Polygon spends a day with the reclusive developers of Halo and the upcoming Destiny.
Pete Parsons is giving the tour. As chief operating officer of Bungie, it's one of his many semi-official responsibilities. We're told he's the best at it.
Parsons shows us the two massive trophy walls, filled with awards from over 20 years of game-making. The glass-encased shelving is built into separate walls, divided by a corner. Each is more than 30 feet from end to end, more than 10 feet high.
There's the plaque commemorating Halo‘s first million sales. The Video Game Awards, each with their fat, smoking monkey holding a controller. The metal AIAS swooshes holding their crystal spheres. The many crystal tablets, laser-etched with whatever caused them to be issued.
Parsons struggles to name a favorite, then seemingly punts, pointing out the massive trophy given pride of place at the junction of the two walls. It lists the names of every winner of Bungie's annual "Pentathlon," the internal game competition the developers look forward to all year, where they will test their mettle against their colleagues.
This year, the Pentathlon will feature Johann Sebastian Joust, the chaotic, intensely physical indie game in which players must hold a vibrating PlayStation Move controller and move in time with music while attempting to knock the controllers out of each others' hands.
As the tour moves into the off-limits second floor production studio, Parsons shows us the small Joust arena sketched out on the floor in blue tape, between the cluttered desks of Bungie's two office managers and the famous rock climbing wall.
Two things become clear as we sink deeper into Parsons' canned presentation. The first is that it really isn't canned; Parsons knows every intimate detail — the memories are ingrained, not memorized. The second thing we discover is that Parsons' affection for the Bungie Pentathlon trophy wasn't a punt after all; of all of his company's many accomplishments, crafting the perfect, nearly insoluble team is the one of which he is absolutely most proud.
He describes how he meets with employees on their first day, then again, a month or so later. He describes the indoctrination, the counseling, the nurturing. He uses the world "family" — a lot, and sincerely. He tells the story of how he finally conceded the studio needed an IT department after he became too busy to troubleshoot computers and lay cables himself. He lovingly describes every feature of the studio building — custom-built from the ruins of a defunct bowling alley (downstairs) and movie theater (upstairs) — not in the way of someone describing their new mansion in the Hollywood Hills, but rather the way a librarian might describe a new reading room. As if it's not a monument to his own largesse, but rather a construction for the benefit of others.
He describes the intensive security measures: keycard-coded front door; the beefy, menacing guards at the front desk; the cameras; the second set of doors guarding the stairway to the production floor and the third set of doors at the top of those stairs. And then he ushers us behind those layers of security to see what few have seen before.
Let's go back to August of 2009. Halo 3: ODST, the first Halo game without the iconic Master Chief, is finished and a month away from store shelves. Bungie is two years into its newly rediscovered independence from Microsoft. Halo: Reach, the last Halo game the company will ever make, is a little more than a year away. And Bungie is taking a field trip.
The company has hired a team of buses to haul the entire studio from its longtime home (a former grocery store) in Kirkland, Wash. to what will be its new home in downtown Bellevue. Bellevue is not Kirkland. It is prissier. Closer to Seattle. What real estate people would call "upscale."
Into this gentrified oasis trundle busloads of game developers. The buses stop in front of the former bowling alley (and movie theater) and out pours what Pete Parsons calls "a nerd apocalypse." From this day forth, Bellevue's tiny shops and restaurants will be filled with comic book T-shirt-wearing, socially awkward and strangely well-off workaholics, coming and going at all hours and not giving two farts what anyone else thinks. Bellevue's game studio population has effectively doubled, and employees at nearby Valve will now think twice (and look around) before discussing their plans out loud, over pizza.
Bungie, newly independent and working on big plans of its own, now has a new home.
You get there like you're going to the mall. Up some stairs, past the brew pub and then there it is: Bungie. Like it's been there a thousand years.
The building is not new, but its Bungification is recent.
"We built this. … Not from the ground up, because the building was already here, but we built it exactly the way that we wanted to, which means we got about 80 percent of the way there," says Parsons. "It's a great place to make games."
Bungie discovered the space shortly after it was renovated by its landlord. They'd ripped out most of the bowling alley and movie theater, but left the floors of the old projection rooms in place, creating intricate balconies and rooms along the top wall of the top floor. They'd also, unfortunately, ripped openings in the walls of the theater space to create windows, like normal people would want. Game developers are not normal.
Parsons says the artists on the team were excited about the window development, because they like natural light. Everyone else dreaded working in a space where the sun would intrude on the graphical fidelity of their computer monitors. Bungie management also had a separate concern: security. Windows work both ways, and computer monitors glow brightly at night. To prevent details of Bungie's highly secretive new project from leaking into the open (any more than they would, anyway) the studio installed frosted film on all of the freshly cut windows, then added blackout blinds for good measure.
Walking through the building's giant, glass front doors, you would never know the space used to be a bowling alley, except for the fact it's where you might expect a bowling alley to be (if the neighborhood hadn't gone prissy). The keycard-guarded door lets off to a wide, concrete-floored lobby and an enormous, curving reception desk tended by one of the largest men you will ever meet.
Jerome is hill giant huge, and, unlike most of the people he's guarding, he's "internet famous," according to Parsons. You can see him guarding reserved parking spaces with a Brute hammer in this photograph.
After checking in with Jerome, you settle on a bench to wait for your minder. Behind you is a giant Bungie logo plastered on the wall. The building stretches down a hallway to the left of Jerome's reception desk-cum-wrestling arena and to the left of the hallway is another set of glass doors leading to a large set of stairs. You know without being told that the stairway leads to where the magic is made — where Bungie has been secretly making the game it calls "Tiger" and which everyone knows as Destiny.
