Interview: Behind the Scenes with Bungie

Published on: Sep 5, 2014 @ 8:07 just released an article online, taken from the September 2014 issue of Wired magazine, with an very in-depth interview. For another great behind-the-scenes interview, check out this article. [divider]Summer 1999, Macworld, New York City. The world’s largest trade show devoted to Apple products. It’s the year of the iBook and wireless networking. On stage, Steve Jobs hands over to Jason Jones, cofounder of a video game company named Bungie. After a brief, nervous introduction, Jones begins a demonstration. On screen, an armoured warrior, chased by aliens, runs out of a passageway into a huge, open space — an alien world rendered in gorgeous (for the time) detail. It’s the first public outing for a game called Halo.

Summer 2013, E3, the Electronic Entertainment Expo, Los Angeles. The most important event of the year for the industry’s biggest console makers and publishers. The stakes are sky-high: Sony and Microsoft will launch new consoles head-to-head later in the year — the PlayStation 4 and the Xbox One. On the morning of June 10, Microsoft makes its play for the hearts, minds and cash of millions of players. Central to that pitch is the promise of a slew of new games, and a TV series, based on one of the most successful game franchises of all time, Halo.

Later that day, it’s Sony’s turn — and the company reveals a secret weapon. Jason Jones takes the stage, controller in hand. Behind him, his character appears on a giant screen, ready for action. It’s a day for firsts: Jones hasn’t made an onstage public appearance since 2001; the game, called Destiny, hasn’t been seen before; and it’s the first new Bungie franchise since Halo.

Jason Jones, cofounder of Bungie, surrounded by Playstation 4 developer kits, all running Destiny
Jason Jones, cofounder of Bungie, surrounded by Playstation 4 developer kits, all running Destiny

In the 14 years between the releases of the two games Bungie has been acquired by Microsoft, split away again and enjoyed record-breaking success: more than 100 billion minutes of Halo have been played by millions of people online during that time. Now the Seattle-based company — and Jones, their publicity-shy talisman –are back with a game that could potentially be even bigger.

Destiny is set after the cataclysmic end of a future golden age for humanity. The survivors shelter within Earth’s last surviving city. Players venture out to explore and reclaim their legacy — from the abandoned ships of a Baikonur-like Cosmodrome to lost colonies on other planets. Behind the high concept, Destiny represents a massive technical challenge: players travel seamlessly from missions designed for small groups to public events, where free-for-alls rage. Characters start out highly customised, and develop new skills and equipment over time.

Destiny is the studio’s first game since the end of its deal with Microsoft and the first to be made for Sony’s current PlayStation consoles, as well as Xbox. Being able to develop for the PlayStation hugely increases Bungie’s potential market, and the Japanese entertainment giant is taking the opportunity very seriously: during the PlayStation 4’s development, Sony consulted Bungie on both the console and the PS4’s new controller. Adam Boyes, Sony’s head of publisher relations, tells Wired that Sony plans to make Destiny “the biggest game launch of all time”.

Jason Jones is often described in the press as reclusive, but when Wired meets him in February 2014 he is friendly and articulate. His hair is greying, but he remains in good shape, arriving in running gear. The company moved to Washington state from Chicago in 2000, and Bungie employees enjoy a Cascadian interest in fitness: there is an indoor climbing wall on the main floor of the company’s cavernous office, for instance.

On the same floor, below the conference room where Jones, 43, talks to Wired, 200 developers, designers and programmers are busily building Destiny. On average, each desk plays host to three high-end PC towers, meaning that Bungie’s IT department deals with over 300 service tickets a day.

PlayStation 4 development kits in brown cardboard containers are stacked up along one wall. When one of the machines on the production floor burns out, as they do on occasion, a new one is immediately unboxed and swapped in.

Things were a little different at the birth of Bungie. Jones and the company’s cofounder, Alex Seropian, first met in 1991 when the pair were in the same artificial-intelligence class at the University of Chicago. Seropian had, by that time, already created Operation: Desert Storm, a multi-level military strategy game based on the 1990-91 Gulf war, which would become the new company’s first release.

“The teacher was giving out assignments to do in the computer lab,” Seropian says. “As an aside, he said ‘You could do it at home, but you’d need a computer with eight megabytes of RAM. Nobody has that.’ Jason raised his hand and said, ‘I do!’ And I was like, ‘How cool is that?’ Back then, eight megs was nuts.”

The pair set up a studio to design games where Jones assumed the coding duties. “I don’t actually like to programme. I learned to programme because that was how you make games,” he says. “As soon as I saw my first video game — Space War with my dad, or Donkey Kong — I wanted to make that. That’s what drove me to math and programming.”

Jones’s first Bungie game, Minotaur: The Labyrinths of Crete, was innovative — a multiplayer game played over a network. Unfortunately, in 1992 this meant that the people interested in playing it were also the few who could download it illegally.

