Interview with Jason Sussman, from Destiny
I caught up with Jason Sussman, Senior Environment Artist on Destiny while he was here for Digital Nationz.An Army veteran from Dallas, Texas, Jason Sussman brings 14 years of gaming industry experience to his role as Senior Environment Artist on Destiny. Of those 14 years, seven years have been spent at Bungie, designing mission, competitive multiplayer maps, and DLC environments for Halo 3, Halo 3: ODST, and Halo: Reach. Currently, Jason designs and creates destination environments for Destiny’s Mars location.
How was Digital Nationz?
It was great, the expo was really well done. The people I spoke with from staff to the people who showed up were really nice, really inviting. It's been a great trip. There's some really talented students at the Media Design school too (where Jason was guest speaking) I did a workshop for environment art and talked about the process of how we build our environments in Destiny - and then they started building an environment based on a layout and the stuff they were able to turn around in the time they could was really, really exceptional.
Has talent improved since when you got started and has access to tools fired people's imagination?
Yeah, I think it has. There's more tools at their disposal; there's a lot of references and resources out there for people to pull from particularly from where I got started in the gaming industry some 15 years ago. There was no school for me to go to; there was only a few places online to get information; and some of that was bad information, because you always want to learn from the right people. The best thing that I found was actually just getting your hands dirty and making a game was the best way to make it. The schools that they have nowadays, that's exactly what they do - they jump right in and start designing and making games; it's the most efficient way to learn. It's a great time to get into games and to learn all the necessary tools that it takes to build some of these titles. I started as a contractor from a small firm in Texas, the opportunity came to work at Bungie as a contract position and I jumped at the offer; after a year I got converted to full-time.
When we started making Destiny, we knew we wanted to do this boots on the ground first person shooter. That's always been the core of what we wanted to do, but we were challenging ourselves to expand the experience so that we could bring some elements of RPG, so that we could bring some elements of fantasy, we can make it more social, customisation for the character. That was the draw, the question of how we could open this up to a wider audience, and let them enjoy the experience, as well as expanding our artistic experience in a way that is not just science fiction, but is mythic as well.
Were you surprised by some of the feedback in the alpha? There were some fairly vitriolic comments about Peter Dinklage's performance as the Ghost?
(Laughing) Yeah, that was the point of the alpha - to get feedback. Unfortunately with the alpha, we had the vocals not completely tweaked. They do a take of multiple reads of the lines, so they were just implementing those at the time it went out. A lot of the stuff wasn't up to scratch at that point - it was the alpha, we were tweaking issues. Even now, we're consistently watching feedback on the game, what people like about it, don't like about it, things that don't resonate with them. We're constantly monitoring it to improve the experience.
Will it be quite time-consuming? Will there forever be this support or will there come a point when you feel like Destiny is done?
We have planned to support this game for quite a while; we have a team devoted to doing all the patches and everything like that. We have systems in place to ensure we can keep working ahead on the future expansions we've talked about, yet also having a group of people consistently dedicated to the title.
New Zealand was one of the first countries to get the game, what did you make of the reaction to Destiny overall?
It's really weird releasing a game, especially a game that we've worked on for so long. You're extremely stressed out on the day it releases, fretting whether people are going to buy it, if they will like this game. Even though we knew what we had was really good and we enjoyed making it, and playing it, you're still incredibly nervous to see what the reception will be from the public; there's a video of us at the studio watching the game getting launched and watching the numbers coming online; we're looking at Australia and New Zealand and seeing the numbers building - that was such a great feeling and super-gratifying. Ever since the HALO days, the community always surprises us, these guys really get it. They're trying to find every point on the car to kick it, to make it work; from the moments they create to the videos they make, to the weapons and the loot, it's always been a surprise and it's been impressive to see it get worked to the nines!
How did you create the world of Mars? Most people when they do landscaping visit the locations, but clearly with this, that wasn't possible....
The first thing we did was that we wanted to ensure that we grounded it in reality. We started a base of what we knew about Mars already - this was before Curiosity launched. But we started with all the imagery that we could find right away, looked for locations on Mars so that we could set locations close to there. We then amplified that to fall in line with the mythic science fiction we were keen on and made the crazy dunescapes, and put a magnifying glass over everything. Then funnily enough, Curiosity did launch and one of the guys who was responsible on that team, Craig Hardgrove came to visit the studio. He's a geologist and the first thing he did was to start looking at all the rocks on Mars... and we made changes based on some of the stuff he'd talked about. It was a very interesting process mixing reality with the fantastic, and making it look hopeful at the same time as wondrous.
Any moments that stand out in the game for you?
Shipping it, getting out there! These are the largest environments that I've worked on and the most complex. Previous ones have been very cut and dry, but all of Destiny's are very multi-faceted. There can be plenty of AI in the area and they're being built for future use and things like that. I'm very proud we stepped up to the challenge.
What about DLC? Rumour has it, a new planet is on the way in the form of Mercury....?
We're always looking to keep people interested when it comes to the game so public events and the like will be a way that we go. There's a lot of new stuff coming, but I can't really talk about that right now unfortunately - I would love to!
I've been immensely impressed with the trees and foliage here. I've seen a lot of large foliage, I'm from Texas so our biggest tree is like a bush! Out here, the trees are growing sideways and I was hanging with one of the WETA prop guys, talking about things. They were saying how impressive it is to replicate these things. I've always admired WETA; In the industry, I love Naughty Dog, I think The Last of Us is a work of art;I've bought it twice now and they deserve all my money. But it's an outstanding title and a narrative that just draws you in. Outside of the industry, WETA and prop-builders are just inspiring; I really love the idea of being able to build sets - prop makers always inspire me. After talking to David over at WETA, he makes models on the side just for himself. I do photography, but I think that would be fun. There's just something about having something tangible that you've made and that's definitely appealing to me. My wife may not be so happy about that idea though!
Where do you see Destiny going?
For me, coming from HALO, Destiny was always about expanding. The thing for me is challenging myself to go bigger and broader in many ways; seeing what people are really interested in and adapting to those things, I think that you should always just go bigger!
What about upcoming games - what are you psyched for?
Alien Isolation. As soon as I get home, I'm going to play that right away. I have to play some more Destiny too, cos I'm only at level 24 or something, and I've not done the Raid yet. But Alien Isolation is the one title I'm really keen to be checking out.