You're greeted with a smile and asked to sign a form and then you're told you'll never in a million years, even if you ask, even if you bribe, be allowed to ascend those stairs. The production floor is off-limits, they say. Not even their mothers are allowed. You nod. You like a challenge. You've played video games your whole life. How hard is it to find a keycard?
You're escorted to the press room, where you will sip coffee waiting for the tour to begin. Bungie built the room expecting to host a variety of press before realizing it's never invited press to come visit. Instead the team purchased arcade cabinets, built a custom racing game pod and installed a bank of televisions and consoles, a pool table and foosball. You are waiting in the room where Bungie plays.You get there like you're going to the mall. Up some stairs, past the brew pub and then there it is: Bungie.
Parsons is proud of this room, but not in the way you might expect. Sure, it's one of the best-equipped game studio play rooms you've seen, but Bungie plays here, and it shows. The room has been set aside for the day, but it's not polished like a shrine. The rough edges are on display. The whiteboard hasn't been scrubbed. The toys, not neatly put away. This is a room that sees use, and it's here for that purpose, not as a salve for some executive's ego.
What's more, Bungie "plays the world" here. This is where the team gathers to compete in its annual inter-studio Pentathlon, and where, in 2011, it "challenged the world" to Halo: Reach, lost, and then shelled out over $20,000 in award steaks.
"We said, 'If you beat us by 20 points, we'll buy you Omaha Steaks and air freight them to you,'" Parsons recalls. "It was all for charity. We ended up raising a few hundred thousand dollars. We expected we'd lose about $2,200 worth of steaks. But the world practiced, and about $22,000 in steaks later, we were licking our wounds. But it was all for a good cause."
Parsons is proud of this room because of what it represents: the spirit of community and gamesmanship that his studio was founded to foster and which it has helped to keep alive, through its games, yes, but also through its own internal culture.
The word "arcade" comes to us from Latin. It literally means "a row of arches," and was colloquially used to refer to rows of arches with amusements tucked in. Hence: the place where the games are is the "arcade." A row of arches is also, typically, an entrance. Here at Bungie, the arcade is both things. It is where they keep the games they play, and it is our entrance to the world they have built.
It's unclear how much Machiavellian scene-setting to attribute to the PR representatives who've orchestrated this visit, but it seems meaningful. You wonder, standing here, surrounded by fun, if it will all come back to the games in the end.
Parsons chats a bit in this room, the soft flickering of the game screens as a backdrop and the gentle hum of the cabinets playing counterpoint to the questioning and answering. Gradually, the tone shifts and it is almost a conversation. The script, not quite set aside, but lowered. Just men, talking, surrounded by the history of games.
The moment passes and the tour continues. It is early yet.
In 2001, Bungie shipped the original Halo, what many considered to be the most technologically advanced game ever made, with just 46 people. The team swelled to a modest 67 for Halo 2, and more or less doubled to 112 for Halo 3. Today, Bungie is home to approximately 350 employees — and growing.
"[The growth] means we have to change over time," says Parsons. "That evolution has been a really interesting process, that at times keeps you awake at night. Are we doing the right things? Are we the same company that we set out to be? How do we keep Bungie Bungie?"
Parsons says a lot of the growth strategy depends on communication. He pays careful attention to what the new hires think works, and what doesn't. Everyone gets a chance to voice their opinions to the boss, and all of that data gets cycled back into the machine. The company learns and changes.
Parsons shows us into a large, darkened space. We are asked not to look towards the front, where a screen is displaying information about the latest round of Destiny play tests. Instead, we look toward the back, at rows of seating leading up to a projection booth.
The theater seats around 80. Bungie uses it for the usual morale-boosting, after-hours events, like movie nights with spouses. But it also uses it for small team meetings and what Bungie calls "The University."
As the company absorbs new information and insights (whether on game development techniques, technology principles or more mundane human resources blah-de-blah), those lessons are distilled into presentations which can then be delivered either here in the studio, or accessed by any of Bungie's 350 (and counting) employees right from their workstations. Occasionally, a working group will be called into the theater for a meeting, which is then recorded and filed away as another installment in The University.
This solves two problems. The first is that, with a 350-person company, it's very difficult to call an all-hands meeting.
"Back when you're less than 75 people, a team meeting is pretty easy," Parsons says. "You can say, 'Hey, everybody turn around your chairs; we've got something to talk about.' That's pretty low-impact. When you have 350 people, taking all of those people offline any time of the week is a big challenge."
The theater allows for the same level of mass dissemination of information, only broken into chunks, so that 300 or so of the 350 can keep working, while the rest get an info dump. This is the first step in what Parsons describes as the sharing and retention of information and hard-won knowledge that is a major component of Bungie's secret sauce.
When he tells me this, I get a hint I'm seeing a glimmer of something a lot more meaningful than it appears. Most game studios brag about their coffeemakers, as if giving 20-somethings free caffeine is the equivalent of parting the Red Sea. Bungie brags about giving free knowledge. The Richard Dreyfuss voice in my head starts whispering, "This is important."
The second problem the Bungie theater solves is that when you're addressing 350 people at a clip, you have to have your presentation well together. This puts more emphasis on preparing presentations for the sake of preparing a presentation than simply passing along information, and cuts into the ability of attendees to ask questions or share information back.
Essentially, and ironically, the larger a company gets, the less capable it becomes of assimilating the perspectives of its growing workforce. Hence, the Bungie theater, and what Parsons calls "show-and-tells."We are asked not to look towards the front, where a screen is displaying information about the latest round of Destiny play tests.
