Iron Born

Bungie is get­ting me­dieval as it gears up for Des­tiny’s third year

EDGE - - SECTIONS - BY NATHAN BROWN

Bungie is get­ting me­dieval l as

Des­tiny en­ters its third year r with new ex­pan­sion Rise Of Ironon

Where else can we start, but Gjal­larhorn? Through­out Des­tiny’s first year this myth­i­cal rocket launcher was, for those not blessed by capri­cious RNG, the game’s whitest whale. To those that had it, it was their best friend, since it was by a dis­tance the game’s great­est weapon. But to Bungie it was

Des­tiny’s big­gest prob­lem. It melted enemy health bars, so Bungie made en­e­mies tougher, and more nu­mer­ous, in or­der to give play­ers a de­cent chal­lenge. The Gjal­larhorn­less were left be­hind, frus­trated, locked out of pickup raid groups by play­ers who deemed it so es­sen­tial that they re­fused to play with any­one who didn’t have it. Ru­mours swirled of Des­tiny’s trou­bled de­vel­op­ment: of a late, des­per­ate re­write of its story, of prob­lems with Bungie’s toolset, of the stu­dio’s strug­gles in ad­just­ing from mak­ing Halo to Des­tiny’s liv­ing, im­mea­sur­ably more com­plex world. But re­ally the big­gest prob­lem was a rocket launcher whose pay­load splin­tered into heat­seek­ing clus­ter bombs, and did its job a lit­tle too well.

TO THE PLAYER IT MEANS GET­TING THEIR HANDS BACK ON A GUN THEY THOUGHT HAD BEEN LOST FOR­EVER

How, then, do you a solve a prob­lem like Gjal­larhorn? Do you make it less pow­er­ful, know­ing do­ing so will make it less ex­cit­ing? Do you buff every­thing else, with likely the same re­sults? For last year’s The Taken King ex­pan­sion, Bungie de­cided the best, most el­e­gant an­swer to The Gjal­larhorn Ques­tion was to not an­swer it at all. It aban­doned the gun en­tirely. Power crept and slunk away from its for­mer king, the most pow­er­ful gun in the game’s first year un­able to keep the pace in its sec­ond.

The game was a good deal bet­ter bal­anced as a re­sult, but per­haps a lit­tle less ex­cit­ing. Now, as

Des­tiny pre­pares to en­ter its third year, Gjal­larhorn is back. Com­plete an early quest and, re­gard­less of whether or not you ever had it – and ir­re­spec­tive of whether you pre­ordered Rise Of Iron for that ex­clu­sive weapon skin – Gjal­larhorn will be yours.

Rise Of Iron’s over­rid­ing theme, we’re told, is nos­tal­gia; in story terms that means trav­el­ling far back in Des­tiny’s lore, but to the player it means get­ting their hands back on a gun they thought had been lost for­ever, sealed away be­neath the Earth by a de­vel­op­ment team that wanted to save fu­ture gen­er­a­tions from the game-break­ing prob­lem it had un­wit­tingly cre­ated. Co­in­ci­dence: that is also pretty much the setup for Rise Of Iron’s story mis­sions.

It is also a de­cent way of ex­plain­ing the cur­rent state of Des­tiny. Yes, Gjal­larhorn is back but, nec­es­sar­ily, it isn’t quite so ex­cit­ing any more. It still kills things, still has those heat­seek­ing clus­ter bombs, but now it dents, rather than oblit­er­ates, a large enemy’s health bar. While Bungie has never con­firmed it, it is an open in­dus­try se­cret that Des­tiny 2 was orig­i­nally meant to launch this au­tumn. Only a few months ago, when the de­ci­sion was made to push its re­lease back to 2017 – a de­ci­sion that seem­ingly did for now-ex-Bungie-pres­i­dent Harold Ryan – did Rise

Of Iron come into ex­is­tence. The Taken King cre­ative di­rec­tor Luke Smith is now lead­ing de­vel­op­ment of the full Des­tiny se­quel. Gjal­larhorn may not be the gun we fell in love with, but it is still Gjal­larhorn. Rise Of

Iron may not be Des­tiny 2. Nor does it rep­re­sent quite the same level of trans­for­ma­tion for Des­tiny as a whole as that de­liv­ered this time last year by The

Taken King. But it is new Des­tiny, and if you love Des­tiny, then that will suf­fice for now.

