From Halo developer to indie publisher. What's that all about? Nathan Grayson talks to Bungie's Bernie Yee about Bungie Aerospace.
When you hear “Bungie,” what do you think of? Gaming's favorite green-armored giant? The most potent pistol ever to prompt a kicking, screaming, cat-flinging rage quit? That plastic replica plasma rifle that no one can ever know you own?
Regardless, for most people, even “an elastic cord” springs to mind before “the next great bastion for interesting indies.” And yet, with its Aerospace program, Bungie has a very real chance of becoming an incredibly large fish in that ever-expanding pond. Already, the first fruit of its labors, the Jordan-Weisman-fronted Crimson: Steam Pirates, has taken iTunes by storm with a mix of excellent writing and, well, pirates – which have been known to take things by storm.
But Bungie can't afford to rest on its laurels. Aerospace may have gotten it in on the indie scene's ground floor, but staying there requires both an open mind and the ability to stick to your guns. For a developer that – in the past – has gained a reputation for simply sticking to guns, that's a bit of a tough sell. After all, household name shooter to no-name indies? That's a pretty big leap.
That in mind, I sat down with Bungie Aerospace portfolio producer Bernie Yee to discuss Aerospace's driving philosophies, plans for the future, creativity's place in both indie and big-budget gaming, game-specific social networks, and tons more.
VG247: When you're picking out a game to highlight for Aerospace, what specific qualities – beyond, well, quality – do you look for?
Bernie Yee: I think there are a couple things we think about. One, we have a very loyal fan following. We want to bring games to them we think they're gonna like. Bungie's mantra is that we make games we want to play, and Aerospace is gonna publish games we want to play. We don't all sit around and play sci-fi FPSes all day. There's a variety of experiences we like.
"Something we really want our Aerospace games to have is a unique point-of-view."
But I think something we really want our Aerospace games to have is a unique point-of-view that tries to do something differently and/or in a polished fashion. So when people see a Bungie game, I think they expect a requisite level of polish – a thinking behind what the last ten percent of the game is gonna be.
I could look at games that I think are really great now. Like, Bastion is great. Spy Party's going to be great. And those are games that are driven by a very clear point-of-view. They're not just trying to do, like, a physics sandbox. And they're also really driven to refine the main mechanics so they're polished. Bastion did it. Chris Hecker from Spy Party's doing it.
Yeah, he's really doing it. I'm not even sure I remember when that game was announced – possibly because I wasn't born yet.
And I wish he'd just ship the game already! [Laughs.] But I think those are the kinds of teams we want to work with: people who really believe in the vision and will do what it takes to get it to the point where it becomes a game that everybody at Bungie really wants to play. So that's our goal.
So how'd the collaboration on Crimson: Steam Pirates come about? Who approached who? And were the words “Pimps at Sea” ever thrown around?
We're big Jordan Weisman fans, and the studio's known Jordan for a while because he was head creative director at Microsoft Game Studios. I myself am a huge Battletech fan, and a lot of people at the studio are huge steampunk fans.
Jordan's been interested in this space for a while. He put together a small team in Seattle. We wanted to do something with Aerospace quickly, and we knew – again – that Jordan has a unique point-of-view. The narrative, the tongue-in-cheek humor, the steampunk theme. And we decided to just do it, right? We thought it was a good game to play, and we thought it'd be a great collaboration for us.
What sort of influence does Bungie end up having over the direction of the indies it decides to bring aboard for Aerospace?
Well, those three games I mentioned [as examples of excellent indies] – Braid, Bastion, and Spy Party – were all done by very small groups. But they all had a high-degree of triple-A experience. They know what it's like to ship a game under high pressure and scrutiny. They know that the first draft is never good enough.
So one of the things I think we're gonna bring – even to teams that have never done this before – [is triple-A experience]. I recently looked at a project I thought was very interesting, but some of the team had never done a game before. So what we'd like to bring is that experience – the audio, the visuals, the art design, game design, writing, technology, backend innovation. All the things that our team has experience in, we'd like to bring to an Aerospace external partner and help them polish and finish their game that last ten percent.
