In the summer of 2013, months before they were supposed to ship their next video game, the game developers at Bungie went into panic mode.
The storied studio, best known for creating the multi-million-selling Halo series, had spent the previous three years working on something they hoped would be revolutionary. Destiny, as they called it, was to be a cross between a traditional shooter like Halo and a massive multiplayer game like World of Warcraft. It was going to become a cultural touchstone. "We want people to put the Destiny universe on the same shelf they put Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter or Star Wars," Bungie COO Pete Parsons said in an interview two years ago. Reports suggested that the publisher Activision had committed to a ten-year deal worth $US500 million to make that happen.
Two years ago, something went wrong. Destiny's writing team, led by the well-respected Bungie veteran Joe Staten, had been working on the game for several years. They'd put together what they called the 'supercut' — a two-hour video comprising the game's cinematics and major story beats. In July, they showed it to the studio's leadership. That's when things went off the rails, according to six people who worked on Destiny. Senior staff at Bungie were unhappy with how the supercut had turned out. They decided it was too campy and linear, sources say, and they quickly decided to scrap Staten's version of the story and start from scratch.
In the coming weeks, the development team would devise a totally new plot, overhauling Destiny and painstakingly stitching together the version that would ultimately ship a year later, in September 2014. The seams showed. Reviewers singled out the story in particular, knocking the vague plot, thin characters, and opaque dialogue. One line, unconvincingly uttered by a cold lump of person-shaped metal named The Stranger, encapsulated the game's narrative problems: "I don't have time to explain why I don't have time to explain."
Today, as Destiny enters its second year, a lot has improved. The most recent expansion, The Taken King, has levity and charm the likes of which Destiny players hadn't seen before. But questions remain. How did such an ambitious game wind up with such a bare-bones plot? Why did Bungie seemingly change so much of the story before it shipped? And how did it ship in a state that required so much tweaking after it launched? What really happened behind the scenes of Destiny?
For the past 13 months, I've been investigating the answers to those questions. After conversations with over half a dozen current and former Bungie employees, all speaking anonymously because they were not authorised to talk publicly about these issues, the story that has emerged is one of a studio that was overwhelmed by a sudden reboot, a ruthless production schedule, and a number of other debilitating factors including the technical challenges of a brand new game engine. Bungie's last Halo game, Halo Reach, had come out in 2010. The studio had been working on its next big thing at least since then. Despite that, much of Destiny as we know it today wasn't actually conceived until 2013, a year before it shipped.
Bungie did not respond to requests for comment.
In February of 2013, Bungie invited journalists to their offices in Bellevue, Washington for the official unveiling of Destiny. Details had been trickling out in the previous months thanks to early leaks, but this was the big blowout — the event where the well-regarded studio would finally reveal what they'd been doing since releasing Reach in 2010.
What they did show was ambitious: They promised that Destiny would be "the first shared-world shooter," a game where you could seamlessly meet up with friends and strangers among the swamps of Chicago and the rings of Saturn. Over the following year, Bungie would publish trailers with equally ambitious claims: "You hear shots ring out, and you look to the left and there's your friend," said one Bungie staffer in a Destiny video. "There he is, like there was no matchmaking, he just pops right in."
When Destiny finally came out in September of 2014, players immediately noticed that something was off. There was no grand, Star Wars-calibre story. In fact, there wasn't much of a story at all; Destiny's missions were at best vague and at worst incoherent, strung together by a mess of proper nouns and hilarious dialogue. Proclaims lead actor and constant companion Peter Dinklage during one early mission: "The sword is close. I can feel its power… Careful! Its power is dark." That's one of the game's more memorable lines.
Thanks to the discrepancies between Bungie's promises and the final product, rumours spread that Destiny had gone through major changes late in development. Fans went back through Bungie's old videos, pinpointing characters and missions that weren't actually in the game, like the planet Saturn and a blue-skinned alien who was shown in one cut-scene pointing a gun at the player's character. It was almost wishful thinking: Surely, fans thought, Bungie couldn't have intentionally released a game with a story this bad? Surely the plot was changed at the last minute?