Which is not to say that this is the work of a stu­dio go­ing through the mo­tions. In­stead, it’s the prod­uct of a com­pany that seems, steadily over time, to con­tinue work­ing to un­der­stand the com­plex beast it has cre­ated. What works and what doesn’t; what needs at­ten­tion and what is best left un­touched. So, build­ing on the tremen­dous nar­ra­tive progress made in The Taken King, story again sits at the core of Rise Of Iron. And just as last year’s ex­pan­sion turned some of the static, bland NPCs in its so­cial hubs into ac­tual char­ac­ters, this year’s tells of Sal­adin, the last sur­viv­ing Iron Lord. For the past two years his Des­tiny role has in­volved stand­ing be­fore a flam­ing gong ev­ery fourth week as host of the Iron Ban­ner mul­ti­player tour­na­ment. For a time, it was the PVP con­nois­seur’s only route to endgame gear, in­clud­ing weapons named af­ter Sal­adin’s fel­low, fallen Iron Lords. Gheleon’s Demise, Jolder’s Ham­mer, Timur’s Lash; more ex­cel­lent names for guns in a game that is full of them, yes, but they hinted at some­thing big­ger. Gheleon, Jolder and Timur were once Sal­adin’s broth­ers in arms. They were nine in all, and to­gether sealed a dev­as­tat­ingly pow­er­ful relic deep be­neath the sur­face of Rus­sia’s Cos­mod­rome, a mis­sion that spelt the end for all of them but Sal­adin.

The Fallen have been dig­ging up the Cos­mod­rome look­ing for this relic and, in­evitably, have fi­nally found it. Us­ing its power, Siva, they have aug­mented them­selves to form a new fac­tion – part Fallen, part ma­chine – called the Devil Splicers. Just as last year’s Taken riffed on ex­ist­ing enemy de­signs, Devil Splicers look fa­mil­iar – red and black com­pared to the reg­u­lar Fallen’s blue and white – but may act in alien ways (on death, Van­dals re­lease a heat-seek­ing orb of pur­ple en­ergy, sim­i­lar to the Hive’s Shriek­ers). You’ll fight them across the Cos­mod­rome, the first area you vis­ited in vanilla

Des­tiny, but which has now been ex­panded and cov­ered in a thick car­pet of snow. It is by-the-book

Des­tiny ex­pan­sion-mak­ing: hav­ing you ven­ture through an area you know and fight en­e­mies you recog­nise, but in a subtly, suf­fi­ciently dif­fer­ent way for the whole thing to feel fresh. That, ac­cord­ing to lead world de­signer Steve Cot­ton, chimes well with

Rise Of Iron’s nar­ra­tive themes.

“THIS IS ABOUT THE IRON LORDS AND NOS­TAL­GIA. IT’S NOT ABOUT BURY­ING THE PAST, BUT AP­PRE­CI­AT­ING IT”

“We built Des­tiny to be able to tell a lot of sto­ries,” he tells us, “and we chose this be­cause we felt it was a dif­fer­ent type of story than the player had been through be­fore. The Taken King was about re­venge; [year-one DLC] House Of Wolves was an out­law story. This is about the Iron Lords, and it’s about nos­tal­gia. It’s not about bury­ing the past, but ap­pre­ci­at­ing it, re­spect­ing what Sal­adin did with the rest of the Iron Lords. Even though you know Sal­adin al­ready – he’s a char­ac­ter that al­ready ex­isted – we felt like he had a re­ally rich, in­ter­est­ing story to tell.”

