Eric Hirshberg, chief executive of its publishing business.
Hirshberg called out "the level of creativity and level of depth of the world that 'Destiny' is striving to provide to people -- the mythologies, the multiple different characters and species and classes."
Business goals may not be obvious to players.
They'll see "Destiny" as an expansive shooting adventure, with new social and multiplayer features.
Players start out defending the last human colony on a post-apocalyptic Earth and go on missions outside of its perimeter and on other planets.
Instead of assuming the role of a fixed hero, players are themselves, with customizable gear and weapons that evolve through the game.
This suggests the game will be licensed to individual players, with options to pay for special outfits, equipment or vehicles, including space planes reminiscent of the X-Wings in "Star Wars."
Bungie isn't discussing how the game will be sold, aside from saying that it will sell a packaged version of the game -- on disc or downloadable -- and won't require a monthly subscription fee.
The company is likely to offer scheduled activities in the game, such as challenges or cooperative adventures, that will encourage players to jump back in by themselves or with friends. A copy of the Activision contract that surfaced in a 2012 lawsuit said downloadable expansion packs will be released every other year starting in 2014.
To keep interest up between releases, Bungie plans to operate a system that delivers updates via the Web and smartphones. It will also enable players to send instant messages to friends, to chat about the game or invite them to a play session.
Several other local studios sputtered out after pursuing ambitious, multiplayer online games.
A Sony studio in Bellevue spent seven years developing a multiplatform spy game called the "The Agency" with customizable characters and updates delivered via phone, but pulled the plug in 2011 before it launched.
Another Sony studio, Redmond's Zipper Interactive, was closed in 2012, two years after releasing a multiplayer, story-driven shooting game called "MAG" that let 256 people play together at once.
Ryan said Bungie has a different focus and goals, plus a creative team that's still guided by co-founder Jones.
"So far we've been lucky enough to succeed," he said.
Ryan, a 41-year-old Spokane native, joined Microsoft as a contract tester and worked his way up to lead Bungie before it split, to regain its independence.
He's now running a big tech company, with about 280 permanent employees and more than 100 additional full-time staffers working under extended contracts modeled on those movie productions offer, with full benefits.
Vast game lab
Using computer-design tools, Ryan helped design Bungie's futuristic headquarters in Bellevue. Fittingly, it's in a former multiplex theater that's been opened up and upgraded into a vast game laboratory and playground.
The dramatically lit space includes test labs, video labs and an audio production facility for Bungie's star composer Marty O'Donnell, but for "Destiny" he recorded some of the music at Abbey Road Studios in London and composed with help from Paul McCartney.
Outside Bungie's offices are balconies overlooking a pedestrian plaza through the ring of skyscrapers in downtown Bellevue.
The setting will be familiar to "Destiny" players. A central feature is a tower with a broad terrace where players will congregate. In renderings shown last week, it looked a lot like Bungie's aerie.
In the game, Ryan said, it's "the happy, bright safe place to exist."
Brier Dudley's column appears Mondays. Reach him at 206-515-5687 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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