Yesterday at Gamescom we sat down with Jonty Barnes (the director of production for Destiny) and Jessie van Dijk (the lead concept artist) to talk about the recent beta, the team’s nerves, and wizards that come from the moon! The chaps at Bungie have always been an easy-going bunch of people, so it was nice to learn that this online, company persona of theirs translates into real life. Our interview (and really, it was more like a friendly chat about their upcoming game) was heaps of fun, and it offered a glimpse into the thoughts and feelings of a development team that’s about to launch one of the biggest games in the industry’s history. In that regard it was a thoroughly refreshing and honest fifteen minutes. A lot of the time, developers are held on very tight leashes by the PR people who sit next to them, but in this case there was really very little that was off limits for discussion.
If you’re excited for Destiny, or you’re just a Bungie fan (and we know many of you wonderful readers are total Bungie fans – we don’t blame you) then hit the jump and give our candid chit-chat a read.
NAG: We’re pretty excited for Destiny!
JB: [laughs]Yay! We’re really excited! We’re less than four weeks away and it’s been a long journey for us. It’s kind of amusing how disappointed the studio is that the beta ended because we like our world populated.
NAG: Well, we played the hell out of the beta and just had so much fun with it.
JB: Well thank you, that’s so great to hear!
NAG: So our first question is why did you take out the line “that wizard came from the moon”? We loved that line for probably all the wrong reasons, but it was so great and now it’s gone!
JB: [laughter from everyone in the room] Maybe… it’s maybe gone…
NAG: We were hoping you’d say that.
NAG: sticking with that subject, we found that whole player feedback about Peter Dinklage’s performance really interesting, but how was that from you guys as the developers’ point of view?
JB: OK, so right, I want to be very clear that the alpha was never designed to have so much exposure in the way that people felt like it was the final content. We hadn’t done any of the sound design on Peter Dinklage, and in many ways it wasn’t the best takes that we had; it wasn’t something representative of the final thing. I would say though that the comments made us very, very intentional about the changes that we made; it made us put more pressure on the team than we had about that, and so in some ways it sort of loosened out grip from risk and we made more changes than perhaps we would’ve. But, you know, Peter is great to work with. He was fantastic and was really accommodating. So since the alpha, you know, obviously we changed a bunch of different takes, we actually bought Peter into the studio for two more days as well, so most of that from a sound design was very much part of the plan anyway. I guess it was somewhat symptomatic of the exposure to an “in development” slice of a game.
JvD: It did lead to a great T-shirt though.
NAG: It did! And they just sold out in seconds!
JB: We think you’ll find some other little gems in the game though… [laughs]
NAG: Right, so we’ve had this particular question ever since we played Halo: ODST. The signs that you could find in the game that read “Destiny Awaits” with the picture of the Earth and the Moon: were those intentional?
JB: Yes! We had a small team working on what the future game of Bungie was at that time. It was levity and it was fairly understood in the studio that there was this project called “codename Destiny”. Actually, funnily enough, it stuck so then it had to become “codename Tiger” because you couldn’t possibly say “Destiny” in any arena in case somebody got involved in it! But yeah, you know, it was a very different game coming out of ODST; we had some pillars that still to this day we value and test against when we develop future Destiny content. But back then yes, it was very much in incubation. We actually started right off the back of ODST.
JvD: And I think the fact that it was real and we hinted at it so early on was indicative of the fact that Destiny is the game that we’ve always wanted to make. In many ways the methods we’ve learnt during the course of games like ODST, those lessons kind of lead the way to what ultimately became Destiny. It’s a very organic process, sort of an evolved understanding of how we, most effectively, cater towards what we believe people will enjoy.
JB: We can’t help ourselves. We like putting signposts into everything that we do. I’m sure there’ll be things in the first version of Destiny that you’ll look back on and think, “oh now I get it.”
NAG: The beta figures were pretty impressive! So what was that like, sitting in the studio and seeing the numbers go through the ceiling?