It also al­lows for fur­ther gen­tle it­er­a­tion on the struc­ture of Des­tiny as a whole. Fel­win­ter’s Peak is the game’s third so­cial space, but is un­like the oth­ers, which sim­ply ap­peared as blobs on the Di­rec­tor galaxy map for you to load into. In­stead you will first travel to it through a fa­mil­iar part of the Cos­mod­rome, then re­claim it from the Fallen. And once you have it, it will change over time, in stark con­trast to the Tower and Reef which, aside from the odd themed event, have lain un­changed since the day we first vis­ited them. Fel­win­ter’s Peak is home to a mau­soleum, with a statue for each of the fallen Iron Lords; at the out­set you’ll see the fires be­neath them go out one by one. Each week you’ll un­der­take a quest to re­light one of those fires. It’s im­pos­si­ble not to think of Dark Souls III here, and the way FromSoft­ware’s world hubs evolve over time. For

Des­tiny, it shows how Bungie is work­ing, in in­cre­ments, to im­prove its world; join­ing up pre­vi­ously dis­parate el­e­ments, giv­ing life to spa­ces that felt like static scenes.

“There’s noth­ing more im­por­tant,” says ex­ec­u­tive pro­ducer Scott Tay­lor. “You es­tab­lish your high cre­ative goal, and then ev­ery time you build some­thing you think, ‘How does this tie into that? And how do we do that in a way that feels ex­cit­ing?’ It just makes it feel big­ger, el­e­vates it, if you feel like there’s been a lot of thought put into how the in­di­vid­ual thing you’re do­ing ties into other things. It just feels more in­ten­tional, and that’s ex­cit­ing to us.”

And ex­cit­ing to the player too, since re­light­ing an Iron Lord’s fire re­wards you with one of eight new ar­ti­facts. This gear piece, when in­tro­duced in The Taken King, was just an­other block­ade on your route to the level cap. The va­ri­eties of­fered in­trin­sic ben­e­fits, but they were mar­ginal in na­ture. Well, no longer. Mem­ory Of Gheleon makes the screen-cor­ner radar, which nor­mally dis­ap­pears when you aim down sights, a per­ma­nent fix­ture. Mem­ory Of Timur may turn an enemy against their al­lies when struck with a melee at­tack. Mem­ory Of Fel­win­ter strips you of your Su­per, but grants you an ex­tra grenade and melee charge. Some are of more use in the Cru­cible, oth­ers in the PVE com­po­nent. But you’ll be able to choose one of three ev­ery week, com­plet­ing a quest and se­cur­ing an ar­ti­fact that will fun­da­men­tally change the way you play the game and build your load­out. PVP play­ers, for ex­am­ple, pre­fer guns with the Third Eye perk, which grants per­ma­nent radar; with the Mem­ory Of Gheleon, they can use any gun they want to.

In the build we play – which Bungie is pre­par­ing to take to Gamescom when we visit – the ar­ti­facts are the ma­jor point of dif­fer­en­ti­a­tion be­tween Rise Of Iron and Des­tiny as we al­ready know it. Guns and ar­mour of­fer fa­mil­iar perks, with only the re­born (but un­der­pow­ered) Gjal­larhorn of­fer­ing any nov­elty. How­ever, the fi­nal game will of­fer a suite of new leg­endary and ex­otic weapons – and, as in The Taken King, many will be ac­quired through fixed, prop­erly ad­ver­tised means, with­out forc­ing play­ers to rely on dice rolls. A new in­ven­tory item, the Record Book, shows your progress to­wards a num­ber of dif­fer­ent goals, and the re­wards that will be given to you when you reach them. It’s an idea in­tro­duced in The Taken King era – first with the Spar­row Rac­ing League, then the Mo­ments Of Tri­umph quest, which of­fers re­wards for com­plet­ing the year’s tough­est chal­lenges. Rise Of Iron’s is there from the start.

