Destiny’s raids are some of the most unique and challenging content Bungie has ever produced. These lengthy team-based firefights are often full of complicated puzzles that leave fans scratching their heads for days.
In 2013, Gavin Irby left Trion Worlds, where he helped lead a content development team for the MMO RIFT, and joined Bungie’s raid development team. Irby is now Bungie’s lead raid designer, and during our recent trip to the studio, we chatted with him about Destiny’s general raid philosophy, how Destiny’s raids might be more complicated to design than those in traditional MMOs, and what the studio has planned for Rise of Iron’s new raid, Wrath of the Machine.
Tell us a bit about the initial process that went into creating raids in the first place. Did you sit down that first day and say ‘hey, we want to go down to Venus and go to the Vault of Glass?” Was that like the very first thing you guys came to, or if not, what were some of the things you guys were exploring initially?
Irby: Some of that stuff was already in place by the time I became involved, like the Vault of Glass in terms of its location, what it was going to be in terms of the geometry and that was largely worked out. But what they didn’t know was how to build a raid encounter. Is it just really hard? Is it just lots of dudes shooting at you? Or is it puzzles? What are the nature of the puzzles? How hard should that be? What does it take to solve them? What is the nature of a raid encounter? What is a boss fight like in a shooter? And how strongly were they going to actually borrow from the understood mechanics and mentality from the PC MMO workspace?
What did you find didn’t work from the PC MMO space?
The reliance on UI is absolutely number one. The reliance on UI information to convey mechanics. It’s not a problem in WoW raids or whatever to throw out 50 freaking icons for buffs and debuffs and stuff with detailed descriptions and what they’re doing to you and expect players to mouse over each one and read and digest how that mechanic functions. We had to work with the limitation of one buff at a time, one debuff, don’t try and do two – really limit the amount of UI information that could be presented on the screen. It had to be all through gameplay.
When you did have more buffs, players just didn’t grasp what was happening?
Partly it’s a betrayal of the design mentality of Destiny. We can’t have a stack of five to ten different buffs along the side of the screen. I have no mechanism to mouse over that information, I can’t get more detailed descriptions from that. Even if I did, is that really what we want in the context of a shooter? And so we had to focus more on what can I show in the environment, what can I show with the things that I’m shooting at?
Also, the level of chaos is so much higher in a first-person shooter with six people than it is with even 20 people in a game like WOW. Think about the difference in your camera looking down: You have the ability to have such detailed, quantitative information about the state of the encounter and the state of the character, and every other character. You have none of that in a shooter. The nature of being first-person, the nature of being so close to the action, dramatically changed like the sense of chaos.
One of the things that became really clear was that it’s hard to know, with accuracy, the simple things like what is a DPS output of a raid group. In traditional MMO raids, you know within a very small bandwidth a high performing raid group, you’re going to know what gear they have, their DPS output and healing output. All these things are basically known to a pretty high degree of accuracy. In the nature of Destiny, those things are unknown. A character who is pointing their camera at the ceiling is doing zero DPS. There’s a lot more variance in terms of am I doing a higher amount of effective damage, or am I doing a low amount of effective damage, or am I just missing the target. And so having to account for that was definitely a different challenge that I hadn’t faced before.
A sneak peek at Wrath of the Machine’s slick new raid gear
What was the solution?
First, my project became trying to come to some understanding of what I could expect for DPS output within a given window of time. In a traditional PC MMO, the difference between a high-functioning raid group and a mediocre raid group is the efficiency with which they put damage on that target, the right target. In a really good group, there’s no down time between putting DPS on a target; they always know where to shoot, they’re always bringing down the right thing at the right time. Our adds don’t have the kind of health pools you would expect from a raid encounter in WoW. So having very controlled damage windows during boss fights became a really important aspect of making those encounters work for us. You’ll notice we very tightly control the damage windows and make that an important event.
Have you learned anything the hard way? Is there anything you’ve learned that you should never do?
Yeah, I mean certainly that’s one of them. We have two golden rules of bosses, [they] are that the boss has to be able to threaten you from any location and you can’t use geometry to avoid it. Those are actually the two rules to direct what we’re going to do. We understood that from Vault of Glass on.
When you guys first started developing raids for the first time, philosophically were there things that set a raid apart from the rest of the content in Destiny that you’re like ‘Okay this is what makes something a raid as opposed to a strike?’
Absolutely, there was a mandate that we had the ability to break the rules. No matchmaking is a huge thing. We can design with the assumption that you’re playing with people who you are invested with. Even if they’re not your friends, you’ve put some amount of investment in being able to play with them and they’re not this resource to you. The fact that we can account for you having voice communication is big.
As compared to a strike?
Yeah, in a strike we have to assume that maybe you’re probably not talking to each other. The ability to assume that they have verbal communication opens up a lot of possibilities that otherwise don’t exist. We can put you in a crisis as a group which is a very different thing than just people who aren’t talking to each other who have to somehow work together. We can’t put a great deal of pressure on them, and we’re specifically supposed to put you under pressure. It’s a group of people in a crisis, that’s what we’re putting you in, and you have to solve your way out of it.
On that front, do you want to talk about how important it is to occasionally single somebody out? The role of the individual in a raid, is that a necessary ingredient?
I think of it in terms of what is the individual responsibility versus your global responsibility to the group and there’s definitely something really powerful about you being singled out and you having to shine in your moment in the sun. Crota is probably the exemplar of the solo hero going out to do their thing. Maybe a little more than I intended.
If players can, they will always put the greatest responsibility on the fewest number of people. It sounds so naive to me now, but when we play tested internally we all ran the sword, it was like whoever’s closest, ‘hey I’ll pick up the sword, be the hero, sure that’s great.’ Which sounds absurd now. Why would you let anyone pick the sword? You’re only going to let the one guy pick the sword who’s amazing at the sword. We sort of had this naive idea like people are just naturally going to share responsibility and people will distribute it among themselves. That’s actually the opposite, we learned early on people want to concentrate responsibility on the fewest number of people as possible. The only way they will break that is if we force you to.
There is that quality when you go on a raid, and have your first run be really confusing. It’s fundamentally bewildering. Why do you want me to stand here? Then later on you’re teaching it. Just a few weeks later you understand it implicitly.
One of the great things we’re allowed to do was create, having an experience that didn’t just open itself to you. You had to figure it out, and that process figuring out how the pieces fit together is such a cool part of the experience, so it was really great that we were allowed to do that and were not forced to create something that was immediately understandable. I think what you are actually describing though is the experience that players have when – like I went into a raid for the first time playing people who have played it before. Because that is truly bewildering. People are giving you all kinds of instructions. ‘I don’t know why I’m doing this, I just have to stay here and shoot this thing and now people are yelling at me for some reason because something happened and I don’t understand what it is.’
I think when you look back, people talk a lot about the magic of Vault or what that experience is, there are so many people where we were all sort of exploring it together and none of us knew what to do and it was new to us. So that’s not a moment that’s very easily re-creatable, because now we all have expectations and we go to it thinking ‘well let’s see, this is like that encounter and this is going to be like that encounter.’ You know, we have training now.
Next up: Irby discusses the raid brainstorming process, raid gear philosophy, and how raid design sometimes backfires.