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AusGamers Destiny Developer Interview with Dave Dunn
Post by Steve Farrelly @ 11:51am 17/10/13 | Comments
AusGamers sat down for a lengthy chat with Bungie's Dave Dunn to talk about the design and development processes for Destiny. Read on for what he had to say...

AusGamers: Dave, let’s start at the start -- how difficult was it working on Halo without an undo button?

Dave Dunn: [laughs] Well, the funniest part that I always tell people is that… I started off on environment art, and I worked on Oni, then I came in on the first Halo, helping them make environments, and you couldn’t get anything into the engine to look at it, until it was 100% error free.

The way that we would find out if it had errors was, we would import it, and the compiler would do its thing, and would tell you that you had an error. So at first, that’s all you knew, and you would have to go into your [3D Studio] Max file and try to find the error.

So then we finally got the engineers to build us something that would say “Here’s the error”, and draw some geometry that you could bring back into your geometry, and it would wrap around and you could go “Oh, I’ve got a degenerative triangle there”. Then, what we would find though, is you’d fix that, and export and import it again, and it would go “ok now you have another error”. We were like “Why can’t you just tell us all the errors?”, and the answer from the engineers was “Because it just stops when it hits that first one”, and I’m, like, “Uhhhhh”. So it was kind of brutal.

I love our engineers, I love our tools, and they’re always getting better and better, but the problem with creative folks is that there’s always something to complain about. We’re nothing without our little bit of misery. So that’s the whole excitement about undo, with the new world editor. It was like the world was suddenly a changed place.

AusGamers: What’s your favourite part about the new engine, and how much input did you and your team have in constructing it?

Dave: The departments inside Bungie collaborate a lot, it’s fantastic. It’s a big wide open space, and everybody sits next to each other. So there is predetermined collaboration, where you might have the lead of the environment team sit down with the tools programming lead to talk about, like, “Hey, we’re going to need this type of way to view our content” or “We’re going to want this type of editor”, and then there’s the totally non-scripted, non-planned-for type (which for me, I think is the more exciting) where you see somebody working at their desk… the one that I always talk about is when one time I was walking by, and I remember seeing a graphic engineer doing this thing where he had this screen-space rendering effect -- and I don’t even know why he was doing it, it was just something cool, maybe he had a little extra time -- I guess it was going to be for a UI, then some of our artists started using that in a different way, rendering out just some screens and stuff for him to talk to the designers about. Then an engineer came by and said “What are you doing there, and how are you doing it?”, so he showed him how he did it, and he was, like, “Oh my God, I’m making you jump through hoops. I can code that to make it much more simpler for you to do that”.

So I think when those things happen, it’s really, really rewarding and energising for both people, because they feel like they’re collaborating on something together; the engineer feels like he made the work easier for the artist, and the artist feels like he championed the work that the engineer did.

AusGamers: From an art perspective. If you wanted to put the Destiny world in a geometry plane, the first thing outside of the Earth is the Moon, which is obviously what was revealed today. I get really excited about Mars and the Moon, I love the idea of being able to go to all of the planets in the solar system; I’m a big space guy. But I know that we can actually go to Mars, and I know that we can go to the Moon.

So for you guys internally… obviously everything gets treated with the same amount of love and effort, but was there anything particularly special about building that first station outside of Earth? That Moon kind of base?

Dave: For us… yeah, there is that current reality of what man can currently do with space travel and all of that. Then, the fun part about doing a game that has its own canon, and fiction and building out these Universes, is that we’re talking about a world and a future where mankind had explored and spread out all throughout the solar system -- which is cool, because all of us are space geeks and think about that and dream about that.

As a kid I remember I had this National Geographic book that had something on what kind of natural life would be on all of the planets, and I remember there was this one frightening type of image where they had these blimpy-type things that existed on Jupiter, and there were these other things that looked like storks that were coming and piercing the blimpy things…

AusGamers: Do either of those two things exist in Destiny now?

