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Forging a new reality: Bungie on Destiny's art direction Exclusive
Forging a new reality: Bungie on  Destiny 's art direction
August 26, 2014 | By Christian Nutt

Destiny is a massive production and a huge test for Bungie -- it leapfrogs the Halo franchise by shifting focus from a single-player story to a shared world that can be enjoyed both alone and in groups. Its tale is sweeping in its scope, too.

How do you create a world like that?

Gamasutra spoke to Jason Sussman, senior environment artist at Bungie, about just that. The team is aiming to create a game world that's both "hopeful" and "inspiring" while also telling the tale of a lost civilization among the stars -- while also supporting multiple game modes and drawing players back for session after session.

Can you explain the art direction for Destiny?

JS: So, what it is, when the Traveller came, humanity branched out across the universe. So there's evidence of humanity across the universe. That's the foundation.

All of that is based, specifically from an art perspective, in reality -- the destinations as a whole. We're amplifying that, of course, with humanity branching out. We're also bringing some of that mythic science fiction in there with the vibrance and color, and the hopefulness of all these spaces. Because, humanity being lost, you could have gone in a different direction. But we definitely wanted to go in this hopeful, inspiring direction for this title.

How do you communicate that visually?

JS: A lot of it is the vibrance. And we're taking something that something that's been depredated and falling apart, and showing how life still flourishes, in a nutshell. We're showing how life can still live, and still be vibrant, even though humanity has been lost.

"We're showing how life can still live, and still be vibrant, even though humanity has been lost."

The game switches seamlessly from mode to mode. How do you structure play spaces for multiple play-styles?

JS: From the ground up we designed them that way. Because you can play single-player [or] you can play with your strike team. Other people are seamlessly walking through the world you're playing in, and you can jump in with them.

What we did was, from the top down, we knew that the story missions would flow this way, the strike missions would flow this way, and the raid missions would flow this way. We knew that these are all the places we wanted the player to explore. We built that in a way that you're always encountering other people whether you're by yourself or not. It makes the world feel much more alive and vibrant that way.

When you say "you're always encountering other people," is that due to the fact you're creating spaces that shunt people into spaces where they might encounter each other?

JS: Oh, no, no, no. It's just crossing paths. How we have them cross paths, whether they're going from Point A to Point B, is there's an area of interest along the way. It's how we compose the space as a whole. We wanted to push away from the linear space. Even though a lot of our maps on previous titles like Halo, they were broad and big, they still felt linear. So it was like, "How do we broaden that, and let the players explore, organically, within each one of these destinations, and come across other players?"

"Even though a lot of our maps on previous titles like Halo, they were broad and big, they still felt linear."

So we specifically designed it in a way that entry and exits were very, very apparent, yet they're seamless within the environment. And there are certain heroic items from the next area that you're going to go to that you can see in the space. You know you're going to get there.

So is it about landmarks that draw people toward them naturally?

JS: Absolutely. Absolutely. And landmarks even within the space. Each space has its own theme, in a way. There's a lot of variety of interest for actually going to all of these areas.

And there are different worlds, but is every culture that you're experiencing human culture on the different worlds?

JS: There's a lot of variety out there.

How much thought do you put into the cultural underpinning of the spaces you make?

JS: A lot of it is, we're first and foremost grounding these spaces in reality. You know, "Okay. What would this look like in reality?" We're using a lot of reference shots of dilapidated spaces or shelled-out spaces -- whatever it is -- and then we're taking that and amplifying that or raising it up another level, and adding that element of fantastic to it so it's not just ordinary. We want that to be a space that people want to come back to over and over again.

"We want that to be a space that people want to come back to over and over again."

Is that just a visual "want to come back to"? I'm assuming not. It's also a "I had fun," right?

JS: Yeah. Visually we're doing that with the environment, but we're doing it across the board. For public events and the rare events that happen in these spaces. And there are tons of places to explore. And we're still having this happen within Bungie -- we'll have guys jump into spaces and not even know they can explore down these hallways and it opens up to a whole 'nother area, and they're like, "What!?" There are all these hidden secrets all over the areas.

Also you're designing contiguous spaces. It's got exploration.

JS: Yup. You can go in as Level 5 and just walk around, go to town. You'd get destroyed, but one of the things that I'm really happy to say that we did... Say you saw this whole area that's just all Level 20s -- they're all Level 20s and you're just Level 5 -- we ensured that you can get by those guys if you're nimble and very quick, and look for some of the ninja routes to get by.

And when you do that, you can actually circumvent some of those guys and get to a whole 'nother area you never could have gotten to otherwise. We want to make sure you can get back through and have this challenge, but as a lower-level player you get to explore as much as possible.

"Within the environment art team, we work very closely with story and with design, and we're trying to drive all of those fictional elements through in all of the spaces."

You want to make the world a destination for players.