“We’ve fleshed it out much fur­ther,” game di­rec­tor Chris Bar­ratt tells us. “We want to have more guar­an­teed re­wards for play­ers, which they can see how to ac­quire. Right off the bat we have a full list of some of the ma­jor re­wards you can get from Rise Of Iron. There’s a page for the raid; there’s a page for the Cru­cible. The more we can get that stuff in front of the player, and tie it into the story and theme, it all feels co­her­ent and tied to­gether. It’s great that we have such a big Red­dit com­mu­nity, but one of our goals has been to make it so the game doesn’t re­quire Red­dit to play, or en­joy it.”

“HOW DO WE MAKE PLAY­ERS FEEL BET­TER ABOUT AN EX­PE­RI­ENCE WHERE THEY’RE WIN­NING HALF THEIR GAMES?”

If Rise Of Iron feels a lit­tle safe in con­cept com­pared to The Taken King, it’s more a com­men­tary on the fact that there’s a good deal less wrong with Des­tiny than there was this time last year. TTK’s many struc­tural changes and qual­ity-of-life tweaks were a solid foun­da­tion, to the point that the only real prob­lem with Des­tiny’s PVE com­po­nent over the past 12 months has been a lack of con­tent – a prob­lem Rise Of Iron fixes by sim­ple virtue of its ex­is­tence. Yet in the Cru­cible, things have been rather dif­fer­ent.

Des­tiny’s PVP com­po­nent has had a tor­rid year of it. Glitches – one that gave the Hunter’s Night­stalker sub­class an end­less sup­ply of ar­rows dur­ing its Su­per, an­other that gave play­ers of ev­ery class un­lim­ited rocket-launcher ammo – have had Bungie’s hot­fix­ers play­ing catchup to the darker cor­ners of its com­mu­nity. One patch in­tro­duced wide­spread con­nec­tiv­ity is­sues; an­other left some play­ers able to dish out only a sin­gle point of dam­age to op­po­nents. The Cru­cible beats to a very dif­fer­ent rhythm to the PVE side of the game, which updates and re­sets ev­ery Tues­day. Iron Ban­ner runs one week out of ev­ery four; week­ends play host to the Tri­als Of Osiris, a pun­ish­ing, yet in­tox­i­cat­ing 3v3 tour­na­ment. How­ever, at times, the prob­lems were so bad that Bungie had to de­lay, or out­right can­cel, these pil­lar events. “Well, it’s a live game, right?” lead Cru­cible de­signer Lars Bakken says. “The nice thing is, we get to re­act and up­date. But the ter­ri­ble thing is, we get to re­act and up­date! Some­times you make a change to some sys­tem not re­al­is­ing it’s go­ing to hit this other sys­tem, or this other thing on the other side of the game, in a dif­fer­ent part of the code­base. We test con­stantly – we have an amaz­ing test team, and this is not on them at all. But some­times, some­thing you can test with 20, 30 or 100 peo­ple doesn’t be­come ap­par­ent un­til you have a cou­ple of hun­dred thou­sand peo­ple play­ing. Al­most all the time, that’s what the cul­prit is. The game’s be­ing played at scale and now we’re see­ing some­thing we could never have tested in­ter­nally any­way.”

Yet while those prob­lems come, get fixed and go, Bungie’s match­mak­ing al­go­rithm has been a more per­sis­tent cause of con­cern. At the core of the prob­lem is a phrase that, in the­ory, is the mul­ti­player game de­signer’s wet dream: Skill-Based Match­mak­ing. Isn’t that what we all want? To be put into games with peo­ple of equiv­a­lent skill to our­selves, so the novices don’t get stomped, and the hard­core get a chal­lenge de­serv­ing of their tal­ents? Surely that’s per­fect?

Seem­ingly not. Play­ers at the top end of the skill curve were the most up­set, since their post-work wind­down ses­sions were what mul­ti­player com­mu­ni­ties call ‘sweaty’ – ev­ery match was a real work­out against the best in the busi­ness. Worse still, skill level was pri­ori­tised over con­nec­tion qual­ity, so la­tency reared its head. On pa­per, skill-based match­mak­ing is the dream. In prac­tice it has been a bit of a night­mare.

