Destiny. It’s simultaneously shockingly close to release and yet the three weeks between now and September 9th feel like an absolute age. While the alpha and beta tests may have given those that wanted to play a taste of what was to come, there’s still so much for the game to reveal at launch.
At Gamescom last week, it was thanks to a mixture of luck, behind the scenes efforts from Activision and the willingness of Jonty Barnes, Director of Production at Bungie, to take time out of his lunch break, that we were able to chat with him about all things Destiny.
TSA: Obviously a good place to start is going to be to look back at the beta test and ask how it was back in the office to see that kind of reaction to it?
Jonty Barnes: Oh, it was amazing. It was absolutely amazing.
I mean, first and foremost it was a test and so we had all these screens around the kitchen area and on the wall, and we were just seeing the numbers going up. We were sort of excited and then nervous, but then it went over a million and it went over two million. You know, people weren’t going back to their desks, they were literally just watching a graph grow! But ultimately it calmed down. We were celebratory. We had a bunch of people walk past…
We have these guys whose jobs are server-side architecture; they don’t do the gameplay, they literally just do the hard technology that is server side. The amount of people that were thanking them profusely for doing such a good job was unbelievable.
So that was great, but then the amazing things that came out of it was the player experience. At Bungie, this is the game we wanted to make and we’re all gamers, and we assume that the audience out there loves what we want to make because we like playing the game. But when you get 4.6 million people, you get a much broader view on that, and it was great to see that people really enjoyed it. There were a bunch of things that they liked more than we anticipated, a bunch of things that they wanted and some thing that we had to fix, so that was really, really awesome.
TSA: So along those lines, what kinds of things have you learnt from the beta? Is there anything that you’re thinking you might try and patch in?
Jonty: Well there were hundreds of little changes that we actually made. The most notable one that we’ve actually talked about was the Interceptor in competitive multiplayer that was too powerful, but we also had the Hand Cannon that was not powerful enough. We had lots of optimisations to do about making sure the best people are matched together and making sure they’re given the best experience in terms of skill and geographic match making.
And then there were weird things, like people wanting beards!
TSA: I think anything to make up for the little arm bangle for the Warlocks. If Warlocks could have beards, though…
Jonty: [laughs] But I mean, for some people it was very important for them as human beings to be able to have a beard, because that’s part of their personality, I guess, in real life. So that has started a very heated internal dialogue at Bungie about we do beards, what is the prioritisation of that and how we can accomplish that. So that’s been a funny one!
TSA: As long as people aren’t kept waiting until Destiny 2 for those to show up.
Jonty: Uh, I would hope not.
That’s been interesting, but also how many players get the best experience for certain activities and public events, and really the investment in the game. We saw a lot of enthusiasm for building out the Guardian, becoming a legend in ways with the armour and the gear and the vanity items as well.
It felt like playing the whole made people really understand the game a whole lot more than when we release details piecemeal. Even in ways that we hadn’t realised how hard it was to communicate what Destiny is about, until people got their hands on it, so that was interesting.
TSA: I think for me, one thing where I got quite giddy with excitement was when you unlocked the Moon, and I breezed through the short mission there and was, like, “Oh, you’ve left me on another cliffhanger!”
Jonty: [laughs] Good!
TSA: But then I was able to dive back in, ignore the mission completely and explore under the surface.
Jonty: Did you get to the locked door?
TSA: I did get to a big golden locked door…
Jonty: Yeah, yeah…
TSA: So it’s clear to me that we’ve just been scratching the surface, and there were those guys who even managed to break out of the map on Old Russia and find new areas.
Jonty: It’s true. There’s a lot of content there. I mean, it’s way bigger than anything we’ve made before.
TSA: Since you’ve got just the four or five locations to go to…
Jonty: There’s the Moon, Venus and Mars, and they’re the main destinations in addition to Earth.
TSA: Have you found it difficult to get across to people that these small number of locations go really deep?
Jonty: Yeah, I mean, when people think of it as being four things, it’s really hard for them to understand the real estate that is there and the complexity of all the different spaces that you can visit.
Then, when you add it to another layer, which is that you may be going back to places that are familiar to you, but there’s going to be completely different activities for you to participate in. So you’ll be getting a very different experience even though you get some familiarity. We actually like that property, because we want people to be able to navigate and go through things. So yeah, it’s definitely been very interesting…
You know, it’s funny. I feel like as an industry, people are caring less and less about numbers, which is great. It always used to be about graphics, and though 1080p and 60Hz are still out there, and as platform providers get competitive around those things it seems to magnify the importance of it.
But it isn’t about that, it’s actually what is an awesome gameplay experience for the player and anything that gets in the way of the best player experience is baggage. I’m quoting directly from Jason [Jones] there and, you know, as we’ve seen over the last few years, computer games are so much better, they’re so much higher quality, and it’s much more about the experience and less about those statistics.
