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In 2013 Joe Staten (who now works at Microsoft) and Christopher Barrett held a wonderful presentation at GDC and talked about the creation of the now famous online shooter, Destiny. They discussed the main challenges they faced during the production of the virtual world of Destiny and how they managed to overcome those problems.
Here’s a little overview of their talk. We’ve added a lot of additional Destiny’s concept art from the portfolios of Joseph Cross, Ryan DeMita and Isaac Hannaford, Jaime Jones, Kekai Kotaki, Darren Bacon, Daniel Chavez, Adrian Majkrzak, Dorje Bellbrook and Jesse van Dijk. Say what you want about Destiny, but these are probably the most impressive pieces of game concept art ever created.
History of Destiny
Bungie was really excited about building a new world that was different from the well known universe of Halo. They wanted to create a world, with which they can tell any great story. A place in which millions of people would want to visit again and again for the next decade plus. This world has to matter and last forever. It should also be flexible enough to accommodate any crazy idea the team would come up with.
They started by looking over their previous Halo games. Each Halo project was filled with energizing content and a story with great twists and turns. However, the whole experience was streamlined and narrow, though the Halo world was bigger. This is not really a problem of Halo alone, but rather a feature all modern first person shooters have in common. Players just charge through all the beautiful stuff the team has created and have no reason to return to those places.
Destiny needed to work differently. The game should encourage further exploration and give new reasons to come back to the virtual world. That’s how the team developed the Four Pillars of Destiny World.
1) Make a Hopeful and Inviting World
One of the first versions of Destiny was actually a fantasy world. This theme appealed to the team because of the history, the myth, and the change that fantasy brought. This brought a lot of opportunities to make some incredible lands with castles, beasts, artifacts, monsters and heroes. All these fantasy images created by talented artists at Bungie invited the player to explore and travel.
Bungie still loved its sci-fi though. For it evoked emotions of a hopeful future, distant worlds, and battling extraterrestrials. It also had derelict spaceships and other mysteries. The team decided to unite these two themes. They’ve mixed ancient fantasy history with sci-fi and created a mix called “mythic science fiction”.
These images (postcards as Bungie calls them) proved to be hugely important for the team and for the game production as a whole. They also helped to ask the right questions about the world, including the most important one: “What’s the center of your world?”
Challenge: Finding the Center
It was very important to define the starting point and then move away from it to build the whole world around it.
With fantasy it was pretty obvious: they needed a huge town. With sci-fi the developers wanted to go a little further and build a spaceship world, but making a castle in space did not work out. Finally they came up with two designs: a space station and one huge big ship with an enormous hangar. Later, that spaceship evolved into a strange alien artifact, which appeared to be a little more sci-fi than necessary.
They scrapped this idea and decided to build a city on Earth.
A familiar place with fantastical elements. And so they created the iconic image with an alien spaceship floating around a huge city, surrounded by a wall.
This city worked so well, because it made the audience curious, which in Bungie’s opinion, is the real job of a world builder. This sphere was named The Traveler. They’ve also build a tower with hangars inside, where the players could gather and show off.
2) Idealized Reality
After that the team of art directors ventured forward and defined a style guide for the world by using hundreds of references.
To build that look of idealized reality the designers looked at westerns with their specific mood, color palette and interesting costumes. It gave this feeling of a frontier.
Tarkovsky (a famous Russian movie director) was also a great inspiration. Bungie loved the composition, the lighting and the cinematography of his films.
They also borrowed a lot from Terry Gilliam films, not to make the game too serious. The team left some place for humor, crazy imagination and space maps.
A great inspiration for the team was 70’s sci-fi art. The illustrations of John Harris (one of the illustrators of the first edition of Ender’s Game) were most intriguing for the developers, as they contained epic, larger than life imagery with esoteric natural motives. Large monoliths, crazy organic structures – everything was there.
For the architecture of the dungeons and hostile areas, the team was inspired by Zszislaw Beksinski. He has a lot of gothic architecture that really fit in the world of the game. You can definitely feel the influence of this artist in Souls series as well. Peter Gric was another great influence with his pattern of order and chaos, a lot of surrealism and timeless quality of the environments. The art of this genius heavily influenced the look of Venus.
Anime was another huge inspiration for the team. The style, various versions of armor and spaceships – all that found its place in the world of Destiny.
Challenge: Finding the Unified Palette
The biggest challenge for the team was the unification of all those influences. The management needed to deliver the new direction and to inspire the team with this world. They needed to create an art direction that the team could follow. One of the ways was the use of palette.
The art directors wanted the colors to look slightly aged, taking the futuristic elements and adding a feeling of history. Bungie gathered a lot of references of interesting, non-traditional palettes to aid in this quest for aged sci-fi.
The technical team also devoted a lot of time to using post effects: LUT color correction, vignette, tone mapping, chromatic aberration, light streaks and full-screen bloom. Working in engine was very productive, since the artists could experiment in real time and get that unique look they wanted.
Slowly the team grasped all those elements and created some amazing concept art!
3) A World Full of Mystery and Adventure
Bungie believes that mystery begins at the intersection of expected and unexpected, where the familiar meets the strange. Take the Moon for example, they built the whole destroyed infrastructure on this planet, which at first sight seemed pretty ordinary. They’ve build abandoned aircraft cemeteries filled with alien soldiers. Or a frozen city occupied by an army of machines! There was a ton of this stuff. This way they’ve guided the players from familiar to strange.
Challenge: Narrowing Down the Focus
However, this also created a challenge: how do you narrow the focus of a huge team and slowly transfer it from focus to production? Instead of building a linear game, they needed to build a huge game world. To guide the team into production, the art directors applied such tools:
- A Unifying Usual Theme: Nature ascendant over lost human civilization. This similar theme was used in The Last of Us.
- Destination Postcards: These images define the mood, palette and fiction of the world.
- Great World Building Tool: World building tool, a huge shared digital workspace for artists and designers. This software is called Grognok and it’s not for sale.
To fill the world of Destiny, the artists also created a bunch of enemies and creatures, which would suit each environment. They’ve built a separate mood board, which defined what creatures go in which location. Artists have outlined the shapes and figured out the hierarchy. For every enemy race there was a special postcard that defined various aspects of interacting with the enemy.
4) A Place Where You Can Become a Legend
Challenge: Moving from one hero to millions. Creating Classes.
To tackle this challenge, the developers have defined a small set of fundamental choices that the players would have to make during character creation process. They developed a number of races, which were both familiar and exotic (just like the environments).
Their first choice was human. These guys were relatable, tough and not that complicated.
Then they moved to Awoken. These characters were inspired by elves (World of Warcraft), vampires (the Twilight Saga in particular), ghosts and angels. Awoken were very exotic, beautiful and mysterious.
Exo were build like robots mixed with the undead. The main inspirations here were Master Chief and Terminator. Exo were powerful, tireless and sinister.
There was one more choice – “Tiger Man”. It was sort of a noble, wise awesome beast. This guy never made it. It never belonged to this world.
A lot of time was invested in building the clothing and armor. They did a lot of research on fashion, figured out new hair styles and various adornment options. Customization was incredibly important. Especially in terms of classes, which were both understandable and a little bizarre.
Destiny had one of the most developed virtual worlds in the history of video games. And the most important thing is that it was built from the ground up by just a couple of very strong art directors. If you want to achieve similar results with your game, try to follow these simple rules:
- Combine familiar with exotic.
- Keep your world flexible and try to add new stuff.
- The real job of the world builder is to make gamers curious, by providing the right context.
- Cut the feature if it doesn’t fit into the world.