Bungie hopes to repeat 'Halo' success

Activision betting big on potential new franchise in sequel obsessed biz

After turning “Halo” into a multibillion-dollar videogame franchise for Microsoft, Bungie is ready to introduce a tentpole title for new partner Activision Blizzard with “Destiny.”

Hollywood is guaranteed to keep a close eye on the launch of the fantasy sci-fi shooter, expected to bow sometime next year. That’s because when it comes to launching new original entertainment properties, studios are no longer taking risks, turning instead to sequels or adaptations of young adult novels, toys, theme park attractions and vidgames.

Over the past decade, only James Cameron’s “Avatar” really stands out as an attempt to launch something new — an expensive gamble that paid off handsomely. “The Fast and the Furious,” a lower-budget actioner that turned into a major franchise for Universal, was released the same year the first “Halo” was introduced, in 2001.

“Destiny,” in development for more than four years, will prove whether it’s worth spending considerable coin on a new concept, cast of characters, world and mythology.

“The batting average of (successful) launches of new intellectual property is daunting,” Activision Publishing CEO Eric Hirshberg told Variety from Bungie’s studios in Bellevue, Wash., just east of Seattle. “Hollywood’s output is dominated by sequels. It’s no different in our business. You’re fighting against that when you launch something new.”

When Bungie created “Halo” 12 years ago, it reinvented a genre of action games and turned Microsoft’s Xbox division into a major player in the videogames biz.

With “Destiny,” Bungie is eager to reinvent the first-person shooter the way it did with “Halo.” To do that, “We needed to coin a new phrase: first shared world shooter,” said Pete Parsons, chief operating officer of Bungie.

“Destiny” operates as a sort of massively multiplayer online role-playing game that is always on through its connection to the Internet and offers live settings (sunrises and sunsets play out in real time, for example). What makes it unique is that gamers will encounter others playing out their own adventures and team up with them to fight otherworldly foes as their missions unfold.

In “Destiny,” gamers play the role of a guardian of the last city on Earth and explore the planet reclaimed by nature, along with moon bases and abandoned space stations on Mars and Venus, to defeat enemies out to annihilate humanity. Game’s look and conceit is described as “mythical science fiction,” according to its creators, with time-traveling robots, magic-wielding warlocks, warrior rhinos, spider pirates and evil space zombies.

Those may sound like characters only a nerd could love, but Bungie has managed to make “Destiny’s” design seem approachable to more than just fanboys and could thus attract a substantial female following. “Destiny” essentially takes elements that worked for “Halo,” “Mass Effect,” “Journey,” “World of Warcraft” and “Borderlands” and combines them into one game that Activision and Bungie hope gamers will play for the next 10 years as the release of book-like chapters introduce new stories.

“We built a universe with mythology and legends that have existed for centuries,” Parsons said. “That’s how you create a place you really want to be.”

Just as “Halo” never revealed the face of its lead Master Chief character, “Destiny’s” characters also are masked, a move meant to better connect players to their own characters.

“If we’re successful, the most important stories we tell are going to be told by players,” said Joe Staten, design director at Bungie.

Interestingly, timing of the game’s release coincides with big-budget Hollywood fare like the Tom Cruise and Will Smith vehicles “Oblivion” and “After Earth,” which also feature bleak looks at a futuristic Earth with abandoned cities taken over by nature and humans struggling to survive.

Still, the setting is one that Bungie believes gamers will want to explore for years. Make that a decade, as the world’s largest videogame publisher, Activision Blizzard, is banking heavily on through a unique deal inked with Bungie in 2010, when it agreed to fund “Destiny’s” development.

While the budget has not been revealed, it’s one of the largest devoted to a tentpole game, evidenced by an early look at concept and production art and just seconds of gameplay.

“We’re creating something new and it’s a scary place, but if (what you’re doing) is not scary, it’s not fun,” Parsons said.

To pull off its vision, Bungie developed complex new software that will also incorporate social media-like interactions and mobile platforms to expand “Destiny” beyond the videogame console and let players interact with their characters in other ways.

“In the future, all games will be social in this way,” said Chris Butcher, technical director, principal architect and managing partner at Bungie.

Bungie, whose staff of over 360 has been working on “Destiny” for the past four years — two out of a converted movie theater in Bellevue — is no longer attached to “Halo.” The Microsoft-owned franchise is now overseen by 343 Industries, behind last year’s “Halo 4.”

While Bungie plans to expand “Destiny” onto other platforms in the future, film isn’t one of them yet. In fact, outside of Legendary’s plans to produce a “World of Warcraft” movie, Activision Blizzard has pursued few film deals for its franchises.

“We’re focused on the games because we’re gamemakers and try not to screw up our core business,” Hirshberg said. “We try to eliminate distractions.” Films are opportunities “we consider very carefully,” he added. “It’s not a reflexive desire we have” and something the company would only move forward with “if it’s going to make the experience for the fan better.”

With “Destiny’s” impressive tech — that gamers ultimately aren’t meant to notice — Activision realizes the game, which also features hours of music from “Halo’s” Martin O’Donnell, with some tracks written by Paul McCartney, is “a huge investment,” Parsons said. And as a result, a costly gamble.

If gamers embrace “Destiny,” Activision and Bungie have a massive new hit in their portfolio — one that’s being released as Microsoft and Sony ready to roll out new high-tech gaming consoles to replace their aging Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 devices. They see “Destiny” as their own “Star Wars” and “Lord of the Rings,” with a potential financial upside that could be enormous. Activision said it doesn’t plan to charge a subscription fee; it will monetize the game through other methods it has yet to detail. Naturally, if the game fails, it will be a blow to Activision’s bottom line.

But Activision has deep pockets, already scoring with “Call of Duty,” “World of Warcraft” and “StarCraft.” Last year, it reinvented the kids gaming space with “Skylanders,” an original property that is closing in on the billion-dollar sales mark in the U.S. Last year’s “Call of Duty: Black Ops II” earned $500 million in sales in its first day and crossed the billion-dollar mark in a record 15 days.

Activision has yet to disclose a release date for “Destiny,” but company execs said during a quarterly earnings call this month that revenue from the game isn’t factored into the company’s financial outlook this year.

“We have a 10-year deal that brings with it risks and investment,” Hirshberg said. “If it’s a world you want to be in, the stories will keep unfolding. We want to let Bungie keep telling stories. We want to build (‘Destiny’) to last.”

Still Activision realizes that with so many distractions these days, “Destiny” will succeed at launch only if gamers are familiar with its world before it bows.

With that in mind, Activision is revving up its marketing machine, rolling out a worldwide campaign across all media and at retailers like GameStop to start hyping “Destiny.” Updates will continue to be released on Bungie.net; the “Destiny” website; its YouTube, Facebook and Twitter pages; and at events like gaming confab E3 and Comic-Con this summer.

Devoting a year or more to promote a game isn’t unusual for the industry and indeed has become more common as publishers look to “let people into the tent a little earlier,” said Hirshberg, a former marketing vet.

In “Destiny’s” case, Hirshberg is eager to let gamers learn about Bungie’s game “so they can start falling in love with the world” and start a dialog that will continue up until the title’s release. “That takes more and more time,” he said.

Filed Under:

Follow @Variety on Twitter for breaking news, reviews and more