Bungie's Damian Isla
Halo's lead AI programmer talks about working with Microsoft, new IP, and new gaming hardware
Bungie's Halo 3 was released last year in what Microsoft hailed as the biggest entertainment launch in history. Shortly after, Bungie revealed intentions to separate itself from Microsoft and become an independent developer once more. Recently the developer announced it has three titles in production, with rumours abound that one of the games will be an addition to the Halo franchise.
Damian Isla, Bungie's Lead AI Programmer, talked to GamesIndustry.biz about working independently from Microsoft, working on new IP, the progression of Halo's AI and new gaming hardware.
Q: How is everything with the new titles you guys are working on?
Damian Isla: Good, very good. Everyone is very, very excited and everyone has been very encouraged by everything that is going on. It's good.
Q: How are things going since you separated from Microsoft?
Damian Isla: I feel like there's definitely a new energy in the company and I think that's exactly what the intention was in going independent again. There's a real optimism about where we're going and there's a terror of failure, which is also very healthy, which all independent companies have experienced. We're definitely excited and it means as an independent company we can think about all kinds of futures that we might not have been as part of Microsoft.
We're learning a lot having not been independent for eight or nine years, or something like that. We're having to learn how to do our own recruiting again, we're having to learn how to do our own PR to some extent, we're learning all the wonderful things that Microsoft actually did for us and we're learning how hard they are. So that has been a really interesting learning experience but I think we're getting through it.
Q: What do you think of the FPS genre at the moment?
Damian Isla: I think that this past year was so fantastic, I think everyone has recognised that it was a banner year in 2007 - between Call of Duty 4, Portal, BioShock. I really loved all of those games and it's really encouraging to see also just how unique they were. People have complained for years and years: "Oh the shooter market is stagnant, videogames are stagnant." I think this last year definitely proved that's not true. There's an incredible amount of innovation even just in first person games - that's really exciting.
I think we were fairly innovative with Halo 3 as well with features like the Forge and the theatre mode...I think it's proving to everyone who didn't realise that there's just a tremendous amount left to do in the first person space, in the first person action space, so many narrative ideas to explore, game mechanic ideas to explore, just things that haven't been done before.
Q: What do you guys think of Call of Duty 4, as it's rivalling you guys online?
Damian Isla: I know, we just took back, or at least last week we were, number one on Xbox Live again. But Call of Duty 4 is a great game and a lot of our guys play it and play it multiplayer all the time. We have a lot to learn from their success too, they did some very innovative things to keep people going and their experience-rewards system was something that we paid a lot of attention to.
I think it's a great game and single player obviously is fantastic as well, they did a hell of a job with their set pieces, of scripting certain moments that they were really sure the player was going to actually see and experience first hand. The way that they use those moments to craft the player experience I think was very successful and something, again, where I think Halo has a lot to learn from.
While we certainly have many scenes throughout the Halo series that are scripted in-game moments, a lot of time players don't experience it, or they don't see the thing going on, or they maybe don't experience it in quite the same way that we expected them to. It's one of the things that we can always get better at and we pay a lot of attention to games like Call of Duty 4 and BioShock - see how they do it because they do it very, very well.
The story development of Call of Duty 4 was really very good. I think it had a very memorable end. Very good sort of half-scripted half-interactive sequences that, again, we have a lot to learn from.
Q: What do you see as your next set of challenges/steps to evolve the genre further?
Damian Isla: I think in a lot of ways Call of Duty 4 and Halo have two, almost fundamentally different, ways of making a game. I think Halo has always been an extremely simulation-driven game, so part of the reason why it is difficult to script sequences is because the AI never co-operatives, or physics doesn't co-operate, or we worry about the player pushing a crate into the way of this Warthog that's going to mess up an interactive cut scene or something like that. So simulation, I think, adds replayability, it adds depth to the game, but it also makes scripting much more difficult and it means designers have a much harder time of bullet-proofing their scripts.
Call of Duty 4 was an example of a game where scripting was very good and, in some ways, scripting was one of the centrepieces of that approach. One of the things I know we should try to do is to really bring those sides together. We want to have the deep simulation and we want to have also the fantastic presentation.
I think BioShock was also a great example, I heard Ken Levine talk about story-telling through environment - they did it so well while combining it with the more systemic AI, systemic gameplay mechanics and so on. I think they're another good example, they also have a very deep world and they make for themselves a lot of opportunities for telling little stories through particular well-crafted visual spaces.
Q: After working exclusively on the Halo franchise for as long as you have, are you worried about your ability to transition to new IP?
Damian Isla: No, I'm not that worried about it. We have a bunch of projects going on right now - not all of them are Halo. We are actively developing new IP right now, new gameplay, new types of games. We're not done necessarily with the Halo universe but there are members of the team who have been working on Halo for 10 years, all of them have a backlog of ideas that were just not right for the Halo universe.We have some of our more senior art guys who came on in the Myth days and have been storing away all their various Myth-related ideas. A lot of ideas, a lot of concept drawings, a lot of stories that we would have loved to tell but just wouldn't fit into the Halo world. The thought of taking all those old ideas out and dusting them off and seeing what can actually be done with them has been a very, very fun process.
Q: Going back to your relationship with Microsoft, what difference have you seen in the office since Bungie went independent?
Damian Isla: We were always located off of Microsoft campus, we had our own physical studio for a long time. No one moved around, no equipment moved or any of that stuff. So the day-to-day is not necessarily much different. We do have a new set of people walking around who are our support staff, the new CFO, new HR people, new PR people - all the stuff that Microsoft used to do for us that we now have to take into our own hands.Culturally we've always been very independent-minded, we've always been very self-reliant, so in a lot of ways not much has changed, not tangibly. I think there is an energy and an optimism that is quite palpable working there. Looking forward to success, fearing failure, it's a very healthy thing and you're never truly going to fail if you're a part of Microsoft, you've got quite a cushion.
Q: Are you guys now tempted to expand into working with other consoles?
Damian Isla: For now we are working on Xbox 360 with Microsoft but I don't know beyond that...
Q: Are you excited by any new trends in gaming hardware?
Damian Isla: I can only speak for myself here, it's definitely really exciting to see interfaces like the Wii and interfaces like the brain interface - I mean really expanding the range of inputs into a game, in these various ways, and maybe moving in a direction where a much more casual gamer can come and pick up your game and wave a wand at a screen rather than learning ten different buttons to play Halo with the current Xbox 360 controller. That's really exciting and I think that's a very positive trend for the industry.
Q: What was the office's reaction to the let-down at E3?
Damian Isla: I can't really talk about that, obviously we're excited about announcing something, we're going to announce it at some point, hopefully soon - and it'll be good when it happens.
Q: What was the biggest change you saw in Halo's AI - as it was when you joined, to as it is now?
Damian Isla: In a word: scale. Everything got bigger for Halo 3, with respect to Halo 1. More characters and also each of the characters has many more abilities and making that the experience of fighting along 15 marines who can do 50 things instead of five marines who can do five things - that's a hard transition to make.In a lot of ways the way we're doing it was not going to scale to that size, so we had to a lot of work both under the hood and at the design level to make that experience that much more coherent and agreeable to the player and so on. The danger is always that if you take that AI that's designed for a small number of characters and blow it up that they are going to appear fairly random, fairly schizophrenic. So we look at all the ways we have to modify the brains of the AI in order to make that experience feel good to the player.
Damian Isla is Bungie's Lead AI Programmer. Interview by James Lee.