Turns out they were right.
In the summer of 2013, just over a year before Destiny came out, the story got a full reboot, according to six people who were there. Bungie ditched everything Joe Staten and his team had written, reworking Destiny's entire structure as they scrapped plot threads, overhauled characters, and rewrote most of the dialogue. The decision was made against Staten's wishes, sources say. Destiny project lead Jason Jones and the rest of senior leadership were unhappy with the writing team's supercut, and their reaction was to scrap it all.
Destiny's story went through several revisions before the reboot, but the supercut's version revolved around players' hunt for the warmind Rasputin, according to two people familiar with the original plans. In today's Destiny, Rasputin doesn't do much but listen to classical music in a steel bunker on Earth, but in the 2013 version, he would have starred in a more prominent role. Alien Hive would have kidnapped the machine and brought him to their Dreadnaught spaceship, which was later cut from vanilla Destiny and moved to The Taken King. Originally, this Hive ship would have been part of the main story. "The entire last third of the game took place on the Dreadnaught with you rescuing Rasputin," said one person who worked on the game.
Fans have long wondered about the bloody Exo in one early piece of Destiny concept art. Turns out that was Rasputin, according to a source. In the original story, the player would have rescued this guy from the Hive.
(In the DLC, we would have learned that this Exo was actually a puppet being controlled by a Warmind, the source said.)
The story would have also starred a character familiar to hardcore Destiny fans: Osiris, described by one source as an Obi-Wan Kenobi-like mentor living in an ancient Vex temple on Mercury. Although Osiris has yet to appear in the version of Destiny that shipped, he does have a presence thanks to a competitive multiplayer gauntlet designed in his name: the Trials of Osiris. Groups of flawless victors in Trials of Osiris gain access to the enigmatic wizard's Mercury temple, which was salvaged from the original story and reused here. In the pre-reboot Destiny story, Osiris served as a guide for the main player. He had a robotic assistant whose model was, according to a source, scrapped and reused for yet another character who will be familiar to hardcore Destiny fans: the Stranger.
She wasn't the only character who would be reused. At E3 2013, Bungie played a Destiny gameplay trailer that showed a slick blue-skinned Awoken gentleman pointing a gun at the player character. Sharp-eyed players theorised that this Awoken was called the Crow, based on a pre-release screenshot of a mission (that does not actually appear in Destiny), instructing the player to "help the Crow loot the Academy archive."
That theory was correct, sources say. In Destiny's original story, the Crow would have met the players in an early mission — where we'd have witnessed the standoff from the screenshot — and worked with them to find Osiris. One person familiar with the original story described the Crow as rogueish and charming, not unlike Nathan Fillion's character, Cayde-6, in the most recent expansion. "Basically, who Cayde-6 is in The Taken King was the personality of the Crow," that person told me.
Bungie reused the Crow's model for a new character: the Awoken Queen's brother, Prince Uldren. They reused the name in the current version of Destiny, too — the Queen's army of spies are called the Crows, and Uldren is their boss.
The pre-reboot Destiny had way more of a focus on story than the actual game wound up having. "Story missions [before the reboot] always began with a Communique from a character," said a source. "They were 30-45 second cutscenes of the NPC setting up the mission context. Osiris announcing a dramatic discovery about the Vex and asking you to dig up an ancient relic on Mars, or the Crow calling for help from the middle of a firefight with Fallen on Venus. And then every mission ended with a full cutscene, three to five minutes."
Different people who saw the supercut disagreed on its quality. In an interview, one person who worked on Destiny called it terrible. "It was just a confusing, highly esoteric story that just didn't make sense," that person said. Others argued otherwise. "There was some very cool stuff, very powerful stuff," said one. "It had strong characters; it had a beginning, middle, and end… It unravelled and solved an entire mystery in this corner of the universe."
A third person familiar with the game offered another take: The story was interesting, but the supercut didn't do it justice. "While the quality of the supercut was bad, the plot itself wasn't inherently bad," said that person. "It made sense on paper. It was also constantly being edited and changed. It turned into a Frankenstein amalgamation like the rest of the game."
