Not moving to CA

We will not be moving to CA after all.

I was very excited about the job down in CA, and what it had to offer. However, the prospects of moving were proving too great for the family.

We had, at times, been excited about relocation, but the realities surrounding the move and the impact of what we’d be leaving behind is something that had been slowly pulling the family apart since I accepted the position. The seriousness of it goes far beyond what I think is just a fear of change. It involved the many compromises we would have to make that will change our lives permanently.

The kids and their school along with our home and the community are two parts of this relocation that have continually become clearer just how much they mean to us as a family – especially since I took the position and began the process of pulling up the roots around us.

To make matters tougher, the family is not all super excited about a move to CA, because most of what they have seen regarding homes and neighborhoods has revealed too many compromises compared to what they already have right here. We made multiple trips down to find a home and eventually landed on one of the very few available that might work, but in hindsight know that we rushed into making a decision for where our family would settle and what school the kids would go to.

I haven’t been forthcoming with you all about the seriousness of this because I’ve been struggling so much with trying to convince everyone, even myself, that this move will be a great experience and the start of a new journey. My family sees the benefits for me and my career, but cannot see the real benefits for themselves and how their lives will change and I don’t blame them.

It got serious enough that I couldn’t justify asking them to make this move. Of course, I can’t leave without them, so we will stay here together.

Thanks for putting up with us and our crazy little mini-adventure we described to you.

Things are already getting back to normal and we’ll pick back up where we left off here in the Pacific NW – our home.

The new journey?

Here I was focused on a new game with a grand plan about how it could be made. Building a team and getting something started from nothing is very tough, but not impossible.

I worked at it and met with lots of people. Investors got interested, but most are too afraid of anything other than F2P games. So, that’s all they wanted. Me, I respect F2P and even developed some game designs around it, but I don’t believe they are good for the industry as a whole.

At the same time this was coming to a head, another call came requesting that I consider a job. After a ton of thought and deliberation, I’ve decided to take up an offer that I couldn’t turn down and that I’m genuinely excited about.

I know many of you will be pissed that I’ve abandoned the path I started to take as an indie developer. I don’t blame you.

But, this will be a new journey full of unknowns, challenges and great victories I hope. I’m ready to do this and to blaze a new trail.

So, I’m packing up the family and we’re moving. Probably the most stressful decision I’ve had to make in the last 15 years.

I’ll let you know more about where I’m heading when I can – a few more months from now.

Until then, wish us luck. Believe me, moving with teens requires it!

 

Then – everything changed…

Worst decision of my life – or not?

The last three months have been a bit of a roller coaster regarding how I plan to spend my future.

After leaving Bungie last September, I spent a good amount of time just being with my family again and taking care of things around the house that I’d been putting off for a while. In the process, I started the hunt deep inside for what I really want to do next. For me, that process can often times be painfully slow, and it took a toll on my longtime friend, Joe, who also left Bungie at the same time and was eager to get up and running with a new company immediately.

The two of us met regularly and discussed our primary goals and ultimately found that what we each want to do will lead to very different paths. As such, we decided that we should each maintain the strong friendship that we both have for one another, but consider doing our own thing independently.

That lead to what seemed to be an open can of worms with a bunch of job opportunities that I had been deflecting for months. I finally opened up some conversations with a few recruiters and quickly had a number of very real and very big job opportunities to consider. It was humbling to discuss these possibilities since I haven’t been on the other side of the interview table in over 16 years! Ouch.

All of the opportunities required relocation, but a few were more palatable than others, so I continued discussions beyond recruiters and into the dev teams behind the open positions. Creative Directors with experience are hard to find and the studios I talked to were aware of how difficult it is to bring a leadership figure onboard from the outside. But, these studios develop some of the largest franchises out there – bigger than Halo, so they were well prepared to deal with making the transition a good one.

Trips were made, many interviews were had and lots of good connections were developed. I had a ton of fun hanging with the teams, getting to understand how they worked and what their culture was like. It was a fascinating experience. Then the offer packages arrived. They were handsome and most any fool out there would never pass up these kinds of opportunities.

Maybe it was just serendipity that about the same time these interview discussions kicked off was about the same time that a vision for what I really want to do next started to crystalize in my head. It took over my every thought and overshadowed all my interviews elsewhere. With every day that passed, more of the pieces for what I believe to be the right path kept falling into place, and ultimately the answer was sitting right in front of me.

