Bungie’s Destiny: creating a believable new world

In the first in a series of in-depth interviews exploring the making of Destiny, we speak to Bungie’s art director Chris Barrett to find out how the studio is building a persistent, online world that its players can relate to.

I’m curious about laying the foundations for Destiny, how it differed to past projects you’ve worked on and how you build a series you know has to last for ten years – how is this different from making Halo?

Chris Barrett: With Halo the world was already established – back in 1997 or whenever it was, when they started working on it. So it was our first chance to reset and just come up with an entire new IP. So one of the things we did first was basically took the kind of game we were making, which was a social game and [identified] that the most important thing was the world. What was this world? This place that we wanted people to exist in rather than what story did we want to tell over the span of, say, seven hours.

It was all about the world-building side for a long time, trying to figure out what the recipe was: which kinds of genres did we want to pull from, what kind of variety did we want, what feel did we want players to have, what kind of stories could we tell within that world.

Was it in our solar system? Is it a different solar system? How ‘hard sci-fi’ it is versus how fantasy, all those kinds of things. I think we’ve tried to calibrate how can we get all of those [aspects] together in one place, starting with how to make this important to relate to players. That told us it had to be in our solar system, it had to be earth, so that people care about it. If it’s just some made up universe that we’re creating you have to work a lot harder to get people to care about it, so that formed our foundation and we just started pulling in stuff from there that fit. And [asking] how do we get fantastical elements into it, or how do we get fantastic things in from far off that are those fantastic places, bringing them to the solar system somehow.

The alien structure that doesn’t belong is very much a sci-fi trope – at what point did you place the Traveller in the world?

That was a very gradual transition, it took a while to get there. We went through many incarnations – we knew we needed this hub in this place that players would go to after each adventure, and we went back-and-forth: “Is it a space station in space? Is it orbiting around earth? Is it just a regular city?

That visual, when you put the thing that’s not supposed to be there against the familiar, it just kind of clicks. The visuals tell the story. Bringing the familiar and the unfamiliar together, it’s just such a big part of the entire game, you’re visiting these ruins of humanity, these places you’ve never been before. There’s this buried city on Mars, it’s human, but it’s on Mars… that juxtaposition is key. It’s a very prevalent thread throughout.

Bungie’s vision of earth in Halo is perhaps one of the more criticised aspects of Halo; it never felt like a real space. I wonder what lessons you’ve taken from earth-based cities in Halo and how has it been channelled to make these spaces feel more like once-occupied, living, breathing places?

Certainly in the first Halo we went [for] these alien landscapes that were meant to be monolithic, big mausoleums and stuff like that, but they were really also about what makes compelling gameplay experiences and oftentimes we pushed in the direction of those spaces to be about that and not clutter it with things that would get in the way of gameplay. Gameplay had to come first. So that’s part of it.

And then when we went to earth, certainly it’s hard to build a space with that much stuff, that much content, like when it’s not the focus of your game – games that focus all on earth, for example, have all these props and assets like a telephone and they’ll want to use it hundreds of times because that’s all their game is about. We’ve always focused on breadth, giving players those types of experiences rather than the minutiae of a realistic feeling space. But I agree with you. A lot of those spaces didn’t quite feel real or human, didn’t have human-scale props. That’s something we knew going into [Destiny], if earth is going to be a prominent part of our story, if we’re going to these human spaces, we need to create a lot of relevant props, human-scale stuff, make these places feel lived-in. And you can see that just from those lines of cars, for example. We learned that, we need a lot more kinds of those props and things to fill out spaces.

Where there any places your team found particularly hard to lock down an identity for?

Going away from earth, we have these places that are barren, lifeless planets and currently the expectation of them is they don’t have trees, grass, all this stuff that are easy to make so a world fills out. So finding the right balance of bringing those elements into those places for atmosphere with trees and putting those kinds of elements on Venus so that it feels inviting and not just like a dead rock that’s too hot – that’s not any fun to play. Finding that right balance between fidelity and what makes a compelling visual space and what’s real and not betraying the idea of Venus with what’s going to be an inviting space… we pushed it back and forth a number of times and tried to find the right recipe for the historical ideas of Venus, whether it’s all pulp fiction. These jungles on Venus is something that’s in people’s subconscious from things they’ve heard before so playing on that is sort of a natural evolution. But we want Venus to feel alien and not mistake it for earth. So dialling that in [has been a challenge] and we’ve found a good balance.

What kind of science fiction influences did you draw upon?

It’s hard to answer that specifically because in a lot of ways there wasn’t an active [attitude] of wanting to pull [from specific sources] and replicate that kind of thing. Like ‘ooh let’s get that particular thing from Star Trek’. A lot of the early ideas and concepts were probably a subconscious collection of hundreds of influences; things I watched as a kid or movies we watched last year, so pulling those together, trying to find nothing that’s too specifically like something else but pulling the best parts of things and putting it together as something new is sort of how I approached it. Part of how we approached the city was the idea, the picture, the feel that we want to give our alien race.

And it’s super-exciting because you know with Halo we had an enemy race that had to sort of satisfy everything. Here we can go off on these interesting fictional and visual tangents.

There are general influences I could name that you’ve probably heard of – Star Wars or Dune. A lot of people haven’t seen it but one funny big influence was Thundarr The Barbarian, it’s super goofy and campy but watching those as a kid, they basically created this fun, fantastic version of a post-apocalyptic world where there’s mystery and magic and it’s kind of like the Dungeons And Dragons version of the future.

Does it appeal to you to be able to use recognisable earth landmarks? Is that something we’ll see a lot in the game?

Yes, I think it’s something we will definitely play with. Of course, the power of The Planet Of The Apes scene – with the statue of Liberty coming out of the sand – that’s hugely powerful, there’s definitely things like that we’ll play with from just a mood and feeling standpoint, and we definitely want to play with that familiarity with people. But not to limit it to like ‘oh let’s recreate downtown Chicago’. That’s not a goal.

The play-testing you guys are doing at the studio, do you have a particular story that stands out in your mind? You’ve said before about the kinds of stories that emerge from playing Destiny.

There are multiple moments but one that struck me right off when you said that was I was playing the game by myself, testing one of the levels, not connected to the network, so sort of playing in offline mode, there weren’t other people streaming in.

To clarify, that’s not going to be possible in the final game?

No, no, no. I was playing in a testing [environment]. I was going into an area and it’s an area that was designed to be a social space. I was going on a particular mission, and as you saw in the E3 demo, there was a public event that happened in the area. That was the first one that I had tried because we’d gotten them in recently.

And I was on a particular story mission and that [public event] popped up on the side and I was like, ‘oh what was that, I’m gonna go over and do it.’ And it’s this cyclical, ambient event that we haven’t really done before – I got drawn into this little side thing, designed for multiple people to come together and fight and I ended up in this intense challenge, just by myself on this little hill fighting these waves and it was super-exciting, almost more fun than the objective that I had to go on.

It was really challenging as well, because it was designed for multiple people and I was doing it by myself. I think the first time I got to the end of it this giant, Fallen-like Captain came around the corner with this giant gun and I just kind of understood how cool the world we were making was. That you can go, by yourself even, and have this experience where these ambient things happen off the [beaten] path that you can engage in yourself.