Everyone I spoke to agreed on one point: Bungie's senior leadership, including Jason Jones, didn't like what they saw. Some in the studio took issue with the rhythm of progression, which would have shown players all four main planets — Earth, the Moon, Venus, and Mars — within the first few missions of the game. (Obviously the moon isn't technically a "planet," but in the parlance of Destiny, the two are interchangeable.) According to one source, Jones also told the team that he wanted a less linear story — one in which the player could decide where to go at any time. That became one of Destiny's key pillars.
So in July of 2013, Bungie's leadership decided to totally reboot Destiny's story. They kept much of the lore and mythology — the Traveller, the idea of Guardians, enemy races like Cabal and Vex — but they overhauled Staten's entire plot, according to the people who spoke to me for this piece.
Over the next few months, Jones did two pivotal things, sources said. He designed the interface we know now as the director, a sleek set of maps in which missions are presented as nodes within each planet. He also organised a series of extensive meetings called "Iron Bar" where he and other top creators at Bungie like art director Chris Barrett and design lead Luke Smith would figure out how to cobble together a new, less linear plot for the game. This small group of developers spent the next two weeks sketching out a new plot and figuring out how to fit in the story missions they'd created over the past few years.
In the weeks after the reboot, the Iron Bar group — along with a team of designers and producers called Blacksmith (because they'd hammer and polish the "Iron Bar") — came up with a new plan for Destiny. They rescoped the game, cutting out the Dreadnaught and moving it to the expansion, which was then called Comet. They changed the order in which players would progress between each planet. And they cut apart each story mission, splicing together encounters from a variety of old pieces to form the chimera that was Destiny's new campaign.
"[The design team] would have to cobble together and cut and restitch and reuse a bunch of stuff that was already built for a different thread, but now tie it together in some way that fit this amorphous, 'You pick which way you're going in the director' story," said one person familiar with Destiny's development.
"The priority was, 'Hey, we have to take a bunch of content that we've spent millions of dollars on, we need to cobble it together in a way that is not going to break continuity, and we've gotta do it quickly.'"
Casualties of this process included characters like Osiris and Charlemagne, an artificial intelligence on Mars who was promoted in early Destiny previews but never appeared in the game. Other characters, like the Crow and Osiris's assistant, were rewritten and recycled, becoming, respectively, Prince Uldren and the Stranger. Many of the story missions that actually shipped with Destiny were stitched together from older ones, sources said.
"So if you were going from point A to point Z in the course of [the original, pre-reboot story], they would take out section H-J because it was really tight encounter design and they'd put it off to the side and say, 'How do we get H-J in this other storyline?'" said a source. "It was literally like making Franken-story.
"[Someone might say] 'I've got a really good encounter here' or 'There's this mechanism for triggering this that needs to happen,' so 'OK, cool, let's take a piece of A and a piece of X and we'll tie it together.' And that was done for everything. What it basically did was put an order on the planets for you to go Earth, Moon, Venus, Mars, and within those you've got all the missions that were there. But the missions as they shipped were actually sliced up and stitched together versions of the original story, including the cinematics."
Joe Staten left the company during the mid-summer reboot, although Bungie didn't announce his departure until September, 2013. Two sources say the parting was not amicable, and when I reached out to him, Staten declined to comment for this article. Although the story he directed is no longer part of Destiny, much of his mythology remains, and even after the reboot, many of the writers Staten had hired stayed at Bungie to work on dialogue, flavour text, and what they call grimoire cards — a large library of rich, interesting lore that's only accessible outside of the game, on Bungie's website. (Most of Staten's hires have since left the studio; Bungie later recruited a new slate of writers to pen the story and dialogue for The Taken King.)
As the reboot was happening, the developers of Destiny still thought they were going to ship the game in March 2014, according to two people who were there. They'd already delayed the game from its original release window of September 2013, but in the wake of the reboot, company leadership knew they'd need more time. While holding these development meetings, Jones and other top executives like Bungie CEO Harold Ryan went through the lengthy, complicated process of asking Activision for yet another extension, according to a source. After some negotiation, they secured a ship date of September 2014.
