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Jason Jones – The Destiny Interview

by Matt Miller on Dec 11, 2013 at 05:45 AM

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]

There’s a difference between story and world building, right?

Yeah, you’re absolutely right. Our approach very much at the beginning was world building, to make sure we had a world that we could build in.

This game actually started as a fantasy game. But from the very beginning, the candle in the darkness was literally a city with white walls and red roofs and views of sunlight, up on a green hill. It looked amazing. And then it evolved, as we evolved into sci-fi, because we felt the pure fantasy was missing all these things we loved. Literally, explosions. It’s kind of a joke, but it’s not really a joke. Explosions are awesome, just as a gameplay device and all kinds of other things. People understand them, they’re a really easy metaphor for projecting power into the world. Anyway, we started with this fantasy city that was beautiful and it evolved through spaceships and space stations into cities, eventually to the traveler that you see today. That was quite a journey. But the core was all the same, which is that the candle in the darkness. 

Were you looking to MMO storytelling styles as opposed to what you see in shooter stories? Were you moving away from a straight, linear thing?

Yes. The game we want to make and we want to play is a shooter. Making a great shooter is not the thing I’m worried about now when I look out at the game, where it’s my job to be worried about whatever isn’t the farthest along. When we set out to build that shooter from the beginning, we really were aware that there’s a bunch of innovation, a bunch of cool stuff happening in other genres, certainly in MMOs. We wanted to learn from that. One of the things that was really important, just by building a story was that we wanted a world and not just a story. We wanted a world that we can tell a lot of stories in. I think there’s a way that you can learn that lesson from some MMOs. But they have a world that’s just fun to explore and to think about, look forward to the next story. I would say the best, certainly the MMOs genre is about story but also about player progression as well. Just really fascinating, fun things that those games do. I would say having said that, at heart this game’s got to be a shooter. I believe that’s what people, and I don’t have any control in this, will label it and that people who come and look at this experience are going to like it because it’s a shooter, and it’s my hope, going to be surprised by the depth that they haven’t seen before like the single progression across all activities and that they’re going to stick with and enjoy it and stay with it because of that. 

A lot of people have wondered whether this is an MMO or not. Obviously, based on what you were just saying, you see this more as a shooter. Are there other things that you would point to that set it apart from MMOs?

It’s kind of an apple and oranges thing, so I don’t want to draw too many comparisons, but I think that at its heart, what people are going to enjoy and engage with the game in Destiny is the action game. It’s ultimately this fantasy of being the super powerful change agent in the world, in a very analog, dexterity, skill-based way. 

I think the MMOs have different fantasies. There are some action-y, shooter-y games in that space. But I think after 30 seconds or a minute playing them, the gamer came to have an action experience, they’re going to be disappointed. We want to be the opposite. People that sit down and pick up the controller in Destiny, the first 60 seconds, we want them to be hungry to see their first bad guy, to have that first interaction. The experience that’s most important to remember, that we are trying to create anyway, is that when players have that first hands-on interaction with the controller, they’re going to feel like they’re in a great shooter and that any of the story or progression lessons that we’ve learned from MMOs that we’ve brought from that space or from social games, that those are going to add on to that experience instead of coming first. I can talk about hotbars and red dots and stuff like that. I think those are just all aspects of that top-level action versus social progression game. We’re building one of those. I won’t be disappointed if nobody calls us an MMO. 

You mentioned an interesting metaphor – the origin coming out of the idea of a Camelot, and the knights going out on their quest. What is your grail quest here? You’ve got these guardians, what are they doing?

I was actually not going to talk about this, but I can do a little bit. Let me give you the short windup to the story. The thing is going to be in the first 60 seconds of the game. A few years from today, our present, this alien intelligence, the Traveler, comes to Earth, and we don’t know a lot, we don’t remember a lot about this time, but we know a few things that are to survive. We don’t know if the Traveler was a ship, or a god, or a moon, or whatever, but we know this thing came and we know that it settled on Mars and that it began to share its amazing technology with us, and a city grew up around it, and all this. And it started what we now call The Golden Age, and humanity spread throughout the solar system, human lifespan tripled, we terraformed planets – it was amazing. It was the best times humanity had ever seen. But the traveler had enemies – one enemy in particular. And when that enemy caught up with it at Earth, an enemy that’d been chasing it for millennia across the galaxy, a horrible battle happened. We remember almost nothing about this, this is in the distant past of the game. That’s what we call The Collapse. So that’s the solar system we inherit, is one where humanity had spread to all worlds, all the moons, all the asteroid belts, had built great things, and then had to abandon them– being driven out of them and been killed. And humanity shrunk back after this battle against the ancient enemy of the Traveler, where the Traveler itself was crippled and fell silent above Earth. Humanity was driven back to this one spot underneath the Traveler – the one safe spot in the solar system – and built the city. That’s where the guardians come from, and the guardians’ grail quest is to drive back the Darkness and wake the Traveler. And then in fact, it just got worse than that because this ancient enemy of the Traveler – the Darkness – is returning, and so there’s even more urgency. And another battle is going to be fought, and the Traveler is crippled and silent. Without it, we’ll be defenseless.

