On the Level with Sam Beliveau

In this very first session of On the Level I get the chance to chat up Sam Beliveau, a VFS Game Design graduate of class GD14 who has been keeping busy as a World Designer working on the commercially and critically successful game, Destiny.

What’s it feel like to work on the best-selling new franchise?

It hasn’t really felt that different compared to the previous title’s I’ve worked on, and the same seems to go for everybody else here that I talk to. If anything it made us feel nervous at first, especially when we heard what the pre-order numbers were. We poured a tremendous amount of hard work into the project for several years, hoping that people will enjoy what we’ve created, and thankfully they are. Players are very passionate about the game, both in their praise and criticism, which is sparking a lot of great discussions on the future of Destiny.

You’re a world designer at Bungie. That’s a pretty grandiose title – designing worlds. Can you tell us the process behind taking a real planet in our solar system from concept to a playable state? It sounds like a huge undertaking.

The overall process is very similar to traditional level design in an FPS. It’s a cross discipline effort between World Art and World Design to take something from concept to “mass-out” (white/grey-box) to completion. Initially we start by defining what the destination is and what story it will need to tell since this will help inform a lot of the decisions about the art direction, missions, combatants, etc. We’ll also begin to incubate landmark ideas that we’d like to see throughout the destination. While this is still going on the general destination layout gets mocked up in Illustrator and massed out in the level editor, defining where the “bubbles” that make it up will be relative to one another and how they connect. Once we’re satisfied with that, we’ll get more into the mass-out of the individual bubbles based on what has come out of and is still being fleshed out in the landmark incubations and story/mission discussions.

As soon as the broad strokes are in, we’ll begin placing basic encounters and activities, and work with World Art to continue making big geometry adjustments. This is the longest phase of our destination development, with spaces gradually getting honed in, cover and blinds becoming more final, and encounter logic becoming more complex. And of course, it wouldn’t be game development without a plethora of detours and sidetracks along the way.

That’s a very high level synopsis, and we’re taking what we learned from making Destiny (which is a lot) and applying it to how we build destinations moving forward, including team structure and responsibilities.

Which planet(s) did you work on in Destiny? Did you have a hand in any of the multiplayer levels or strikes?

I got to work on the Cosmodrome destination, or Old Russia as we specifically present it in the game. I’ve got my fingerprints on most of the “bubbles” in that destination, especially in the private bubbles we use for PvE content. Part way through the project as the game was more clearly defined, Strikes could be built, and public spaces could actually be played with other players, we formed teams to take over and own those aspects of the game. At that point my focus primarily changed to story mission design and the private bubbles they take place in.

What would you say was the most challenging part of designing and building out a world?

Just simply keeping track of everything that can and does change in the destination I’d say was the hardest part. Since there’s a sizeable team of artists and designers working on a single destination, and a destination needs to support all different sorts of activities going in different directions, things can change that you might not catch for a week or two. Even though our communication was generally very strong, things can slip by. Combine that with a brand-new constantly evolving sandbox, story, toolset, and everything in between, and there were certainly some hiccups along the way.

Which sub-class do you mainly play?

My current highest level guardian is the Warlock Voidwalker, but most of my time in the alpha, beta, and while at the studio tends to be the Hunter with Gunslinger. The long range supers are my style. I usually die before I can throw down a good Fist of Havoc with the Titan or do some Arc Blade carving with the Bladedancer Hunter, so I haven’t given those subclasses as much practice as I probably should.

Do you mostly play the PVE? Or the PVP? A mix, maybe? Do you have a favourite world/level in either PVE or PVP?

I’m mostly a PvE guy in Destiny. Besides just preferring story and campaign mode in most games, I’ve always loved moseying around and exploring in FPS games, and with the behind-the-scenes matchmaking going on in Destiny I still feel connected with everyone else, it’s awesome. It lets me hang out with friends and strangers without having to compete against them. I’ll still dabble in a bit of friendly battle from time-to-time however – with varying results.

As for my favorite world, of course I’m going to have to go with Old Russia. It’s desolate yet welcoming, alien but familiar. I love the dominant central colony ship landmark, the massive perimeter wall, the interesting themes of the 3 main public chained bubbles, the topography of the Skywatch… It’s also what I spent the last 2+ years of my life working on, so I might be a little biased.

What advice would you give to aspiring level/world designers out there?

 Everybody has their own thoughts on what they feel the best advice is. From personal experience, I’d most recommend just playing your favorite games over and over, analyze what you like and dislike, and why. Like a good movie, you’ll pick up on new thoughts and perspectives each time through. Dig up articles from the developers of those games as well, it’ll give you eyes into how they solved their problems. There’s also some really powerful and accessible software out there now, there’s no excuse for you to not get your hands on standalone kits like Unity or UDK, or start making your own levels in games like Skyrim, Half-Life/L4D, or even console editors like Halo Forge or Little Big Planet. Most of that software is extremely well documented now too.

Besides Destiny, what’s currently in your console/PC? Anything on the back log you’re looking forward to playing now that you have some time?

I’ve definitely got a lot on the back log, though I’m actually going back and playing some Metroid Prime on my Gamecube. It’s nice to return to some simple classics. I still load up some flavor of Halo at least once a month. As for newer titles, I’m really looking forward to playing some Shadow of Mordor, Alien: Isolation, Driveclub, and dusting off the 3DS for some Smash Bros. There’re also plenty of less recent titles I’m wanting to play, but that list would be a bit shameful…

The amount of polish in Destiny is astounding, but we all know development can be bug ridden. Were there any hilarious bugs or glitches during development that you’d like to share?

One of my favorites from a long time ago was when the Cabal dropship would fly in and deploy some Cabal combatants, then begin tearing into them with its rockets while violently nose diving into the ground. To this day I still haven’t heard my Lead laugh that hard. The character creator also had some interesting results during its infancy. It would be hard to go into details, but if you have coulrophobia you might have had a heart attack.

What was the transition like for you from working with a smaller team at VFS compared to a massive development team at Bungie?

Between VFS and Bungie I had a few other jobs – Junior Level Designer at Propaganda, Designer at Rabbit Hole, and then Game Scripter at Slant Six Games. We were pretty ambitious on our final project at VFS – that didn’t really change when I started working in the industry, only now there’s a bunch of people with specialties that can either help the team get things done or tell you it’s ridiculous and you need to scope it back. While the team here at Bungie is huge, we all still generally work in smaller organized groups much like our final project at VFS, but with a specific focus and as part of a bigger machine.

Any last words for past, present and potentially future VFS students?

It’s very important to try to understand exactly what it is you want to do, and focus on that as much as you can. Having a clear goal for yourself will help you tremendously before, during, and after VFS. Have an understanding of the different aspects of game development, but don’t be concerned with trying to be a master at all them. Try and master one while having a good grasp of the others. Regardless of what point you’re at, always be networking with people and refining your skills. And because you’re pursuing something you love to do, remember to always have fun!

 Thank you for your time, Sam. We’re all looking forward to seeing what you and Bungie release next!

Scott Morin is a VFS Game Design alumni, and Level Design Instructor