Q: OK, so, how did you come to work at Bungie?
I had no thoughts of going into gaming when I went into school and studied architecture.
Q: Were you a gamer?
I was as a kid, I was obsessive about Atari 2600, Intellivision — my parents recently sent it to me, they found it in the basement. It had like 46 cartridges, and I didn’t even remember a bunch of them. So my friends and I were into that, but I remember this dip that coincided with me coming into adolescence, there was a dip in the console world. Atari and Intellivision ended really quickly. Calico Vision and all those things died. It was a little while before you got to Nintendo 64, which really brought that back up. By that time I was into high school, sports and girls, and really had no time for it.
Then I was off to college, and architecture is hard. I got wrapped up in the romantic notion of going out there in the world, designing these amazing buildings.
So I finish that up, I get out into the real world, and I get a job with a prestigious firm in downtown Chicago — which, if you’re going to be an architect in the US, you want to be in Chicago or New York — and that’s all great. I sit down, and they say, ‘OK kid, you’re going to do the reflected ceiling plan for this atrium.’ I’m like, ‘what does that mean?’ They reply, ‘Try to figure out how we have to cut as few tiles as possible.’
I’m a positive, optimistic person, and I never really let it get me down, but I did start to think that maybe these design skills that I learned could be useful elsewhere. So I did that thing everyone else does, and said, ‘I’m going into film!’
I started sending out résumés and that was just going nowhere. I had a friend who I worked with, and his friend from architecture school had actually made it into the film industry. He’d worked on the first Michael Keaton Batman sets and all that. So I went out to meet him and he took me to a party where a bunch of his friends had just finished working on Contact — you know, the film with Jodie Foster — and every single person I met was like, ‘I hate this industry.’ ‘I get no creative satisfaction, I’ll animate one footstep for six months.’ I was like, this sound horrible. Then some guy — and to this day I wish I knew who this was because I’d send him a bouquet of flowers or a 12 pack of beer — he says, ‘Oh you’re in architecture? I have a buddy in videogames. He has an architecture background, does all the environment stuff, and he loves it!’
I came back to Chicago, thought about it, sent some stuff out. LucasArts and a few others nicely rejected me. Then one day my technical mentor, who knew I was already thinking about other stuff, taps me on the shoulder and says, ‘Hey, have you read this article?’ In the Chicago Tribune’s Tempo section there’s a picture of these two dorky guys holding a sword, and they happened to be [Bungie co-founders] Jason Jones and Alex Seropian.
So I read the article about them, Myth was about to come out and they were promoting that. So I go online — this was in ’96–’97 when websites were first popping up — and they had a job listed for someone to do “pseudo-realistic environments for Anime-inspired game”. I was like, ‘I can probably do that!’
So I sent in my résumé, and they said, ‘Would you mind doing a test?’ ‘Sure, what do you want me to do?’ ‘Model the lobby of an evil corporation’s skyscraper.’ I’m working in a Mies van der Rohe steel-and-glass forty-storey building, so I was like, ‘I think I’ll just copy this — maybe add a fountain, but there you go.’
I sent it in and they said, ‘Great, so we’re going to interview you, but we have a San Jose office we want you in.’ I’d only been in Chicago for three years, and I had two sisters who had just moved to the San Francisco area, so I thought, ‘Yeah, what the heck.’
I get out there, and the interview was hilarious — so strange. It was three guys in this room, this crappy little room, and I would seat at each one of their desks, they were maybe five feet from each other, and they would just ask me a few questions about the model, and how I would build it, and what I knew — it was not very in-depth. Then I would go to the next guy, and he’d pretty much ask me the same questions he’d just heard the other guy ask me! Then they go, ‘Alright! Time to play some games!’
So we go to the living room area of this thing where they have like an N64, and an Atari Jaguar, bunch of other stuff, and we proceed to play GoldenEye for probably an hour-and-a-half. Then they’re like, ‘Alright! Let’s go get some barbeque!’ So we’re off to that! Then at the end of it they say, ‘Alright, thanks!’
I was staying with my sister, and I get to her house. She comes home from work, and asks what it was like. I described it to her, and she says, ‘Is this a real job?’ And I say, ‘Well… I think it is? I’m not quite certain.’ I go through the whole thing of negotiating an offer, talking to Alex, and I finally got to the point where I thought I’m going to try it, this seems fun. I remember the moment when I told my parents, and they said, ‘You’re going to do what? They were really concerned. Back then you had to get your Bachelor’s or Master’s in architecture then do a certain amount of hours before you could get your license. They said, you’re still going to sit your exam, right? The license exam costs maybe $1000 dollars. ‘Oh yeah, sure, I’ll still do that!’
Fast-forward seventeen years: sorry mum and dad, still don’t have my architecture license!
Q: No architecture license, but you are building Destiny. How would you summarise Destiny’s art direction?
The thematic direction given very early on, nature in ascendancy, was one that was also a little bit hard for people to grasp. You say [“post-civilisation”] and people go, ‘Oh, you’re talking nuclear annihilation or Mad Max?’ No, not really.
What we wanted to do was imagine a future civilisation where mankind had expanded, gone through this amazing growth in technologies and all that, and then all of a sudden something happens and it retreats. It retreats a lot. What happens to all the things that were out there?
