G2: Date with Destiny: When Destiny launches next week 10 million players will be let loose in an intricate, beautiful, interplanetary playground. Keith Stuart goes behind the scenes of the most expensive video game ever
(Guardian (UK) Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) On the wall are multiple LCD displays showing graphs, maps and streams of data; this small windowless box, hidden away in a cavernous converted multiplex in Washington, is crowded with serious-looking people hunched over keyboards, amid a mass of cables and high-spec PCs. It looks like a Nasa control room, and the people working here are as smart as rocket scientists. But this isn't a launch site - this is a game development studio. What these people are waiting for is the launch of the epic online sci-fi adventure Destiny, the biggest, most costly to make video game, the most preordered piece of entertainment software in history. "These guys have to be super-smart and super-dedicated," says one manager against the blinking lights and whirring fans. "And they don't fall asleep. Ever."
For the past decade, the video game business has been growing at a spectacular rate. Globally, it's now thought to be worth about $80bn (pounds 48bn) a year, and as the technology advances, ambitions widen and budgets blow up. Destiny, the latest title from Bungie, maker of the successful Halo series, is the biggest yet. In May, the game's publisher, Activision, revealed that the title might cost up to $500m to develop, market and support. To put that into perspective, Avatar, the most expensive movie ever made, was $75m cheaper.
When Bungie set up in 1991, it was two friends, Jason Jones and Alex Seropian, working out of a one-room apartment in Chicago. Its first few games were modestly successful, but in 2001 the company released Halo, an engrossing sci-fi odyssey that would go on to become the killer app for Xbox consoles. After several sequels and spin-offs, the franchise has sold more than 50m copies. But in 2007, the studio announced that it was moving on; it signed a 10-year publishing deal with Activision, and revealed Destiny as its grand new project.
Categorising this vast entertainment property is not easy. Destiny is an online science-fiction action game, in which players can gather together with friends, travel across the solar system and battle aliens. The setting is several hundred years into the future. Earth has been visited by a quasi-religious entity known as the Traveller, which has helped mankind develop interstellar warp drives. Now, however, a dark force has descended on the galaxy, all but destroying the Traveller and most of the human race. Only one stronghold on Earth is left - the Tower - and players must take on the role of the Guardians, a group of warriors who may yet save the planet.
It's the familiar sweeping hokum of the space-opera genre, but the appeal of Destiny lies in its open gaming framework. Players can explore Earth, Venus and Mars, and wherever they go, they can bump into other players, form alliances, make friends and join "fire teams" to take on missions against extraterrestrial invaders together. Everything you do in the game unlocks rewards. Players are also able to intricately personalise their characters - which come in three classes: warriors, warlocks and titans - fine-tuning their special abilities and unlocking exotic clothing, weapons and armour.
"We started Destiny in the summer of 2009," says head of production Jonty Barnes. "It was a very small team, less than five people, talking about what we wanted to explore, the vision behind it all. We absolutely wanted to create a shared universe - things are better with your friends. Church groups used to play Halo together; families could play together on the sofa. We wanted to recapture that. So we started building an action game - it had to be a very hopeful place, a place people could go back to time and time again, we wanted to create many different activities and it had to be accessible."
There is nothing new about an online multiplayer game. So-called massively multiplayer role-playing games such as World of Warcraft have been around for more than a decade, and first-person shooters such as Call of Duty have online modes played by millions. The difference with Destiny is that it combines both styles of play into one seamless, highly intuitive experience. Players can fly their spaceship to jungle-covered Venus, then take on a solo mission, but they can also discover other players and join in their fight. In most areas, it's impossible to shoot other people, and you can only communicate over a headset microphone if the other person has agreed. It's all about co-operation - although if you want to be competitive, there are shoot-'em-up arenas where you can battle against other players. Whatever you do, it all exists in one universe, which is housed on thousands of computer servers situated all over the globe.