JS: Yes. We want to make it a place that each time they come there they find something new. We intentionally built things in certain ways so that when you come back to this space, "I had no idea this was here!" and you tell all your friends. We're trying to bring some of those elements into each destination.

You're an artist, but it sounds like you've got a little bit of a fuzzy boundary between level design and level creation.

JS: There is. We're definitely working with the designers, but we're also doing some of the design ourselves. There's definitely a design team, and we have our art team. There are different segments within that; we have environment artists, 3D artists, and character artists.

Within the environment art team, we work very closely with story and with design, and we're trying to drive all of those fictional elements through in all of the spaces. And we're trying to also design the spaces in a way that no matter what angle you're coming into, there's always a point of entrance, and always a challenge.

This is a huge production. How do you make it happen?

JS: When I started at Bungie, we were 80 to 100 guys, and now we're 500-plus. And so it's definitely been a challenge. So one of the things we're making sure we do is stay in constant communication with each other and make it as organic as possible without getting too departmentalized. Because we don't want to do that either.

Even though we do have our different departments that do their unique tasks, we always try to merge it together and come together, whether it be meetings or working side-by-side. We actually adjust our desks, every time there's a change. We move the groups together and work them together. We're ensuring that we're constantly keeping that communication going. Which is crazy with 500-plus people.

"I'm sure you've heard this from us before: 'We make the games we want to play.' That really drives the entire studio."

Is everyone working on this game, pretty much?

JS: Yes.

That is nuts.

JS: The scope that we wanted to do, with Jason [Jones, Bungie co-founder] first coming to us and saying, "How big can you take your discipline?"

How big can you make your environment? How big is too big? What is the right balance for that environment? What can we do with these character classes? What can we do with this investment system? How can we take what we know how to do really, really well and expand upon that in a very realistic way and deliver something that we want to play?

I'm sure you've heard this from us before: "We make the games we want to play." That really drives the entire studio. Some of that was developing these teams, and these systems that we had to find. We're really broadening the type of game we're making.

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Benjamin Quintero
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Destiny just doesn't make sense to me. An alien looking world, but it's Earth. Something about the moon people. The darkness, guardians, travelers... It all reads like something I would have scribbled into my journal when I was 9, gushing over moon aliens and generic threats like The Darkness... Activision spent a lot of money on this game but they didn't sell me on it. Is it weird that the demo was all the Destiny I needed to see? And the game still has 9 more years planned out; ouch...

Jennis Kartens
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Yeah. I don't find it particular inspiring or inviting either. Destiny looks very generic with no edges to it's visual design to me.

Nick Harris
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I thought it was a mistake to have a character creation tool and then hide your avatar's face with an opaque visor. It alienated me from the role it wanted me to play, it lacked humanity.

Eric Geer
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But your character doesn't hide his/her face in the hub/Tower, where most of the human interaction actually happens.

Shea Rutsatz
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I've got to agree on the "generic" comment... while it looks pretty, and well done, nothing stands out or seems all that original/unique.

nicholas ralabate
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i mean, can this even be true:

"The team is aiming to create a game world that's both "hopeful" and "inspiring""

it looks beautiful, but that's just not what those words mean. maybe i don't know enough about art, but it is how is it even possible to reconcile the audiovisuals of hope and inspiration with war? maybe they meant to say epic?

i like the looks of this game and i would definitely play this game but let's not change the meaning of the word "hope" for marketing purposes -- or imply that "life flourishing" is fragging the shit out of people.

Christian Nutt
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Well, the actual theme of the game is the hope that humanity can recover after being destroyed. It's the basic premise.

And, let's face it, hope and inspiration are not exactly NOT part and parcel with the rhetoric of war in the real world, right?

That said, it's space-opera, meant to be grand and sweeping.

Finally, I'm not sure a lot of triple-A devs actually think much about the meaning implied by the primary mode of interaction their games afford, frankly. Though I wouldn't necessary lay that at the feet of this guy (since we didn't talk about it, I don't know what he thinks.)

What he does want to do is create those feelings with visual design.

nicholas ralabate
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yeah, you are right i guess a war story is a human story in the end. the wording just rang phony to me for some reason.

Curtiss Murphy
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Why so much harshness against Destiny? The few bits I've seen were pretty cool. Looking forward to seeing it's release. Whether I purchase it ... is another story.

Caio Branco
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I felt the game was generic from the go since i watched the trailer, i think mostly because the space theme was alredy been used a lot and they werent bringing anything new to the table, but the game start growing some curiosity in me, more on the gameplay side, maybe they don't inovate so much on the visual/enviornment side but these guys are not some small talk developer who promises too much, i think i'll have to try and see it before judging on the aesthetics. Cheers!

Josh Foreman
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As an environment artist on a AAA game I can attest that what he's saying makes sense. But it's really interesting seeing the reactions here. The stuff they are innovating is perhaps too subtle to make a difference to non-artists.