Over the next few months, driven by Iron Bar's story changes, Bungie's developers continued building Destiny. One source said after they got the extension, the studio's priority was to polish and perfect the gameplay: how the primary thing you did in the game — shoot guns — felt, how public spaces would function, how encounters worked. The prioritised this instead of building a coherent story. Narrative took a back seat, as did the writers themselves. "The writing team Joe put together was ostracized," said one person who worked on the game. "The story was written without writers."
"The extension actually made it so we could get things to the base level of acceptability, and that's what we shipped," said another person who worked on the game. "If we didn't have that extension, there's no way we could've shipped in March."
Destiny came out on 9 September 2014. Most of the development team was proud of the game, a source told me, and many were shocked to see harsh reviews; although most at Bungie had anticipated that players wouldn't love the story, the team thought Destiny made up for that deficiency in many other ways. One source says they had internal surveys pegging the Metacritic score at around a 90 average; it turned out to be a 76. (Bungie then missed out on a major bonus, that source confirmed.)
Critics and fans did indeed love the look and feel of the game, but even beyond the lacklustre story, there was much to criticise in Destiny: the random loot system, the grindiness, the bizarre levelling, and many irritating bugs and glitches. Some of the decisions Bungie had made, like randomizing legendary loot engrams so they'd occasionally drop lower-tier items, infuriated even the most devoted players, and although Bungie fixed that — along with some of Destiny's other early problems — they made a bad first impression. To early players, and even to those who stuck with the game for the long haul, playing Destiny felt like battling against the developers themselves.
Right after Destiny launched, Bungie's developers started absorbing all the feedback they'd seen online, according to a source. Although they didn't know where they'd be taking the game over the next year, they did quickly recognise that they needed to change a lot, including the obscure and often frustrating levelling system. They rebooted the first DLC pack, December 2014's The Dark Below, scant months before it was due to ship, according to two sources. (One person familiar with development says Bungie sequestered a team and had them crunch out Dark Below in just nine weeks, which may explain how insubstantial it was.)
In December of 2014, Diablo III director Josh Mosqueira and a few other members of his team at Blizzard came to Bungie for a talk, according to two people who were there. The parallels were uncanny; Diablo III had launched to commercial success in 2012 but saw a great deal of criticism from fans thanks to randomised loot, frustrating online DRM, and a lack of endgame content. Both games shared a publisher, Activision, that thought Destiny could redeem itself in fans' eyes the way Diablo III eventually had after its release.
"They basically came in and said, 'Look, here's our story of developing Diablo III and then bringing in [the expansion] Reaper of Souls,'" said one person who was at the Blizzard talk. "They were saying, like, 'Hey, random numbers are not fun — dice rolls are not fun. You can give the illusion of randomness, but you want to weight it towards the player… The only point you have to deliver on is that when people leave your game — because they will — when they leave your game, they need to be happy.'"
People who were at the presentation say it was extraordinarily helpful for Bungie's team. One source called it "invaluable." Others said it drove some of the decisions they made for The Taken King. In previous interviews with Kotaku and other sites, director Luke Smith has talked openly about avoiding randomness and designing quests with guaranteed rewards, an approach that has served Destiny well throughout year two so far. Destiny's meta-narrative has followed the same path as Diablo III's: It had a rocky launch, then the developers found redemption.
Before anyone could be redeemed, Bungie had to ship The Taken King, which had been going through its own set of development issues. Pre-production on this expansion, which was code-named Comet, had started in late 2013. Two sources say the original plan was to release this major expansion at $US60 and include a brand new planet, Europa, as well as a new area on Earth called the European Dead Zone (which itself had been pushed back from vanilla Destiny). They also hoped to add a totally new feature called multiple fireteam activities, which a source described like this: "Imagine like you and I are in a fireteam, and we're fighting down this one path that converges with two other paths and you get three fireteams all fighting together against a boss, or against some sort of mobs."
