Forging a new reality: Bungie on Destiny's art direction

Senior environment artist Jason Sussman takes us on a tour of how Bungie creates worlds that are both "hopeful" and "inspiring" as well as fun and functional.
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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