“Look at the skill graph of the Des­tiny pop­u­la­tion,” Bakken says. “There are peo­ple who are not very good and peo­ple that are so good we don’t even un­der­stand how. How do you make it so that ev­ery­one has an OK time when they’re play­ing? Peo­ple tell us they just want to be able to make the choice, and we un­der­stand that. Some­times you just want to kick back and have fun. But what does that mean? Maybe to the group at the top of the skill curve that means, ‘I want to win the ma­jor­ity of my games’. But that’s tough, be­cause you’re play­ing against other hu­man play­ers. If your win per­cent­age is 65, 70 per cent – and there are peo­ple out there who are like that – then some­one out there is on a 30 per cent win ra­tio. And we don’t want that, be­cause they’re just go­ing to stop play­ing. How do we bal­ance that?”

“It’s a mov­ing tar­get,” Cot­ton of­fers. “We keep try­ing one thing, see­ing how the com­mu­nity re­sponds, then try­ing some­thing else. The thing we’re try­ing to un­der­stand, and build sys­tems for, is how do we make play­ers feel bet­ter about an ex­pe­ri­ence where they’re win­ning half their games? Be­cause we’re not do­ing a good job with that right now.”

Our time with Rise Of Iron’s Cru­cible com­po­nent is played over LAN, so it’s hardly a good test­ing ground for its match­mak­ing al­go­rithm. And there’s lit­tle worth say­ing about new mode Supremacy, which is es­sen­tially Call Of Duty’s Kill Con­firmed mode, where a felled op­po­nent drops an en­gram which must be col­lected for the kill to count to­wards your team’s score. Yet Bakken and co’s other in­no­va­tion will be rap­tur­ously re­ceived by the Cru­cible com­mu­nity, since it’s been ask­ing for it for a while – and means play­ers can sidestep any fu­ture prob­lems with the match­mak­ing al­go­rithm. Pri­vate matches let you set team size, map, mode, time and score limit, and play with peo­ple on your friends list.

“Lars and I have worked on the Cru­cible for a long time,” Cot­ton says, “and we’ve wanted to do pri­vate

“THIS IS OUR WAY OF SAY­ING ,‘ YES, WE UN­DER­STAND: YOU WANT TO PLAY IT THIS WAY. WE WANT TO, TOO ’”

matches for a long time. But there have been lots of other things we’ve wanted to do, too: new ex­pe­ri­ences, new places to go, new game modes. We had to pri­ori­tise. This just seemed like the right time.”

“The com­mu­nity has al­ready found ways to play with each other with­out pri­vate matches,” Bakken says. “It’s a re­ally bad ex­pe­ri­ence for them, we know that. We didn’t want them to have to keep do­ing it. It showed they were so in­vested in the game that they were will­ing to ef­fec­tively break match­mak­ing to try to play to­gether. This is our way of say­ing, ‘Yes, we un­der­stand: you want to play it this way. We want to, too’.”

What Bakken of­fers backs up what we were told at Bungie’s of­fices this time last year – that this is a stu­dio which un­der­stands that Des­tiny can only reach its true po­ten­tial if it’s de­vel­oped with the wants and needs of its com­mu­nity, not just its de­sign teams, up­per­most in its thoughts. That Des­tiny is, and per­haps al­ways will be, a work in progress. The same ap­plies to Bungie it­self: while this has been a quiet year for Des­tiny, with no sub­stan­tial, paid-for con­tent re­lease since The Taken King, be­hind the scenes the stu­dio has changed sub­stan­tially – in a way that will ben­e­fit not just the com­pany but, in the long run, the game to which it has com­mit­ted a sub­stan­tial chunk of its 25 years in busi­ness and on which it has wa­gered its fu­ture.

