Analysis of Bungie’s Destiny preview: too many chefs in the kitchen
I’m excited about Bungie’s upcoming game Destiny although I really don’t think I should be. On paper the description and explanation of the game seems awesome, but when Bungie shows off what they actually have it just looks bland and homogenous.
I think the best example of what I mean can be found in this video from GDC ’13 where Destiny’s writer and design director Joe Staten and art director Christ Barrett discuss the process they went through designing and implementing choices for Destiny.
I love this video for two reason. One, I really like “making of” videos; I like seeing the process that goes into creating something imaginative. Two, the process that went into designing Destiny in particular is interesting and filled with imagination and insight. The problem is that most of that intelligent, creative, passionate design doesn’t show up in the final product.
For starters take a look at their design process in making the character classes. They have a fighter, a rogue, and a sorceror which are named Titan, Hunter, and Warlock.
So, in relation to the design of the character classes (44:30) Chris Barrett mentions that they tried to make each class visually distinct. He talks about how their armor was supposed to differentiate the classes, to be “recognizable as this class theme” (44:50). He talks about how each class has a different ratio of cloth to armor in their visual presentation. He talks about how each class has some unifying visual elements. He talks about how the titan’s silhuette is supposed to form a “V” shape thanks to his broad shoulders and narrow waist (45:20) while the warlock’s silhuette is an inverted “V” thanks to the sweep of his robes (46:00).
This is thoughtful character design and even the initial concept art shown emphasizes how different these classes look: the titan is wearing heavy, bulky armor and carrying a heavy, bulky gun; the hunter is wearing a hood without helm, you can see her face, and she’s carrying a light rifle; the warlock is wearing a strange, alien, curvy helmet, voluminous robes, and is carrying a small hand gun. This all creates very visually distinct characters whose appearance gives us an idea of their function in a multiplayer game.
Then you see the final product and each character class looks like the same guy with a few different accessories. The warlock looks like the titan but with a couple strips of cloth. The hunter looks like the titan with pants and a hood. They all have similar silhouettes, proportions, helmets, and textures (compare this, for example, to Team Fortress 2’s characters each of which has completely unique silhouettes and body shapes to quickly and easily distinguish them from up close or from a distance). They all look like Master Chief more or less.
Which sucks. The distinctive feel Bungie was going for in their initial concept just got turned into a bland mix of Halo and Borderlands, except Borderlands’ visuals have more personality. Take a look at another image from a trailer for Destiny:
So, who’s who? The middle guy must be the hunter because of the cape, the guy on the right must be a titan since he doesn’t have a skirt, so the guy on the left must be the warlock. But if you only saw them from the waist up how would you be able to tell the difference between Lefty Warlock and Righty Titan? At a quick glance these different classes look identical.
In their presentation Chris and Joe say that originally Destiny was going to have a medieval fantasy setting (5:40) and that this influence carried over when they switched to sci-fi resulting in a mix of science fiction fantasy (they say they coined a term for this called “mythic fantasy” as though the idea were something new, which is silly since mixtures of fantasy and science fiction have existed for decades and decades [even Robert E. Howard's Conan stories, which are almost pure fantasy, every now and then have an element of science fiction in them]).
Because of this their initial class design seems inspired by classic fantasy RPG games: fighter has heavy armor, rogue has medium armor, and sorceror has cloth so he’s not encumbered. So why didn’t they emphasize those initial unique qualities rather than abandoning them? Why couldn’t Destiny’s warlock wear light cloth but with metal filaments or fragments of alien machinery suggesting that he’s got protection from powerful technology the other classes can’t master? Why is he wearing the same blocky style of armor as the titan? Instead of a titan-style helmet why couldn’t the warlock have a holographic mask or a forcefield protecting his face to further distinguish his visual appearance while underscoring his mastery of alien tech? What about the concept art for the hunter without a mask? She just has like goggles and hood; why did they have to eliminate that distinctiveness by giving the hunter the same helmet as the titan?
It seems like everything in Destiny was turned into a more bland version of its original design. I think a big clue to why this happened is revealed right at the beginning of Joe and Chris’s talk. They mention that they’re working on a team of 400 people. That’s huge. Even half that number would be huge and I think that’s the key to the problem. When you try to implement a really good, precise, and distinct idea with a team that size then it’s going to get watered down as it goes from one person to the next and each transition loses something important, like a game development version of the children’s game “operator”.