Dave: [Laughs] No, but there was a point where I tried to -- this is always a funny story at our studio -- I did the mission in Halo 2, which was called The Alpha Gas Giant, which was this floating mining facility, and I was, like, “we need to have something in the atmosphere”. I came up with the idea where I tried to get these space jellyfish in there. I remember I was going to record the sounds that were, like, “bloop bloop”, and at some point -- we were working really late at this point -- somebody with a clearer mind said to me “That’s the stupidest looking thing I’ve ever seen, you’ve got to take that out of there”, and I was, like, “Yeah, you’re probably right”.

But for us, having a storyline which was that mankind went through this golden age, expanded really far, then something happened and beat all of that back. We’re now hunkered in, in the last city, and now you as a guardian, are going to go out and explore, and try and figure out what happened, and see the mystery of that. That was the exciting part for us. So, like, what do we think happened and became of the Moon in that timeframe? What do we think these other destinations became? So that gave us a lot of creative liberty and excitement, and freedom to do some stuff.

AusGamers: Was it you guys that decimated the Earth, or was it the story guys? And how much collaboration in building what we’ve seen so far, did you all have?

Dave: It was very early on that Jason and Barry (Jason Jones, and Chris Barrett: our Creative Director and Art Director), they were really excited about this idea of nature ascendent over man, and what that means. Then obviously story came in and were, like, “Well, why would that happen? Ok, something happens that made man go away from a lot of things so that nature can do that”. Then the art team grabbed that in a frenzy -- we have some fantastic illustrators/concept artists -- and just started cranking out material after material, which then was exciting the rest of team, like “Oh my god, we have to do something like that; we have to go and see some vision like that”.

I think it starts because we’re all.. most of us are all pretty big science fiction fans. For me, one of the coolest things about science fiction is the mystery, and the one big idea that leads you into this mystery of “what happened here? What’s going on, and how do I find out more?”. And I think for games, if you have mystery, and you leave people alone and let them explore… I’d like to say that I think we’ve done a pretty good job of that over the years, where we’ve created Universes which have enough there to make you not want to just run through and shoot and kill every single thing that you see right away, but to take some time to go into the little nooks and crannies and see: “Oh, interesting, there’s some corporation’s logo here. I wonder what they were doing?”.

So as environment artists -- which is my background; for years I was doing environment art -- we felt like we needed to build the worlds that had as much context as possible in them. So much so, that when we were building the Pillar of Autumn, you could have just built the command thing, and not given a care to make sure that that even makes sense to fit into what you see that the entire design of the ship is, but we wanted to do that so as you could show parts of the exterior as you were in the interior. That wasn’t an easy technological thing to figure out how to do way back then. Of course, these days it’s a lot easier.

AusGamers: So far, most of the stuff that has been revealed is kind of equal parts exterior and interior environments. Can you talk about how much… because in the E3 gameplay demo, I always loved how just before they’re about to go into The Wall, they turn around and say “this is explorable space in the future”, you’ll be able to go down there and you see this wide vista with huge mountains and treelines and it’s wonderful. Then the rest of the demo is a really big interior with beautiful designs that’s very sci-fi. What’s the kind of percentage, for a player?

Dave: It’s hard for me to say what the ratios are. The game that we’ve made is so big, that for me, honestly, I’m still trying to wrap my brain around what all of it is. I think it’s dictated by pacing, and what feels good at a certain point. So you just get tired of crawling through something and want to come out into something, and for us, we hit on one of the things that we feel is super-core and we’ve always put so much effort into our skies, because they give you a feeling of “this is bigger than just this little arena that I’m playing in, because there’s much more here” and that adds to mystery.

So we’ve put a ton of effort into making sure that we take opportunities to turn a corner, see a view, build a geometry out there, have it look amazing; have something out there that makes you go “wow, I wonder what the hell that is. I hope I get there at some point”. The amount that you can traverse and come back and play through some of these things is… hopefully people will get more and more excited, the more that they see it, the more they want to explore it, there more nooks and crannies they want to get into.

We find that we have some of the most amazing, craziest fans that… we’ll get these videos on YouTube of, like, “I have no idea how they got there; that’s so awesome that they’re there” [laughs] that would always happen to us, so we want to try and make that… there are a certain subset of gamers who like that sort of stuff, and I think we are a subset of game developers that like to encourage them to do that.

