At an all-expenses paid trip to a Destiny 2 preview event near Bungie headquarters, me and a handful of game journalists from a variety of outlets sit down with some of the developers. Fielding questions during this particlar roundtable discussion is Jason Sussman, one of Destiny 2’s world art leads.
We only have 15 or 20 minutes to pick his brain. Sometimes it’s hard to know what to ask. But from his world-art perspective, we ask about having console technical limitations lifted off Destiny 2 as it leaves the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 behind. We ask about the realities behind taking planets in the known solar system and then spinning them under an artist’s pen—and the Traveler's light. We find out that, yes, it’s intentional that you won’t be getting a Sparrow to fly around on as soon as you did in Destiny 1. And we even get down to brass tacks and ask, “What happened to Destiny’s glorious buttocks?” We were definitely serious journalists and not laughing at all during every single question.
You had the four worlds in Destiny 1, and they were all kind of barren. There wasn’t a lot of foliage, forest, or natural objects. Sometimes it was a barren field, like in the case of Mars. How was it, going into Destiny 2, without the limitations of the Xbox 360 or PS3, to build a bigger, richer world?
You mention Mars, and I worked on Mars. It’s a very dry planet. No, it doesn’t really relate to the previous-gen consoles. It’s more along the lines of the narrative we wanted to achieve. And some personal pet projects we wanted to do. Nessus [in Destiny 2], for example. I’d worked on Nessus. We always wanted to do crazy jungle. Just extreme jungle. That was really our opportunity to push that further. I think they all just went in certain directions based on some personal goals we had as artists, and fictional relevance to what we were building. As artists and creatives, we always want to try and go bigger, we always want to push our limits, when it makes sense. It’s not related to the previous generation. I mean, we could always push hard into PBR, that’s our reflection systems and the roughness of textures. So i think that our lighting and atmospherics and particles and all those things, we’re constantly pushing those things further ahead.
What was the difficulty in making a place like Nessus, a world taken over by the Vex, and trying to differentiate it from Venus, while keeping the same structures, the same architecture?
It’s always a challenge when you’re dealing with a pallet well known, something super established. Vex definitely has a unique silhouette. There are things we wanted to hearken back on—Not necessarily Venus. There were some aspects to Venus, but we wanted to show a place that was fully terraformed by the Vex, and the Black Garden was the closest visual standpoint of that. That’s where some of that came from. How we helped differentiate ourselves was to push in other areas of the architecture that you hadn’t seen before. So, doing the circular stuff on a large scale, echoing back to the Vault of Glass in certain aspects and leaning in on that fiction in various ways. So, doing stuff like the Vault of Glass, that would be really cool. So, we go to the fiction guys, and ask them, “How did they build this stuff?” Because we totally want to hide it in this Lost Sector. Having opportunities to tell a little bit more of a story, grabbing large-scale architectural changes you hadn’t seen before, and just putting “milk” everywhere.
Certain raids built off the world. Certain raids were their own destination. What was your approach to “getting to the raid”?
Here’s the thing. I really want to talk about this. But I don’t want to spoil anything for you either. Because I had a hand in that. We’re doing some really cool stuff. And I can’t say anything.
Do you think players will find some comfort in the European Dead Zone? Because there are structures there, like, in the first mission, you’re going through a wall like the wall around the Cosmodrome. Is that a way to comfort players with the familiarity of Earth architecture? Like Cabal structures, Fallen ships. Is putting that in there a way to welcome back old fans?
I think there are definite elements that we intentionally callback to in Destiny 1. But a lot of it is the fiction of that race or how they’re present in those destinations. That comes first. And then if there are things callback to something like the Vault of Glass, we thought, wouldn’t that be really neat. There wasn’t necessarily a narrative drive. It’s just something the artists thought would be really cool idea. It was [world artist] Matt Turner, just to be really specific on who wanted to do that thing.
How does the open-world structure of Destiny 2, in terms of things like Lost Sectors, Patrols, and the way that the spaces are connected, how did that impact the way you went about designing the map?