None of that happened. In March of 2014, Bungie rebooted Comet, sources say. The team ultimately decided to focus it around a single major map — the Hive ship that had been cut from vanilla Destiny — as well as a new public space on Mars, complete with strikes and a new raid. (That entire last Mars chunk was later cut and passed to Activision subsidiary High Moon Studios to develop for Destiny's full-sized 2016 sequel, a source said. They're helping Bungie make the game.) Over the months, Bungie kept rescoping as they looked more realistically at what they could do, and the final version of The Taken King — the one that shipped last month — wound up focusing solely on the Dreadnaught.
It's not uncommon for a game's scope to reduce during development, but Bungie had a unique problem. People who worked on this project say that one of Bungie's fundamental issues over the past few years has been the game's engine, which the studio built from scratch alongside Destiny. Four sources pointed to Destiny's technology — the tools they use to design levels, render graphics, and create content — as an inhibiting factor in the game's development.
"Let's say a designer wants to go in and move a resource node two inches," said one person familiar with the engine. "They go into the editor. First they have to load their map overnight. It takes eight hours to input their map overnight. They get [into the office] in the morning. If their importer didn't fail, they open the map. It takes about 20 minutes to open. They go in and they move that node two feet. And then they'd do a 15-20 minute compile. Just to do a half-second change."
People who have worked with Destiny's tech say the company is capable of powering incredible things behind the scenes, like player matchmaking. It's also clear that Destiny is one of the best-looking video games ever made. But as a tool-set for designers, sources say, Destiny's engine is subpar, and creating new maps and missions at Bungie can be gruelling for developers.
Once Destiny launched in September 2014, Bungie's staff didn't have much time to celebrate. Over the next few months, the developers had to grind constantly. First they had to deliver two DLC packs that each justified $US20; then they had to release a massive $US40 expansion the following fall. They needed a live team working on constant patches and bug-fixes, and they also needed to plant flags to set players up for the major changes that The Taken King would eventually bring.
The grind of this process led Bungie to approach Activision with another proposition that would alter the ambitious release schedule they'd previously agreed to: They had released two DLC packs, The Dark Below and House of Wolves, and they had released one expansion, the codenamed Comet that was properly titled The Taken King. What if, instead of releasing two more DLC packs after The Taken King, they tried something new? What if they sold cosmetic items in the Tower? And then put out a dripfeed of free content to keep people playing in the months before "Destiny 2" — or whatever they wind up calling it — in the fall of 2016?
"There was a bet that was, 'Hey if we did microtransactions, I bet you we could generate enough revenue to make up for the loss of DLCs,'" said a source. "Instead of it going Destiny, DLC1, DLC2, Comet, DLC1, DLC2, they're actually just gonna go [big] release and then incremental release. So it will just be Destiny, Comet, Destiny, Comet every year. It's basically just switching the game to an annual model."
Even that process may be rough for Bungie. Destiny's contract had been leaked in 2012 as part of the messy lawsuit between EA and Activision and it stipulates that the studio stick to this yearly plan, no matter what other extenuating factors might arise. No matter how many hours they have to devote to the game. "A lot of the problems that came up in Destiny 1, and that happened in development of The Taken King, are results of having an unwavering schedule and unwieldy tools," said a source. "Bungie is ravenously appreciative of the people that play their games, and they listen, they listen so clearly. But because the tools are shit, and because no one can reach consensus on how to fix the game in the time that's allotted, you get a lot of sort of paralysis."
It's hard not to speculate about what Destiny might have looked like with Staten's version of the story. People who worked on Destiny rave about the European Dead Zone and the raid on Mars, both of which may be added to the game in the coming months and years, but there's scepticism that this yearly schedule will really work for a studio like Bungie. Insiders worry that the studio, hampered by inadequate technology, could find itself overwhelmed by the never-ending demand for more content.
All things considered, it's remarkable that Bungie was able to ship anything in late 2014, let alone build a foundation as solid as vanilla Destiny. Fans who stuck with the game were rewarded by a great expansion with The Taken King. Maybe Bungie didn't quite make a Star Wars, but the story of Destiny — more specifically, the story around Destiny — turned out to be fascinating for reasons they could never have planned.