AusGamers: There has always been a certain functionality built around most Bungie environments/worlds/interactions if you will, even with the physics in Halo. I remember all the videos in Halo with the sticky grenades. We spent so long just launching Warthogs into the sea, it was just stupid. But probably one of the most exciting things for me with Destiny, which was shown at the initial reveal, was when we were looking at the concept art, and everything was functional -- you’ve got Mars, and the Moon and all of these other planets -- but there were a couple of pieces of art that were, like, this is so alien, you just don’t know what it is.

For you guys, as designers and as an art team, at what point do you leave functionality at the door, and just go “Yeah, let’s mess with everyone’s conceptions”?

Dave: I think the best way I’ve ever heard that described is: we went to something a few years back; I took the concept team to a conference up in Montreal. I can’t remember what the name of that conference was, but Syd Mead gave a talk -- Syd Mead is, as most people like to think, the godfather of concept design, and did the amazing work on Bladerunner and Tron and all that. So here’s Syd Mead, and he’s probably in his 70s, and he’s talking to us, and showing us all these examples. He used to work for the auto industry, and he’d do all of these crazy things, and he’s, like, “pretty early on in my career, I realised that if you push too far away from relatability, then people were just lost”, they actually lose the ability to engage in a manner that is recognisable to them, so you’ve got to kind of skirt those lines.

So for us, I think it’s just a fun challenge of “how far can I go before this is just some meaningless stuff?” If people don’t have any relation to scale, or they don’t understand where they’re supposed to go, or anything like that… so I think it’s a fine line of how you do that, and I think that the way that we know it is that we rely on the same way that we create our games, which is: we’re our own first line of defence. We play it, and you’ll be in a multiplayer play-test session, and we’ll finish playing and turn around and say “what do you think?”, and the first thing out of somebody’s mouth will be “I hate this map! I hate the fact that I cannot get past the advantage of this one spot that somebody always has”. We do that in a safe way, such that people talk through it and… it’s great to talk out problems, but bring some solutions too. So then people wind up talking about “what if we did this? What if we did that?”. It gives more people the feeling of being part of driving creative solutions, so it gives more people the feeling of ownership, and I do believe it makes something better.

I always say this… and I have an architectural design degree, and you’d be in the architectural lab, and be working on your project, and your neighbour -- who has a different perspective of your model, because he or she is sitting five feet over -- would one day just say “hey that’s really interesting what you’re doing there”, and I’d turn to look and go “oh my God, that should be the focus of the thing”.

So I always feel that more opinions are better than just the lone person that just tries to go off on their own and do the coolest thing that they can. Unless you’re just some natural savant, which how many of them really are there right? We have Jason [Jones, Bungie Co-founder], and there’s not many others like that [laughs].

AusGamers: You talked about everyone being space geeks, and even your background, as you said, in architectural design, at what point do you have to let that go though? Because this is a videogame, set far into the future, and you’re creating this canonised fiction.

Dave: Yeah, you have to let it go when it starts to inhibit a great experience for the player. So we love fiction and love space things, but there’s also a lot of people who are serious, serious gamers. You’ve probably heard this beaten to death, but it’s a real thing inside Bungie, which is: we like to make games that we think we would like to play, and I think that’s fantastic.

I think you learn pretty quickly on, when you’re chasing after something and you’re, like, “hey, you’re not making that a better experience”. Me, as the Art Department Manager, one of the things that I talk a lot to our artists about, is ‘I don’t care what you’re working on - -you might be making a rock, you might be making a tree -- but if you’re not thinking about how that might be used in the game…”.

So for instance: I talk to a lot of students who are trying to get into art for games, and I’ll talk about to them about… ok, here’s a fictional setup: you’ve got two artists and they’re each tasked with making a boulder for a map, and the first artist goes “I’m going to go into Zbrush, and I’m going to rip the most gloriously beautiful thing, and it’s going to be awesome, and I get the perfect specular on it”, and whatever, and he makes it. The second artist goes “well, I think the first thing I should do is walk over to that designer over there and ask: where are we going to put this rock, and how is it going to be used?” and that person goes “We’re going to put it right here, as we charge up this hill to try and breach this wall over here, and they’re going to be mounted up on there”. So then that artist goes “Ok, I’m going to go over to the animators and say: How tall is the player when we crouch in a bunker?”, and he says “Oh, it’s about this height”.