First and foremost, we want to make a beautiful space for people to play in. As we do that, we also want to make sure the player can navigate the space easily and they understand the space immediately upon entry. That’s one of the cornerstones of world art is for the player to understand the space. They understand immediately upon entry the exits, the encounter pockets, they understand where most things are. Lost Sectors are kind of “off the grid” on that idea, though. We didn’t want them to be too hard to find, or too easy to find. That was a balancing act. The challenge for a world artist, in general, is that in our spaces there are a lot of activities that happen. You have the linear story going through there. You have the Adventures, all the other stories happening around that. You have Public Events. You may have a Raid come through there, you may have a Strike come through there. So it’s a fine balancing act to make sure the space flows for the player and is easily digestible for the player. But Lost Sectors are kind of a fun thing. Personally for me, on Nessus, when we first put those things into the destination—it’s something I like doing when I play other artists’ destinations that I haven’t had a chance to dig in on, since I’m usually so focused on one thing at a time, I’ll go through EDZ or Io, and I’ll find myself in a place I didn’t even know existed, and I’ll be like, “Dude, how did this happen?” And the same thing happened for me a lot on Destiny 1. So, I think that was borne of, like, how do we constantly have something new for people to find? How do we do that in a way that doesn’t conflate anything?
Building off that as well, does the presence of the world map, in the game, have an impact on what you felt freer to do? One of the things I felt in Destiny 1 was that people eventually memorize the general layout of where everything is, memorizing the zones of each destination, but weren’t able to come up with specific names for each place. Did that have a role?
Yes, [having zones named on the map], I think, helps track what you’re doing. The map assists. But we also build our worlds in a way that help you make a mental map of them. That’s very, very intentional. The map has a dual-purpose role. I wish we had a UI guy here to talk about it even deeper. But it’s kind of a way to track all the quests you’re on, what you’ve completed, and it’s a good way to traverse quickly to your destination. But yes, it definitely gives you a lot of lore as well, and how the different areas relate to each other.
But there’s nothing you had to do differently, in terms of designing the world, knowing that players would have access to a map?
No, we always build for player orientation. We do the same thing in our skyboxes. We call them “bubbles.” And the player moves from bubble to bubble, whether it’s a public bubble or a private bubble. We’re always trying to—and I’m about to butcher this term, but it’s a term Disney uses, called a “weenie,” [as in “hot dog,” a treat that Walt Disney used to feed his dog, getting the dog to follow him around wherever he wanted.] We use that term because we always want you to have something in the distance to guide you, something you can point to. Weenie is a terrible term, but Disney uses it. It’s a real thing. There’s a story behind it, and I’m going to completely fail at telling it, but, basically, the player has spatial orientation and someplace they’re aspiring to get to, and they know where they came from. So, we have things you can always see in the skybox, whether it’s a tower, or the crashed colony ship in Nessus, you see portions of that, so you know, “When I wind around here, that’s where I’m going to be.” We’re always trying to show you where you’re going and where you came from, in some capacity. That’s in the destination. So, outside of the destination, certain things in the skybox help player orientation. That’s the macro. The micro is stuff we put into each destination, in the bubble, individually, to telegraph entrances and exits. We’re constantly trying to do that. Again, anytime the player doesn’t know where they’re going and there’s a large learning curve for someone every time they go into a destination, it’s not going to be a fun experience. We want you to be able to navigate the destination. Of course there’s going to be map knowledge over time, after traversing it multiple times, but we want that gap to be a close as possible, so there’s not a long learning curve every single time you go to a new destination.
There are a couple times in the game when you come to these enormous spaces that open up. Like when you go into the Arcology, or Pier Midian. What inspires these enormous spaces? Because they’re so detailed, I just stopped and went, “Whoa,” for a few minutes.
Honestly, the stuff that’s super broad, at least I find, is easier to build, because you’re doing a super macro stroke. It’s a broad stroke. Where things get more complex is the more fidelity that you have in the player’s face, like when they’re having to negotiate dense cover or blinds. That’s more complicated for traversal. The big Black Garden, or Pier Midian, or the Cradle of the Traveler on Io, that is a really nice chance for us to do this really nice broad stroke. We know that you might not get to touch all those things, but it’s a moment to take all of those things in before you go inside of that area.
It’s Vex milk!
Why do they drink milk when they don’t have bones?
So, you should ask the fiction guys. Did you ask them?
Yeah. Oh, is it in the Grimoire?
Yeah, that’s what’s in their juicebox. That is basically the essence of the Vex. That’s basically what’s coming out of all the large Vex blocks. I don’t know if I should go this deep into the fiction. But that’s what’s actually in these structures. And one of them is breaking apart and decomposing over time. It’s leaking out, but it can be reformed, this stuff can re-terraform. But that block has basically had its day.
