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Bungie Talks Destiny Networking, Loot and Customisation, Community, Vehicles and Much More
Post by Steve Farrelly @ 11:46am 25/06/13 | Comments
AusGamers sat down with Bungie's Chris Butcher, a New Zealand ex-pat now working as an engineering lead on one of the most ambitious gaming projects ever undertaken -- Destiny. Read on for what he had to say...

AusGamers: I went out to Seattle for the Destiny reveal, and when I asked the usual Australian networking question, that they said “don’t worry, we’ve got someone who’s actually from that geographically-challenged part of the world”.

Chris Butcher: I know what you mean, it’s a long way away. My first experience with Bungie was playing Bungie games like Myth, from New Zealand, with 600 millisecond latency to everybody else in the game -- that’s painful.

AusGamers: Can you talk about how you’ve addressed that in Destiny, from the engineering side of things?

Chris: It’s building on all of the experience we have with network gaming, with all of the games that we’ve done in the past. We’ve always, I think, tried to make sure that when we’re making these network games -- particularly with Destiny, where everything is networked -- we really pay close attention to making sure it’s going to be a good quality connection. So we’ve done a variety of things.

One of the things that we’ve done in the past, is that we’ve built up this database of IP addresses all over the world, so we can know, just based on one IP address and another: is there going to be a close network connection, or is this going from Australia to Japan, or something like that. We have that as one tool in our arsenal.

Another thing we can do with Destiny is: because all of these experiences are kind of drop-in and drop-out... when you go into a public area of the game, you’re a fireteam, so you’re match made with other fireteams, but it’s not like there’s UI where you’re sitting there and waiting. There’s no loading screens or progress bars or anything, so we can take more time if we need to, in order to find people to join together.

So that means: one, we can take more time; two: it’s optional, because you can always play by yourself. So that means we never have to put people in a game together, if they have bad pings to each other. So we can kind of guarantee that you’re always going to be playing with someone close to you.

AusGamers: Right, so it is a smart system that basically looks at the strongest connection to you...

Chris: There’s so much technology behind the scenes, there’s so much going on. Layer, upon layer, upon layer of networking technology, that’s always running, all the time, trying to find players in the same geographical area in the real world, and also in the same location in the Destiny world, and then trying to put those people together in games.

AusGamers: Can you explain in a bit more detail, how the persistent world, and the connections to those worlds actually works? You mentioned public areas, and wrapping my head around the idea of who gets to go in what area and when... I was talking to the Watch Dogs guys, and they were saying that basically what happens is that one person loads their game, and another person’s game sort of overlaps that so that they can then interact with one another, but it’s just a smart system that does it automatically behind the scenes. I just don’t really know how it’s going to work from your end.

Chris: Yeah. I can give you a specific example: if you look at the Sony stage demo of Destiny. Now in that environment, we only had seven players playing on stage, so it’s not like it’s a smart system trying to find everybody that’s going in there... but just to illustrate the principles that are going on there.

So it starts out, if you’re playing, and it’s just you by yourself, you’re in a private area of the world. There are a lot of the private areas of the world, we do that so we can use all of those cinematic storytelling techniques that we know and love. You can do that when it’s your game, and you can change the world in all kinds of really meaningful ways there.

Then your friends can join you, with drop-in/drop-out co-op, so as Joe Staten was playing through there in the E3 stage demo, he had one friend join, and then another friend join, and they had three people playing still just in that private area. Then they went into an area of that world that is a public area, and those are areas of the experience in Destiny, where as your Fireteam moves towards those areas, the game is finding other Fireteams that are in that public area, and then matchmaking people together, and putting them in the same game.

But you’re still on your mission, and you’re still able to just ignore whatever’s going on there, and just keep going on your way; and sometimes you’ll have objectives in these public areas, where you’ll have to complete some mission objective there. Or sometimes you might just be travelling through them, and you’re like “Oh, there’s a sweet public event going on; I’m going to stop and go check that out”, and maybe you’ll meet some new friends, and hang out with them for a while, or whatever else, but then you can go back to your mission if you want to.

AusGamers: That was awesome, that whole demo with the giant mech, tank thing...

Chris: Oh, the Devil Walker.

AusGamers: So what happens if you fail at that? With failing a public event, is there a knock-on effect to that, or is it just a reset and move on type of thing?

Chris: We’re still in a pretty pre-alpha state, so the event that we were showing at E3 is one example of a number of different kind of events. In this one, they’re full-on, they’re going to show up, and they’re going to be there in that space -- maybe they’re going to be attacking some target, or maybe attacking other players that are in the vicinity -- and you can choose to engage them, or you can just ignore them, and go about your business. So it’s not really something that is a success or failure kind of thing.

