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Jason Jones – The Destiny Interview

To prepare for our cover story on Destiny, we visited Bungie’s sprawling Bellevue, WA studio to spend two days playing and talking about the game. While we were there, we didn’t want to miss the opportunity to sit down and talk with Bungie co-founder and design director Jason Jones.

In a wide ranging and lengthy interview, Jones offers insight into the story of Destiny, some of the inspirations behind its creation, and why the studio was ready to move away from the success of Halo and onto something new. 

Before Destiny, your team had been working on Halo for a long time. What prompted the move?

You already answered your own question. 

Did you feel like you were ready for something new? 

I think the situation made part of the decision for us. We’d been with this one IP for a long time and you want to try something different. You have ideas. I think the genesis of new projects for a lot of people here (certainly for me) is being out in the world and playing other games, seeing other entertainment. In the best way, being a critic and saying: “There’s an opportunity here that I want to see, that I want to play. When I experience these other games, I don’t get. 

That really drove Halo 1, this idea that shooters are great. I love shooters, but they’re complicated. There were all these opportunities in shooters that we wanted to see. I think that’s really the genesis of Destiny. They’re not the same opportunities, because those have been in existence for a long time, but when you look out at the shooter experiences on consoles there’s a lot of great stuff – great action experiences, but they’re only starting to scratch the surface of cooperative play, aspirational goals, player-player interaction – whatever you want to call it. Having a world that feels like a real place that you visit instead of just a way to play competitive. If your question is: Where does this project come from? I think part of it is the way all of it comes, which is this desire to participate in some experience that doesn’t exist yet. 

So that’s what we’re trying to build. We’re trying to build a game that we have wanted to play that doesn’t exist. 

Early on did you have the idea for this integrated cooperative and competitive campaign? Was that part of the genesis or did that come later?

Absolutely. That was right at the beginning. There are games in which the idea that you start to play the campaign, and you’re immersed in some world and you think it’s cool and you’re investing yourself in some kind of building and some story and some character and then you want to play cooperative or you want to play competitive and it’s a whole different progression, sometimes on a different disk, sometimes a different executable. There is this tremendous opportunity there that you can see in other genres. It makes you feel like you can play competitive for two weeks and then come back to playing some cooperative experience, and you actually help yourself. Your character was better, can go more places, do more things. Right away for sure that was one of the huge opportunities that we saw. It’s frustrating in a good way, because I’m enjoying these games that I’m playing, but it’s frustrating because I’m enjoying this game and then to play with my friends I have to do what? There’s a whole new kind of progression that I’m not able to take back. I wanted it to be different. 

Your team was coming off of the decade of a franchise about a sci-fi character who’s got big armor and guns and shoots aliens. Is it just that you and the team really love science-fiction? What brought you back to the genre?

I would say that this place we’re going it is exciting to me. It’s different. There’s more – there’s so many bad ways to say it – sci-fantasy. There are guns and tanks and spaceships and travel between other worlds, but there’s also dens of wicked creatures living under the Earth with awesome s--- you can go get, take from them, and bring out and make yourself more powerful – that’s more of a fantasy bit, and I think it was really appealing to bring that kind of mystery and adventure into the shooter. It’s a different approach from the heart of the military, which I think we have a lot of in console gaming right now. I’ve played all the shooters in the last two or three years. We thought we could bring something new to that, which is the idea: yes to the science and yes to the space ships, but there is also wonder and mystery and adventure. We could out on the frontier and see good fortune and it meant something. In the way you would in a fantasy game. That is hugely appealing to me, and to us. And another one of the opportunities that we wanted to take advantage of that would have been difficult with a previous IP. 

What you eventually got to was this detailed world-building idea of the Traveler, the last city, and the solar system as a setting. Where did that begin?

Game stories are really unique, because you want a world that’s compelling to be in. It’s the first pillar of Destiny. The world that players want to be in – it can’t be repugnant or push you away or be some place you don’t want to return to. I think I can enjoy those worlds for a while and I think there are games that I play that have totally compelling worlds that are awesome to visit, but some place that you want to live in that you want to return to for weeks and weeks in a row. One of the things that we wanted was to build a world that was welcoming. Full of danger and mystery and horror, but to have it – you can see in the concept art – be at the same time beautiful and compelling and interesting, and draw you into that. In coming up and trying to find this story that we wanted to tell, I had a bunch of stuff just written down, archived, notebooks, ideas for stories that I think would be great for a more linear media like a book or movie or something like that. 

Game stories need to be so different from more linear stories. They need to support, in our case, multiple protagonists acting over a long time. They need to supply with you with an endless stream of evil to fight hand-to-hand over and over again. And there are some stories that just don’t sustain that. I said two things there. One of them is we wanted a really welcoming world even if it was very dangerous and in some cases full of horror. And the other thing was that we did on the way is push to the wayside a bunch of stories that just didn’t give us this feeling. 

Our very first metaphor was a candle in darkness, or Camelot in the middle of the untamed frontier. There was a place you could go that you could be safe, put your feet back, and look out over a sunset. I’m being totally metaphorical here. Interact with other players. You can trade stuff. Buy s---. I knew on all sides you were surrounded by the wicked frontier, the adventure, the mystery. We built a bunch of different stories like that, but we were trying to create something big that we can build in. A world that was going to let us live in it for a long time – that was going to let us tell a lot of different stories. A world that was actually okay with us telling stories that were great instead of turning away stories that were great – if that makes sense. There were a lot of great video game worlds that can only tell one kind of story. We wanted to get away from that. 

[Next up: In-depth on Destiny's story]

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