The Art of Destiny

Published on: Oct 17, 2014 @ 19:42

Digitaltutors.com sat down with Bungie’s 3D character art lead Shiek Wang to talk about Destiny’s art. The interview gives us a behind the scenes look at some of the thought processes that Bungie put into the art of Destiny.

To see nearly all of Bungie’s concept art for Destiny, click here. Also be sure to check out the Art of Destiny book!

© 2014 Bungie, Inc. All rights reserved.
Concept art of a battle with the Cabal on Mars.

What are some of the things you learned from Halo that you were able to incorporate into Destiny?Titan Character from Destiny

We learned a lot of lessons with Halo, and many of the approaches we took were informed by experience.  We understood how to distinguish combatants with color, silhouette, and animation performance. We understood how to create visually iconic characters, and we’ve learned to align our art with gameplay design.

Of course, we were doing some new things with Destiny, as well, that weren’t so easily translated. How would character investment and gear progression impact our heroic player characters? How could we create variants of enemies that felt fresh and new within each destination a player might visit? These are just two questions we never had to tackle as a studio.

It was fun to find out the answers!

Were there any moments where the design on characters were changed because they might have been drifting too close to something from the Halo universe?

We were conscious of our Halo legacy in early pre-production, but as soon as we created the combat classes, we felt we had something really unique.  The need to have each of the classes stand on their own as iconic representations of a unique player fantasy meant that we had to find different avenues to draw inspiration and direction from.
© 2014 Bungie, Inc. All rights reserved.
Early concept art of a Hive catacomb.

We really liked how the same enemy factions had different color schemes on different planets. How much did you rely on color in character designs to help push the story along?

Part of creating a living world meant we need to create multiple factions of each combatant race to populate it with. This approach of attaching multiple factions to different color schemes allowed us to create separate entities within each race that populated the world of Destiny.

At first, we had a hard time letting go of our old design methodologies. We wanted to use color in a way we never had before. In Destiny, enemy factions had nothing to do with their power or threat level, as it had in Halo. There was definitely a mental hurdle we had to leap.

It wasn’t until everything came together near the end of development that we felt confident that using colors as story telling mechanisms was working as intended.

© 2014 Bungie, Inc. All rights reserved.
Concept art of the enemy known as the Vex in Destiny.

Can you explain the thought process behind the designs for the enemies?

Our Art Director, Christopher Barrett, began with simple color and shape inspirations for each combatant race.  From the start he wanted us to have a holistic picture of how each race related to one another in both form and feel.  Once those initial designs began to solidify, we asked our concept artists to further flesh each race out individually, while keeping true to the original inspirations.

That initial round of inspirational work was very important. Each of our concept artists brings a unique perspective to the table. The early groundwork was something we could all come back to as new questions and challenges arose.

That’s not to say we weren’t willing to go back to the earliest designs to refine and improve our combatants as we went. Strong leadership and direction is important, but ultimately the cohesion of our characters has always come from a combination of talent, collaboration, and iteration.

Were there any design challenges, from an artist’s perspective, that came from using the ‘bits’ system for armor/weapons?

One of our artists, Scott Shepherd, gave a really great talk about this at GDC this year. We created a technical solution – a mashup-gear-bit system – in order to create the vast number of player gear variants we needed to provide a wealth of player customization options across three classes.

Aside from the obvious graphics and implementation issues that we saw coming, the new system and approach presented a lot of new, less obvious challenges.  Our artists had become accustomed to creating statues – character designs that couldn’t be altered piecemeal by player choices.  We also ran into the issue of creating memorable content that stood out.  Reusing content can mean many people using similar ‘bits’ of content. We had to find clever and efficient ways to make sure we could offer differentiation as players progressed down similar paths.

We solved a lot of that with brute force. We made a lot of content. Much of it was also making sure we were comfortable with the philosophical shift, and believing that creating gear arrangements and allowing players to make the aesthetic choices on their own was the right thing to do.

We think it worked out pretty well!

© 2014 Bungie, Inc. All rights reserved.
Concept art of a Warlock character using their powers in battle.

What were the main software applications used to create the characters in Destiny?

We mainly used Maya, ZBrush, Photoshop, Xnormal, and TopoGun.  We are now starting to use Marvelous Designer as another tool to help us create more believable clothing.

How many different LOD models were created for the characters and equipment?

LODs were handled programmatically.  We had four decimation levels.  The base level is what the artist creates.  Then we have detail, which is the next level down. Proxy is a decimated version of the original that needs to hold color and silhouette at a distance. Lastly, extreme, for the long distance figure that represents a simple, but recognizable element of a player.

All these were configurable at each stage to get the most out of the system while causing the least amount of draw on screen.  We balanced this per class and even per gear type. It was really nice to have this level of control without having to create LODs manually.  With the amount of gear we had to create, it would have been near impossible to do the work by hand.

© 2014 Bungie, Inc. All rights reserved.
Concept art of the Queen in her throne room in The Reef.

If you could give any tips to aspiring game artists, what would it be?

If you’re just starting out, and you’re young, you should be putting all of your heart and energy into whatever it is you believe in doing.  The work will show, and the results will be that much better.  As artists we have the advantage of letting the work speak for itself.  Get yourself noticed by attending expos, conferences, meet ups, and forums to get your work out.