TSA: Turning to the competitive multiplayer and the crucible, which you talked about in the press conference on Tuesday, one thing that wasn’t quite clear to me was what these game modes actually were. One appeared to be analogous to Team Deathmatch, and another to plain Deathmatch, but beyond that, given Bungie’s rich history with crazy game modes, are you sticking to the archetypal game modes that we commonly see or are you breaking out of the box?
Jonty: Yeah, I mean, first of all, when you think of the depths of the sandbox in Destiny, with all of the Guardians and all of their abilities, that means that we have to design our competitive multiplayer maps quite differently. There’s a high amount of verticality to in the maps, in ways that we never had to do before in Bungie games.
There’s certainly some things like, as you saw, the exclusive timed events within the game like the Iron Banner, which is where you bring all of your statistics into the arena and have some really challenging games. We’ll continue to do more things like that.
Then there’s a game like… Salvage is a really interesting one, which is three on three. You have to be really tactical when you think of the three players together and whether you’re going to group and put yourself vulnerable to things like Fist of Havoc, or whether you’re going to spread out a bit, but then three players against one is not very good. But we also have revive on there, so if one of you goes down, do you stick around where one of you was clearly shot, but then do you let them wait for as long as 10 seconds.
So it’s actually a very tactical game just within the sandbox.
TSA: And so with that game mode, what would be the objective during each match?
Jonty: For Salvage, it’s actually really interesting. There’s seven relics on the map and one of them will get activated – we’ll do this strategically based on where the players are. Once it’s activated, you race to it and try to get your Ghost to scan it. Once your Ghost has scanned it, which is around 10 seconds or if all three of you are there it’s like 3 seconds, you have to defend it for 45 seconds. If you fail, it just chooses a different relic, but if you succeed, then it goes up into the atmosphere and you’ve gained yourself a lot of points.
So there are a lot of dynamics back and forth, and racing around the map to these different objective points. It’s actually really intensive.
TSA: Now, I think that’s really quite an inventive sounding mode and I can’t quite think of any direct equivalents, so maybe a lot of that was lost?
Jonty: Well it’s hard on stage to just get that level of detail, and it’s a privilege to have that time from everybody, you know? We certainly wanted to pose questions from everybody to find out more, with the trailer and otherwise.
TSA: But there won’t the kind of custom modes which you had in Halo games?
Jonty: Um, I think we’ve been asked quite a bit about whether or not we’re going to do private games and things like that. It’s certainly an active discussion, but it’s really about how we wanted to make sure for launch that we had the best gameplay that we could offer for the core competitive multiplayer activity.
I think what you’ll find is that over time we’re going to see some things arrive, and I think players are going to inform our prioritisation of what features we update. We’re going to build on Destiny. 9/9 isn’t just launch and forget. We did a bunch of this with Hoppers [temporary playlists], I guess, in previous Halo games, but we’re on a much greater scale of potential change, if we choose to do it.
TSA: Finally, going back again to the alpha and beta, it was Peter Dinklage’s voice acting which was such a hot topic…
Jonty: Yeah, and to be clear, the alpha wasn’t really meant for public consumption. I think we really wanted to give you guys great access to see what it was and to understand the game more. There was always going to be sound design on Peter Dinklage’s voice.
I apologise to Peter that we didn’t even pick the final best takes or anything, because it was in development! We had something functional in there in some areas, some real choice lines, but we hadn’t really got it to a point where it was ready for prime time.
The Ghost in the game, because we’re trying to have such social engagements between players, is very much a crutch to let you know what you’re doing. It isn’t like the dominant story device that perhaps people thought. You know, working with Peter was great, and we’ve made a bunch of changes since the alpha…
TSA: So it’s not been a case that he’s been called back into the studio to re-record, but you’ve been going through existing samples?
Jonty: Well, to be transparent, we already had a studio session planned for Peter after the alpha. It would be disingenuous also to say that, with all the attention that it got, we didn’t put extra scrutiny on it, because we did. It certainly added to our microscope of trying to make it as successful as possible, but we had lots of planned work post-alpha that was always going to happen.
You tend to find in game development that your VO recording and your timing of lines and selects are one of the last stages of audio work. So I guess it was inevitable in hindsight that we were going to expose some flaws in there.
Peter’s great though, he’s great to work with.
TSA: Yeah, he’s such a popular and accomplished actor these days. Will his line about a certain Wizard coming from the Moon make a return?
Jonty: Maybe, maybe.
TSA: I think people want it back, even given how cheesy it was.
Jonty: We’ve got a great plan, let’s just say that… [laughs]
Thanks again to Jonty for taking the time out of his lunch break to chat with us, and all the efforts to fit us in during the inevitable madness that was Gamescom. Destiny, as I’m sure you’re all already aware, it out on 9th September on PS3, PS4, Xbox 360, Xbox One, and PC.