The development team is huge - so huge, in fact, that four years ago, Bungie saw a multiplex cinema for sale near its previous office and bought it. "This is actually not an expensive place," says chief operating officer Pete Parsons as he shows off the interior - which, with all the screening rooms knocked into one, is now an L-shaped floorspace the size of two football pitches, all dimly lit in glowing blue like some vast space station. "Well, we do have millions of dollars' worth of cooling on the roof. . . Oh, and the last time we did a minor wiring update, we had to add 45 miles of cable. That's fucking crazy."
The team is now 500 people. But the Bungie mantra is - everyone gets a say, everyone is creative. "If you have a good idea it WILL get through," stresses Parsons. "If you come to work here, you can make a difference from day one." How to make that work with so many people? Simple. All the desks have wheels. As the development changes, desks get moved so artists can work with engineers, coders with designers. "Nobody here has an office," says Parsons. "Everyone works at a table. And we try to have nothing higher than six feet - we want line of sight across the whole floor. If you see a bunch of people gathered around a monitor, the likelihood is something amazing is happening - or there's a horrible train wreck. Either way, you need to be able to see that."
The company employs a workflow engineer, Brandi House, whose job it is to mediate between the art team and the programmers. "The team kept growing so it became harder to just walk up to the engineers' desk and tell them it's not working," she explains. "The engineers started to say, 'Well, we have 200 artists - I can't get any work done!'" House has a PhD in electrical engineering and is an expert in user interfaces - now she's applying that skill with systems to a workforce, debugging the development team.
Beneath it all is that server infrastructure. Destiny exists in a sort of global brain, one to which all players must have smooth access via their Xbox or PlayStation consoles. The game will launch with at least four explorable planets - each with miles of intricately drawn landscapes. Players can get on jet-powered bikes and explore for hours, and they will. Bungie has a ridiculously dedicated fanbase. When Activision launched a beta demo of the game for two weeks this summer, more than 4.6 million players downloaded it. When that many people hit a server network at once, it can easily overload and start crashing. Much of the $500m has gone on ensuring that doesn't happen.
To get the network running, Bungie bought up a huge data centre in Las Vegas. "The interesting thing about Vegas is, you get a lot of natural disasters walking down the strip, but you don't get a lot of true natural disasters affecting the landscape," says Parsons. "There are no earthquakes, no hurricanes, no floods." This facility then connects with rented server centres worldwide, and with PlayStation and Xbox online infrastructures. "It is the largest engineering team we could imagine," says Jonty. "It's such a complex online infrastructure. We're well north of 100 engineers."
But what the player sees - or should see when the game launches - is a visually stunning space opera. Destiny is not only the most expensive game ever made, it may also be one of the most beautiful. Earth is a wasteland of burned-out cars and looming ruins; Mars a scarlet desert of swirling dust storms. As developers get to grips with the new Xbox One and PS4 hardware, we will see more games like this - virtual tourist adventures. Holidays in vast, pixellated pleasure domes. The aim of Destiny is, indeed, to provide a gigantic playground - in space. There is already an expansion pack planned for December, and many more will follow. For now, the engineers sit in the operations room, watching the data, learning. This time next week, on day one, more than 10 million people are likely to hit the game servers, like some mass migration to the New World. If a server in Vegas or a hard drive in Europe goes down, they'll see it here. "When the beta launched, the team started collecting in the kitchen, no one wanted to leave," says Parsons. "It was going above one million, then two million. . . we were nervous, but so excited. It was like watching a space shuttle taking off."
As with space exploration, the studio has no idea what will happen next. It's all down to what players do."People can decide what they want to be in this world," says community manager David Dague. "We don't know what they will do, so let's build them an amazing sandbox. The next innovations in this game will most likely be inspired by the first people who go in. Players will be able to express themselves and have a great time in ways we could never have anticipated."
Modelling role . . . moves for Destiny are acted and captured and, below, some of the game's characters
'It has to be a place people can go back to time and again' . . . Destiny
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