Work at Bungie! Build a Multiplayer Level!
Designing multiplayer maps is fun. But harder than you'd think. We get loads of mail saying things like, "I think you should make a map made of human skulls and the skulls are packed with explosives and blood and when you stand on them they blow up and Nuns come to get you. But the nuns have teeth that shoot out of their Nun-helmets and latch onto your face, screaming Hail Marys at you as they chew through your cheeks like potato-bugs."
We also get more constructive emails, diagrams and ideas. But I'm a big fan of the Nuns with the flying teeth.
Steve Cotton is a new addition to the Bungie pantheon, and as one of our lead multiplayer map designers, has worked on some of your favorite maps, past and future (Ooh! Tease!) including Midship. Ascension and Zanzibar. and is here to tell you what it's like to work at Bungie, and more importantly, how a person goes about that.
Can you describe what your job involves broadly, and what a typical day might include?
Well, my job basically involves designing and building multiplayer levels. A typical day might include designing and building, or just designing, or just building levels. Some days I will play the levels that I design or build. And then go back and design and build some more. Occasionally I might make a joke that nobody laughs at.
Your experience: Can you tell us about that and how you apply it?
I’ve been designing levels for games since 1997 when I did my first game, Rainbow Six. My experience at Red Storm was cool because the focus for us was on the accuracy of combat, and through Tom Clancy, the team got trained by some of the best special forces in the world on how to shoot guns, drive tanks, clear rooms, and other advanced combat tactics. This helped us determine what our game was all about and what made it fun, and I learned to apply that to level design. On Halo, the same fundamentals apply. So even though the things that make it fun are different than other games, figuring out what those are and designing for them is a similar process. It also doesn’t hurt to be a registered killing machine.
Given that not everyone can take that route, what type of educational path would you recommend to get into your line?
I would still go for the alien combat experience if you can, if that’s what you were thinking. You never know when that could come in handy, even outside of the games industry. After that, I would try to go to Harvard. Those kids seem to do pretty well and if games don’t work out, you could always be President as a backup.
Seriously though, it’s no secret that the games industry is becoming much more specialized every year. It takes many more people to make a game now then it did even eight years ago. I think the key for people trying to get in now is focusing on a discipline and becoming the best you can in that area. College, a technical school, or an internship could definitely help you determine that discipline but the bottom line is that if you’re a great programmer or a great artist, someone can always take advantage of you. And I mean that literally.
How closely do you work with other departments?
They’re about 15 feet away I think. But that’s a guess.
What are the differences between single and multiplayer level design?
I think it depends a lot on the game. In Halo, in both single and multiplayer, it’s all about creating spaces that make for interesting encounters. In single player, these encounters are more scripted, and driven a great deal by story. So the spaces tend to be designed with this in mind, usually bigger, likely more linear, more visual, and broken up into smaller encounters within each space. Multiplayer levels are less about story and more about an event - a battle between equal numbers of opponents and a level playing field. At least that’s my opinion of Halo 2 multiplayer.
Multiplayer levels, I think, are more about balance, flow, and choice. As a designer you assume that a player is going to play a single player space as many times as it takes to get through a level, sometimes only once, so you want to give them something they remember while they’re there: some visual eye candy, a cool enemy or experience, etc. For multiplayer, you assume that a player will play a space many times, learning where weapons are placed, which jumps they can make, the quickest routes to get places and try to find that perfect spot to dominate. So each jump, corner, and slope, are fine-tuned to hopefully make all of this interesting over and over.
What are the main challenges you encounter in making a level fun?
Fun is a tough metric sometimes. Something could be fun one day and suck the next depending on who was playing, how many were playing, and what type of game it was. It could also just plain suck. I think the hardest part is trying to sort out those variables and not get distracted by the reality that not every level is fun for every game type. It boils down to the question of how to know when to stay focused on an idea that you think will be fun once all the pieces come together and when to bail on something that just sucks.
If you weren't in video games right now, what do you think you'd be doing?
You know those Sports Illustrated swimsuit model photo shoots? The ones on the beach where, for the sake of time, the models take showers behind a towel some guy is holding? I’d want to be that guy. Or at least know that guy and hang out with him at work.
What are your biggest influences, architecturally? And what type of structures do you most admire?
I like bridges. I’m not sure why, I like them so much. They exist because of such a primitive problem and yet, they are the cause for some of the most creative masterpieces in the world. The whole process, I just think it’s cool. I think everyone can learn something from bridges.
How are you enjoying your new gig at Bungie?
Bungie is awesome! I like Bungie. Especially my manager, I like him a lot. He’s good looking too. I’m not sure why I said that.