"A show-and-tell is about getting one of our teams together, presenting to 50 or 60 of the people closest to that particular fire. [We] can get those people who are closest to that problem, give them a presentation, they can ask questions, and that way we don't take the entire team offline."
If the challenges of enlarging a creative team threefold bore you, then try this on for size: The theater is also where the development team leads gather to watch Destiny play tests in progress, Parsons tells us, as he escorts us to the room right next door: Bungie's own private play test lab. It is an almost exact replica of the similar lab at Microsoft, which, coincidentally, was designed by Bungie.
"When we became independent, we no longer had the Microsoft labs to use," Parsons says. "We had to build our own, and that's what this room is. We can test any console, any platform, PC. We've even tested mobile games in here before, just to figure out how they work and what's important about that testing. We have a bunch of Ph.D.s upstairs who run this lab."
Parsons shows us the highlights: cameras, consoles, eye-tracking. ...
"All of that data is fed next door, and so our designers, artists, engineers, testers can sit in that room during a live test with everybody — not only their game feed, but their face and eye tracking — up on the screen. They can watch exactly what's happening with the tests."
The lab is also used (by the PhDs upstairs) to test the software and tools Bungie uses to make the games that get tested. The team is continually refining and revising everything so that it has the best tools in the world to make the best games in the world.
"Our new universe has required building a whole bunch of new tools, crazy new tools for building what we're going to make. Our user-testing people are actually monitoring what's going on upstairs. Who's using the tools, how often they're using the tools, what kinds of problems they're encountering. They're feeding that data directly to our tools team, and so often we'll have our tools team know when an artist or a designer is having a problem. Maybe even before the artist or the designer does. They can walk over and say, 'Hey, let me take a look at what's going on there and solve it.'"
Parsons tells us that play tests for Destiny have already begun. They are, in fact, happening as we speak. We'll be escorted out of the play test lab and barred from the theater shortly.
I ask Parsons what they've learned so far, about Destiny.
"Ah," he says, thinking quickly. "I would say that we're on to something. How's that?"
I'm standing in a large, open space. Spongy, black flooring. Trusses all around. Lit up by an array of 22 red lights. I feel like I'm on a stage, and in a way I am: Those red lights are actually cameras.
I'm holding what appears to be a Nintendo Zapper, elongated and modified with the addition of several pieces of sporting equipment and at least a pound of gaffer tape to vaguely resemble a Halo assault rifle. Completing the look is a smattering of luminescent white dots. The dots are what the red cameras are luminescing, and the movement of those dots is what's being captured by a row of computers in the corner.
If this was a real capture session, I'd be wearing a suit splattered with dots as well, and my own movements would be captured as 3D data and pumped into a computer which would (eventually) create a game character that I would be more or less controlling. By moving. And the assault rifle would complete the picture. I'd be in Halo. Or Destiny. Or whatever.
Motion capture (mo-cap) is not a new thing, but the cost of state-of-the-art mo-cap tech has created something of a mo-cap arms race among game developers. The cameras and sensors and various black boxes and gewgaws that effectively digitize human movements are easily among the most expensive pieces of equipment studios can buy. Most don't even have a mo-cap studio, and those that do tend to be quite proud of them. Bungie is no exception. It calls its studio the "Spandex Palace," in honor of the ridiculous-looking suits the mo-cap actors wear. And the Spandex Palace is in no danger of falling behind the mo-cap gap.
The Spandex Palace is generously sized for a mo-cap studio. Easily one of the grandest in the business. It's outfitted with technology so fine it can read lips and faces. Bungie calls it "almost" full performance capture, but it's good enough to let the company stage and perform entire cinematic scenes, complete with actors wearing microphones, and have those performances ported over more or less intact into the game. The walls have even been soundproofed for just this purpose.During the initial character capture for Halo: Reach, the actor playing Jorge picked up the turret rig and practically died.
Our tour is sidelined, briefly, while we play around with different props in front of the capture sensors. In addition to the assault rifle, there are pistols and various other weapons, including a rig made from an old weed whacker designed to mimic the various large weapons in the Halo universe, like the removable turrets and the large Brute weapons. This rig is weighted, so that the actors holding it will adjust their posture and walking speed to simulate actually carrying a real weapon. This attention to detail not only makes for better performances, but also, accidentally, better design.
"The way I designed it was to be held like this," says Troy McFarland, performance capture manager. He holds the rig by the pistol grip, with his right hand, with his left hand on the top handle to stabilize it. He has it slung to his side, like it's a suitcase. This is how you see most characters in games holding heavy, two-handed weapons. Dead Space's Isaac Clarke, in particular, has made a career of this posture.
Unfortunately, when a real person does it with a realistically weighted weapon, they look contorted and weird. And it's uncomfortable as hell. During the initial character capture for Halo: Reach, the actor playing Jorge picked up the turret rig and practically died.
"All the concept art had Jorge holding the gun like this," says McFarland, with the rig held to his side, Isaac-style. "The actor picks that up and he's like, 'Oh shit, that's heavy.' He tries it for a minute, and he says, 'Can we just try it like this for a second?'" McFarland repositions the rig to a more natural, if less cinematic, posture. He's now holding it straight out in front of his body, with its load symmetrically distributed, in line with his spine, both shoulders carrying equal weight.
"The cinematic team was all there shooting him and they're like, 'Sure.' So all the concept art changed. Then that's Jorge in the game, holding it like that. Just because that's how a person naturally would hold it. He probably would have had an injury by the end of the shooting if we had left it [the way it was]."