In the end, I turned down the offers – all of them. I think that was the hardest part, because I saw how I could help these studios build great games and strong teams. I also couldn’t deny that actually making money for what I do again would be a nice change of pace. But, following this dream of making something from scratch with my own hands is what trumped everything else. I wish I could predict if this was the right decision or not, but I know for certain that the journey will be exciting.

All systems operational

It’s been almost 5 months since I left Bungie, and I’m finally back in the swing of things creatively. I stress creatively, since I was certainly doing things since September of last year, but there’s this magic moment for me when clarity begins to ring true. It happened about 5 months after I left Bungie the first time back in 2011 – but then went back and started working on a new game prototype, and it took about the same amount of time for it to happen now after I left again – for the last possible time.

But, during those months after leaving and decompressing, I started to feel like I had lost my ability to think of creative ideas. It’s so strange how a void can exist like that. I was working on game ideas the entire time, but none of them stood out as anything worth pursuing.

And then it hits. After this period of time where I almost shut things down and get settled into a life of semi-retirement, it’s like a flood gate is opened and I can’t stop what starts coming out of it. This is a time when I write and sketch constantly. I also go out and gather information like an animal storing food for a long winter. It’s incredibly fun and tremendously reassuring to know that something up in this old bald head still works.

Weirdly, one of the most lucrative creative times is when I’m sleeping at night. The amount of problem solving that happens during sleep is bizarre. So, I often wake up in the middle of night with a solution to some part of my new game concept and I sit there awake for an hour or more just continue to work out the problem. Then, I’m ready to hit the road running in the morning with this new found solution.

So far, I’ve got a good chunk of fiction for a brand new universe developed, most of the game mechanic ideas worked out, and I’ve even started building one of the key new characters. It’s like building the Master Chief again. I built him 9 times over to get him right when starting Halo many years back. I’m sure I’ll do the same with my new character.

I’ll keep you all filled in with the game process as I go along. Not sure when I’ll have something I can or should show.

Advice to a young developer

Here are some words of advice to some students who recently asked me some questions about their new start-up game company. They are at the very beginning state of creating their studio, have a game concept and art from an artist that hits on the direction they want to take. But, they are not sure about some aspects of execution, which can be difficult. So, here are the questions along with my answers that I thought some of you may find interesting.

We had a concept artist create an art bible that we really like, but they can’t stay with us. What that means is that we will probably be looking for a lead artist/art director who wants to embrace the style established in the art bible and direct our future art team to be able to execute consistently to that style.

Since I think your goal is to maintain a very small team, the art lead you choose should probably be able to handle hands-on contribution to one, if not all, of the major content components in a game – 3D characters/objects, environments, animation, FX, UI, and marketing collateral.

During Halo1, I designed, built, textured and animated all kinds of things like the Master Chief and Marines, the Warthog and Pelican, and many of the levels along with FX throughout.

I am wondering if you have much experience/wisdom with this process– specifically, a team of artists receiving a thorough, robust art bible and executing to that style, without necessarily retaining the concept artist on-staff throughout production.  Possible pitfalls we should be looking out for, or approaches we should take to maximize our chances of a smooth, successful art process?

I would highly caution against expecting a group of artists to strictly adhere to images made by a concept artist for the art bible. Even if they are very talented and will get you a long way in developing a look and feel for your game, you will need your content artists to translate that concept and convert it to real functional game assets. During that process, the content will change out of necessity for the needs of the game. You will also want your content creators to take some amount of ownership over what they create in order for them to become truly invested in your venture. To do this, you should allow them to translate the concept art and have a little leeway in transforming it into something that you both like. It’s very likely that you will find some designs that do not translate well to real functional content. For instance, after playing your game and iterating the design, you will certainly find aspects of some content that needs to change in order to suit design changes. If successful, you’ll be able to drive the original vision of the game using the art bible while allowing that vision to evolve with the people helping you build the game.

