Any way you slice it, video, computer and mobile games are becoming more social. We saw it first with mobile hits such as "Words With Friends," where you trade turns back-and-forth with friends playing the Scrabble-like game. And now in the console world, there's "Destiny," created by the same studio that spawned the multi-billion dollar video game series "Halo."
More than half of all American households now have a dedicated video game console of some sort, according to the Entertainment Software Association, the video game industry trade group, and 59 percent of all Americans identify as being gamers of some kind. NPD Group's latest snapshot of who plays games showed that those who play a mix of console, PC and mobile games, as well as those interested mostly in mobile games, were on the rise.
And just as many of these users are on Twitter or Facebook sharing aspects of their lives, they're also venturing onto games like "Destiny," where they can connect with long-lost friends, have dance parties--even play "duck, duck goose."
The studio threw open its virtual doors to all interested players last week -- first to those who'd preordered the game on the PlayStation 4, then to owners of the PlayStation 4, Playstation 3, Xbox One and Xbox 360 over the weekend -- to preview the game before its September release date. Heading into last weekend, the firm counted 2 million players who had participated in the extended demo. That's, roughly, the size of the population of Houston. And Bungie hasn't even finished counting how many people--presumably even more--joined over the weekend.
So what are millions of people doing on "Destiny"?
The whole story of the game hasn't been fully released -- we are in the early stages, after all -- but players are the survivors in a post-apocalyptic world, fighting against an evil force known as the "Darkness." Throughout the game, you fight against various enemies influenced by the Darkness in defense of the remaining pieces of the Earth's civilization.
It's all pretty epic. But the gameplay is familiar. "Destiny" offers opportunities to go on cooperative and competitive missions with friends and strangers. But even when you're playing solo, the world around you is still teeming with other people. The characters you pass as you make your way through the world aren't computer-generated. They're real people sitting on their own couches around the world. And that changes the whole feeling of the game.
Most notably it makes Destiny feel more akin to games such as "World of Warcraft" -- known as massively multiplayer online role-playing games, or more commonly as MMOs -- which are traditionally played on PCs. In those games, players cultivate an identity with their characters, and painstakingly build their characters over hours and hours of playtime in large-scale, often international, communities where you interact with player in real time.
It's a very personal sort of game, and players get very attached to their characters. But it's the kind of investment that hasn't traditionally translated that well to the PlayStation or Xbox, which are better suited to slightly shorter bouts of play. But Destiny could change some of that, allowing players look to join friends across town (or across the country) for a quick match after work.
Halo has become synonymous with Red Bull-fueled frat boys who play all-night tournaments. But by allowing players across the world to interact in real-time, Destiny's creators are hoping to expand the kind of people who play the game. (Unlike Halo, which had a "Mature" rating -- basically an "R" rating -- Destiny is rated for "teens," which could open up the game to a wider audience, too.)
"Maybe if you play Halo, there's this implicit assumption that you're male, aggressive...we're trying to combat that here," said technical director Chris Butcher. "It's very important that the characters you can meet in the world allow for that gender and racial diversity."
Players have taken quickly to the idea that Destiny is supposed to be a place you not only shoot your enemies but also chat with each other. Even a quick jaunt through the Tower -- a sort of home base for players in the game, where there are no enemies to fight -- proves that.
Bungie's built some social capabilities into every character. So players can wave or point at each other, as well as have their characters sit together while in conversation. Some players have already even figured out that this combination of movements is perfect for playing "duck, duck, goose."
(Warning: This is really just a two-minute video of people playing "duck, duck, goose.")
And then there was the dancing. A quick YouTube search for "Destiny dance party" turns up dozens of uploads from players who filmed themselves getting down with their bad selves during the early testing stages of the game.
"We're hearing about people who've discovered long-lost friends on the beta, people they maybe used to play with and have now rediscovered," said Pete Parsons, chief operating officer at Bungie, of people testing out this early version of the game.
Players have also flooded social media sites such as Twitch, the YouTube-like site focused on video game content, with footage of themselves playing the game -- and drawing as many as 100,000 viewers at a time to watch others play the game.
Relying on live players in order to set the game's tone sets up tricky problems for designers, who are often testing things internally right up until release date. So "Destiny" will have to keep evolving as it races to the fall finish line, picking up lessons from -- among other things -- this weekend's test. Because, in the end, there's no accounting for what people will do.
"The way I like to think of it is that for four years, we've been building this amusement park," Parsons said. "We can plan the layout of where people are going to move, but when they flood in, we find they’re cutting across this field."
And, as designers, he said that the best thing Bungie can do is to move to accommodate those impulses.
"That’s what they want to do, so we'll lay down a walkway down there," Parsons said.
With that approach, "Destiny" pushes the game industry down a more social path, one we couldn't dreamed of back when consoles were just boxes that connected us to our own televisions, rather than to the whole world. And while games aren't going to replace Twitter and Facebook any time soon, the increased focus on social play does bring a little bit of more of that interconnected magic to the game world.
At the very least, it's another excuse to hang out.