There are some public events that have timed objectives, and if you chose not to engage that before the timer expired, then the event would finish and go away, but there’s not any kind of consequence to you as a player.

In all of these things, we just think of them as stuff that’s going on in the world, that makes it feel living and alive, and if you engage with it, and interact with it, then you might be able to get some rewards for that. But if you choose to ignore it, that’s totally fine.

AusGamers: Right. So from a philosophical point of view then, as a point of progression for the player, if you engage in these events, or if you fail at them... I guess I want to talk about whether or not the world dynamically alters. I know it’s impossible to have a persistent online world that dynamically alters, because it would break experiences for other players, but you guys seem to have a kind of idea that you have a beginning, middle, and end narrative to deal with, so is that how the player feels like they’re actually changing the world?

Chris: The way that we think about Destiny, is that the overarching narrative -- like you say, beginning, middle, and end -- there is a storyline to Destiny. Joe Staten talks about it like being a series of books; there’s a number of chapters that are available when we first release Destiny, and we might do more chapters in the future. That storyline is one thread in this large living world, and the player is doing many different kinds of activities, some of which are advancing the storyline, others which are more player-directed activities that they’re choosing to go and do.

The storyline of Destiny is a journey. The player is travelling from place to place in one sense, but it’s also a journey of revelation, as the player is learning more about the world, they’re meeting more of these constant characters -- we have very strong storied and cinematic characters that exist in the world, and have their own motivations and relationships to each other -- and they’re also learning more about the factions of aliens and enemies.

The Fallen that we were fighting in the E3 demo are from the House of Devils; they’re just one of the Houses of The Fallen, and not one of the houses are friendly to each other. So you’ll get a chance to learn more about those relationships between the characters, and between the combatant races over time.

So just to come back to your question then, the overarching storyline is really one of revelation, rather than... so as the player is going to these new places, they are changing these places through their involvement, but then after the player has finished doing all of the chapters that are available at some point in time, the world still exists, and the player can go there and experience these public events, and change the world through those public events.

AusGamers: So from the perspective of no UI, is that a huge challenge to have the player be able to actively obtain quests and drop-in/drop-out with other players? How did you guys approach that without being cumbersome to the visual side for the player?

Chris: I’d say no UI is our goal, in the sense that we don’t want to put anything in there that takes players out of the experience. So that means that when you go into a public area, there’s no UI saying “Do you want to enter the public area, yes or no?”; if you are entering the area, you are entering the area.

So we’re kind of taking the player’s actions in the game, and using that to determine what the player is doing. We’re always looking at “Where are you going? What are you doing? How many players are around? Is now a good time to trigger an event, or are these players busy doing something else right now?”. So really, we’re trying to read the player’s intentions through their actions, rather than explicitly asking them questions to break them out of the experience.

But there is UI in the game. When you go to a particular place, you are then playing some mission experience, but then after you’re done with that, then obviously there are other interactions. We’re not really talking too much about the overall structure of the game yet, we’re mostly just here at E3 to show off this one slice -- and what we’re showing at E3 is a very small slice from the game.

AusGamers: With the loot system, and specifically the customisation of weapons that you pick up, I noticed there’s a bit of a tree to that. Can you have more than one addition to the weapons? Or is it a case of: you can only have three, or two, or one? Or does that change based on the weapon?

Chris: The particular weapon you’re talking about is the exotic machinegun, the Thunder Lord I think, so that particular weapon has a fairly linear upgrade path, but there are others that are much less linear in the game. Some of these upgrade trees have got choices, where you’re going to have to decide “Am I going to do this, or am I doing to do that?”; you can’t have all of the upgrades.

So for example: I could have a pulse rifle and say “Well, do I want my pulse rifle to have more ammo capacity, so I can shoot for longer without reloading? Or do I want my reload time to be shorter, so I can reload more effectively?” -- that’s one example of a choice you might make that will change your playstyle. Some players might go “Well, I’m going to be going into competitive multiplayer a lot more often, so I’m going to go one way”, or “I want a bigger clip, so I can go another way on a weapon”.

AusGamers: Trading is a big factor in games like this, where loot and multiplayer is concerned. Not much has really been said about that; is there going to be a trading system, or auction house?

Chris: Here at E3, we’re mostly just showing the gameplay, and trying to give a sense of those good core action game mechanics. There are a lot of social and customisation features, and communication features that we aren’t talking about yet. It’s a big conversation we’re excited to get to, just not quite yet.