Look at Plants vs Zombies, right? It's super polished. PopCap is so good that there are plenty of little companies that try to copy their games, and they still can't do it. The reason is that polish. You don't get it just from looking and copying it. You play it, you think about it, and you refine it. That's the polish we want to bring – in addition to funding, of course, which is its own way of giving them more room to polish.
Do you ever dive in the trenches and take the wheel on the development process, though? Like, “This mechanic could be boring/frustrating/a-handful-of-live-scorpions to your target audience – here's how you should change it”?
One of the things Bungie has that's really unique is our user research group. Our test group isn't just the QA teams that most people have. They're test engineers. They go and really work on a build; they look at requirements. They're engineers by trade, so we help with things like stability and application efficiency. Things like that.
"One of our mottos is 'We treat developers the way we want to be treated.'"
And user research spends a lot of time putting games through usability testing. Like, “Is the UI right? Are people confused?” And that's something we do less on a day-to-day basis, but on a milestone basis. So we'll define a milestone and say, “We want missions two and three stable and ready to play.” And when we have that build, we put it through the test and usability research cycles.
We definitely don't want to be [too heavy handed]. One of our mottos is “We treat developers the way we want to be treated.” So we'd like to give them room to really work without us there every day. At the right milestones, we'll look at it and build it into the schedule. One of the things we bring is production discipline. We want to give you feedback, and then you can go fix it.
What's next for Bungie Aerospace? Larger-scale games? Mountains of smaller games? A real spaceship?
So we're looking at a couple projects. The next project that's likely to see the light of day is a small passion project from a few developers. It's a very casual, highly visually stylized game experience. And it's really designed to show the scope of projects we can do. So we were looking at something a small team of three people did part time. It's not designed to be some big monetization ploy. It's just the sort of game we'd love to whip out on our iPhones and play a bit.
The project after that may be a more ambitious project. And ultimately, we'd like to do even more ambitious things. Maybe not Infinity Blade-sized, but certainly [in the range] of the sort of production values and design. And when we see production values, we don't mean visual presentation – but of that scale. So we'll look at everything from very small projects to big projects.
"Ultimately, we’d like to do even more ambitious things."
We do think that one of the things we're most interested in is not just standalone projects. We want games to be repeat-played. We want to create communities out of our games. Halo has a great community around it, and that's one of the things we want to bring. I'd like it to be a social experience – a social game, if you will.
Are you sticking with iOS games only right now?
Not necessarily. I think we're really happy with the hardware capabilities of the iOS platform – although I heard their iOS 5 update today was a disaster.
But we're not gonna stick with iOS only. You'll see us on the PC. You'll see us on other handheld devices. We obviously like Android quite a bit. We have a lot of people in the office with Android phones. Certainly different means of digital distribution are really interesting to us. I wouldn't even rule out XBLA or PSN.
Do you think larger developers and publishers are unfairly ignoring the indie scene? Like, Bungie Aerospace is a fairly unique entity. But is that a good thing – especially as far as the industry as a whole is concerned?
I think Bungie is an unusual company in that we were an independent studio. We had developer-publisher relationships. We got bought by Microsoft, created some great games, and then we spun back out again. That gives us perspective. We really value our freedom now. We really took on what it meant to be an independent developer again. And in that way, we really are interested in what other teams are doing. The three [indies I cited earlier] were part of some pretty big teams before going indie. So our peers are going into that space.
"We got bought by Microsoft, created some great games, and then we spun back out again. That gives us perspective. We really value our freedom now."
And we look at the hardware platforms, and they're becoming more powerful and relevant. So I can't speak for other studios, but for us, the values Bungie brings to game development are applicable to iOS. So remember five years ago when it was the original iPhone. The mobile scene was very different. The palette was so limited. What would our guys do to a mobile game dev back then? We'd have nothing to contribute.
But now the things we have are really useful. I was talking to a developer, and they're looking at Facebook games. One of his concerns was “What happens when – through Flash or some other technological adoption – 3D [graphics] become relevant in social games?” I mean, Zynga already spends billions of dollars and dozens of people. They're worried about that transition. That's a time when we can really help developers manage that.
So I think it's a space no one should really ignore.