So that person goes and is creating content that is for gameplay, whereas the other person is just creating content for almost the egotistical view of “I made the most beautiful thing”. What you really want is some kind of blend, and do a little bit of both, but never forget the fact that we’re making a game, and the game’s got to be fun, and everything that you do needs to serve that.

AusGamers: Who sets the design parameters and cadence? Because obviously Halo had a look and feel that was very specific to Halo, and I saw the space and size of the teams when I was out at Bungie. Is it difficult to rein people in to a particular design style, if you will? Obviously I think Destiny has a very particular design style, that is already very quintessentially Bungie, but who sets that, and how hard is it to keep everyone in check, and not have varying art styles coming in and clashing with one another?

Dave: I think you’re alluding to the size of our team, and that’s a hard thing. But obviously, we have an Art Director, we have a Design DIrector, a Creative Director in Jason, but you don’t really need one person… if you need one person to look at everything and say “That’s not correct”, then you’re never going to succeed. So early on, what you do is you invest in educating your own team into “this is what we think we’re doing, this is really cool”.

We do a lot of stuff with concept paintings, and we do a lot of team meetings where we’re showing people “here’s what we just did, and this is why it’s Destiny, and this is why it’s cool”, and “hey, we just got a new thing online with our rendering system, and this is what’s going to be super-important about this”. So you have to be very proactive about educating your own group about what you’re doing, before that group can then evangelise to the world through their own work what the game is all about. Then all the folks in PR and marketing can go out and say…

We do a lot just to inform the external partners that we work with, with just tombs of all of the backstory -- which will never get into the game, you won’t see all of that stuff, but we’ve worked through all sorts of crazy things. So, like, you’ve seen this logo on this building, and this is the company that was there, and maybe this is what they were doing. Some writer might write just a little blurb about “Here’s the company that manufactures this stuff, and here’s why they do that”, and that may never get out there, but it’s important for the developers to have. I think it’s pretty smart.

AusGamers: You guys have been working on the game for a while. Long before next-gen consoles were announced, or known to you guys from a technical perspective. Was it difficult building a game to current gen spec, with the mindset that this is obviously going to be on more powerful systems with better networking opportunities -- Xbox One has the cloud services, which is pretty exciting for a lot of developers. Did you go into it going “Let’s just build a game, and then we’ll scale after”?

Dave: Well we went into it first off, going “What’s going to make this game cool?”, and then the engineers -- who I shouldn’t speak for too much -- projected out as to what they think is going to happen -- and we have great relationships with both Sony and Microsoft, and I think if you have a great history of doing great stuff, then they come to you. It goes all the way back to when we were a Mac and PC developer, having the graphic card guys stomping their new product and all of that.

So our engineers were pretty good about making some pretty calculated projections, and then educating the artists as to “here’s how you have to think about your content”. But it’s certainly not easy, because then you start to get more specs, and you’re, like, “we were a little bit off”. You just have to be malleable, you have to be flexible, and you have to build systems that allow you to change and adapt to that stuff.

AusGamers: It must be pretty humbling for you guys to know that there are already fan groups built around Destiny, with so little information about the game. These guys are, like… if I was to speak to you about “Can you list X amount of weapons”, I know that that would go into a wiki somewhere tomorrow.

Dave: I’ve said this before. I think we have the best fans in the world. That’s not about any other developers, just that the people that like our stuff appreciate what we do, and I think for a long, long time, we’ve established that relationship; going way, way back. The fans are your lifeblood, not only just because they’re the consumers of your product, but they can invigorate you, based on just their excitement for what you’re doing. An artist wants to do something and they want it to be seen, and they want it to be loved.

So I would say humbling, yes. Sometimes frightening is an even more appropriate term. I’ve gone to conventions… I remember when they used to send me to Mac World, when I’d just sort of begun, and I remember this fan coming up to me and talking about deep, deep story history of Marathon, and I looked at him and said “I’m sorry, I don’t know what you’re talking about”, and the person was crushed, because they believed that you must know everything, and I’m, like, “I don’t know everything, I just started here six months ago; give me a break”.