“We had a meeting once, where I said, ‘Everybody who played Minotaur, raise your hands,'” Jones recalls. “Almost the whole studio raised their hands. ‘And which one of you fucks bought it?’ Nobody.”

When Destiny is released on September 9, it is certain to sell millions more copies than Minotaur. But it has cost many millions more to make. Expansive, expensive, high-gloss games — known as “triple-A” in the industry — can take years to develop, and demand a huge investment of human and financial capital. To fund the development of Destiny, Bungie partnered with the publishing giant Activision Blizzard.

Activision Blizzard’s CEO, Bobby Kotick, told investors that he expects Destiny to be “the best-selling new video game IP in history”, and that it has the potential to become Activision Blizzard’s next billion-dollar franchise, alongside World of Warcraft, Skylanders and Call of Duty.

However, earning big means spending big. Kotick described Destiny as a “$500 million [£300m] bet” at a conference in April. That number includes Activision Blizzard’s costs in funding, marketing, packaging and supporting the game, as well as royalty and bonus payments to Bungie, but it remains at the top end of video game development. A senior member of Bungie joked with Wired about the reported record-breaking $265 million cost of Grand Theft Auto V, which raced to a billion dollars in retail sales three days after it launched. “Did that include marketing? Shit!”

It was said with a laugh, but it’s no joke that Destiny will be one of the most expensive video games ever made. Eric Hirshberg is the CEO of Activision Publishing, the subsidiary of Activision Blizzard that publishes the hugely popular, big-budget Call of Duty games. In April 2010, Activision announced a ten-year deal with Bungie to release an as-yet-unnamed franchise. Two years later that contract was unsealed as part of an unrelated court case. It revealed a working title — Destiny — and a plan to create four games over ten years, with a large “comet” release of downloadable content for each.

Hirshberg is reluctant to discuss that contract — much has changed since 2010, not least the plan to release Destiny in 2013. The span of the contract is unchanged, though, he told Wired by phone from Activision’s Santa Monica HQ: “I think a lot of franchises get built game-to-game, or month-to-month — the moment really determines the momentum of the franchise… Bungie aren’t just thinking about the content that goes on the first disc; they’re thinking about a ten-year story. They’re thinking about a Lord of the Rings-sized narrative. How do you build a lasting franchise? How do you design something that, from day one, is built to last?”

The relationship between Destiny and Activision is unusual. The studios that make the biggest titles are usually owned by a publisher, as Pixar is owned by Disney, or by a console maker. These big companies can absorb costs when a game goes over budget, and spread risk across a portfolio of products. But Bungie was determined to retain its independence.

Left: A clean, line-only concept is created, adding refinements such as colours // Centre: Based on the refined plan, artists build an articulated wireframe 3D model // Right: Textures, colours, shading and key accessories (such as guns) are added
Left: A clean, line-only concept is created, adding refinements such as colours // Centre: Based on the refined plan, artists build an articulated wireframe 3D model // Right: Textures, colours, shading and key accessories (such as guns) are added

“One day, I got an email from [Microsoft CEO] Steve Ballmer, saying, ‘Steve Jobs is mad you acquired some company called Bungie. Call him and calm him down,'” Ed Fries says, sitting in Bungie’s office earlier this year. It was 2000 and Fries, then a senior executive at Microsoft, was going to have an interesting summer.

Microsoft was planning its first games console in order to compete with the Japanese giants Sony, Nintendo and Sega. Fries, a company veteran, needed a portfolio of studios and exclusive games to sell a whole new platform. After Macworld, Bungie was hot, but Jones had come to New York with trouble behind the scenes: a bug in the company’s last game that had the potential to delete a player’s hard drive had caused a costly product recall. “I remember at the time thinking, ‘I’m going to feel horrible my whole life if we don’t spend the money’,” Jones says. But it put a hole in Bungie’s profits — profits needed to fund the development of new products.

When Fries discovered that Bungie was on the market, he swooped, turning Halo from a joint PC and Mac release to a key Xbox launch title. Was the move worth that awkward conversation with Steve Jobs?

“Bungie became worth billions of dollars [to Microsoft],” Fries says. “There wouldn’t be an Xbox today without Halo. In fact, how can you even put a value on that?”

Halo: Combat Evolved launched alongside the Xbox in November 2001. Game designer Ste Curran, then reviews editor of the games magazine Edge, remembers playing his review copy for 12 hours straight. He sent his colleagues an email, titled: “A list of things I consider wrong with Halo”. The body text was blank.

The Bungie product stormed the game-of-the-year lists, and sold a million copies in its first five months on sale — the fastest-selling game in that console generation. More than 50 per cent of the new console’s sales were alongside a copy of Halo, as the console fought for ground against Sony’s well-established PlayStation 2.