Personally, I always define what something needs to do before I begin defining what it looks like. Since I take such an active role in designing the game and how it plays, almost everything that we throw at the player needs to have some reason to exist. And, what it looks like, how it behaves or changes all need to follow how it fits into the overall design. Once  you start actively playing, you will begin forming a much clearer understanding of the core gameplay mechanics and what is actually proving to be fun. I’m positive that once you get to that point, your vision for the game will have modified. This is good and totally necessary, so expect it to happen. At this point, you need artists who can pull from the design aesthetics created by you concept artist and then build entirely new content based on that aesthetic.

Also, what have you found is generally a good ratio of modelers to texture artists to animators on an art team for an art/animation-heavy game?  Our game is, art-wise, probably equivalent to a game like Donkey Kong Country– albeit with a MUCH smaller team.

For a small team project focusing primarily on animation, I would build it out like this:

  • 2-3 animators. I bet you could get away with 2 if you keep character capability reasonable. We made Halo1 with only 2 animators for the bulk of thre project! But in contrast, I had 16+ animators on Halo: Reach – a much more complex game.
  • 1-2 character/object modelers. I like to split my character artists up in ways where one owns all the monsters, and one owns all the allies. Something like this helps build consistency for the project.
  • 1-2 environment artists if you go with a modular approach – more if you build custom geo for every level.

For texturing, it’s still industry standard in games for 3D and environment artists to paint their own textures. The film industry has had dedicated texture artists for years, but due to the nature of game content, it’s not necessary most of the time. However, times are changing and content is becoming much more complex, so I believe the gaming industry will follow the film model especially when next gen content pipelines begin forming for future game consoles and engines.

For FX and UI, I would try to find 3D artists who are capable of both. Throughout Halo, I designed/built characters, textures, environments, FX and UI. You just need to find the right folks with enough capability and ambition to perform multiple tasks. For a small team, this is critical.

Of course, you need to consider time. If you want to bang this project out in a few months, then you may need more help. If you have the luxury of spending more time, then you could probably do it with fewer people. Scale is also a huge factor. If you are crazy ambitious, then you are going to need more people to build your vision. Make sure you keep a tight eye on your sanity regulator. Just keep it simple and you will find something that clicks, then allow it grow from there. I made Halo1 with a team of 45 back in 2000. In 2010, I built my team for Halo: Reach to over 250 and it cost a bazillion dollars

What can we do to maximize our chances of achieving a AAA aesthetic with a small team, in a game that has a variety of environments, 6 main playable characters, as well as a number of specific set-piece moments?

Think modular for the environments. If you build a set of highly interchangeable parts for the foundation, you can quickly build lots of environment content easily. It’s also a great way to quickly iterate the design of spaces. Then, you can skin them in different ways to theme each level uniquely. On top of the foundation, think of a limited number of palettes for objects that you may need to dress each level – all the stuff like rocks, trees, buildings, etc. Try to boil it down to the essentials and stay simple. If you have time in the end, you can always add a little more icing to the cake.

For characters, if you have some that can share the same skeletal structure, you’ll benefit with animation sharing, or at least being able to easily modify animation content in Maya or whatever app you use for animation.

We always call set piece moments “resource bonfires” because they usually consume a large amount of time and effort for very little repeat return. They are great to have, just be careful about how ambitious you get.

You should also be creative and “cheat” wherever you can. During Halo1, we ran out of production time, so we had to cut about 3 whole levels out of the game. It was painful. But, we got creative and decided to play backwards through 2 of the levels we had already created. We lighted them differently, added different FX and some custom set dressing items, and that allowed us to fill out the campaign with great content which was cheap for us to modify.

And how much should we expect to pay a quality artist, animator, or texture artist?

A seasoned game artist can command a salary from $80-150 or much more in the pro studio circuit. But, you can find talent coming right out of school and probably agree on something far less. You are going to need to set your budgets to determine how many people you can or should bring on full time. Maybe contracting to artists would make more sense. In that case, you could either handle it hourly or set a price for a bulk of content and pay them in installments. Or, you could arrange to pay them with some percentage of revenue for the shipping game.

Another question– have you ever heard of on-staff artists being paid per asset, instead of salary/hourly wages?  If so, what kinds of rates should we be targeting per asset?  A ballpark number for animated character as well as simpler environmental asset would be helpful.  Is there any standard rate for this type of pay structure?