The tour is interrupted, momentarily, as McFarland and Parsons confer to one side. McFarland becomes tense. He's concerned we may walk too closely to the back wall, where there are strips of yellow tape on the floor. There are words on the tape. From where I'm standing, I can't read the words on the tape, but the hushed conversation makes it clear that the tape tags are labels, and the words are the names of characters in Bungie's new game. These names have not yet been announced.
The tour moves on.
There are no offices at Bungie. That's what they say, and it makes great copy. It suggests a spirit of equanimity, a meritocratic culture that's as rare as it is wonderful. But it's not true. There is one office at Bungie: It belongs to a loud talker. They put him in there so he wouldn't bother everyone else. Everyone else gets the floor.
If you've ever seen a Western film, you know the scene that greeted us when we walked onto the Bungie production floor. If there had been music playing it would have stopped. Otherwise, it was picture-perfect. All heads swiveled. Roughly 300 pairs of eyes looked us up and down and wondered what, exactly, we thought we were doing. I feel confident, had we not been standing with Pete Parsons and two representatives of Destiny publisher Activision, we'd have been bodily removed. Then again, without them we'd never have gotten in.
The Bungie production floor is the inner sanctum. It is, as one developer calls it, the hive mind. We're asked to leave our cameras and voice recorders behind to avoid asking the developers to dent their creative process just for the sake of publicity. There are no offices. There are no walls. This is an architectural statement meant to demonstrate a philosophical belief: There are no barriers. Ideas are jotted on whiteboards, notes are passed freely, game mechanics are discussed openly. Everything is given oxygen and the best ideas float to the top. And if the history of the company and the sales records of its games can be believed, it works.
"There's no automatic status, I guess, from the team," says Harold Ryan, president. "We're really focused on all continuing to contribute to the team, to be a part of it. It's definitely a different culture in that way. I'm often surprised, and I think people are often surprised, when they come here and they react to the fact that there are no offices."
On the Bungie production floor, desks are on wheels and team members move to where they're needed, on a rotating basis, depending on the needs of any given project. There's a time-lapse camera in the ceiling specifically to capture the migration of team members. On the day of our visit, Bungie has recently recovered from a mass migration: 300 desks shrink-wrapped and shifted to accommodate the evolution of the Destiny project."Being able to share ideas openly has led to what I think Bungie's great at, which is a shared world."
Technical Director Chris Butcher says this openness and constant flux is part of what holds the Bungie team together.
"You can talk to [your teammates]," Butcher says. "I sit three feet from three other people because we're a little bit crowded in my part right now. But it's good, because the guy who sits next to me ... I enticed him to come and work at Bungie because I really wanted to work with him. Thankfully, he stayed for a good five years and it looks like he's going to stay for maybe another five more. That means I get to work with one of my close personal friends in the industry. The guy who sits behind me, four feet behind me, is someone who I've admired for a long time and who I always hoped would come work with us. He finally did. It's nice, because it gives you that sense of community."
Community. When he says the word, you get the sense he means it in many senses. As if it's an end unto itself. And when you consider that building a community for a world of gamers is, to Bungie, not only a realistic goal, but one the company has achieved, you suspect it might be some kind of driving force for all of them — inside and outside.
"It feels like I'm part of something and doing something meaningful. That's really important," says Parsons. "We all want to make great games; we all want to kick ass; world domination is absolutely within our sights. But being with a group of people that you want to be with and being inspired by their great work every day is super cool."
Butcher says his own personal quest started with Halo 2, and the idea of creating a massive online gaming ... well ... community.
"We were going to make this online universe where people are going to be able to sit on their couch and play games with people from the other side of the world," Butcher says. "It was going to be this great communal experience. Everybody was going to realize that we were all just one shared humanity, and look, there's gonna be an outbreak of world peace. What it actually turned into was a bunch of frat boys teabagging one another and calling each other names. So I think we can do a lot better."
Better starts with Destiny. Here's what we know about the game that was, until late last year, the best-kept secret in the games business: It's set in a far, far future on Earth. It features guardian aliens and a post-apocalyptic city. You will play as a defender of humanity. It will be social from the ground-up. Community.
These details and a slew of concept art were leaked in November and Bungie acknowledged their veracity. The last detail is the kicker. What it means is anyone's guess until Bungie is ready to fess up. But until then we can guess. And a very good guess is that Bungie is working on a post-MMO multiplayer game. Something tailor-made to connect people in constructive, creative and inherently positive ways.
Something that, perhaps, will be to games as Bungie is to game makers.
"The collaboration process is so key at Bungie," says Writer Eric Raab. "Just being able to riff off ideas that other people are having. Whether it's a designer who has a cool story idea, or they're going to want to do some sort of encounter that sounds awesome and we have to fold it into the story somehow. ... The open area is less of a hindrance and more of a kind of hive mind ... just being able to share ideas openly has led to what I think Bungie's great at, which is a shared world."
They try to slip it past us the way they try to slip it past themselves, but we notice and so do they. There's another person who gets an office. Actually, his whole team works apart, secluded down a corridor. Partly because of the nature of their work, it's true. But also in part because out of a team of semi-anonymous team players, he's the only famous one.
It's not Marty O'Donnell's fault, really. Games take a team to orchestrate. Music doesn't. And then there's the awards. Don't forget the awards. He can't really be faulted for that either. He didn't award them to himself. That Rolling Stone (among others) considered his work the best example of video game soundtracking in history can't be laid at his feet, really. What was he supposed to do? Make less amazing music?