You talk about the Traveler being crippled, but it’s presumably still providing some protection Is it just enough to keep the city safe? 

That’s correct. Protect the city through the worst times right after the collapse – but even that – the reason that the city exists and it’s still safe is because of that very short range aura around the silent Traveler.

So, it’s not just humanity in this city, is that right? There’s some other ally species? I’m not sure what you call them. Is that a fair way to talk about them, or are they part of humanity at this point? And who are they?

I’m excited for players to slowly learn and talk about that over time. But yeah, it’s not just people, it’s the things that people have become, and it’s the things that people have built, and it’s other things. Everything’s all together. I’d like to hold some of that back, because I think some of that is going to be the the deep history of the world – and where these allies came from, even where the city came from, why it’s there.  It’s going to be a fun thing for people to discover.

Can you tell me a little bit about the origin of the class-based system. What are these different classes, and why are they important? What is the distinction you are trying to make between these different characters that people can make?

I think everybody understands that doing things with your friends is often more enjoyable than doing it alone – that’s really an understatement – but even doing things with strangers is more fun than doing it alone, if you imagine the gym or the library in college, or wherever you go to do alone-but-in-a-social-environment things, like if you imagine the empty gym or the empty library or the empty sports arena, those experiences would be totally different in-character. And so, the social element is incredibly important to this, we’re doing a bunch of things to encourage people to play together in proximity to one another. And classes are a great short-hand so that when I look at you, I can have some expectations about what your abilities are and how you’re likely to behave in the world, and what kinds of things I might depend on you to do, and a lot of games have done this very successfully. 

I would say that one of the origins of class is that it gives people some way to look at each other and talk about their abilities without actually talking. We didn’t want a world that was totally undifferentiated in terms of playability – abilities – where everybody was a generalist. And then what we ended up with, when you look at the class spectrum, is the super-armored, heavy, big gun fantasy at one end, and at the other end the lightly-armored – or not armored at all – more agile, more tending-towards things that look like magic, like abilities to channel the power of the Traveler – and that’s the Titan on one side and the Warlock on the other. And then in between, the Hunter, our character who does have a little bit of armor, but relies more on his wits than the Titan, somebody who’s going to fight, and fight with weapons like the Titan, but who’s going to rely on his wits and his knowledge of the world to survive, where the Titan has his armor. An adventurer, I think that’s the right word. So you have a soldier, an adventurer, and a sorcerer, in the Titan, Hunter, and Warlock. And so those are the archetypes that we were trying to hit. 

[Next up: What does Destiny offer the solo player and the competitive player?]

You have a legacy of players who are already Bungie fans, and a segment of that fan base is people who play games by themselves. And I hear you talking a lot about the fun of that shared space, but I think that there’s people out there who either don’t believe that or they’re waiting to be convinced. Is there something in Destiny for those kinds of players? Or are you trying to guide them away from that experience to something that is more social? 

You absolutely are going to be able to play Destiny by yourself and have the same kind of fun shooter-experience that you could have in a single-player campaign, which is a word that we’ve weeded out of our vocabulary, but we’re going to give you this great player-progression on top of that, and we’re going to give you as many opportunities as we possibly can to expose you to other people, so that hopefully you’re drawn into some social experiences, because those are incredibly powerful and interesting, but we’re not going to force those on you. We describe it in a lot of ways as sloping the floor towards socialization, without putting a requirement on it. I would say that there’s some sort of – if you wanted to talk about it in MMO terms, you’d say “end-game activities”, but some of the most intense non-competitive activities in the game do require cooperation. They require a group of players to tackle at once. I guess at some variable, distant endpoint we are going to say, “Yeah, if you show up at this door, and you don’t have five friends, you’re not going to be able to succeed,” but the core experience that solo players have enjoyed in shooters, they’re going to be able to get that, and we’re going to pull many of them into social experiences as well. 

So, what’s the structure of that ongoing story? 