They’re fantastic; it’s so cool, and I do think that we do a really good job of trying to encourage that and make… we put a lot of effort into it. Urk, and DeeJ [Bungie Community Managers, Eric Osborne, and David Dague], and all those guys do a great job of making that core.

AusGamers: An off-topic/on-topic discussion since the reveal has been the lack of, but potential for a PC version of Destiny, with a lot of the PC guys going “Come back to your roots Bungie; this is where you started”; going back to those fans we were talking about. I know that you don’t have anything new to add to that conversation at this point…

Dave: The only part that I would add, is how all this works for me: I’m super-excited about us working really hard -- and we are working really hard -- to deliver a fantastic experience on the four platforms that we’ve announced: PS4, PS3, Xbox One, and Xbox 360, and that’s hard; that is so hard. So I believe that if we live up to the very, very lofty standards that people have, we’re going to deliver a great experience for those platforms. I think that is what we have really chosen to focus on right now.

AusGamers: Second screens are a really big thing moving forward, companion apps are the big thing. You guys had mentioned that there will be companion apps at the Destiny reveal, before companion app was even a common term. Can you talk at all about the functionality there and what we can expect?

Dave: I’m not one to really wade into that water, so I’m sorry, I’m not the best person to be chatting to about that stuff.

AusGamers: Any kind of second screen app type thing is going to need a UI, and you guys have been talking about having no UI in the game, or having a very minimalist UI. Has it been difficult building on a companion app, when the game itself works on a minimal UI design perspective?

Dave: The great thing for me is that none of the teams that work on web and mobile and stuff like that report to me, so it’s not my problem [laughs]. So I hear what you’re saying, I just don’t have much information as to that.

AusGamers: Are you able to talk yet about how people travel between destinations in the game. I know you get your spaceship, which people are really excited about, but whether or not you actually fly the ship. Are you behind the controls of the ship, or basically fast-travelling to the destinations as you go?

Dave: We’re not really ready to talk about much of that. I think you’ve seen a representation in the E3 and Gamescom stuff, of players meeting up with each other, and entering the space and all of that. I think, for us, it’s continuing as we do with everything, with finesse, and making it all feel as good and awesome as possible.

AusGamers: Going back to art: when you guys are given a design directive like “We need you to build this on TItan”, or Ganymede, or something like that, do you start designing before you speak to the story team? Does the story team and yourselves sort of sit down and build a bit of history or lore there? How does that process work?

Dave: It’s a lot like what you just said. There’s usually something from concept, there’s someone from the environment team, there’s a mission designer who has objectives that he wants to try and accomplish, then there’s someone from the story group. They’re all working together pretty simultaneously and coming up with some fiction to wrap the whole thing around, that leads into the look and feel -- which is obviously being dictated by the Art Director, who’s got a view of what he wants this to be -- and throw in our amazing sky artist who’s going to be involved, and try to figure out how he’s going to add stuff that’s going to make the space even more compelling.

So it is very much a collaboration. So much so, that I think they go in and start with what we were calling -- and I think we showed in a GDC talk a year or so ago -- the idea of these postcards that represent “that’s what we want to make; we want to make something that makes people feel that”. I think that building worlds is as fun as… it’s funny, I’ve always said this -- having all of the experience that I have with working on environments -- we are our own worst enemy, as far as making it as hard or as easy as it could be.

It would be really boring for me to make a game that just takes place in one spot [laughs], but when you’re making something that doesn’t take place in one spot, thematically you can’t share anything, you’re just creating more content that you have to create. I think that’s why most of our art staff like their jobs, and I think that’s why the writing team likes their job too, because they’re like “wow, I’ve got to come up with fiction for so many different things, and it’s awesome” and that’s a challenge. I think there’s a common denominator in most of the people that we look for and have, are people that are… there’s nobody that likes idle hands; people want to be cranking away and working on awesome stuff, so they’re driven; it’s a driven group.

AusGamers: This is kind of a difficult question -- based purely on the idea that everybody has their own personal ideologies, likes and dislikes -- but is there any particular… Bungie is known for Halo, and Myth, and Oni and other games before that, but Halo is what Bungie is mostly known for these days. But nobody really delves into what you guys play and are inspired by outside of your own walls and creations.