JB: I don’t think we’ve spoken about this at all today, but in the kitchen we’ve got four TVs above us an they’ve got a graph of people going up, and people playing at different times of day and different geo-locations, and seeing where it’s hitting a network problem and whatever else. At some points we were sitting there going: “wow, hang on a minute we’re above our target for today… is this going to stay working?” So there was as much excitement as there was apprehension and I think from a creative standpoint when you’ve put so many big bets into cooperative gameplay and are expecting a flow of people to be playing together, in the studio we were strong believers but there’s nothing better than a huge audience in a populated world to see if those things paid off. Funnily enough now, since the beta has gone, everyone is just like, “get the game out! Let’s get it there!” Even though we’ve got this list of things we want to make even better, we just want to have it live now and in people’s hands.
NAG: Was there a particular moment in the beta that you were most happy about?
JvD: Well certainly what we tried to do is stress our systems to a very high degree, and we offered a selection of content that established that moment for us, and to see everything hold so well together was great. One of the things that I enjoyed most was the fact that there were a lot of people who were streaming their first seconds on the moon. The entire art team had spent so much time making [the moon] the best they could make it, and to see people respond to that in such a natural way and to see the excitement in people, that was quite awesome.
JB: Playing with fans was also great, and have them not know that we work here [at Bungie] – and then to hear them saying what fun they’re having was just so rewarding. Like the YouTube videos of the dancing and the parties and the deluge of enthusiasm we had on our feedback forums saying “oh, you’ve got to do more of this!” you know, I think was very interesting. For me I think the biggest thing which I found really rewarding was how populated the Tower was all the time. We spent so much time as developers in the Tower and maybe we’d run into another developer on the right build or the right setup or the right console, but actually experiencing that out in the wild with dense populations of people going in and out all the time, sort of doing their things and having fun, and then jumping into the story they want to do… that was fantastic to see that sort of safe haven.
NAG: We had a very seamless beta experience without any hiccups or problems, but we’re assuming there must have been some issues somewhere along the line. So are you pretty confident with the systems now, heading towards release?
JB: Yeah I mean we’ve got some things in place so that we can throttle it down to make sure that at least the majority of people that are online will always have a great experience. We can queue people up if it starts getting problematic. And we tested that right at the very end [of the beta], I don’t know if you saw the message that we were going to screw with you guys? You know, do things like turn it down and say that only 200, 000 people were going to get in at once just to make sure our fall-backs worked really well. But I think we learnt a great deal, like when we look at the metrics of the things that got pushed like some of our data analysis tools actually became part of the problem even though they’re analysing for solutions. And so we had to do a lot of optimisation. I think the bulk of the stuff was actually more making the experience better, like how to do the best geographic matchmaking; making sure that people have the best matches against people on their friends list, making sure that they collided there. It was very fun actually, I remember I was playing competitive multiplayer and it matched me against a one-layer-removed friend, who was a friend’s son, and so I was playing against the teenager of Sam Jones [lead environment artist on Destiny] actually, and he was very confident you know! All like, “well my dad works on this game!”
NAG: Did he know it was you playing?
JB: Yeah he recognised me! Sam’s wife is friends with my wife so it was funny, but it was also great to see that it had actually worked out that relationship and optimised accordingly considering how many people are online.
NAG: Is there going to be more to the player ships than what we saw in the beta?
JB: So for Destiny 1 they’re largely vanity items in a way. You’re going to have so many people going, “look at my kick-ass ship that I managed to accomplish,” but they’re not going to be any more than vessels for moving between sections and planets. We don’t’ want to break the experience of feeling like you’re in a universe, but obviously we cover a lot of loading transitions which the ships fit with. We were concentrating on the “boots on the ground”, high fidelity combat experience, so for now they’re largely vanity items.
NAG: Then this isn’t really a question but more like an observation, but the in-game team talking with headsets uses positional audio, which we don’t think we’ve ever come across in another multiplayer game, so for us that was amazing. We could hear friends walking up behind us thanks to them talking and the positional audio of their voice. And then there’s that feature whereby their voice starts to sound like it’s coming through on a radio the further away they walk from you in-game.
JB: Our audio team (and honestly they’re a big team), they take just as much scrutiny as any other area of a game. We have them start from the very beginning with concept development. We have some technology and things that they always insist on pushing the bar with. So it’s always great to hear that attention to detail.
NAG: Well that’s just the thing: the attention to details in the sound! It’s so well done.
JB: Well they’ll be pleased to hear that! We’ll take that back with us, and we’re glad you noticed that.
NAG: Well, thanks so much for your time! It was great chatting with you.
JB: Thank you for making the time!