What about the big-budget space? Do you think the amount of space for this kind of Wild West experimental spirit is dwindling?
Well, that's an old discussion, right?
But it's one that's become more relevant lately. It used to be a big doomsday scenario talking point. Now, though, the stakes are higher than ever, and everyone's feeling it. Even games like Homefront – which still managed to keep afloat in a retail sea of same-y competitors – don't exactly live happily ever after. I mean, look at Kaos.
I think, certainly, the return on investment becomes a big issue when these games cost nearly $100 million or more. I don't know what Homefront's budget was, but I'm guessing it was $60-$70 million, easily. So there's a lot of pressure there.
But I also think there's a lot of pressure to innovate. You want to do something different. What are you going to do to stand out against Modern Warfare? Battlefield 3? The next Metal Gear Solid? Those are all big titles. And I think those games themselves also have a lot of pressure to innovate. The consumer only has $60 to spend on a bunch of titles. What are they going to choose? If your game is a rehash of the old game, they're not going to be happy.
"All we have at Bungie is our reputation."
All we have at Bungie is our reputation. We have to be creative. We've got to make smart choices. We've got to be smart where we innovate. I think that the high cost can in some sense strain innovation. But a game that doesn't innovate is also a hard sell. So I can understand the popular argument that we worry about innovation [and money], and Homefront is a victim of that.
More interesting, I think, was THQ's Company of Heroes, which was a spectacular game that didn't get enough traction. But then, as those opportunities dry up, League of Legends and DoTA pop up, right? So that whole genre has pivoted. Maybe big-budget crowded out innovation in the RTS space, but it popped up somewhere else.
I knew a bunch of the Kaos guys, and I was really sad to see that studio shut down. But I think that – as there's pressure somewhere else – what did Princess Leia say? “The more you tighten your grip, the more systems will slip through your fingers.” You tighten the grip there, and interesting stuff happens here. And DoTA and LoL are really innovative.
How does IP ownership work with Aerospace? After you've helped a game get off the ground, do you keep the license?
It depends. It's a pretty rational process. If we fund everything, we keep more. If we take on all the risk, we keep more. But if the team has come with a prototype or gotten to alpha, then we discuss it. You know, maybe we have sequel rights. Maybe we get license to the code. Maybe we keep the code and license it back to them. We want to do a rational deal.
"We're not here to own everything. I think that goes back to our idea of treating developers the way we want to be treated."
We're not here to own everything. I think that goes back to our idea of treating developers the way we want to be treated. You know, the people on these games are developers, and Bungie does have a publisher in Activision. We know what it's like. Our studio's philosophy is also to be very transparent, and we expect that with our developers.
When you're a developer and you show something that's not finished, you always worry that the publisher doesn't understand “Oh, this thing isn't final” or “That thing's not final.” Since we're in that position of understanding that core development process, I'd like to think we're gonna be able to see what the core game values are about before presentation.
You've got this community that would probably take a bullet for every individual blade of grass you've walked on, and platforms like Origin, Call of Duty Elite, Battlelog, and Battle.net are all the rage right now. Is that your grand world domination plot for Aerospace? To expand into a unique social platform that flows through each of your games?
That's a good question. I think Bungie.net already is that. We have lots of community, lots of users, lots of data. That's the beginnings of what you'd consider a social network for players. Obviously, we are going to use existing systems. If we're publishing on XBLA, we're gonna use Xbox Live. If we're on Facebook, we're gonna use Facebook logins. You'll see us integrating those features and more.
"I don't want devs to think 'We can only pitch them a Halo-quality game!' That would be a boring world to live in."
But Bungie.net is already that platform for us. We're gonna start that and expand on that. It's not going to be just a stats and leaderboard service. We have a lot of ideas of how to make it into a social network. And I think it's really important that Bungie fans and players are able to find each other and play with each other – bring their friends into it.
And again, I don't want devs to think “We can only pitch them a Halo-quality game!” That would be a boring world to live in. But I think all our games should work together and communicate with each other. An achievement in Crimson should unlock an achievement in another game or content. You want to create that community and give rewards to people. I think Steam does a good job of that. Even with all the titles they publish, they seed extra content into the ones their interested in. I think that's great.