Is there anything that has emerged in the last ten years in games for you guys, and perhaps you personally that is a design plateau that you would like to go beyond?

Dave: For me it’s probably not so much applicable, because I think some of the things I’ve been playing aren’t anything that you would draw into the game that we’re making. But people like Jason, and Chris Barrett are just insatiable consumers of games. I think they play everything, whether or not playing everything through, and I think a good designer does that -- just surveys the entire landscape, and looks for anything and says “hey, that’s really interesting”.

One of the things that I’ve always felt Jason’s done really well, is look at other things and say “hey that’s really cool, but I wonder if you could turn that on its side a little bit and do it a little bit differently”, and I think that’s what we’re hoping to do with Destiny. We’ve always loved the FPS genre, so turn it on its ear a little bit, and introduce a couple of little things that might just make people go “Oh, that’s an interesting and new way of doing it”.

AusGamers: For you personally, what are you playing at the moment?

Dave: The thing I’m playing the most, is an iPhone card game called Ascension [laughs], I’m obsessed with it. I was into the MOBA stuff for a while, until I realised that I was so bad at it, that it was hard to continue to play, because I was just an albatross around the neck of my friends that were playing [laughs]. I started with DotA, then a bunch of us at the studio were playing Heroes of Newerth, and a small faction went off towards League of Legends, then a bunch of people came to Dota 2, and the skill level just got way beyond me. I used to have a cheat sheet of “buy this, build this”, so I’m looking down and all of a sudden I’m getting wrecked, and everybody’s, like, “stop crossing the river!” [laughs].

AusGamers: Is there anything coming out in the next six months that you’re personally looking forward to?

Dave: I’m looking forward to all of the next-gen games and their visuals. I’m just so intrigued as to… next-gen usually means that everybody redoes their technology. Some people pick “I’m going down this path, with this type of lighting system, and “we’re going down this path with just sheer fluidity of frame-rate”, “we’re going down this path of heavily investing in our shader system”, or “we’re going to just be about crazy amounts of geometry”. So I’m just really intrigued to see what they’re all doing.

The little stuff that you picked out of E3, I thought that a bunch of titles looked really, really good. Killzone, I thought looked good, I thought there was great stuff in Titanfall, I thought that the Ubisoft titles: Watch_Dogs and The Division, all of those; there’s little pieces of everything. I’m like “Oooh, the puddles! That looks fantastic”. I’m just really intrigued to see where it goes. I think it’s always an exciting time for all of the developers to just see what people do.

It’s not as competitive as I think some people believe it is. I think it’s more of a brothership of... I hope somebody does something really, really awesome that pushes us all forward.

AusGamers: The correct answer was Call of Duty, and Skylanders [Glances at Activision PR handler].

Dave: Oh I’m sorry [laughs]. Well, with Skylanders, I got into a lot of trouble with my sister when I introduced my nephews to that. She’s like, “What kind of crack is this? They’re asking for every new thing”, I’m, like, “Yep!”. That was fun.

AusGamers: Alright Dave, that’s tonnes of information, we’ll leave it there unless you have anything else to add.

Dave: I guess the only thing I would add is that I hope as we continue to show more, and as we get to a place where we deliver and people get to play in the beta and all of that, that they’re excited. I hope they love it.

AusGamers: Is it a relief knowing that the public now has an expectation date?

Dave: Relief is one way of putting it. I’d say it’s frightening. It’s frightening putting yourself out there and saying “hey, we’re coming towards something”. I guess like I said before, we are our own worst critics, so… we were looking at the video this morning [The Moon Gameplay Trailer] and another guy from Raven was, like, “that looks beautiful”, and “I’m, like, Ah, I see that thing, that rock that we hated and we wanted to get out of there”. So it’s hard when you’re your own worst critic.

AusGamers: Alright, thank you so much Dave.

Dave: Thank you.
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Latest Comments
Posted 07:03pm 20/10/13
I'm glad they drew the line for reality in Halo 2. I don't want my futuristic supersoldier space alien shooting game filled with space jellyfish, that's just silly!
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