“Bill [Gates] would say, ‘Who’s your Mario?'” Fries says, referencing Nintendo’s iconic character. The Master Chief, the super-soldier at the heart of Halo’s 26th-century universe, became a symbol of the Xbox’s appeal for hardcore gamers.

Bungie had not just made a multiple-award-winning Xbox game and console shooter, but one of the best-rated games of all time. With Destiny it would have to do it all over again.

For software developers, crunch is an inevitable evil: the period where developers work in long shifts, often seven days a week, to ship a product on time.

Halo 2’s crunch lasted a bruising, exhausting year. Problems began when the rendering engine — the program that creates the visible world of the game — had to be rebuilt from scratch. Microsoft agreed to delay the release, but tension was building. Jones abandoned “Project Phoenix” — the new game he had been working on — and threw himself into the crunch.

A week before Halo 2 shipped, Jones called Harold Ryan, the game’s producer and now Bungie’s president. They discussed one last bug. “Then I said, ‘I don’t think I’m coming in any more.’ And Harold said, ‘Yeah, stay at home.’ […] My presence could actually have made things worse; I’d push people to do one more thing.”

Bungie split into teams to work on multiplayer content. Halo 2 was released in November 2004 but, by then, Jones had taken leave to travel around Asia and, just as importantly, spend time in his back garden.

“It sounds crazy, but your backyard is a pretty amazing place to be when you haven’t seen it for a couple of years. I spent a bunch of time just being normal,” he says.

The long production of Halo 2 had irrevocably changed the relationship between Jones, Bungie and Microsoft. Jones had gone and his erstwhile colleagues wanted their company back.

Bungie’s office in Seattle. The banners feature locations and characters (like the Vex)
Bungie’s office in Seattle. The banners feature locations and characters (like the Vex)

Bungie’s COO Pete Parsons recalls the negotiations that went on in 2005 and 2006 that eventually led to the company’s independence in 2007, the terms of which remain confidential.”The drive was self-preservation,” he says. “We had to be responsible for our own success or failure; to bask in glory or bathe in our own blood. Microsoft understood that.”

The stakes were similarly high for Microsoft: just as Halo had launched the Xbox and Halo 2 injected new life into online multiplayer gaming, so Microsoft needed Bungie to deliver Halo 3 in order to sell its new console, the Xbox 360. “The core guys could literally stop working and leave… Halo 3 would be imperilled, and the Xbox 360 would be imperilled,” says Shane Kim, who negotiated for Microsoft.

Microsoft wantedHalo 3, the Halo IP and assurances that an independent Bungie would make two more Halo games while it built a new studio. Bungie wanted independence — and, controversially, freedom to assign resources to a new project, owned by Bungie. This would be led by Jones — if he could be tempted back.

After protracted negotiations, Jones returned full-time and caught the end of development onHalo 3. Had time away mellowed his perfectionist drive? Hardly. David Dunn, who manages the art department, remembers spending a Saturday working with Jones on the Master Chief’s final mission.

“We spent five hours doing the same jump,” he says. “The sandbox designer’s job was to tweak the coefficients of friction. My part was changing the incline. And Jason was taking the jump, over and over and over again.”

Jones points out that, in this case, five hours adjusting the same 20 seconds makes sense. “Every player had to make that jump. It’s near the end. It’s going to be in your mind when you finish the game, when you walk away. I think in that case the drive for perfection was a benefit, not a curse. It’s a curse when…” He breaks off, and explains that he chose the house where he lives with his family because the rooms and how they connect works so well that they don’t trigger his habitual need to improve things.

“I like things to be pleasing. I like things to be beautiful. I like things to fit together. And when you can aim that at something important, it’s really powerful. When you aim it at your house, it’s not super constructive.”

A week after the launch of Halo 3 in September 2007, Bungie’s employees were packed into a theatre and told that Bungie was becoming an independent studio. The room erupted in cheers: ultimately, all but two of 110 employees left Microsoft and went with Bungie.

Reach, Bungie’s last Halo game, closed the circle by ending moments before the action of the first Halo game began. By then, however, Jones had moved full-time to a new project, mysterious even to the rest of the studio.

In August 2010, the main team, having finished Halo: Reach, came back from holiday to a new office to work on Destiny.

Natasha Tatarchuk, one of the first engineers to join “Project Tiger”, remembers how vast and empty it seemed. “One of the IT guys was riding a Razor scooter around it,” she says. “We gathered, and the leaders said, ‘Look at this space! We’ll never fill it, unless we grow to 400 people. Which will never happen!'” They were wrong; the company payroll now numbers 500.

Natasha Tatarchuk (and friend). She supervises character and surface renders in Destiny
Natasha Tatarchuk (and friend). She supervises character and surface renders in Destiny

Today, almost the last unused room is home to stacks of Halo action figures waiting to be sent out to fans. Watched by the miniature Master Chiefs and Covenant Arbiters, a few programmers have set up a game of cornhole — a beanbag-throwing game played at the studio’s sports day.