Everything we try to do is hint at that. You see the space suit on the moon. But it’s funny, for the art staff, one of the challenges we had was that too many people were going down the path — which is totally understandable — of having everything be collapsed. We were like, ‘No, no, we don’t necessarily want destruction, we want entropy’ — things growing up over stuff. Imagine what happens to this café. If we weren’t here for 20 years, what would this place look like? A lot of this stuff is still going to be here, it’s just going to be covered with dust, or one thing might’ve fallen over, you know?
Q: How has setting the game in our own solar system informed Destiny?
I think for Jason [Jones] and Chris [Barrett], when they started in on the project together, I think they made a wise choice by tapping into their own inner child. As a child you look up. You learn about the stars and you learn about the planets, and it’s exciting. All the stuff that’s happening — we might get to Mars in our lifetime, and you saw last week they found water — we looked at that and thought, one, it’s relatable to some degree, and two, it taps into that thing that we believe almost everybody has, which is the idea of exploration. And not just exploration, but realistic exploration, you know? 500 years ago it was exploration of the world. Now it’s exploration outside of that. Something relatable makes it very exciting and taps into something most of us have.
I remember when we started doing it early on, they were decommissioning all of the space shuttles. At least five or six people went to the final mission launch at Cape Canaveral, or Houston, or wherever it was, and I was thinking, ‘man, we’re really starting to get into this hardcore now!’
Just the other day, one of the guys sent an email to the studio, and he was like, ‘OK I was just out in the backyard taking out the garbage and saw what was the International Space Station.’ It’s kinda neat. I refer to the thing so many people will have heard me say over and over again over the years: we make the games we like to play, but I also think we like to use the context or the setting that’s interesting to us as well.
Q: Yeah, you’ve mentioned the influence of fine art on the art direction. Can you speak further to that?
Chris Barrett has a fine arts degree from the Pratt Institute in New York City. He had a pretty unique vision right off the bat. He has a number of painters and influencers that he brought to the table which were interesting and new, and something very new for a lot of our artists to take on.
He also has this love of not just science fiction but also of fantasy; movies like Krull are really important to him. We actually explored fantasy early on, but we ended up back with what was comfortable for us, and this team that we had built — science fiction. But we had the idea: what if we can blend it a bit? You’ve heard us use the term mythic science fiction.
Chris also has a very, very strong affinity for what I’ll call analogue graphic design — 1960s, 1970s graphic design. Stuff that feels like it was made, and not necessarily digitally, and can it even be reproduced in this digital age? A lot of stuff right now looks really slick. Everything is so slick, but if you can just have a feel of analogue in a digital medium, that’s really cool. So that’s where you start to get the influences of cloth and even the design of some of our environments. We have one guy who just goes over all our environments and brands all the fictional, old corporations. So he’s just generating reams and reams of logos, and he’s working with the environment teams and doing all the signage in these spaces.
Q: What do you think is your mark or influence on Destiny?
I look at myself as kind of like a sports manager and a coach. I’ve had my hand in hiring probably 90 percent of our art staff over the last seven years in my role as head of the art department.
People often make the mistake of assuming that we need the best visual artist possible. I think about that and rely on my architecture degree a lot. It taught me how to be a problem-solver, and it taught me to think about the function of what you’re creating. I give this talk to schools and when reviewing portfolios a lot. People show me their portfolios and say, ‘What do you think of this?’ I’ll ask, ‘Why does that character have a giraffe’s neck, and an elephant’s body and those mouse legs?’ ‘Well, I thought it would be cool.’
I look for artists that care about design. You can be an amazing artist, but if you’re not thinking about how your content is going to be used in the game, then you’re probably going to miss out on some opportunities.
I like artists that like to think they’re game designers, even though they’re not! So we have a little fun struggle with the designers, but I think they like it too. If they can work with an artist who can bring additional ideas, then you’re going to get a great experience for the end user, the player. That’s the most important thing.
Q: What are you most proud of?
I think the vision of the game, visually, was not one that most people thought would resonate. The reception we’ve had — we’ve probably shown more visual stuff than experiential stuff — I’m super-proud of Chris for sticking to his guns. I think gamers have a more refined aesthetic than the industry often gives them credit for.
Q: What are some of the key challenges you’ve come against so far?
The biggest challenge is that we have a bunch of people whose eyes are bigger than their stomachs. Everyone wants to do something so ambitious that when you start scoping it, you have to ask yourself what decade you want to start shipping this in. We talk about this all the time. You start out and it’s going to be this beautiful, magical, mythical creature with wings, seven legs, and tails. Then we’ll come along and chop off that one set of legs. Then we might chop off those wings, and one of those tails has to go. On the inside all people see is what’s disheartening. So it’s important to have these beats where you release a video and people get really excited about it, because all you see internally is, ‘But we were gonna have that thing and it’s not there…’ That is really hard.
When I worked at the architecture firm I worked at, people weren’t really creatively hungry about what they were doing. Then I started working with Bungie and I remember the crazy passion everybody had for what they were doing, no matter what it was. They wanted to be the best, they wanted to take on big challenges, and they’re still like that. I don’t think I would change any of that. I would still rather have the problem of being overly ambitious rather than just kind of walking up and making it, and getting it out there because the name will sell it.
That would be the day that I would leave.