Q. When did you get into the gaming industry and what did you do before you worked for Bungie?
Q. Who are you and what do you do for Bungie?
"Broken in" goes back-to-back, bringing you two Grizzled Ancients, two weeks running. Stepping into the fray this time out is Bungie's Environmental Art Lead, Michael Wu. From level design, to bagel dogs and environment art, Wu has seen quite a bit during his time with the studio. If you're wondering what you need to do to get your foot in the door so you can spend a little bit of your own time working at Bungie, sit up straight and pay attention, Michael is about to give you some tips to help you move into the inside track.
A. Hello. I’m Michael Wu and it’s been my great pleasure to be part of the Environment Art team for the past nine years. That’s the longest I’ve ever done anything, so that tells you how rewarding a career at Bungie can be! (I hope it wasn’t too soon to begin my recruitment pitch.)
I started out as a level designer and became an environment artist when the Oni team merged with the Halo team back in early 2001. Our team doubled in size with each subsequent project and I now serve the team as its manager. So instead of creating artwork directly, I help the team get things done and make sure each artist has a clear and exciting career path to explore. If problems arise in project scope, tools, scheduling, or personnel, it’s my job to get people together and fix it.
A. I joined the gaming industry back when it, “still had a couple years of growth left in it.” That would be summer of ’98. Prior to that I worked at an ornamental metal shop where I prepared 3D models for fancy staircases, display cases, and furniture. We used curved NURBs surfaces that would be cut from stock material on a CNC mill, water-jet, or laser-cutter. This was before the day of papercraft websites, so if a part couldn’t be machined directly from the model we unfolded it onto a 2D plane by hand. Little did I know that this tedium would pay additional dividends later as I learned to UV unwrap objects.
Q. What makes Bungie's "dividends" different?
A. Compared to a metal shop, there’s a lot less dust and the watchdogs aren’t as vicious. But I’ve found that artistry and dedication to craft are the same regardless of industry. I did level design and environment art work at another games company too. What makes Bungie different is the fact that even the most humble of us are invited to participate in the creation of our own fantastic worlds and gaming experiences. My previous job was at a larger company focused on a corporate agenda with fairly restrictive licensing agreements. That said, we had really great people there whom I still enjoy talking to and hope to work with again someday.
Q. During your time at Bungie, what's the one moment you feel is emblematic of the experience? Seen any big changes since the summer of '98?
A. They say the beginning is a very important time. For me, we were crunching on Oni. I was new to the team and met a lot of people, many of whom are still with the studio. Marty was the guy who’d fly in from the “Chicago” office wearing a thin black leather jacket and sunglasses, put on headphones and stare into a monitor for a weekend straight before flying back. You’d think he worked for the CIA or something. Curtis Creamer was flown in from Redmond to test the game on a suite of machines of questionable configuration. Joe Staten also flew in to lay pipe (in a level). Chris Butcher was the prodigy who couldn’t order a burrito properly. Dave Dunn, my future boss, asked me to complete an excel sheet of dubious origin…and best of all I had the only working air conditioner above my desk. I had to wear a sweater during a stifling California summer. Oh and I joined a gym so I could use a shower (I was sleeping in one of our office conference rooms during the week).
Have we seen any changes? Are you kidding me!? We have a shower *in* our studio now. I might also mention that everybody from those days has learned a lot and are dedicated to the task of making sure our future projects are just as inspiring to work on, but are properly managed. No one will ever have to peel himself off a conference room floor only to discover candy wrappers and another person’s shed hair sticking to his arm again.
Q. Do you have to work at maintaining your passion and drive? What do you wish you could have done differently?
A. Fortunately, maintaining drive and passion isn’t something most of us have to work at consciously at Bungie; our camaraderie, genuine love for the work, and of course, our supportive fans make giving our best effort a natural choice. Aww shucks, amirite?
But looking back, I should have paced myself at the beginning. I was so eager to make my mark that I really lost perspective on what was healthy and sustainable work behavior. This took both a physical and mental toll that hindered my ability to impact projects or grow as an artist for a while. I see now that a career isn’t a set of sprints or a marathon. Instead, it’s more like the ongoing Olympic Games; long periods of preparation and competition that require every participant to do something Herculean every four years, for as long as he or she possibly can.
Q. If you could issue one ominous warning to upstarts looking to worm their way into the industry and usurp you from your perch of power on the environmental art team, what would it be?
A. If you’re a student, study harder than you are right now. You aren’t going to weasel your way into anything these days. In this economy, project budgets are just too tight to let that happen. Without proven ability, having a passion for learning is probably your next best asset. In reality you aren’t usurping me – I’ll be obsolete tomorrow – you’re really competing with everyone else who wants to enjoy the decadence of free soda and bagel Fridays. That’s a lot of people.
Q. Experience, Work Ethic, or Talent? If you had to choose in a contrived and meaningless hypothetical scenario, which would you go with and why is it so important?
A. My answer may be controversial for an artist, but I put my vote behind Work Ethic. Here’s my meaningless hypothetical scenario: let’s say you’ve made a new a character in your favorite RPG. Experience and various talents are attributes you’d expect to see on your character stats, but where do you put work ethic? The way I see it, work ethic is the interest and time you dedicate to the game itself. It isn’t part of your game character. It’s a part of you. Experience and talent are what your character gains as you play the game. Work ethic is your willingness to participate in the game in the first place. If your career were an RPG character, you can see how important work ethic becomes – without it, you have scant opportunity to gain experience or develop talent. I think this goes for every discipline.
I also have another meaningless analogy that explains how experience trumps talent. I’ll save that controversial topic for another day. My answers have taken enough of our dear readers’ time and I’d much rather have interested folks go visit our jobs page. We’re hiring!
Hey, that's our line!
Thanks for the time and industry insight, Wu. Your memories and words of wisdom are much appreciated (even if the image of human hairs stuck to a crinkled candy wrapper is quite disgusting). And Michael is right, we most certainly are hiring. If you have the Work Ethic and a genuine love and passion for creating kick ass games (and want to get down with some free soda and bagels), we'd love to take a peek at your resume. Want to see what we have to offer? Do as Michael says and check out our Jobs Page