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Raiders Of The Lost Art – Bungie's Thoughts On Raid Development

by Ben Reeves on Aug 22, 2016 at 09:00 AM

Destiny’s raids are some of the most unique and challenging content Bungie has ever produced. These lengthy team-based firefights are often full of complicated puzzles that leave fans scratching their heads for days.

In 2013, Gavin Irby left Trion Worlds, where he helped lead a content development team for the MMO RIFT, and joined Bungie’s raid development team. Irby is now Bungie’s lead raid designer, and during our recent trip to the studio, we chatted with him about Destiny’s general raid philosophy, how Destiny’s raids might be more complicated to design than those in traditional MMOs, and what the studio has planned for Rise of Iron's new raid, Wrath of the Machine.

Tell us a bit about the initial process that went into creating raids in the first place. Did you sit down that first day and say ‘hey, we want to go down to Venus and go to the Vault of Glass?” Was that like the very first thing you guys came to, or if not, what were some of the things you guys were exploring initially?
Irby: Some of that stuff was already in place by the time I became involved, like the Vault of Glass in terms of its location, what it was going to be in terms of the geometry and that was largely worked out. But what they didn't know was how to build a raid encounter. Is it just really hard? Is it just lots of dudes shooting at you? Or is it puzzles? What are the nature of the puzzles? How hard should that be? What does it take to solve them? What is the nature of a raid encounter? What is a boss fight like in a shooter? And how strongly were they going to actually borrow from the understood mechanics and mentality from the PC MMO workspace?

What did you find didn’t work from the PC MMO space?
The reliance on UI is absolutely number one. The reliance on UI information to convey mechanics. It’s not a problem in WoW raids or whatever to throw out 50 freaking icons for buffs and debuffs and stuff with detailed descriptions and what they’re doing to you and expect players to mouse over each one and read and digest how that mechanic functions. We had to work with the limitation of one buff at a time, one debuff, don’t try and do two – really limit the amount of UI information that could be presented on the screen. It had to be all through gameplay.

When you did have more buffs, players just didn’t grasp what was happening?
Partly it’s a betrayal of the design mentality of Destiny. We can't have a stack of five to ten different buffs along the side of the screen. I have no mechanism to mouse over that information, I can’t get more detailed descriptions from that. Even if I did, is that really what we want in the context of a shooter? And so we had to focus more on what can I show in the environment, what can I show with the things that I’m shooting at?

Also, the level of chaos is so much higher in a first-person shooter with six people than it is with even 20 people in a game like WOW. Think about the difference in your camera looking down: You have the ability to have such detailed, quantitative information about the state of the encounter and the state of the character, and every other character. You have none of that in a shooter. The nature of being first-person, the nature of being so close to the action, dramatically changed like the sense of chaos.

One of the things that became really clear was that it’s hard to know, with accuracy, the simple things like what is a DPS output of a raid group. In traditional MMO raids, you know within a very small bandwidth a high performing raid group, you're going to know what gear they have, their DPS output and healing output. All these things are basically known to a pretty high degree of accuracy. In the nature of Destiny, those things are unknown. A character who is pointing their camera at the ceiling is doing zero DPS. There’s a lot more variance in terms of am I doing a higher amount of effective damage, or am I doing a low amount of effective damage, or am I just missing the target. And so having to account for that was definitely a different challenge that I hadn’t faced before.

A sneak peek at Wrath of the Machine’s slick new raid gear

What was the solution?
First, my project became trying to come to some understanding of what I could expect for DPS output within a given window of time. In a traditional PC MMO, the difference between a high-functioning raid group and a mediocre raid group is the efficiency with which they put damage on that target, the right target. In a really good group, there’s no down time between putting DPS on a target; they always know where to shoot, they’re always bringing down the right thing at the right time. Our adds don’t have the kind of health pools you would expect from a raid encounter in WoW. So having very controlled damage windows during boss fights became a really important aspect of making those encounters work for us. You’ll notice we very tightly control the damage windows and make that an important event.

Have you learned anything the hard way? Is there anything you’ve learned that you should never do?
Yeah, I mean certainly that’s one of them. We have two golden rules of bosses, [they] are that the boss has to be able to threaten you from any location and you can’t use geometry to avoid it. Those are actually the two rules to direct what we’re going to do. We understood that from Vault of Glass on.

When you guys first started developing raids for the first time, philosophically were there things that set a raid apart from the rest of the content in Destiny that you’re like ‘Okay this is what makes something a raid as opposed to a strike?’
Absolutely, there was a mandate that we had the ability to break the rules. No matchmaking is a huge thing. We can design with the assumption that you're playing with people who you are invested with. Even if they’re not your friends, you've put some amount of investment in being able to play with them and they’re not this resource to you. The fact that we can account for you having voice communication is big.