AusGamers: Ok, fair enough. So with traversing the world, obviously we’ve seen some screenshots where one of the fireteams were on speeder-bike type flying things. Is that the only way players will have to get around the world, as well as walking, or are there more modes of transport?

Chris: In the demo that you’ve seen here, you can see that when players join the game, they’re teleporting down from their personal spaceship. So if you’re going to travel from Earth to Mars, you’re going to use your spaceship to go there. Other modes of transport that we’ve shown are, yes: in the stage demo, you can see players on the speeder-bike thing, it’s called the Sparrow, and that’s a personal mode of transport that players have available to them.

That helps you get around the larger areas, and if you’ve seen the Law of the Jungle trailer, there’s a different kind of vehicle. That was one of The Fallen vehicles called the Pike, that we were showing off there. So there are other vehicles, both enemy vehicles and player vehicles.

AusGamers: Can you get in the enemy vehicles?

Chris: In that particular one, you can, yes.

AusGamers: From a community perspective, obviously one of the biggest factors here will be building and nurturing a community, and Bungie did that unbelievably well with Halo. In terms of moving forward -- especially because the project is an ongoing and ambitious ten-year project -- what sort of community initiatives are you guys doing, that you might not have necessarily done before, that you can talk about?

Chris: Well, there is a time and a place for the big community reveal, but I can talk about the principles that we’re going for, without getting too much into the specifics. With our games in the past, we’ve been so excited to build the community; I was part of the Bungie community myself before I came to work at Bungie 13 years ago, and a lot of other people at Bungie had very strong ties to that community as well.

With our previous games, the community has been something that kind of exists outside the game; it happens on websites. Then with some of the Halo series, we brought some features in there, like the theatre, and forge, and tried to build a bit more community focus, but with Destiny, we’re trying to take that community, and put it in the heart of the game. Destiny is a living community of players, within the game-world.

So I don’t know if you’ve seen the new Bungie.net, but it’s worth going to check that out. We have a lot more features for helping people integrate their Bungie experience with their social media experience, and just making a way for them to communicate and connect with people. At the moment, that’s outside the game, but obviously once the game launches, there will be more game integration features.

We’re also showing that we want Destiny to be a world that you can interact with, wherever you are. So there’s going to be the ability for you, on mobile devices, or any devices really, for you to reach out to the game-world and stay connected to it no matter where you are.

AusGamers: Was it a surprise to see so many other game companies at this E3, bolstering a companion app? It seems to be a really big factor this year, with apps talking seamlessly to the games and offering an expanded experience that again, takes UI out of the player’s peripheral.

Were you guys aware that that was a push, or were you just focusing on your own version of that?

Chris: There’s a lot of trends going on in the games industry right now towards connected entertainment, and seamless spanning devices. We are under no illusions... I’m honestly surprised that people aren’t doing this more. There have been a number of games out there that provided things like that, before we released this; we never thought we were going to be the first.

We do stay aware of what’s going on in the industry, but for the most part, we’re just trying to create what, for us, is the next evolution of the action games that we’re known for. That is what we’ve been one hundred percent focused on right from the start.

AusGamers: As an engineer, is there a bit of excitement among the team, or yourself, for the potential of the Xbox One’s cloud computing side of things? Because it sounds really interesting but undefined.

Chris: Yeah, it’s a really exciting time to be working in games, I think. There are a lot of games that do a lot of interesting things with server-side computing. We’ve build server clusters for Destiny that are much larger and more expansive than the previous Bungie Net server clusters, so there’s a lot of really interesting stuff going on there -- we have a server cluster right there in that room next to us.

It is a very exciting time, where gamers are starting to play with these experiences that are not just a disk in the drive that you play, but it’s a world that you can connect to, and you can become a part of, and that’s really exciting to us.

AusGamers: Now I’ll ask the all important PC question, which Pete [Parsons, Bungie COO], when I was out at Seattle, said to “never say never”. Have you guys been prototyping that at all, or is there anything you can mention in regards to even looking at the PC as a viable platform?

Chris: We’re releasing next year on PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4, Xbox 360, and Xbox One, and that’s four platforms simultaneously, which is three more than any project we’ve done in the last ten years, so that is a lot for us to bite off. We’re confident that we can deliver a great experience on those platforms, but I think it would be foolish for us to bite off more than we can chew right at the start.

So we don’t have any more to announce right now, but of course one of the things that is really important to us -- and the reason we partnered with Activision in the first place -- is: we’re storytellers, we want a large audience; we want to bring our story, and our experience to as many people as possible. So I think Pete’s right, we’re not going to shut the door on anything.

AusGamers: All right, awesome. Well, that’s plenty of information, thanks so much.

Chris: Appreciated.
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