A shadow approaches. The Pyramid ship floating above Io serves as a looming reminder that we are unprepared – that we know not what the future portends. You must search for answers if you hope to face the oncoming storm. You must seek the Nine.
You must hear the prophecy.
And so, you find yourself standing at the doorstep of a new realm. But how did you get here? And what is “here” exactly? To answer that, Andrew Hopps (world lead) and Brendan Thorne (senior designer) – two members of Bungie’s Raid and Dungeon team – take us back to the beginning. Back to when rainbow roads were for Italian speed demons and walking on walls required scrolling green text and leather trench coats.
QUESTIONS, ANSWERS, AND ARRIVALS
Both Andrew and Brendan have been at Bungie for over seven years. During that time, they worked together on more than 10 raids and dungeons including King’s Fall and Vault of Glass. When they started on the Prophecy dungeon, the team was searching for something art-driven and different.
“The theme of new perspectives came from some early prototyping,” Andrew recalls. “As soon as we started to experiment with rotating the game space, we knew we wanted to go off the deep end with an abstract style.”
The team started by aligning with the Creative Leadership team to figure out where the dungeon was going to take players. Andrew remembers being excited at the prospect of visiting Nine space. Placing the dungeon there would empower them to experiment with game mechanics and an art style that toyed with a lot of the rules within the Destiny universe. “We're stepping into this simulacrum,” Brendan said. “The Nine made a little pocket universe for us to explore.”
They went to Robbie Stevens (creative lead) and Tom Farnsworth (design lead) to start discussions on how to integrate the new dungeon into the existing Season of Arrivals story. Players already knew that the Pyramid ships were approaching, and the dungeon was the perfect opportunity to explore the question: What is the Darkness? In spite of all their research, the Drifter and Eris still don’t know. So, when the Season began and the threat became imminent, players had every reason to search of answers – even if they’re cryptic and lying at the end of a neon-fueled abstract playground.
“It’s really exciting,” Brendan said. “The Pyramid ships are here, and we have the sense that something awful is about to happen. What do they call those big cataclysmic events – black swan events. One that reverberates and changes everything. It feels like a sudden surprise in the moment but when you look at it in reverse you can see exactly how it was made possible.”
They wanted players to view Prophecy as foreshadowing. To be able to look back at this dungeon and realize that Bungie had been laying the groundwork for something massive the whole time.
With narrative direction and an excitement to push the limits of what they could do with the Nine realm, the team turned to the world-spinning prototyping that had captured their imagination initially. “Sometimes it’s a happy accident when something works,” Andrew said. “We definitely prototype really bold ideas and the ones that work well together end up together.”
“We start with these happy little accidents,” said Brendan. “Then we find out how to layer them on top of each other for a smooth experience. We start with the core mechanic in a safe learning environment. Then we add some difficulty, a twist or two, and tie it all together. It's a solid method to make the whole experience feel cohesive."
The team took all the mechanics they had and then tuned them so that, when combined, they were difficult but still manageable. “We try to find out how many plates we get players to spin at the same time,” said Andrew. “We keep layering, so by the time you get to the final boss you should understand exactly how this fight is going to play out just by stepping into the room and looking around.”
Brendan explained how he, Andrew, Darin Lantzy (senior technical designer), Matt Turner (senior world artist), and Ben Heider (test lead) sat in an office with a giant whiteboard and diagrammed everything they had. “All the mechanics and how do they work together and support each other. It all clicked. After about an hour, we had a design.”
Some mechanics, like rotating the world, were things that Andrew had wanted to do previously but didn’t make sense contextually. “Whenever we prototype different experiences, we end up with cool ideas that don't always fit the theme – so I’ll just save them for later. When Prophecy started, and we decided we were going to the Nine realm, I was like ‘Oh hey, I've got this in my back pocket. ’”
NOW DO A BARREL ROLL
“Dungeons are not typically super mechanically complex because we want players to easily understand what’s happening around them,” said Brendan. “So, what Andrew did was super clever. He built a cube that players can activate to get teleported. Then the entire world turns, and the cube drops them into a new version of the world. So, players are now on what used to be a wall or the ceiling.”
The team went to Darin Lantzy and told him that he was empowered to do whatever he wanted to make the room spin feel cool. “He was super involved in prototyping,” Andrew said. “He kept adding these effects to really sell the rotation of the world as you drop in and out of the teleporter.”
The mechanics were simplified to a single activation, but the gameplay that arose out of it was new and exciting. Brendan explained how suddenly the layout of every surface became relevant. “It creates these interesting combat encounters. It becomes more about how well you use the geometry and play in the moment rather than having the perfect build or perfect strategy.”