Like stated above, this would translate to bringing in an artist as a contractor on-site. We did this all the time at Bungie. It’s a great way to test drive an artist and validate that they will work well with you and your team. The rates can be all over the place – usually hourly, not per asset.

There you have it. A bunch of hot air – maybe – but I hope it helps some people out there.

My Nerd Workout

I thought this may be interesting to a few, and certainly more lighthearted than normal.

I started going to gym about 7 years ago for the first time in my life. Before this, I never did anything overtly physical aside from casually riding my bike. As I started getting older, I definitely noticed that my energy levels were dropping as well, and late nights at Bungie began taking a larger toll on me.

Now, after all these years of keeping up with the gym, I’m a big believer in keeping fit, since it benefits not only the body but the mind as well. At 43, I’m more healthy and fit now than I have been since my teens! This is a necessary thing since many of the folks at Bungie, who are much younger, are also doing a great job of staying fit, so I have to do whatever I can to compete!

I’ll do the Spartacus v1 and v2, or the 300 workout 3 days a week (because I love the idea of wielding sword and shield against unimaginable monsters or the bazillion new Bungie employees lurking about the office with wooden swords – Hah!) and run 4-5 miles on the in-between days (because I truly love running through a giant world full of places to explore). It took a while to work up to this kind of strenuous cardio, so I need some goofy stuff on my headphones to push me.

I’m a total nerd who loves both good and really terrible sci-fi/fantasy movies, and I love the soundtracks even more. Here’s a typical playlist that I just put on random to keep me going:

Animus Vox                                 Glitch Mob
Arc Reaktor                                  Iron Man Soundtrack
Driving With the Top Down           Iron Man Soundtrack
Fireman                                         Iron Man Soundtrack
Mark I                                            Iron Man Soundtrack
Mark II                                           Iron Man Soundtrack
Merchant of Death                        Iron Man Soundtrack
Trinkets to Kill a Prince                Iron Man Soundtrack
The Avengers                               The Avengers Soundtrack
Helicarrier                                    The Avengers Soundtrack
The Battle                                    Gladiator Soundtrack
The Might of Rome                       Gladiator Soundtrack
Come and Get Them                    300 Soundtrack
A God King Bleeds                       300 Soundtrack
Fever Dream                                 300 Soundtrack
The Hot Gates                               300 Soundtrack
To Victory                                      300 Soundtrack
The Wolf                                       300 Soundtrack
Derezzed                                       TRON LEGACY R3CONFIGUR3D
End Of Line                                   TRON LEGACY R3CONFIGUR3D
Fall                                                 TRON LEGACY R3CONFIGUR3D
Myotis                                            Batman Begins Soundtrack
Enterprising Young Men                Star Trek Soundtrack
Nailin’ the Kelvin                            Star Trek Soundtrack

There ya go. A little insight into my weird world.

What’s in your gut?

In response to Paul (kappus III), who has been asking great questions for months now, I thought I’d return to the blog and answer his latest to share some thoughts on what it’s like building something completely new rather than working on an established, “safe” intellectual property.

I don’t think anyone would argue that it’s liberating having the chance to begin building up a new IP from scratch. Being able to lay down foundation blocks that will continue shaping a game for years to come is exhilarating. It’s also incredibly hard and often frustrating since the answers to how we should construct certain parts of the game are not always very clear. Even with our small group working on it, we have many differing opinions that must be debated and reconciled. This is totally normal and with the right group, like we have, it’s incredibly rewarding to work through tough problems and end up with results that everyone can look at and get excited about the direction being set.

Of course, we use as much data as possible to help us make key decisions on where we should take the game. We solicit feedback from as many members of the larger studio as we can. But sometimes, there is nothing out there which we can point to as a helpful guide or we get amazingly diverse feedback from the team. The key to making some of these decisions then rests on what our gut tells us. These are going to be our best guesses at what people may like about certain game design elements, how difficult we should drive the core combat mechanics, or how we should handle critical aspects of the player experience. For many of these questions, there are no obvious answers so we must rely on our gut to guide decisions.

To this, most of you will probably say, “Duh, that’s obvious. Tell us something we didn’t already know!” Sure, I understand that it’s obvious, but what may not be so obvious is that using your gut only works if you are familiar with all the working parts of how a game is built. You must be able to visualize how a part of the game, on which you are making a decision, fits into the whole of the project. This is so important, since without this understanding an objective opinion is nearly impossible to achieve.