This same blanding down effect is noticeable with the design of the alien enemies. This is one of the things I’m most disappointed with since one of my favorite things in science fiction are cool and imaginative aliens.
In Chris and Joe’s presentation their discussion about designing the alien races got me really excited (30:20). They talked about creating distinct looks and feels for the aliens. They had an intriguing concept board where they experimented with basic colors, size relationships, silhuettes, and primitive shapes that would comprise each race’s unique look.
Joe mentions how he and Chris had a long talk about how these alien species die (31:30) and I think this shows the genuine thoughtfulness that went into the development of Destiny. The player’s primary method of interacting with these aliens involves killing them so the meaning, impact, and narrative behind the creatures’ deaths is really important. All of this made me anticipate something really good.
They describe one alien race, the Fallen, as “alien spider pirates” and I was just like, “Holy Crap! Alien spider pirates! That is so cool! I can’t wait to see what they look liiiii…. oh… it’s just an Elite from Halo.”
What happened to all that creative inspiration that went into the Fallen’s design to begin with? It just got watered down into something from MasterChiefMMO.
Let’s look at some of the early concept art of the Fallen that Chris and Joe show in their presentation.
This looks really cool. Not exactly “alien spider pirates” but it looks good. Here, the Fallen look wild, tribal, and barbaric thanks to their fur/feather cloaks in combination with the cloth elements of their costumes. Set in outer space this visual imagery would look interesting and different than what we’re normally used to. It fits in that zone between fantasy and scifi that Bungie was aiming for. Even some of the visual language is really good like the downward pointed helmet prongs which imply aggression by alluding to the the downward pointed ears of a cornered dog. Compare that to the final product where the helmet “ears” are pointed up implying the eagerness of a curious puppy. Are the Fallen a race of curious little puppies? Is that what Bungie is trying to tell us with their final visual design? Or are they trying to tell us that when their team is confronted with a score of different opinions on how a character should look they decided to fall back on something familiar… like Halo.
Even the fat aliens from Destiny are remniscent of a race of aliens in Halo.
There’s also a presumably insectoid race called the Hive that look a little different than Halo, but they also look kind of bland and boring.* They look like skeletons and are clearly just Flood-zombies (the absence of any facial features aside from the mouth implies an overwhelming hunger or desire to consume). Still, they’ve been described as being “undead royalty” and that idea is cool when it implies a once all-powerful alien imperium that has met its doom but whose remnants cling to vestiges of life while demanding fealty from a universe that no longer acknowledges their power. But the idea isn’t cool when it implies naked mannequins the color of chocolate-vanilla swirl.
This is kind of the laziest character design you can have: the most simplified human form, no colors, and only two tones. The only way it could be lazier is if it was an invisible cube.
Then there’s the Vex, described as “time traveling robots”.
They look the most interesting mainly because their simple design is remniscent of classic scifi robots rather than being reminiscent of Halo. It says a lot about your game’s visual design when the most interesting looking enemies are the one’s that look like 1950s scifi cliches.**
Before I close there was one more decision Bungie made that perplexed me: removing the tigerman (39:55). During the video the tigerman is treated kind of like a joke and Chris and Joe act like it’s obvious why the tigerman was cut. Joe says that when you’re building a big world that “some things don’t belong in that world” although they don’t explain why the tigerman didn’t belong.
I don’t see the reasoning. Even though he doesn’t belong in a World of Halo, the tigerman man seems perfect for the world they were trying to create in Destiny. The tigerman was apparently going to be a player race and it doesn’t seem too far fetched compared to some of the canon player races such as the exo (exoskeleton cyborgs) and the awoken (space elf vampires). If Bungie wanted to have Destiny exude a feel of fantasy-meets-scifi then cat-people would be a good focal point since they are a common trope in fantasy and also make appearances in well respected science fiction.
Keep in mind that earlier in their presentation Chris and Joe mention that they wanted Destiny to be a game that didn’t take itself too seriously (18:00) and a game that accomodates “any crazy idea we dreamed up” (2:45). Taking all of this into account, the tigerman would have fit perfectly in a game that was meant to have science fiction elements, elements of medieval fantasy, and which wasn’t supposed to take itself too seriously. But then he was cut for some reason.