Still, it irks. Everyone plays nice, for sure. Bungie is, after all, a workplace and a team and a good one of both. There is no rancor. Not out where we can see it anyway, but I get a whiff of it here and there. I can smell the irk.
"One of the things that I think really gets [Bungie co-founder] Jason Jones's goat sometimes is that there is still one person who can make a contribution that's outsized, and that's Marty O'Donnell," Chris Butcher tells us. "There's only one composer."
O'Donnell's studio has been given the moniker "Ivory Tower." As we enter the upstairs production area, Parsons makes a point of pointing out that O'Donnell will frequently come down from his tower to circulate amongst the troops (he calls it "driving his coffee cup around the room"). We watch O'Donnell. He catches shit from the troops, then stops over to say hello, coffee cup in hand. He's in good spirits. Then again, he can afford to be. He's the one with the awards.
Harold Ryan tries to put a damper on the irk. As studio manager, he's the peacemaker, and he explains that the music is simply easier to "see" than the other parts of the game.
"You can do this with movies and you can do it with games," Ryan says. "You can turn the audio off and play it, and then you can turn the audio on. It's the only thing you can turn on and off and actually compare what it's like with and without. It's something that stands out the easiest from a contrast point of view.""One of the things that really gets Jason Jones's goat is that there is still one person who can make a contribution that's outsized, and that's Marty O'Donnell."
Out of necessity, Bungie's sound department is growing for Destiny. The scope of the project means there must be more wizards. So, for the first time since Myth II, O'Donnell will have to share the Ivory Tower. No one (including O'Donnell) seems too broken up about it. He's tired of crunching on every game. What does bother him, though, is the sense that the frontiers in games music may be receding.
"There was almost no pressure, in 1999, to come up with something new and different for video games," O'Donnell says. "At that point very few developers had ever used a live orchestra or singers or some of the common production elements that would be in any normal film. Just doing that alone was already a big leap forward. Now it's old hat."
In spite of all of the shit-taking and irk-having, O'Donnell's accolades are well-deserved. He is, after all, the man who made the Halo music. Whatever he does next may overshadow that fact, but it's unlikely.
At a time when games were lucky to have decent-sounding bleeps and bloops, O'Donnell made actual symphonic music, then topped it off with Gregorian chants. Firing up Halo: Combat Evolved, you had a feeling it was going to be something different — thanks to O'Donnell. That the game actually was something different — thanks to Bungie — sometimes gets lost in the shuffle. O'Donnell, for his part, tries to fold his successes back into the company to make room for better, and more amazing, experiences.
"Having the success that we've had in the past has made it actually easier for me to be able to go out and shoot for the moon and try to get the best production and brand-new ideas and all the really exciting new things that we're trying to do musically and with audio and everything else," O'Donnell says. "Because we've had a lot of success, the expectations are really high, but that also gives us a lot of latitude to try a lot of really cool new things. I don't think it's so much pressure as it is opportunities."
"What I really enjoy about working with Marty" — says Design Director Joe Staten — "it goes back to trust. I know that when the teams that I work with, the cinematic teams and the writing teams, when we are eventually going to hand off our work to Marty and he's going to take it from there ... at some point, the work that I'm intimately involved with becomes Marty's work. I'm not going to play the music. I'm not going to do the final mix. It's up to Marty to take what are good cinematics, hopefully great cinematics, and make them outstanding. The real pleasure, I think, of working with Marty is knowing that at some point in the process I'm going to take all this hard work and I'm going to give it to him and I can trust him to make it better."
Marty O'Donnell may be the most famous member of the Bungie team, but he is also one of the few whose work begins when everyone else is finished. The games will typically be mostly done by the time he gets to work scoring them, which can make the already crunchtastic process of making games just a tiny bit more excruciating.
O'Donnell aims to change that for Destiny.
"We'll see how successful I am," O'Donnell says. "Audio and music is almost always responding to other people's work. From the animators to the designers to the engineers, they're all having to finish their work to a certain level before me and my team can really sink our teeth into it. Sometimes the calendar has just become a giant brick wall and it's hard to finish everything out the way you want to."
For Destiny, he's been involved from the earliest script meetings. He may not have a say, but he will at least know what direction they're going in — and be able to plan ahead.
"I get a seat at the table and at least hear what they're thinking. Maybe I get to add a few thoughts along the way. But the earliest scripts that are written or the earliest dialogue that's written ... Joe and his guys run it by me. We read it out loud. We'll do table reads with just us.
"The personal pressure is like, 'What can I do that advances the quality bar, takes another leap forward?' That's what I've been thinking a lot about trying."
"When I came to interview, I knew right away ... just by talking to them, I knew that this was a whole other level of people that are passionate about games and their creative energy," says Sandbox Designer Danny Bulla. "Coming up here, it was like everybody was hungry. They wanted something new."
Bulla comes to Bungie via Rockstar, the studio best known for its open-world crime spree series Grand Theft Auto. Bulla's last game with Rockstar was the widely acclaimed, mega-selling Red Dead Redemption. It was a game renowned for its vast open world, innovative gameplay and compelling narrative. It was "game of the year" almost everywhere. Bulla was a senior designer. Now he's at Bungie because he wants to break new ground in video games. He mentions this by way of suggesting contrast.
"It's a little different here," he says. "You're face-to-face with these legends that you watched videos of and played with. ... Now you're in a room making decisions with them, which is just ... I don't know."
Bulla says the major difference between Bungie and his old digs is Bungie's singular focus. At Rockstar, there were always multiple games. At Bungie, there's only one — and everyone is all in on it. Bulla is Destiny's sandbox designer.