How much time do you invest into researching the planets and the moons before you start building around them and terraforming them completely with alien technology?
There’s definitely a moment when we start doing that. But we still hold onto some core functionality of what that planet was before we spin it. But the Traveler has touched it, right? Its light has hit our solar system. So, things have changed. It’s a fine balance between how far we go into that. At the core, the bones of the destination will have that, so at least you’ll have a fictional foundation, and then everything is layered on top of that.
So, is Saturn to scale in the sky from Titan?
I don’t know about that. I would have to ask [Sky Art Lead] Mark Goldsworthy. It probably is. And we have [Professor in the School of Earth & Space Exploration at ASU] Craig Hargrove come by the studio. He’s one of the guys that worked on the Mars Curiosity rover. He’s come by, and he’s a geologist as well. He’s given us insight. He sees this stuff. It’s always nice for us to be able to grab someone actually in the profession and say, “Hey, are my rocks cool? Is this something you would see, you know?”
How much interplay is there between your art team and the story team? Destiny is a shooter, but it has a lot of puzzle-solving elements now, it has traversal, it has all kinds of stuff. Is it dictated to you by the story team when they have something for a mission, or is it a mix? Destiny 2 has crazy “man launchers” and things now.
Coming from [Design Lead] Luke Smith and [World Art Team Lead] Michael Zak, and [Concept Art Lead] Jesse Van Dijk, and all those guys, there is a strong creative vision. It’s micro to macro. I don’t want to call it macro. But they’re the driving force of that. Outside of that, there are all the teams. There’s a circle of communication that happens within those teams, and between the designers, lighting artists, world artists, effects artists, and cinematics—we’re all talking to each other. We’re taking those ideas and pushing them forward. But there are also a lot of ideas that come from the outside in. Bungie is really inclusive that way. It’s never just, “My way or the highway.” A lot of that is bred in that constant communication, back and forth, from the directors to the teams actually working in those spaces. And we want to evolve the game. Again, we want to make it as beautiful as possible. We want to make the gameplay as diverse as possible. We want to constantly push the envelope of what we want Destiny to be. And that’s what drives some of those decisions. Like, hey, like try some more verticality than we have in the past, let’s push this to be a little bit bigger, let’s hide some things deeper than we did before, and tell a story while we’re doing it. That’s how some of those opportunities are born.
I have a really stupid question, if that’s alright. This is more general art, as opposed to environmental art. What’s happened to butts, man? Shaxx’s butt is covered up, and all my pants are baggy. What happened to Destiny 1’s glorious buttocks?
[Laughs.] I wish I had an amazing and witty comeback. That’s a good question. I don’t know.
The one super annoying thing about the few days we’ve spent here is that I still don’t have a [expletive] Sparrow. The thing is, it’s something that you get very early on in Destiny 1. But here, in Destiny 2, did you know that, going in, most players won’t get a Sparrow until the right engram gets decrypted? I’ve had three of those decrypted—none were Sparrows. But did you guys design the world in such a way to minimize walking? Because I’ve done a lot of walking since I didn’t have a Sparrow. And I was playing with other people, and they were like, “Oh, sorry, we’ll wait for you, I guess?” and then they’d zoom off as I ran to catch up to them. Was that something you were aware of as you designed the layout of the worlds?
Yes, the biggest thing for us is, we wanted people to be able to take it all in. There’s a lot of content that we place in these worlds now. There’s a lot of offshoots and bits of history. We don’t want people just blasting past it. We want you to get an understanding of that space, and to get map knowledge of the destinations before we say, Alright now you can blast through them. We don’t want you missing opportunities. There are little nuggets hidden everywhere. So, I think that was important to us. It was finding that right balance of, When do we give the player a Sparrow, and how much we wanted you to walk those destinations. But yes, it’s intentional.
* The product in this article was sent to us by the developer/company.
Randy gravitates toward anything open world, open ended, and open to interpretation. He prefers strategy over shooting, introspection over action, and stealth and survival over looting and grinding. He's been a gamer since 1982 and writing critically about video games for over 15 years. A few of his favorites are Skyrim, Elite Dangerous, and Red Dead Redemption. He lives with his wife and daughter in Oregon.View Profile