I think it’s because, again, it’s hard for strange, unique ideas to remain intact when they’re being passed through dozens and dozens of team members.
In a team of several hundred there is going to be numerous people who don’t like any given idea and if you try to make them all happy then you’re going to end up cutting your ideas down to the lowest common denominator. Maybe it’s not even that, maybe it’s a matter of pure logistics. If you have several hundred people striving for a unified goal then maybe you have to water your ideas down to the lowest common denominator just to make sure everyone stays on the same page. Joe Staten even admits that one of their big challenges was finding a focus for the game and getting such a large team to “wrap their heads around” the idea of what Destiny was supposed to be (25:30)
Either way, if you want to make something unique, iconic, intriguing, or new then you have to have some weird, outlandish ideas. You have to go out on a limb. But it’s hard to balance on that limb if you’ve got a hundred people latching onto you and they’ve worked on only one other title over the last ten years. They’re just going to end up making a generic looking World of Halo.
At one point (43:36) Chris says that people on the team were skeptical about the idea of the Warlock, “wizards with guns… what?” and “they thought it was a pretty weird mix-up”, which to me is a red flag. The idea of a space wizard wielding a gun is not a bizarre idea for science-fiction/fantasy. Not at all. Why did the Bungie team have trouble swallowing the idea? A lack of imagination? A lack of familiarity with how creatively diverse the science fiction genre can be? Maybe if the idea of a space wizard seems too “weird” to you then you shouldn’t be working in the science fiction genre to begin with.
Whatever the case, Chris states that now these same people who were skeptical about the Warlock prefer playing as the Warlock. What if Bungie had taken the other ideas that people were skeptical about (tigerman, more visually unique classes, maybe more outlandish aliens, who knows what other creative ideas) and just given them a chance the way they gave the Warlock a chance? Maybe they would have found those ideas to be just as surprisingly enjoyable. It seems like a lot of good initial ideas got cut simply because many on the team lacked imagination or were scared of going out on a creative limb, which ended up holding back the project creatively.
Despite all this I’m still excited for Destiny to come out. You get to travel to the moons of Jupiter, to Mars, and jaunt all across the solar system, and that’s got me excited. You get to explore long forgotten ships floating derelict like gutted fish amongst the stars; and there will be alien cities that sprawl across interplanetary landscapes in defiance of human survival, and that’s got me excited. You will see aliens who rebel against the very notion of humanity and then you get to first person shoot them to hell and back, and that’s got me excited. I’m excited for Destiny, but based on what I’ve seen I don’t think I should be.
Side Notes (or, a separate article entirely):
*Even though the Hive look visually boring there might be something interesting about them. There is some implication that the Hive in Destiny have some relation to the Pfhor, a race of alien antagonists from Chicago Bungie’s Marathon trilogy. The Pfhor was an empire of insectoid slavers; the Hive are probably insectoid in nature considering their race’s name, and there are implications that they might be able to absorb individuals from other species into their army which could be considered a form of enslavement. There are also the delta eye patterns that are shared by the Hive (in certain art) and the Pfhor.
That’s all a little flimsy especially since there’s art out there where the Hive have different eyes or don’t have eyes at all. They also look more like zombies than insects and have been described as “undead royalty”. Still, I like the possibility that there’s a connection between them and the villains from Bungie’s first series even if it’s only on a meta-level: the Pfhor are dead because the Marathon series is essentially over, but they’ve been resurrected, if in concept only, as this race in Destiny. The Hive, then, is the undead idea of what the Pfhor once were. I think that’s cool.
**Bungie says the Vex are “time traveling robots” and this is the most information we have about their narrative. They also look like classic scifi androids; they even move in the comically rigid style of robots from old b-reels. I think their description plus their visual imagery hint at a meta-narrative taking place. Sure, there will probably be actual time traveling within the game’s narrative, but the Vex are time traveling in the real world as well. Their visual design has time traveled from the mid-1900s to the present day.
Maybe this wasn’t intentional but if it was I give it a solid thumbs up.