It was hard to find a building with enough space to fit the entire team: the last office was a converted hardware shop. The current one is a former cinema. Between the high ceilings, covered windows and hanging neo-tapestries of concept art, the atmosphere is somewhere between a computer lab and a cathedral: a cathedral with a fridge full of root beer and whiteboards covered with descriptions of game levels and alien enemies.

The office’s former life created some unusual challenges: the acoustics in the bathrooms were startlingly clear. Initially, to maintain privacy, music from Halo was piped in, but the staff found that it imparted a disquietingly epic, urgent feel to proceedings. The playlist was changed.

As well as the production floor, the Bungie office contains testing and playtesting facilities; one of the largest performance-capture studios in the Pacific Northwest; foley and recording studios; and a room-sized data centre for storing and transmitting the huge amounts of data created by making the game.

Tatarchuk is one of around 200 engineers — which is more than the entire studio that delivered Halo 3. She joined Bungie from AMD, the makers of the processors that power Sony and Microsoft’s new consoles, where she worked in the forward-looking-technologies group to help demos to highlight what games could look like in five years’ time. Now, she is using that experience to render the characters and surfaces of Destiny. When a cape shifts on a player’s back, her team works with animators, artists and sound engineers to make it look, sound and feel right.

In a café below the main office, Tatarchuk explains that the game engine developed for Destiny is one of the most complex pieces of software she has ever worked on. Unlike the Halo engine, it needs to be able to create content for the PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4, Xbox 360 and Xbox One. Bungie has more than doubled its potential market, but has taken on a new challenge.

Tatarchuk was also one of the Bungie staff who played the game in public for the first time on the Sony stage at E3 in 2013. Shortly after Jones dropped into the game, his screen froze for a half-second. Tatarchuk froze with it. “As an engineer, there’s always a chance that it’s going to be my bug that crashed it,” she says.
Roger Wolfson, Bungie’s senior engineering lead, was once Bungie’s emergency support system — he slept under his desk for a week after each game launched, ready for a crisis. A voracious and versatile engineer — he spends his holidays helping astronomical observatories calibrate software — Wolfson started out in Microsoft’s test team. Today, his server engineering team numbers 23 people. A 24-hour operations centre, laid out like a war room, will employ a dozen staff. The Halo model of gaming is based around two core modes: a single-player or co-operative campaign, which tells the story of the Master Chief’s long war, and competitive multiplayer — where weekend warriors and professional gamers alike swap grenades and plasma blasts.

Players work together to fight the Vex on Venus
Players work together to fight the Vex on Venus

Destiny pushes these elements together: players fight with and against each other in the same shared spaces. It combines the rapid action of a first-person shooter with the persistent environments and constant uptime of an online world that millions of players are trying to explore. Playing a near-complete mission in Destiny demonstrates just part of the challenge: the action is fast-paced and built around making the player feel heroic through intense gunplay and set-piece battles. To be able to pull off a maneuver like a knee-slide through enemy fire while resurrecting a fallen ally, the lag between a button press and its impact on the game world — latency — needs to be minimal. However, players also increase their skills and collect equipment over time, all while moving through a coherent narrative. Wolfson’s team has to keep the experience both snappy and persistent — and working alongside the mobile applications and web companions of the modern online game.

“Keeping latency low… may not be the same problem as managing character progression and telling the character’s story over time,” Wolfson says. “They both involve network communication, but if we can tackle them separately and on different axes, we have two problems to solve, as opposed to a single problem that grows in complexity.”

“We’ve taken on six or seven engineering challenges at once that are large enough to take years and a lot of engineering thought,” adds senior engineer Chris Butcher. “And we’ve done them all at once. We’ve never done more than two, I would say, in a previous title here. It isn’t a linear increase in complexity — it’s a geometric increase.”

“We’re coming to the end of it now, and we have built a great game,” Butcher continues. “But I don’t know how it’s going to be received. I don’t think anybody does… It may well be impossible to assess the game before it’s actually in a live environment.”

Over breakfast — the team’s days are already starting early and ending late — Jones explains his routine, as he navigates the complexities of the project as it nears completion. “I have very little scheduled time,” he says. “I have a list of my highest priorities, and I check them depending which is the most on fire that day.”

Every day more of those fires are being put out. But not even Jones knows exactly what will happen when the game is released in September. What would make Destiny feel like it was a success? A billion-dollar product? Droves of perfect review scores? Tens of millions of players?

“My definition of success is… that, when anyone who looks at the pictures or watches the trailers and is compelled by the world, when they finally get to the game, they enjoy it,” Jones says. “That’s what I go home at night thinking about.”