For instance, we were just debating some beginning moments of the player experience the other day. Every decision we make for this first few moments of the game has profound implications to what the player might expect from the game overall. One small element in the world with which the player interacts will absolutely set the stage for gameplay expectations from that point forward.

Being able to pull yourself away from the project and look over it from a thousand foot level to see the kinds of interactions parts of the game have with others, then use your gut to imagine how those parts will feel when connected properly is an incredible challenge. It’s also super fun and works best, of course, when you have a strong team, like I do, who have similar abilities. We’re constantly looking at the game not just from design or player experience perspectives, but also for best content production methods, engine capabilities, tools construction, staff sizes and dynamics, and even to what we will do if this game continues on if it is a success.

It’s refreshing to be doing something completely different than what we did with Halo for so many years. There are so many little things that happen every day during early development. These are the sparks that start the fire of something special. We’ve already hit on a few fundamental parts of the game that make it feel like nothing else out there – so we’re super excited about the foundation we’re laying right now.

-Marcus

Staying Spontaneous

In response to kappus III on his question about staying spontaneous:

I think there is a very real risk of us experienced developers getting stuck in ruts with the familiar old tricks that give proven results. It’s like going to the gym and doing the same exercises every day. After a while, you stop doing anything effective for your body, because it has gotten so used to your routine. If we follow that path too rigidly, we risk feeling too confident in what we can do. Then, we’ll find ourselves staggering behind the competition.

What I like to do is turn things upside down, nuke and pave and start something totally different to smack me into looking at a project differently. How about stepping into different shoes within a project, do something where you are unsure of your capability, or change scenes by changing genres altogether. These kinds of things give you a workout that creates new skills and indirectly improve all your others.

That’s one part of it. Another is finding and hiring new talent that helps bring fresh perspective to your team. Always listen to everyone, even the contract employee who is still in school. They bring new energy without preconception and have valuable things to contribute. They help you stay on your toes.

Lastly, stay young (at least in your head) and have fun. I still feel like a kid, especially with what I get to do for a living. If I can stay fit at work, keep listening to those around me and channel that inner kid whenever I’m tackling a rough problem to solve, I think I have a fighting chance of doing something spontaneous.

I hope you can too!

-Marcus

Retrospective: 14 years of Halo

Where did it come from? How did you begin? What inspired you to help make the universe of Halo? These are a few of the most common questions asked of me, one of the very few grizzled ancients who helped begin the creation of Halo, 14 years ago. Honestly, there are no simple answers, but there are a number of reasons why I believe we hit on a success.

As a creative, my imagination was fueled by years of books, movies, life experiences and educational pursuits and I had always wanted to create a fictional world inhabited with all sorts of interesting characters and fun “toys” with which they interact. I know this is no different than a billion people out there who all have the same desire. But when I joined Bungie and was seated down next to Jason Jones and Robt McLees and we began this strange journey of creating a universe, I knew very early on that we were making something special – mostly because we all had such passion for making this world together. As the team grew a little larger, we hired only people who we could count on and the vision for the Halo universe expanded and became more real with every passing day.

Back in 98, the team was still small and agile, able to try out ideas on the fly.  We started with the old Myth: The Fallen Lords engine as our base, prototyping ideas of heavily armored super-soldiers (pushing the bleeding edge of tech at 400 polys each – wow!), surrounded by an equally advanced arsenal of military weapons and vehicles, not to mention a whole host of strange alien craft.  Before long, the generic super-soldier became our primary focus and developed into what we soon called the Master Chief.  What we produced was an experience that felt unique to us, especially compared to all the other games out there at that time. The ideas we had were so simple. Good humans vs. bad aliens fighting each other with big guns on a strange world in the not so distant future – with humanity’s fate solely in your hands. Looking back, it seems almost sophomoric in approach, but it was the simplicity that I believe made Halo so pure and easy to access. More important, it was exactly what we wanted in a video game. Now, to be fair, the strange world became the foundation for the Forerunner mystery which added just the right amount of complexity and depth to the universe. These
were the simple atoms for our story, a cast of characters, and a world which contained the thing that is so difficult to plan for – a heart and soul.

