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The Art of Destiny | An Interview with Bungie's 3D Character Art Lead

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For over a decade, the terms Bungie and Halo were synonymous. Although Halo: Combat Evolved was far from Bungie's first game, it saw massive success when it launched in 2001 as the flagship franchise for Microsoft's then-brand new Xbox. Since then, the Halo universe has served as inspiration for countless game artists around the world and has been an amazing world that we've all enjoyed exploring with the devs at Bungie over the past ten years. When the Halo franchise was finally handed off to 343 Industries and Bungie announced their new universe, as game artists and as gamers, we were excited to see what new universe the devs at Bungie had in store. Since the launch of the Xbox One and PlayStation 4, perhaps no game has received as much prerelease hype as Bungie's Destiny. No pressure. [caption id="attachment_32238" align="alignnone" width="800"] Concept art of a battle with the Cabal on Mars.[/caption] Since launch, Destiny has received mixed reviews by gamers. As we mentioned in our review of the game, if you're involved in creating game art then you need to play Destiny. It doesn't matter whether or not you feel Destiny lived up to the hype as a gamer, as game artists there's little denying that you can learn a lot from this new universe that Bungie has created. For that reason we reached out to Shiek Wang, who works as the 3D Character Art Lead for Bungie, to give you a behind the scenes look at some of the thought processes that Bungie put into the art of Destiny.  
Q
What are some of the things you learned from Halo that you were able to incorporate into Destiny?Titan Character from Destiny

We learned a lot of lessons with Halo, and many of the approaches we took were informed by experience.  We understood how to distinguish combatants with color, silhouette, and animation performance. We understood how to create visually iconic characters, and we’ve learned to align our art with gameplay design.

Of course, we were doing some new things with Destiny, as well, that weren’t so easily translated. How would character investment and gear progression impact our heroic player characters? How could we create variants of enemies that felt fresh and new within each destination a player might visit? These are just two questions we never had to tackle as a studio.

It was fun to find out the answers!

Q
Were there any moments where the design on characters were changed because they might have been drifting too close to something from the Halo universe?
We were conscious of our Halo legacy in early pre-production, but as soon as we created the combat classes, we felt we had something really unique.  The need to have each of the classes stand on their own as iconic representations of a unique player fantasy meant that we had to find different avenues to draw inspiration and direction from.

Early concept art of a Hive catacomb.

Q
We really liked how the same enemy factions had different color schemes on different planets. How much did you rely on color in character designs to help push the story along?

Part of creating a living world meant we need to create multiple factions of each combatant race to populate it with. This approach of attaching multiple factions to different color schemes allowed us to create separate entities within each race that populated the world of Destiny.

At first, we had a hard time letting go of our old design methodologies. We wanted to use color in a way we never had before. In Destiny, enemy factions had nothing to do with their power or threat level, as it had in Halo. There was definitely a mental hurdle we had to leap.

It wasn’t until everything came together near the end of development that we felt confident that using colors as story telling mechanisms was working as intended.

Concept art of the enemy known as the Vex in Destiny.

Q
Can you explain the thought process behind the designs for the enemies?

Our Art Director, Christopher Barrett, began with simple color and shape inspirations for each combatant race.  From the start he wanted us to have a holistic picture of how each race related to one another in both form and feel.  Once those initial designs began to solidify, we asked our concept artists to further flesh each race out individually, while keeping true to the original inspirations.

That initial round of inspirational work was very important. Each of our concept artists brings a unique perspective to the table. The early groundwork was something we could all come back to as new questions and challenges arose.

That’s not to say we weren’t willing to go back to the earliest designs to refine and improve our combatants as we went. Strong leadership and direction is important, but ultimately the cohesion of our characters has always come from a combination of talent, collaboration, and iteration.

Q
Were there any design challenges, from an artist’s perspective, that came from using the ‘bits’ system for armor/weapons?

One of our artists, Scott Shepherd, gave a really great talk about this at GDC this year. We created a technical solution – a mashup-gear-bit system – in order to create the vast number of player gear variants we needed to provide a wealth of player customization options across three classes.

Aside from the obvious graphics and implementation issues that we saw coming, the new system and approach presented a lot of new, less obvious challenges.  Our artists had become accustomed to creating statues – character designs that couldn’t be altered piecemeal by player choices.  We also ran into the issue of creating memorable content that stood out.  Reusing content can mean many people using similar ‘bits’ of content. We had to find clever and efficient ways to make sure we could offer differentiation as players progressed down similar paths.

We solved a lot of that with brute force. We made a lot of content. Much of it was also making sure we were comfortable with the philosophical shift, and believing that creating gear arrangements and allowing players to make the aesthetic choices on their own was the right thing to do.

We think it worked out pretty well!

Concept art of a Warlock character using their powers in battle.

Q
What were the main software applications used to create the characters in Destiny?
We mainly used Maya, ZBrush, Photoshop, Xnormal, and TopoGun.  We are now starting to use Marvelous Designer as another tool to help us create more believable clothing.
Q
How many different LOD models were created for the characters and equipment?

LODs were handled programmatically.  We had four decimation levels.  The base level is what the artist creates.  Then we have detail, which is the next level down. Proxy is a decimated version of the original that needs to hold color and silhouette at a distance. Lastly, extreme, for the long distance figure that represents a simple, but recognizable element of a player.

All these were configurable at each stage to get the most out of the system while causing the least amount of draw on screen.  We balanced this per class and even per gear type. It was really nice to have this level of control without having to create LODs manually.  With the amount of gear we had to create, it would have been near impossible to do the work by hand.

Concept art of the Queen in her throne room in The Reef.

Q
If you could give any tips to aspiring game artists, what would it be?

If you’re just starting out, and you’re young, you should be putting all of your heart and energy into whatever it is you believe in doing.  The work will show, and the results will be that much better.  As artists we have the advantage of letting the work speak for itself.  Get yourself noticed by attending expos, conferences, meet ups, and forums to get your work out.

If you’re an experienced game artist, you should be exposing yourself to a wide variety of departments to get the most knowledge on how each aspect of development works.  The best game artists are those that know how to work with different departments, and seek to understand the underlying fundamental of game creation, cross-discipline. You make ART for a video game, which means your work contributes to making the game fun.  That is your number one priority.

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