"That's the biggest difference for me, coming here every day and everyone's really hungry ... It's a big change of pace."
Kevin McGinnis has a slightly different perspective. McGinnis comes from Harmonix, where he worked on mildly revolutionary games like Dance Central, Rock Band and Guitar Hero. He's working on "user interface" elements of Destiny and for him, what sets Bungie apart is its "professionalism.""There's a renewed sense of energy here. People are smiling. You can tell they really dig what they're working on."
"Coming from Harmonix," McGinnis says, "we were making music games and having fun and having a party. Here it's a little more structured." He says the organization and "absolute focus" are what got him interested. He didn't know what Bungie was working on when he interviewed; he just knew he wanted in on it. His interview lasted for three days.
"I knew that Bungie was going to be creating something huge and kind of crazy," McGinnis says. "I had no idea what it was about, but I was super eager to get involved in that process of building something from the ground up."
That's also why Tom Sanocki is here: the excitement of creating something new. Sanocki's never made a game before, but he has made films. He comes to Bungie by way of Pixar, where he worked in character animation. He drew Nemo.
"For me it's really exciting," says Sanocki. "It feels like you're at the beginning of something great."
Sanocki's a 10-year veteran of making films; Finding Nemo was his first. His excitement to be working in games, at Bungie, on Destiny specifically, is palpable. He is easily the happiest person in the building. Sanocki will be bringing his creative experience to Destiny, working with Bungie's animators to breathe life into the game's characters.
"It feels like we're back at the equivalent of Toy Story," Sanocki says. "We're about to create something big that no one expects. It's going to kind of come out of nowhere and be really exciting. It's fun to be at that cusp again, at a company that can chart its own destiny and chart its own future, and to be able to be a part of it not just by myself, but with all these other people ... together we can do something that's a lot bigger than any one of us could do by ourselves."
For Sanocki, making animated films is an old challenge — one that Pixar, and others, have all but mastered. When he started, each film presented challenges with no easy solution. These days, those problems are largely solved with money.
"In a place like Pixar, people are happy to spend the money and happy to put the time in, even if it involves brute-forcing a solution," Sanocki says. "In the early days, you didn't have that flexibility. You had to be clever. ... Seeing where film went, it's still exciting, but I definitely love where games are, because games have the potential for storytelling that film has. Even greater in some cases. But you still have to be clever. You still have all these enormous challenges you have to face for every project. There's only so much money and time and processing power you can throw at any problem. That's an exciting place to be. It forces us to be more creative."
Creativity is also what drew in Eric Raab. Raab is a managing editor and Destiny is also his first game, although he's intensely familiar with Bungie and its Halo universe. Raab's previous job was as an editor at Tor Publishing, where he edited (among other things) a collection of stories called Halo Evolutions: Essential Tales of the Halo Universe.
"For most creative people, we're inspired by fear," says Raab. "That just makes us stronger, because we refuse to fail." For Raab, like Bulla, the appeal of working at Bungie, on Destiny, is collaborating with a team of fellow creators on one single property.
"It's a continuation of everything I've been building toward, and it is a big jump from collaborating with multiple writers on different universes," Raab says. "Now I'm actually bringing it all together into one and being able to focus on one universe completely. That is a major change for me. ... It's a big leap.""We're about to create something big that no one expects. It's going to kind of come out of nowhere and be really exciting."
Raab joins Bungie as one of Design Director Joe Staten's new stable of around a half dozen writers, telling the stories of Destiny‘s sprawling new universe. It's a massive team for a massive task, and simply managing such a large team is a task in itself.
"For me, the personal challenge is, how do we bring on board these new people that we absolutely need to ship this game and make it great?" says Staten. "How do we stay true to our old ways? How do new people and old people work together?"
With the infusion of new blood comes the risk of obliterating what makes Bungie so successful, of diluting the secret sauce. Staten compares the challenge to steering a boat that has suddenly become as large as a battleship.
"The new Bungie is a much bigger ship," Staten says. "It can do amazing things. It can break through the ice all the way to the North Pole. But if you ever want to turn the ship ... [big laughs] it takes a lot more energy to turn it these days. It is a real challenge, that I don't ... I wasn't expecting it as much when we started on this new phase of our Bungie endeavors."
Community Manager Eric Osborne sees himself somewhere in the middle, between old-guard legends like Staten and the still-green new guys like Bulla, McGinnis, Sanocki and Raab. Osborne was brought on board after Halo 3, directly from the Bungie community. He is the prototypical gamer success story. Before being plucked from the Bungie forums, he had never made a game; just played them on TV. Now his resume includes having written a script for Halo 3: ODST, which he recorded with television star Nathan Fillion.
"I came from outside, as a fan of the studio," Osborne says. "I was in all the launch lines for Halo. I played with my family. I played with all my friends online. I played these games. They mattered to me in my life, and now I'm working on them. It's definitely surreal."
From Osborne's perspective, the new blood is coming in at just the right time, and they're not just bringing their own unique experiences and skills, but also a fresh wave of enthusiasm.
"There's a renewed sense of energy here," Osborne says. "People are smiling. You can tell they really dig what they're working on. It's just this new sense of wondering a little bit and figuring out what it is we need to do and bringing out a bunch of new talent and people that change the way that we make games here."
For Studio President Harold Ryan, this is all part of the plan. Ryan started his Bungie journey working for Microsoft, then was quietly assimilated into the Bungie collective. His big task now: managing the Destiny-era growth and preserving that secret sauce.