As compared to a strike?
Yeah, in a strike we have to assume that maybe you’re probably not talking to each other. The ability to assume that they have verbal communication opens up a lot of possibilities that otherwise don’t exist. We can put you in a crisis as a group which is a very different thing than just people who aren't talking to each other who have to somehow work together. We can't put a great deal of pressure on them, and we’re specifically supposed to put you under pressure. It’s a group of people in a crisis, that’s what we’re putting you in, and you have to solve your way out of it.

On that front, do you want to talk about how important it is to occasionally single somebody out? The role of the individual in a raid, is that a necessary ingredient?
I think of it in terms of what is the individual responsibility versus your global responsibility to the group and there’s definitely something really powerful about you being singled out and you having to shine in your moment in the sun. Crota is probably the exemplar of the solo hero going out to do their thing. Maybe a little more than I intended.

If players can, they will always put the greatest responsibility on the fewest number of people. It sounds so naive to me now, but when we play tested internally we all ran the sword, it was like whoever’s closest, 'hey I’ll pick up the sword, be the hero, sure that’s great.’ Which sounds absurd now. Why would you let anyone pick the sword? You’re only going to let the one guy pick the sword who’s amazing at the sword. We sort of had this naive idea like people are just naturally going to share responsibility and people will distribute it among themselves. That's actually the opposite, we learned early on people want to concentrate responsibility on the fewest number of people as possible. The only way they will break that is if we force you to.

There is that quality when you go on a raid, and have your first run be really confusing. It’s fundamentally bewildering. Why do you want me to stand here? Then later on you're teaching it. Just a few weeks later you understand it implicitly.
One of the great things we’re allowed to do was create, having an experience that didn't just open itself to you. You had to figure it out, and that process figuring out how the pieces fit together is such a cool part of the experience, so it was really great that we were allowed to do that and were not forced to create something that was immediately understandable. I think what you are actually describing though is the experience that players have when – like I went into a raid for the first time playing people who have played it before. Because that is truly bewildering. People are giving you all kinds of instructions. ‘I don’t know why I’m doing this, I just have to stay here and shoot this thing and now people are yelling at me for some reason because something happened and I don't understand what it is.'

I think when you look back, people talk a lot about the magic of Vault or what that experience is, there are so many people where we were all sort of exploring it together and none of us knew what to do and it was new to us. So that’s not a moment that’s very easily re-creatable, because now we all have expectations and we go to it thinking ‘well let’s see, this is like that encounter and this is going to be like that encounter.’ You know, we have training now.

Next up: Irby discusses the raid brainstorming process, raid gear philosophy, and how raid design sometimes backfires.

Do you worry about it just becoming too technical, like people becoming robots?
Like how mechanical do we want to get? It’s been my goal for each raid to push the boundary in some direction and explore a new space. For example, for Crota's End, it was very much like let’s explore action, let’s explore the idea of just basic superhero action – Indiana Jones, swinging swords, all these kind of action tropes. And then with King’s Fall we really wanted to push the boundaries of mechanics, and I felt like Vault of Glass is sort of like raid middle school. Now it’s like, ‘let’s do raid high school and raid college, you know?’ Let’s take a higher level class and sort of see what we can do with it. That feels like sort of the limit that I want to go in that direction so. It’s always like what is some new way of looking at the raid experience with some new lens.

What’s that brainstorming process like? Do you guys get together in a room with a blackboard and say ‘hey, maybe this happens and then maybe this happens?’ Or is one person just fiddling with things in a level?
It’s not a blackboard, but once we have established a theme we sort of have a high level of understanding of what we want to create, and we brainstorm and just throw stuff onto the board. What are the best ideas we have that sort of serve up these experiences that we’re looking for? What is the thing that you’ve been thinking about for the last six months, and you can’t wait for it to get into a game? All these kinds of ideas bubble up and then we sort of filter out for the most appropriate things. Things that people are the most excited about, things that seem like the most fruitful or correct for this raid.

Do you ever worry that it’s too complicated in parts, or is it usually the other way around, this needs to be more involved?
I do worry that it’s sometimes too complicated in parts, absolutely. Yeah, absolutely.

Have you guys found that the community sometimes find solutions to encounters in ways you didn’t anticipate or maybe takes a different route?
Like knocking a guy off a cliff with grenades?

Sure, well maybe not even like that extreme but…
So yes, and part of it’s really exciting and interesting to see that happen. That’s kind of a negative version of it. They surprise me. We just didn’t understand our own game in the way that we do now. We were watching this stuff unfold as we were building Crota and it was like “Oh s---, we’ve got to account for that! Look what they’re doing, we’ve got to answer that!”

Did some of that still happen with King’s Fall or do you feel like you guys answered that to a point?
It’s weird to say that it’s disappointing, but King’s Fall kind of went like clockwork. The most efficient way of playing turned out to be the way we designed it, which is good but at the same time there were no big surprises.