At the same time, another part of our team was focused on honing the core combat model for the game.  We didn’t know it at the time, but this work would form the basis of the multiplayer experience, an experience that would become as core to Halo as anything we did throughout the series. It acted as a catalyst for the social gaming experiences that we know today.

If any of these components had been lesser than the other, I believe Halo would not have become so embedded within pop culture.  Even so – and I’ve said this many times before – we had no idea just how popular Halo would become. It was truly born in a perfect storm: a well-crafted game on a brand new console and a market hungry for a console shooter. It was a success that took us all by total surprise, and presented our studio with some unforeseen challenges.

Halos 2 and 3 were both tests for our studio. We came close to the edge a few times during this period, as we struggled with the fallout of success, the increased pressure and expectations, as well as diverging ideas over where our games should go.  On top of that it was a constant battle to keep our culture intact as we continued to grow at an ever-increasing rate and simultaneously began the fight to become independent once again. As we dealt with the internal pressures, we also needed to stop and remind ourselves that our growing fan base expected more from us.  Each successive Halo needed to be better than the last.  But sustaining that quality bar was always difficult. Balancing the need to one-up ourselves and catch the eye of the media against staying true to the game and delivering quality for our fans became such a difficult beast to wrestle.  On one hand we kept adding more complexity to the series with gameplay features, bigger stories, and grander settings.  On the other hand we needed to constantly step back and critique ourselves to make sure we weren’t pushing it too far. But we never knew for sure just how it was going to be received until the game launched.  It was only then that we’d hear the real feedback from our fans and the media, raw and unfiltered.  While some of it stung, the one message that came through strong was that people wanted more, wanted to be immersed in the world of Halo and wanted us to continue making it.

At the end of Halo 3, I was pretty sure that I had had enough of Halo.  I felt that we had exhausted all of the cool ideas and that our fans were getting tired of what had become an incredibly large and over-hyped franchise.  The Halo I helped create was becoming something much bigger than I could fully grasp.  The sheer breadth of the marketing efforts around Halo was amazing and somewhat overwhelming. Then there was the question of our independence and what it meant to us as a studio. Hanging on the line was a carrot. Make one more Halo game and you will be free.

This was a turning point for me personally.  I could only agree to make another game in the Halo universe if I was 100% on board with the project. So we worked with MS and negotiated a plan that made us both happy.  Internally we thought about how we could bring a part of the Halo universe to a complete close. From the beginning we were determined not to continue the Master Chief’s story, since any story surrounding the Chief would be too big and intertwined in past fiction to fit into one game. Instead we decided to go back to the beginning where it all began.

We took this opportunity to embrace everything we had done over the series. We gathered up all the success and cut away many mistakes. Then we decided to go back to the place where Spartans like the Master Chief began. Halo: Reach became our own personal swan song to a franchise that I helped create a decade earlier. I had fallen in love with the universe, grown a bit wary as it had become a mega success, and ultimately was ready to say good-bye. But I was given a chance to take one more look at it with fresh eyes.

To do this, we didn’t simply skin the Halo 3 engine with a new story and fancy art.  That would have been easy (and probably would have made the powers above us much happier).  Instead we decided to do it right and rebuild the game from the ground up – because it was the only way we could bring this final game to life and do it justice.  We built Halo: Reach to be one of the most sophisticated and feature rich games the world had ever seen.  It took everything we had, but when Reach finally launched out into the world we felt proud that it could stand up to the legacy of Halo created and built by Bungie.

Looking back on the last 14 years at Bungie, I recall so many moments of glory and joy as well as the tough moments that made me lose all my hair – hah! It’s awkward to reflect on some of these moments and remember just how much of a silly kid I was – full of passion and righteous opinions. But, I also look back and recognize how it has shaped me, toughened my skin, and taught me how people work together creatively to make wonderful things.

Bungie has become a new and powerful studio, full of incredible talent and ideas. I often sit back and gaze in wonder over how different we are now. I will always remember the struggles we had when we were just a few with a common goal to build something the world had never seen before. Thank you to Bungie for such an amazing ride. I look forward to the next very big games we will make together.