"When you talk to the new guys who come in, it's not like they're off working on a new team," Ryan says. "They're sitting with the old guard and the new guard together, all doing the same thing, all working on the same tasks.
"We're largely hiring people who have wanted to come work at Bungie. They played the games. They've watched us online. They've seen the Pentathlon competitions and other things that we do as a studio. They want to participate in that. They want to be a part of what we do as an internally competitive game studio. I think they've folded in pretty well."
Talking with the Bungie team, old guard and new guard alike, one word comes up over and over: tribal. It is used when talking about the company-wide activities, like the Pentathlon. It is used when talking about sharing knowledge, like through The University, or one-on-one meetings with newcomers. It is used when describing the esprit de corps that encourages sharing and openness across team lines. It is used when referring to industry rarities, like pulling the community manager into the script writing team to write dialogue for Nathan Fillion.
Tribal. Time and again, it is used without irony or forethought. It is used with me the way they use it with each other. It is shorthand; a word employed to mean many things, simultaneously. It is the Bungie form of aloha. It means home.
Joe Staten says the key to bridging the gap between the new guard and the old is building trust early and reinforcing it often. In other words, roping them into the tribe.
"There's no way we're going to ship this game unless we trust one another, have each other's backs," Staten says. "There will be some very long days. There already have been some long days. There will be long days ahead. ... We build a relationship that's based on creative trust. It's very collaborative. It's trusting. Which is why we tend to flatten everything at this studio as much as possible. We try to keep things as equitable as possible. We try to involve people as much as we can."
Hire good people and then let them play. Break the barriers. Let the new guys write scripts, bang on code, come up with ideas — anything. That's why they're there. If it was just Staten saying it, I wouldn't believe it. All managers like to think they're team builders. Most aren't. But it's not just Staten saying it.
Eric Osborne: "I feel like I often find myself in rooms where I'm not sure I belong in them. I'm looking around the room and going, 'Everybody in this room is more intelligent than me. They're more charismatic. They're more funny. They're really nice guys. One of these days they're gonna find me out and say, 'Get outta here!' But a week later I'll be in that same room and feel like I totally belong there. I'll have a great idea. I'll feel like I just pulled my weight, that this is fun, that this is awesome, that this is where I belong. Nobody ever shuts that down here. That process is open for everyone. The really great thing is, I talk to Pete [Parsons], my boss, about that on a regular basis. He says, 'I feel the same way.'"
Danny Bulla: "This creative loop that's really rewarding here that I don't think I've experienced anywhere else. If you can think of something awesome, and you can get the people together and make it awesome and get it in and it's kind of within what you're trying to make … you go off one day or one night and you think, 'This is awesome. We should try to do it.' You get it in. People will get behind it, people will rally, and then it's in there. A week later, anything that you're working on that wasn't there last week, you've thought of it and you see it there next week, and you're just, 'Holy crap. How did I do that?' It just comes from an idea or something. Everyone here is so good that you can do that. They know a good idea when they hear it or see it. It's just this awesome feedback loop. Come up with a good idea. Get it in the game. Get it feeling really good. Then, boom. You get hungry for it. You want to keep doing it and keep doing it. I don't know if I've ever felt that at other studios."
Kevin McGinnis: "The fact that you can walk up to anybody in this studio is one of the best things. I can walk up to Jason Jones at any time, if he's not in a meeting, and have a conversation. Same with Harold [Ryan]. Everybody is super open to any conversation at any time in the day. It's great."
Eric Raab: "The collaboration process is so key at Bungie; just being able to riff off ideas that other people are having. Whether it's a designer who has a cool story idea, or they're going to want to do some sort of encounter that sounds awesome and we have to fold it into the story somehow ... [it's] a kind of hive mind."
Tom Sanocki: "Everyone here is really great and really talented. You hear that said a lot, but I find that to be true. I'm constantly surprised by the amazing stuff folks can do. When you see that, you don't really want to be at the bottom of the list. You want to push yourself forward. If the average talent and ability and experience of an employee in a company is really high, you're not going to want to stay below that. It's a little of both. Bungie tries hard to not pick up people who are happy to do less than the status quo and have that be an OK thing. We don't have a lot of those."
During our day at Bungie, we'll see (almost) every inch of the famed studio and meet most of the Destiny team leads (and a few other team members besides). All told, we'll interview over a dozen residents of Bungie town. Some, longtime veterans; others, recent hires.
Our day will last over nine hours, and we will spend every minute of it rushing, talking or photographing. Yet we still won't see everything. We'll get as far as the landing of the upstairs production floor, almost close enough to touch the climbing wall, definitely close enough to smell what the developers are having for lunch. But we won't get all the way inside. Just that we're on the other side of the guarded door, we'll be told, is practically a miracle.
By the end of our day, we're certain that we've seen more than we haven't seen, and most of what we haven't, we can live with not seeing. But there's one glaring omission on our agenda. I poke my finger at the empty space; where there should have been an interview, and yet there isn't.
"Where's Jason Jones?" I ask.Jason Jones doesn't want to be famous.
Jones is everything. He is easily the heart and soul of this company. One of its founders, the man who co-founded Bungie and whose computer compiled the code for almost every game Bungie ever released. Yet he has almost never given an interview.
We had asked, before getting on the plane, to see Jones. We'd been promised it might happen. We took this as a yes, because it always is. And yet, when we arrive and see the schedule ... where's Jason Jones?
We're told no one is even sure if he's in the building. We're told that even if he is in the building, there's no guarantee he'll see us. We're told, incredibly, he's shy. Cripplingly shy.