In King’s Fall you also had what felt to me like a conscious decision to implement a weapon that you were trying to get. With Touch of Malice, once you had it, that fundamentally made the encounter easier. I’m curious about the mindset behind that, what did you ultimately like after the fact, now you liked that structure?
I think that just made getting it really meaningful, once you went through the effort and you felt like it was worth it. It had a really powerful impact and it didn’t really pollute the rest of the sandbox or the rest of the game. It was okay to have something in that sandbox, in that context that was radically overpowered, that didn’t destroy PvP and didn’t make the rest of the game trivial. I considered it a win.

So , would you avoid doing that again?
No, I don’t think so. I mean it’s better that than the player goes through all this effort to get some exotic weapon that just feels like “ehhh.”

What’s the theme for the new raid? Is there an overall goal in mind with this?
We started with some highfalutin' ideas and literary themes that we were trying to achieve, and through iterations it actually became about smashing s--- into other s---. So I guess the smart version of that would be collision. But, it’s definitely about smashing s--- into other s---. The Fallen faction with the Siva, that’s partly where that comes from, the hybridization and the idea of these two things coming together, that’s some of the s--- smashing into other s---. But in gameplay that just turned into like well, let’s start smashing stuff and that’s awesome.

As you began to think about what this new raid was going to be beyond that thematic construct, what were the goals of what you wanted to evoke in players?
We had King’s Fall and it’s like, okay we’ve explored Raid College, let’s make something that just purely about fun. Put control in your hands, play up the strengths of the Destiny sandbox so it’s sort of leaning the pendulum in the other direction.

On the difficulty scale, where does it fit next to existing raids?
We’ll see. It’s hard. It’s largely a function of what your light level is versus the raid. King’s Fall has this property of where even if you’re over-leveling the mechanics don’t get easier so it still maintains this high difficulty, which at the time we felt was a virtue because people specifically wanted it and had been asking for it, and I think maybe now the community might be ready for something a little different that they can actually overlevel and get some mastery over.

How has your philosophy about rewards changed over the years since the guys have now done four raids?
Certainly our philosophy as a company has shifted and we’ve tried out a number of different models. We started off where you make huge light level jumps, but rarely, and now we’ve moved towards this model of constantly incrementing but always in small amounts. We’ll fundamentally continue that promise. The philosophy and design of our advancement system is not changing.

One of the things I noticed as far as rewards moving from Vault up to King’s Fall is that a lot of the most desirable legendary weapons in the game were the raid weapons in that first raid. I don’t know that the King’s Fall weapons ever crossed over to that tier.
It was just hard, in your special slot, to compete with Black Spindle or Thousand Yard Stare, which is just overwhelmingly the choice in that slot. I think all the specialist weapons have their place and they’re fairly popular. I think that the guys designing the weapons were trying to create something that had more parity, where you didn’t have ‘the one’ weapon that was clearly the best and you’re done if you weren’t using it. They want to create that ability for you to make choices about what is your preferred loadout and so in that sense I think that they were successful in achieving what they wanted.

I think fans are going to be surprised at the amount of radical iteration you guys do. Do you wipe the slate clean, do you guys have a Prince-esque vault of 1,000 raids somewhere in this office?
We are willing to go back to formula for a long time. We start with what we think is our best design. The goal is to get to a playable state as early as possible. It’s fundamental to our process to playtest as a raid team. We get there as early as possible and do it every day, I think one of the things that makes the raid team really tight is that we play it every day and are self-critical and are willing to say “hey, if this isn’t working let’s try something completely different.”

But you do get a lot of starting over from scratch?
Not from scratch in the way that like “hey, let’s make a raid on a different planet,” or something like that, but we’d be willing to go to scratch about “hey, we had some assumptions about what this encounter was about and it isn’t working. Let’s go another route.” We definitely do that.

How much content do you think ends up on the cutting room floor? Is it  more stuff that doesn’t go into a raid than ends up going into a raid?
It’s hard to describe it as being on the cutting room floor because it’s more like it evolves than just is straight up cut. There’s very little content that is shippable and we just cut it, and don’t ship it. There’s a lot of content that was something very different when it started. That’s the majority of the cases.

Something that can be reworked as a Strike later, or something like a specific combat design?
Well even the stuff that we straight up cut, if we’re smart, we didn’t spend so much time on it that its shippable and ready to go before we cut it. We identified that it’s not going to work early on and it’s still unrecognizable as a raid encounter. I think you’d be surprised at encounters that you know and love today if you saw them in their first iterations, just how freaking terrible they were, just unrecognizable. As a team we have to see what the long-term vision is and believe in it, it takes a certain amount of self-confidence that this piece of s*** can turn into something great.

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