The process of game design is a tricky beast. A lot of it is hidden from public view, with very little seeping through for gamers to absorb and understand. On one hand, this helps protect developers from revealing something too early and it needing to be scrapped. On the other, it means players have no real idea of the challenges that developers face. No matter how open Bungie can be about some processes, there are others that remain a mystery, like how the team tackles designing a dungeon from scratch.
Recently, I was invited to a Q&A roundtable with the developers where they discussed all manner of things, like Wish 15, and even the immunity shields in Ghosts of the Deep. But the team also took the opportunity to give some valuable insight into the pitching, brainstorming, and the designing process of creating one of Destiny 2’s iconic dungeons. While this wasn’t an exhaustive presentation on the topic, it did help paint a clearer picture of what’s involved.
To begin with, creating a dungeon is a multidisciplinary process involving all manner of teams at Bungie, but it all starts with what Brian Frank, Design Team Lead, calls “thumbnailing multiple concepts”. The team will look at what’s been done so as to avoid repetition and then consider locations players haven’t been and potential antagonists. From here, the creative directors sign off on the general idea and the team gets to work
“I think dungeons are in a unique position where we're able to ask ‘What destination do we want go to?’ and ‘Who's our antagonist going to be?’” Ryan Baker, Environment Artist, said. “We're in a very unique position where we get to kind of explore some of those farther corners that we haven't been to recently or ones that players have really wanted ideas expanded upon.” One of these ideas was the loot cave, which started back in the original Destiny game but was revisited in Destiny 2 through an entire dungeon. It’s a similar sort of respect that Bungie gave to the mysterious Wish 15.
The team might offer up one line experience goals or a “loose narrative premise” and then get to brainstorming. They’ll also think about the characters that they want to bring in and whether they tie nicely into the general seasonal story. This is where the narrative team comes in to tinker with the narrative to help “make it functional”.
Nikko Stevens, Senior Narrative Designer, goes on to explain that it’s rewarding as a member of the narrative team to work on dungeons, “You have like such a cool canvas to work with.” The “cool canvas” Stevens is referring to here is the fact that dungeons can have in-depth stories that link to other things but aren’t required to be directly related.
Stevens continued, “It gives us the opportunity to kind of dig a little deeper into some of these stories or kind of tell something that you wouldn't normally see that’s a little off to the side, but is still important and relevant to the overall story of the game.”
For example, in Ghosts of the Deep, Oryx’s body and the necromancy attempt by Simmumah ur-Nokru is linked to Savathun’s pursuit of the Witness and what was going on with Ahsa, but it’s supplemental information. It’s not required reading for someone who’s just trying to grasp the overarching plot.
Those who played Ghosts of the Deep can no doubt see the connection to Season of the Witch and Season of the Wish. In fact, Stevens notes that the narrative of the dungeons often “tips its hat forward to something that’s coming” and that “if you look back at most of the dungeon narratives, you'll see that many of them had kind of heralded things that came after.”
For the main content, it’s important for Bungie to make it clear what is going on so players of all levels can understand it at first contact. “A dungeon doesn't have those requirements,” Stevens said. “We can kind of lean more into the mystique and the mystery and trust our players to be able to find and experience those cool moments on their own.”
Because of this connection to the seasonal story, it’s also important for the developers to consider the season in which the dungeon is launching. According to Frank, with Season of the Wish, a sci-fi dungeon might not have worked. In fact, some of the ideas for Warlord’s Ruin were a long time in the making but only recently made sense within the context of the story.
Over a year ago, an idea was floated of being stuck in a prison and having to escape. It hadn’t made sense within the structure of the narrative until now. But thanks to Season of the Wish and the overall themes, the team could expand the idea through brainstorming sessions. Amanda Baker, Test Engineer, mentioned that the team will have a “player journey” brainstorming session, and then one for bosses, and another for mechanics.
With this done, the team now has a much more focused idea. The trick now is to not only juggle what’s feasible within the strict development timeframes, but also what’s actually fun. Part of this exploration of fun can also surprise and delight the team.
Baker talked a bit about the creation of the Scorn enemies that essentially play tag with the player. Unbeknownst to the team, one developer had set aside a room, filled it with Scorn, and had created the tag system. They then invited the other developers in to play around with the Scorn. Baker said the team was having a wild time because they were “trying to figure out what [the Scorn] were doing.” The mechanic was an obvious win, and from here the next task was trying to work out how to communicate this new mechanic with the player.
While all this is happening, the team is receiving feedback from players regarding content that’s been released. Not all of this feedback can be acted upon to change pre-existing content (as they discussed when talking about the Ghosts of the Deep immunity shields), but some of it can help shape and define decisions for new things.
For Warlord’s Ruin, the team dropped the immunity shield system and instead leant hard into rewarding players that manage to be hyper efficient. Teams that can edge the boss’ health without crossing a threshold can essentially double-dip a damage phase. “If you can really strategize and plan for maximising this opportunity, you can do damage right up to the line, but don’t cross it, and then get the DPS again,” Frank said.
By understanding how players interact with the dungeons, the developers can create and implement better mechanics and systems moving forward. Though Ghosts of the Deep missed with the shields, it at least nailed the sense of overwhelming odds and challenge, while giving the dungeon teams at Bungie plenty of information to apply to the design of Warlord’s Ruin.
It might have only been the slimmest of insight into the overall design process of creating a dungeon, but the weight behind the words revealed a team that seeks to push forward with new and exciting ideas. You’ll be able to see the latest of these ideas when The Final Shape launches on June 4, 2024.