-Marcus

 

My process

There have been a few of you asking about my preferred construction process and how it worked on a game like Halo:Reach. While I have an approach that I believe works well, it certainly is not without difficulties, so I’ll do my best to describe.

As with any creative endeavor, I like to start small with a small team that can be incredibly flexible while developing the core nugget of the game with its genre and setting, basic gameplay mechanics, story synopsis, characters, desired visual style and even thoughts about a team structure for building it all.

At the beginning, I like to build a framework for the big vision of a game, something that defines the boundaries, direction, and overall complexity of the project. From this, the core team will develop a vision statement for what the game should feel like as a whole. This usually is a collection of small prototypes, found imagery and video clips, concept paintings, character and camera motion tests, lighting, music, and usually some master video that combines all the key elements of the latter. These examples are what we use as a touchstone throughout the project. Yes, we continue to build upon these ideas and remove some altogether, but there is an emotional connection with these early explorations that are always useful throughout the project.

As these ideas begin to grow and solidify, we bring on more members to the team, typically additional leaders of all the major disciplines who begin to grasp parts of the game and make it their own. This latter statement is critical to the way I prefer growing a project. I don’t ever like to dictate what must be done, rather I prefer to discuss my desired direction for any given facet of the game, and then allow the leads of those disciplines the opportunity to develop their own version of it, or maybe even something far better. Either way, they can take pride and ownership in what they are building. This mentality reaches then to every member of the team. They are putting their signature on their part of the game. My job is to ensure that what they are creating works in concert with the overall vision of the project.

However, this process isn’t without its flaws. Because some ideas require time to explore, we had people work on major features of the game for months at a time only to find that what they made required more exploration and that we simply would not have the proper resources or time to complete what they had started. In Halo:Reach, one prototype involved water craft driving over giant ocean swells. We got working to a point where the kernel of fun could be experienced for real. It was an example of something that the engineering team, some designers and artists got very excited about and I could easily see how it would fit into the big picture of game’s campaign. But when direct implementation of the idea was attempted, the results were less than desirable. We could have continued working on it and come up with something great, but the effort would have robbed so many other features in the game that I had to make the decision to cut it and thus we wasted about 6 total man months of time. That’s tragic! But we have to recognize that it’s part of a creative endeavor. We will always make mistakes, but it’s my job to see them early enough before they become poorly shipped features.

I am inherently an artist with a huge love of digging deep into the game engine and figuring out how to build fun experiences from the ground up. So, I must always have my hands dirty in the project. This drives the producers crazy because they want me to detach and float over the project for instant access whenever needed, but instead, they often need to hunt me down in the trenches and pull me out for a meeting or two. But, I’ve been fortunate enough to make lasting work relationships with guys like Joe Tung who understand that creatives need flexibility to stay productive.

It’s critical to me to stay connected to the project by actually building part of it myself. Not only does it give me the understanding I need of the project, but it helps drive what the project should be since I’m actually providing concrete examples of exactly what I believe will work – whether it be an environment, a character, animation or particular element of design. It is literally in this way that I will lead by example.

Now, while I can speak design language to the designers, I do not have any allusions that I’m an expert designer. I’ve been lucky enough at Bungie to always surround myself with people who know far more than me on subjects in which I’m less capable. Writing and story, cinematics and of course engineering are additional examples where I know enough about them to properly drive what needs to be done, but I’m certainly not going to do it myself.

Lastly, I like to work. Simply put, I don’t like to screw around. This doesn’t mean that I won’t hang back and have fun with the guys, but it does mean that I don’t put up with a lot of bullshit at the office. If people are wasting time, taking excessive advantage of the free atmosphere or involved in crappy political maneuvering, I will see that we first do our best to correct their behavior or have them removed if that fails. I’ve seen too many groups begin rotting from the inside out due to a few dark infectious clouds. So, as a leader of projects with 200+ people on them, I take that seriously. If I do my best to keep things on track and held together, this is almost always the best remedy to keeping the team healthy.

When people come to work excited about the project, not only do they usually work with much greater efficiency, but they typically give even more to make the project the best it possibly can be. I guess this is part of making games; at least this is the way it always seems to be at Bungie. It’s less like a hard core job than it is like a beloved hobby, where I find myself lost for hours in the details of the game, just having a great time creating something wonderful.

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Marcus Lehto