Geometry as gameplay is a central tenet of Destiny 2. Where players move and what weapons to use – building encounters where spatial orientation and player position are central to the experience means the team was able to leverage the best part of Destiny's sandbox.
Another prototype that excited the team involved fighting with actual light and shadow. “I don’t think we’ve ever used light as a game mechanic like this,” Brendan said. “Like actual volumetric lights or anything like that as a mechanic.”
The core concept was thematic and straightforward: players use the light and shadow in the game to succeed. “We wanted it to be a simple concept to explain,” said Brendan. “You could see someone doing this fight and you would know how to do it in 30 seconds.”
Players would kill an enemy and depending on where the combatant was standing, they would drop a different type of mote. Enemies dropped dark motes while standing in the dark and light motes while standing in the light. Even though the mechanic sounds simple on paper, it was visually confusing and somewhat frustrating since players can’t really reposition enemies.
While testing, Ben Heider suggested making the dropped mote type rely on the position of the player instead of the enemy. Even though it was subtle change, the whole encounter shifted. “Suddenly the player had more agency,” Brendan said. “We made that simple change, played it the next day, and wow – it was a million times more understandable.”
Those kinds of pleasant surprises come about a lot during the process. It isn’t unusual for a team to come up with a cool idea that seems impossible, only to have an embedded tester come back with a solution. Bungie's testers are integral to the process and bring with them invaluable insight in determining the kinds of challenges a design will face, both in production and in the hands of players.
But even when something ultimately doesn’t end up working, Andrew’s prepared to take the idea and put it in his back pocket for later.
GALLERY OF THE NINE
In addition to unique game mechanics, there was clearly a distinctive art direction that the team leaned into for Prophecy. Madison Parker (senior lighting artist) made reference to an artist named James Turrell that the team looks to for inspiration. His work explores the interplay of light, color, and architecture and his focus on bold color, shape, and really simple forms that match well with the Nine’s aesthetic.
Knowing that the theme lent itself to the abstract, they wanted a progression of shape and color that would transition as players traveled through the dungeon. “When you start, everything looks soft and then progressively get very angular,” Andrew said. “Round shapes sunset and become spheres with lines in them and then become a flat line that a monolithic square rises from, that then collapses into a triangle. If you look at the shape language from one encounter to the next, you will see this progression from soft to hard to angular shapes as you traverse the Dungeon."
There were so many fantastic artists that contributed to the look and feel of the dungeon. Brendan recalls thinking of Andrew as a production designer on a movie – organizing pages and pages of brutalist architecture, moods, screenshots, and lighting concepts. “Andrew had this vision and this plan for Prophecy. I just watched in awe as him and Matt Turner (senior artist) built these shapes – it was so cool to see them come together.”
What resulted is very much an art-driven dungeon that doubles down on the Destiny 2 brand of geometry space as gameplay.
TIME TO PLAY
The whole team is incredibly proud of how Prophecy turned out. At the time of this article, the dungeon has been live for a few weeks and players seem to be having a blast. Prior to the quarantine, it was a tradition for everyone to gather in the Bungie theater, order queso, drinks, and pizza, and watch players dive in for the first time.
“The World's First race is obviously a big deal,” said Andrew. “So, our whole team and a bunch of partners get together in the theater and root on the teams.” For Last Wish, there were still people in the studio at 5:30 a.m. Dungeons are a little faster, but everyone still gets together in the theater to watch players experience it for the first time.
Despite having to work from home, the team was still watching, “A bunch of us got together in a video conference call to watch the launch,” said Andrew. For a team intimately familiar with every aspect of the dungeon, there’s a special joy that comes from knowing when players are about to experience something special for the first time. “We’re on the edge of our seats, ready to cheer,” he said.
It’s akin to griefing the new player with content you’ve played already – a spoiler-free twist to share with friends. The Raid and Dungeon team knows that this is something of a tradition in gaming. Shared moments that build memories that endure long after the final boss learns the error of their ways.
True to form, Brendan shares a gaming experience that many can relate to, “You know the Sparrow run in Scourge of the Past?” he asks. “Where two people have to hit the buttons together? I was always the raid-dad making sure everyone was ready. Coordinating everything and not really paying attention to Andrew on his Sparrow – aiming at me. As soon as I say ‘go’ he just charges right at me and kills me every single time.”
Halfway through the story, a smile that can only be conjured from fond memories forms on Andrew’s face. He quickly composes himself before responding, “That's not true. I'm hyper-focused and never goofing off at all.”
The Prophecy dungeon is live in Destiny 2 and free for all players. Jump in today, take in the sights, and drive carefully.
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