Re­ports last year claimed that Bungie’s tools were a ma­jor fac­tor in the way that the launch ver­sion of Des­tiny failed, to put it mildly, to meet ex­pec­ta­tions. Sources told Ko­taku that lengthy com­pile times made con­tent cre­ation, or even the slight­est of ed­its to the front end, a night­mare for Bungie’s teams. Jonty Barnes, the stu­dio’s VP of game de­vel­op­ment, won’t say whether that was ac­tu­ally the case. But he does ad­mit that the stu­dio had struc­tural, and tech­ni­cal, prob­lems that held Des­tiny back, that were rooted in the stu­dio’s growth from 150 staff on Halo: Reach to over 600 now, and a fail­ure to change as num­bers grew. Those prob­lems, he says, have been fixed.

“We had one team do­ing every­thing, so if we wanted to make dis­rup­tive changes to our toolset, we still had to keep the game run­ning. When Des­tiny was grow­ing, we were still one team for too long. There were peo­ple who were frus­trated be­cause they didn’t know what to fo­cus on. Now, we have a stu­dio that’s di­vided into three ini­tia­tives. Our first is Des­tiny Main, a large team of peo­ple that’s fo­cused on the next ma­jor up­date – I’m sure it’s not un­known to you that Des­tiny 2 is re­leas­ing next year. We’ve also built a live team that’s re­spon­si­ble for re­act­ing to play­ers and the per­sis­tent world; Rise Of

Iron is [the work of] part of the live team group. “Then we have the en­gine team. Their pri­or­ity – equiv­a­lent to a game re­lease – is dis­rup­tive tech­nol­ogy to im­prove our de­vel­op­ment. There’s sig­nif­i­cant op­por­tu­nity for us to get more ef­fi­cient in the way we make our games. There are ini­tia­tives that will re­ally change the way you ex­pe­ri­ence Des­tiny. And we have a bunch of ideas. We take tools in­cred­i­bly se­ri­ously. But we had to make that sep­a­ra­tion [of our teams], be­cause when you’re in a live en­vi­ron­ment, you can’t make dis­rup­tive changes. You’re break­ing the game.”

The en­gine team’s life has been made a lit­tle eas­ier, at least, by Rise Of Iron’s aban­don­ment of PS3 and Xbox 360 – a well-pub­li­cised mill­stone in Des­tiny’s evo­lu­tion, since mem­ory lim­i­ta­tions on the pre­vi­ous gen­er­a­tion of con­soles made it hard for Bungie to of­fer PS4 and Xbox One play­ers in­creased in­ven­tory space as new ex­pan­sions ex­panded the gear pool. Our sug­ges­tion that it must have been a dif­fi­cult de­ci­sion falls a lit­tle flat – while it wasn’t the case at Des­tiny’s launch in 2014, cur­rently fewer than ten per cent of play­ers are on what Bungie calls ‘legacy con­soles’. Those on 360 or PS3 who are up to date with the game and its ex­pan­sions will be able to make the switch to newer con­soles for a knock­down fee; be­gin­ners, mean­while, can get up to speed with The Des­tiny Col­lec­tion, a re­tail bun­dle of all con­tent up to and in­clud­ing Rise Of Iron, for the equiv­a­lent price of a new game.

Yet com­pelling as that of­fer may be, this is not the $60 Bungie prod­uct we ex­pected to be on shelves this year. Our visit to Bungie merely re­in­forces the sense that Rise Of Iron is a hand on the iron tiller; while last year we had vir­tu­ally free reign at the stu­dio, here we are con­fined to the ground floor, a care­fully planned stu­dio tour en­sur­ing we see no more than we are sup­posed to. Still, there’s plenty to be ex­cited about in Rise Of Iron: new things to see, new things to shoot and toys to shoot them with, a new raid, a long-re­quested PVP mode. A greater sense of co­her­ence to the way it is all knot­ted to­gether. And, of course, Gjal­larhorn. But through­out there will be the lin­ger­ing sense that some­thing else – some­thing big­ger – is on the way. Win­ter is com­ing, then, but per­haps not this year.

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