Bungie Needs to Get Out of Their Own Way - o_JMan240_o Blog - www.GameInformer.com
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Bungie Needs to Get Out of Their Own Way

Maybe it's time for Bungie to quit trying to sell their newest game, and just give it room to speak for itself. Despite a year and two consecutive E3 appearances, it took an Alpha demo for Bungie to finally explain what “Destiny” actually is. As Griffin McElroy of Polygon put it, “it’s an MMO-ass MMO.” It’s clear the game speaks for itself, but Bungie’s approach to talking about it seems determined to torpedo its potential. Even after dodging their own marketing bullet, Bungie can’t seem to get out of their own way.

In an interview with Digital Trends, Bungie engineer Roger Wolfson gave an explanation as to why the game doesn’t have cross-generation multiplayer. “I’ll speak for the hypothetical player,” Wolfson said. “I have a disadvantage sniping across the map because [my opponent with a next-gen console] is only two pixels on my screen and I’m four pixels on his. You see that in the world of PC gaming, where people are always racing to the best video card to give themselves the advantage.”

“Regardless of where the reality is, there’s definitely a perception among gamers that better hardware means you have an advantage. We don’t want to have to enter that fray, so to create the best, most level playing field, both actually and perceptually, we separated it by platform.”

The article clearly states that Bungie’s reason for excluding cross-generation play wasn’t technical, but instead an issue of balancing and making sure all players have the same competitive experience. Equality in a competitive space is certainly a reasonable sounding reason for excluding a feature. So why exactly is this another misstep for Bungie on the path of the $500 million “Destiny” hype-train? The answer is perception, something Wolfson said Bungie hopes to counter.

Wolfson, and by extension Bungie, has opened the door for a lot of potential perceptions though. That they’re drastically limiting the playerbase on new consoles by removing over 140 million systems from the pool. That they’re more worried about the balancing issues of two pixels than making sure players can explore “Destiny” with their less financially fortunate friends. That “Destiny’s” competitive multiplayer is more important than the core experience they’ve been showing since the game was announced. That Bungie knows enough about what its players want to dictate to them what that is. None of these are decidedly positive.

Wolfson’s interview also confirms Bungie’s ability to implement an extremely beneficial, oft requested feature for its audience but immediately yanks it away... because of two pixels and a hypothetical perception. Perhaps the biggest problem, though, is no one really expected cross-generation play. Almost every conversation about the mythical feature is as a hypothetical, lovely sounding “what if” statement. At most the conversation would be valid for another year or two before last-generation consoles are too dogeared to keep up. Wolfson’s interview reads as little more than the dangling of a very tasty carrot, and probably gives the exact opposite impression to most people than what he probably hoped for.

The use of balancing as an explanation also comes at a bad time, as the Beta release of the game reveals some of its fairly significant balancing flaws. Newer MMOs have been searching for ways to stop high level characters from running amok in low level zones, but what's been shown of “Destiny” largely ignores any of the ideas presented by games like “Guild Wars 2.” While groups of enemies remain dangerous, a high level player can easily pick them off from a distance and in a group can make the game’s missions seem trivial. Bungie doesn't have to implement anything they don't want to, but it's hard to take the claims of balancing as motivation seriously in the face of the Beta - even if it is otherwise excellent.

The justification rings even more hollow in the face of the Beta’s actual PvP experience. It’s Moon multiplayer map starts one team with the advantage of a spawn protecting turret overlooking a very open, key control point - making it child’s play for all but the most incompetent of teams to defend. Along with questionable objective placement, the entire mode is dominated by the game’s Titan class, whose special slam ability has enough range to easily clear a contested control point with the press of a button. Normally, I’d lay off a Beta, but as Bungie said... perception is important, reality or no.

Wolfson also backs up his claims with the analogy of PC gaming, the only place in gaming where a difference in hardware shows up; but the reality of the PC arms race isn’t congruent with Wolfson’s pixel perfect analogy. Competitive PC players don’t chase higher resolutions to beat out their competition, because the advantage created is extremely unlikely to matter.

Instead, the most highly competitive PC players chase things like frame rate, mouse performance and latency. On PC, players are far more likely to lower their resolution and texture detail in favor of increasing their draw distance and hitting the coveted 60 frames per second mark. When the average monitor size is around 25 inches, no one is buying three video cards to run games in 4K because of the advantage it would give them over a 1080p player. Even tournaments shipping in hardware for players are more likely to choose reliable mid to high end machines, instead of the often finicky and unstable technological bleeding edge.

Wolfson isn’t entirely off-base though, current-gen consoles should have a serious advantage over their predecessors. The draw distance in the PS3 version of the Beta cuts out just a few paces past the point at which sniper rifles start to become a bit too unruly for controller inputs. (For those unfamiliar with the concept, a game’s draw distance is the distance from the player at which more complex objects become visible - especially moving objects like enemies and other players.) Unless Bungie has seriously capped the draw distance on newer consoles, it’s reasonable to expect they’d have a serious advantage in the PvP arenas; it’s certainly a more plausible explanation for why they might separate the two generations than the absurd balancing issues of two pixels and a misunderstanding of how the PC space operates.

Bungie still hasn’t explained why they’ve separated the cooperative sections of the game though. There are no PvP balancing issues to be concerned with while shooting at aliens with your friends. There's little chance of marauding bands of high level current-generation players griefing last-generation players from a longer distance - another fringe case problem easily rectified with a more modern approach to MMO balancing. Based on Wolfson’s comments, there doesn’t seem to be a reason players shouldn’t be able to play co-op with their friends on older consoles - provided Bungie is actually capable of facilitating it.

There’s no way to know why Bungie decided to completely segregate the generations. Perhaps Microsoft or Sony asked them to. Perhaps one of the pairs of consoles required more work to connect. Perhaps they didn't include it in their plans and decided the extra work wasn’t worth it. It’s highly unlikely their decision was based on such an inconsequential balancing issue though, and I’m a little disappointed Wolfson extended such easily rebutted reasoning. If it was based on something so trivial, then I'm thoroughly disappointed in Bungie.

Bungie has treated a lot of "Destiny’s" launch process like Halo, and while it’s not, honestly, surprising to see after over a decade of the same series, it still hurt them. They approached showing a new IP like they showed Halo games, and left even the press who had back-room demos scratching their heads. They showed canned demos only informative to people who knew what the game actually was, before anyone outside of Bungie really did. Now they’ve attempted to draw on their reputation as a multiplayer minded developer to tell players they won’t be getting what they wanted, without hurting anyone’s feelings.

They didn’t even have to address the issue though, because until Wolfson said Bungie was capable of cross-generation play it seemed like an unreasonable expectation. If they felt an overwhelming need to address the issue, the game’s excellent cross-platform persistent character systems would have been a fine answer. They could have just said no, and no one would have batted an eyelash at it. Now’s the time for Bungie to clam up, to take a lesson from their new-found brethren at Blizzard, and just let the game launch. The Beta has me on board the “Destiny” hype-train again, I just need Bungie to quit trying to knock me off it.

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