If you’re an experienced game artist, you should be exposing yourself to a wide variety of departments to get the most knowledge on how each aspect of development works.  The best game artists are those that know how to work with different departments, and seek to understand the underlying fundamental of game creation, cross-discipline. You make ART for a video game, which means your work contributes to making the game fun.  That is your number one priority.

How the Design Team Behind ‘Destiny’ Built Their Immersive Worlds

Another art related interview was published recently by Shutterstock.com – they talked to Destiny’s art director Christopher Barrett about how the team created such a visually stunning worlds.

Designing such large and different worlds from the ground up must have been incredibly daunting. Were there any techniques you found particularly helpful in getting started?

One of the first things we did when we were creating each of the different places you visit was to establish what we called a postcard: in one image, we would set up the tone, the story, and what the players are going to feel when they first land. For example, the Cosmodrome [set in Russia]: The postcard for that area had the big wall, and the line of cars, and the colony ships poking up in the distance. Capturing that feel in an image before even fleshing out the entire destination was something important to our process.

Image courtesy of Activision Publishing/Bungie

Which came first: the intent to make something visually distinctive or something that served the story?

I think that, with the different planets, we had the idea of what we wanted the players to experience first. What kind of planet do we want them to visit? What kinds of cool elements would be in that place, prior to a particular story? So that was our goal. To create a space that’s compelling, both visually and for players to explore, where a lot of different gameplay can happen.

The planets do have a lot of fantastical elements, but they’re also very recognizable. How do you find that balance between the familiar and the unfamiliar?

You have to feel around a little bit. We certainly had concepts that pushed things a little too familiar, or a little too alien. We talk a lot about finding that right balance. For me, if a player can bring something to the table – a particular thought, or emotion – then we can play with that expectation, or twist it a little bit to make it more interesting to them.

Image courtesy of Activision Publishing/Bungie

Is there an example of how you did that in Destiny?

There’s an idea of Venus, of it being very hot and arid. There are old stories and pulp science fiction about jungles on Venus. Those were the ideas we wanted to play up. Taking familiar elements, like a palm tree; people have a feeling about a palm tree. They’re used to that. So we’ll take it and make it wildly overgrown, or have thorns on it, or more twisting branches. It’s coming up with some feeling, some expectation, and then blowing it up, making it more fantastic than it already is.

Is that why you also put recognizable — but abandoned — human cities on the planets? As a kind of familiar anchoring device to evoke something in the player? Because it did with me. I found myself thinking, “People like me lived here once. What happened?”

It is the humanity. We can imagine that potentially being our future. That definitely brings some emotional element to it. Exploring our possible future is kind of an interesting concept, as opposed to just an alien civilization — that there’s this unknown future to humanity and we’re going to explore its mysteries and find out what happened.

Despite the fact that Destiny is post-apocalyptic, in a lot of its landscapes the design never feels like your typical bleak or empty wasteland; they somehow feel full of life. What was the intention behind that?

We wanted to create a place that players want to play in. We want players to come back to those places over and over and have many adventures. Therefore, I think it’s very important that you create a hopeful environment, where things aren’t too negative or unsettling. Certainly we’ll have spaces that explore those themes — alien fortresses or a medieval dungeon. But those are all grounded in “What’s the fun version of those things?”

Image courtesy of Activision Publishing/Bungie

Beyond that hopeful tone, from a design perspective, how do you ensure that you create a world people will want to keep coming back to?

A motto for Bungie is, “We make games we want to play.” So our biggest compass is, “Is it something we want to explore? Do we get excited about it in our design team?” I think that’s a great litmus test for, “Will other people be excited about it as well?”

A lot of shooter games get criticized for not having enough variety in their levels. But the looks of Destiny’s missions feel distinct from each other. How did you go about bringing uniqueness to each of the planets and their missions?

The planets each have their own distinct visual themes. And within those there are sub-themes. One of the most important things that drives players to play is seeing new things they haven’t seen before. That’s one of the tools we can use as world artists to get people excited to explore new places: trying to add as much variety as possible, but still make the world feel coherent.

Image courtesy of Activision Publishing/Bungie

The worlds of Destiny are often incredibly rich in detail. For example, the crashed planes and rusted cars add a lot to the atmosphere of Old Russia. Can you talk about why designing details like that into an environment are important?

One of the things that art can do is tell stories without words. I think we can tell small little stories all the time through the environment. So the fact that there’s a line of rusted cars that extends into the distance? That’s a whole story in itself. “Who were those people? Where were they going?” I think the more details you can put in the game that open up those questions and get people thinking about a world, without needing words, is great. We try to do that wherever we can.

Image courtesy of Activision Publishing/Bungie

You’ve talked a lot about designing for the gamers. When you’re making something likeDestiny, with all its visual possibilities, are you always thinking about designing for the gamer? Or do you ever design for aesthetic purposes first?

I’m not going to lie and say we’re not driven as artists to make things that we find aesthetically pleasing. But, first and foremost is the gamer. We want to create something that’s fun for players. If we don’t do that, then no one is going to want to come back, regardless of how pretty it is.

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