And then we're told something we finally believe: Jason Jones doesn't want to be famous.
We're standing in the studio that, 22 years ago, Jason Jones coughed into life. We're talking to people Jones helped hire, train and forge into a team capable of turning the world of games on its axis. We're surrounded by artifacts of the genius and artistry of the code Jason Jones wrote. His influence is literally all around us.
He even comes up, repeatedly in interviews. And this is what clinches it for us.
When Chris Butcher says that, of all the things that get Jones' goat, his rarest, most acute annoyance is reserved for the accolades heaped on Marty O'Donnell, easily the most singularly identifiable member of the team, this is when it clicks into place: Jones is a communist. Not, perhaps, in the McCarthy sense, but Jason Jones is a man who believes in team above all else, and that spirit has infused everything he's touched. And in interviewing the team he has helped build, we've come to know him better than if we'd shared a meal.
Jones is not simply the founder of Bungie; he is also its tribal leader.
Our day ends near where it began. We're in the Bungie test lab with Pete Parsons. Parsons looks tired. In between shuttling us around for hours, he's been attending bug meetings and wrangling studio operations. In short, doing his job.
Still, even at a low point, he's more concerned with how we're doing.
"How was your day?" he asks. I tell him it was good. He looks genuinely relieved.
After talking with Parsons earlier, then meeting the people he's helped to hire, I get the very real sense that this company is his life. That, if he achieves nothing else, he will forever be proud of the work he has done here, and that a large part of what drives him is keeping it going true. Keeping it tribal.
I ask Parsons if, now that the company has grown to the point where he's not running Ethernet cables himself, now that they need an IT department and team leads, if he feels somewhat disconnected and disappointed. If he feels like he's lost something.
"When you get bigger, there are different challenges, but we've been very fortunate where our culture hasn't changed so radically," Parsons says. "The profile of our team hasn't changed so radically that we're just completely different than we ever were. I'm biased, but it still feels like the same place to me. Maybe we're not just a tight-knit family anymore. Maybe we're a much larger family or a group of colleagues or a campus. I'm not sure what the right term is."
"Tribe," I think. What I say is, "family."
"I love the term 'family,'" Parsons agrees. "I'm not sure everybody would use it, but it's great to have all these new people come in who are super smart, super dedicated. ... It's exciting to learn from those people, to teach them the tools of the trade and the tribal knowledge of Bungie and at the same time be just as excited to learn all the things they have to tell us. That's awesome. We get that with everybody who comes in the door here. They have something to tell us.
"I would say a very common piece of feedback, that I hope I always get, is, 'I feel like I made a difference. I feel like, from the first day I got here, or maybe not the first day, but within a short period of time, I started making a difference. And I love working with the people that I work with.' That's awesome.""My name is on the credits of the very first Halo. I think that's awesome. I want that same thing for everybody else here."
I ask Parsons if, in hiring and meeting with these new, passionate people, he's aware that he may be helping to build the new leadership culture of a years-down-the-road Bungie? If he ever thinks, "These kids are the future?" I'm trying to get him weepy. I want him to think about what I'm thinking about and get misty-eyed and maudlin in front of the camera. He's good, though: If he's getting emotional, he hides it well.
"Bungie really is a meritocracy," he says. "Every company, every group has its ins and outs, its flaws, but in general I think we're a true meritocracy. I can look across the studio and think of a whole bunch of people who I know will have our back. The more complex the universes we build get, the bigger we get ... It's great to see that not only do we have a lot of smart people, but we have a deep bench."
It's a bunt, but a good one. He's right. In our day at Bungie, if nothing else, we've seen plenty of evidence of that deep bench. Whatever the future brings for this company, it will not lack creative talent.
I try another tack: I ask him what success would look like, at this point, after shipping five Halo games, changing the way video games are played online and winning practically every award the industry currently offers. This time, I get a little closer.
"There's a couple of measures of success," Parsons says. "For me, I am extremely focused on the well-being of the team, so the ability to change people's lives, to have them be a part of something great, to be able to tell their grandkids, 'I was a part of that. I was there at the beginning.' I walk in the door — I think this all the time — my name is on the credits of the very first Halo. I think that's awesome. That's a big thing. I want that same thing for everybody else here. That's a big one for me.
"Another one is ... we're working on not just big games or big interactive entertainment. We're working on big entertainment, period. I want people to be able to think about what we're working on next and put it on the same shelf of great memories as they put Star Wars or Raiders of the Lost Ark or Lord of the Rings. Hopefully we can create that kind of thing. That's why we're storytellers. Everybody here is a storyteller. If we can create a great story and a whole bunch of people get excited about it and we make a difference in the world and people put us on the same shelves with the best of entertainment that they've ever had, that would be amazing. That would be amazing. I would like that a lot."
I'm looking Parsons in the eye and once more we're having a conversation, just like we started in the arcade. If he's ever going to share it with me, it's going to happen right now. I ask him if the stakes are high on Destiny — for Bungie and for Pete Parsons.
"Yeah," he says, and trails off for a moment. "We have not only our most ambitious project yet, post-Halo, which was pretty ambitious, but now we have the lives of more than 300 people ..." He pauses, and corrects himself. "Or at least the careers of more than 300 people that we're responsible for. That's a big undertaking. You don't take something like that lightly at all.
"So yes. But it's exciting at the same time. I wake up and I can't wait to come to work every morning, simply because of that. But it's also terrifying. So maybe that's the right balance. Terrifying and inspiring."
And that sounds a lot like raising a family. Or building a tribe.
Image Credits: Bungie