This is a question that we have argued about and tested and worked on. This has been a question since the very earliest days. I really believe it’s important for an action game to set you up and then just let you play the game: let you use your abilities, let you go for the headshots, play through the experience, and to not make you – I’m going to say some things that I think are fun in other genres – check a map, look at a quest log, manipulate your inventory. Players in action games want to be given a goal, and then just be able to focus on that for some amount of time. So I think you’ll find experiences in Destiny that are very reminiscent of the action experiences, certainly that we enjoy, from shooters and from shooters that we’ve built, but what we’re trying to do is to assemble those in a way that you don’t have to experience them A through Z, from beginning to end. In that way, I think it’s very similar to the campaign-shooters that we’ve seen before, but I think you’ll find them arranged in a much less linear fashion than any previous shooter.

Can you get to the end of that story? In the initial release, is there an idea that there’s a story you’re playing that you see the beginning threads of and that you’ve got a goal and that you’re going to a place? 

[Laughing] The answer’s yes, and we think that that’s really important. I’m laughing just because the number of man months of really smart people that we burned to  light the way for the game, talking about this exact thing is almost countless. The answer we come to is yes, it’s absolutely important to set you off on some mission that you feel as if you’ve accomplished at the end. We have to have that. I think the spin or the difference is that it is our job that by the time you get to that climax it will feel good. I won’t say our job, it’s our hope and it’s our mission that by the time you get to that conflict, that climax, which hopefully will be very satisfying, that instead of thinking you’re done playing, “Now I’m going to finish,” that you already have a head so full of other things that you can do in the world that it almost feels like, how can you get that thing out of the way so you get on with the rest of the game? We think that’s like walking this line down what action gamers expect and hope for and want. It’s just our desire to tell a story that has some closure and things happen, and our desire to build a world that’s fun to be in for week after week. 

That leads well into the other thing that I was going to ask. We talked about that segment of your Bungie fanbase that comes for the single-player. There’s another part of your fanbase that comes because they don’t care about story and they want to go online; they want to shoot their buddies. Does Destiny speak to that group as well? 

Certainly, competitive multiplayer hasn’t gotten any less important to us. We still love that. What I have found is that the people who really loved our games the most are the people who sample the whole experience, the people who loved competitive gaming and understood and played the campaign. What we’re going to do our best to do, again without forcing because I think that would be the wrong thing to do – we’re going to get this unified progression. I think that’s so powerful if we can get you to do this. We’re going to make the competitive game and the solo or cooperative game, or the game where you fight AI versus the game where you fight people, to make both of those viable paths for improving your character and getting new stuff to make your character better. We would very much like it if people got immersed in the story, got distracted by the competitive game, came back to the story, realized there were other cooperative activities that could be played, and just bounce back and forth between a bunch of different things that Destiny has to offer. 

But we realize some people are going to come, dip their toes in the story and play competitive and we absolutely want to be there for those people, because I’m that person sometimes. The competitive game has a simplicity that’s really wonderful. We try to bring a lot of that to the cooperative game. Sometimes you do just want to have you and the other guy and see who’s going to win over and over again for six hours in a row for three weeks in a row. And that’s fine. We’re not going to take that away. We’re going to do the best we can with unified progression to make sure that every time you play, competitive or cooperative if that's your thing, you’re getting tempted by these other activities, because I think people who enjoy the game, both the character and the world, are really going to enjoy taking that character into other activities. 

You have talked about progression. How do you keep people coming back? 

People love to build, and engage towards some aspirational purpose. It’s just fun. Sometimes you just have one of those days where you don’t feel like you did anything. Everything moved backwards. Nothing moved forward. It’s just fun to have an experience where you feel like you built something, you feel like you made some progress even if it’s in a piece of entertainment. I think that’s something that action games have often not really thought about or addressed or provided. That’s not a way in which you’d enjoy action games. I think the joy of action games comes from a very different place that’s more like snowboarding or driving or even chopping wood, if you’ve ever done that. There’s this joy of a physical activity done well. I think that’s why shooters exist. People just enjoy that flow. 

But the two things can completely go together and that’s what we want to do. And so in the world of a great action game, we want to give people aspirational goals. In a world with Camelot at the center surrounded on all sides by the wilderness and mystery and adventure, that progression is really about how strong you are and where you can go, what you can do and ultimately which enemies you can conquer in that world. Our goal is to always have some aspiration that players can be pursuing. I had to play Halo 1 a million times – I wanted to but I had to as well, to understand where the game was? And that, by the way, is one of the reasons why they’re ultimately compelling. We’d go crazy if the game we’re playing weren’t good. But anyway, I played Halo a bunch of times and so did a lot of our fans, and it was a really enjoyable experience for them. But I think if there had been, back in Halo 1 for example, some kind of aspirational goal or something to build toward, something that maybe you could even just show your friend that you’d done, or maybe something that enabled you to go into some remote, dangerous, and more challenging part of the world, I think people would have enjoyed that even more.

So what progression means to me is both a power to see more and more dangerous places in the world and it’s also a social token that you can show your friend or you can bring it with into these hard places. 


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