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Inside Secrets of Video Game Designer, Danny Bulla [Gamer by Design]

Designing Gamer Interview Series: Life of a Game Designer

Today I sat down with designer Danny Bulla. Danny Bulla cut his teeth at Full Sail University’s Game Design and Development program. Upon graduation, he teleported to the deep heart of Texas to work at Midway Austin on titles like Blacksite: Area 51. He then warp-zoned over to Rockstar San Diego to make a little game called Red Dead Redemption. After a couple years, he respawned at the legendary Bungie Studios in Seattle, WA.

He and I worked together way back in the day and we became close friends. That happens a lot with game developers. In the midst of typically crazy hours at work, you see those people more than your spouse, your momma, the inside of your eyelids, etc.  Naturally,  I tried to pull those strings to get him to tell me some secrets of his current employer, the world-famous Bungie, creators of Halo. I know you’ve heard of that game, my non-gamer readers.  Keep reading to find out if we got the dirt.

You were at Midway, you worked on Red Dead Redemption at Rockstar, and now you’re at Bungie. Are you at the point in your career where you feel like you’re pursuing a genre?

No I really don’t think that’s true. I think to further yourself as a designer, you have to pursue genres you’ve never worked on. I think I still have time to learn a lot before I make that kind of decision. The cool thing is that new genres keep coming out now. It gives people like you and me more options.

So in that vein, a lot of people in the audience may want to know what we do. A lot of people think we go in to work and just come up with cool shit every day. So I’m gonna rapid fire some questions at you. Give me a one sentence answer to each one.

Say you’re making a game like Red Dead, for example. You’re in the prototype phase. Nothing is nailed down yet. What is your day?

Thinking about ideas in my head…in the case of Red Dead… they have an overarching story. They give you A to B of the story, and roughly block out the events to connect those story points. If you want to think of it like film, it’s like a moving storyboard. Rough art, no effects, etc. Sorry, that was more than one sentence.

So that happens, and the overall ideas are now approved. Now it’s time to write specific design documents for the publisher.

That’s the type of work I like to bring home. I actually do my best thinking…[laughs]… in the shower. So I’ll think it out and just bring it in the next day and iterate on the ideas with another designer.

So let’s talk about the meat of it. The gameplay is approved. It’s production time. They say, hey Danny, we have to make like 20 levels in 8 months.

At that point, you ‘re not in your own bubble anymore. You gotta talk to programmers and artists. You basically become PR for your own ideas, selling your ideas to the team.

Kind of the positive side of workplace politics, right?

Yeah that’s one of my favorite parts. If you’re a designer, and you just sit at your desk, you don’t get nearly as much help as the guys who are willing to walk around and talk face to face.

So, a lot of people talk about how the economy of console games is becoming sort of impossible. With reselling of used discs, with competition from phones, with embedded Facebook/web games. You get the point. What is the future  business model for console games?

If I had my way, the next generation of consoles will all have digital distribution. That’ll stop a lot of the bleeding from used games sales, but it’s mostly the ease of use for me. I remember how, when I got an iPhone, I could just get music by going on my phone and clicking download. And the same is true for Apps.

In my last post, I talked a lot about how people that…well… have a life, play video games. Tradition says that 10 hours is a good length for a single player console game. Is that still true in this day and age?

It’s interesting because games are getting more expensive to make, yet shorter.

Those damn Final Fantasy characters really need to share their hair care secrets with the world.

I actually think people’s attention spans are getting shorter and shorter. They have so many options with iPhone and such,  that they don’t expect to play such long games. If you remember, the old Final Fantasy games on Nintendo and such, they took weeks to beat.

For me, I like to think the future is all about delivering the game in smaller doses. (He glances to the next room) and that way you don’t get in trouble with your significant other for playing too much…

Seriously though, I think the more mainstream this stuff gets, the shorter and shorter the games will get.

That’s an interesting way to look at it. When you meet someone out somewhere and tell them you’re a game designer, what’s the most common thing they say?

Depends on where I’m at. When I was at Midway, I was younger and hung out with the college crowd. So it was always “Is that like Grandma’s Boy?” Which is weird because that movie’s about a game tester, not a designer…

I get that one a lot too…

When I was at Rockstar, I’d say, “Hey I work at Rockstar.” And people were, like, “The energy drink?”

Here up in Seattle, people are techies, so they seem to really understand what I do. It’s refreshing.

So, speaking of Bungie. Let’s get deep on that. That studio is so famous that, people probably think you go inside, Master Chief greets you, you go through a secret door, and it’s like Valhalla. For all the fans out there, tell them what it’s REALLY like at Bungie? Tell me secrets…

You know you’ve finally made it when you find yourself inside impossible-to-open Wal-Mart Packaging

It’s just like any other office. Everyone’s there to do their job. Everyone’s nice. You know how there’s that one mean person at every job? I haven’t met that person yet. It’s not… actually let’s keep the rumors going. Master Chief high fives me on the way to my desk every day.

So here we go. The world wants to know, what is Bungie working on, now that they aren’t doing Halo anymore. What’s the skinny?

No comment.

Is there a guy off camera with a gun?  Don’t look out your window.

Naw, Bungie is really cool about things like that. There’s just a trust thing.

This is Fierce and Nerdy. So I ask everyone:  You’re a game designer. Are you a Nerd or Not. Why?

I have this argument with my girlfriend all the time. And I argue that I’m not a nerd. But then I do things like watch Avengers on TV to see Hulk and Ironman whoop ass, then immediately fire up my Xbox and play Marvel Vs Capcom so I can Be the character and whoop ass too. Soo….

The key is — and I can’t emphasize this enough — is that you can be as geeky as you want. I mean you can have Pokémon pillows and stuff, but the key is to be socially competent. There’s a time and place for it. Keep that stuff in the bedroom.

You don’t go out to a bar and talk about video games. Well, I can, because I do that for a living, but you know…

featured image credit: BazzaT2009

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