Archive for January, 2012

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.

A Spartan(s) office

First day back was a blast. Joe and I found ourself with a cluttered little room downstairs which we cleaned out and set up our two little desks. This is a temporary space, but it suits me just fine.

our blank slate

This was also sitting there waiting for us. A present from Jonty.

don't take my stapler

We had many visitors drop by to chat and see what we’re up to on day one.
All in all, it was a good day.
Now, on to actually building something for real…

Back at Bungie

For the past several months, I took some time away from my good friends at Bungie to take a long deep breath, be with my family and explore a number of new game ideas on my own.

The game ideas ventured from small mobile apps to massive console titles, with mechanics from simple to moderately complex. (note – I do not enjoy very complex games made just for gamers since they are generally too exclusive and defeat a vision that I have of making interactive entertainment more approachable to a broader audience. But, this never means building anything for the lowest common denominator!)

This time I took was astonishingly more valuable to me than I had ever dreamt. I took for granted that I would relax, take better care of my health, unwind and let the creative energy start building again. I also knew this would be a great time to be closer to family. But, what I did not anticipate was how important to my children this time would be for them. Being home to take them to school, go to their afternoon soccer games, pick them up and take them to music lessons, help them with homework after school. Simply put, I was able to be 100% present in their lives. It’s something that they both recognized and made mention of to my wife, who I have also been able to appreciate on all new levels as I witness day to day life at home. They wanted me to know how important it was to them that I was here rather than at work all day long. My kids are only a handful of years away from completing high school and moving on to college. I know that time will pass swiftly.

During this time, I kept in contact with my friends at Bungie to discuss some possible opportunities that didn’t exist prior to my leaving. It was sad to leave behind a company that I helped create, but I was ready to make a change and start something new. Well, my discussions continued to develop with Bungie and soon we had a plan together that made a ton of sense. Why slave over the difficulties of building a studio from scratch when I could start something new, working on a brand new IP right within Bungie itself?

So, it is with great care that I will be venturing back to Bungie on Monday. I will be teaming up with my longtime colleague, Joe Tung, to start the construction of a brand new team and project. We will be a lean and mean organization for a while until our first game pitch is ready, and then grow from there.

The importance of my family will always remain paramount in whatever I do. It will be no different with my return to Bungie. But, this time around I have a different outlook on how to maintain a healthier balance between the two.

Wish me luck!

First entry

I’ve been thinking of doing this for a while now, but always wondering what on earth anyone would want to read about my thoughts on games, creative projects and generally how I like to work. I think what I’ll focus on mostly is my process, inspirations, leadership methods and general opionions on the larger entertainment industry. What do you think? Anything specific anyone would like to know?

Return top

Marcus Lehto