'Destiny 2' Game Director Luke Smith:

'Destiny 2' Game Director Luke Smith: "We Want to Unhide the Fun of 'Destiny'"

Luke Smith, game director on 'Destiny 2' Bram Vanhaeren

How a passion for raids and genuine love for the game shaped Bungie's big sequel

How a passion for raids and genuine love for the game shaped Bungie's big sequel

Destiny 2 game director Luke Smith began his career in video games as a journalist. Born and raised in Michigan, after graduating from the University of Michigan he began writing for weekly papers in Dearborn and Detroit before being hired as a freelancer during the early years of Kotaku. In 2005 I worked with Smith directly, hiring him as the news editor for 1UP where we hosted the 1UP Yours podcast together alongside Garnett Lee and Shane Bettenhausen. Smith left 1UP in 2007 to join Bungie, originally serving as the studio's content editor and podcast host before working on Halo: Reach and eventually taking the lead designer role for raids in 2014's Destiny.

Now the game director on Destiny 2, Smith is part of the leadership team at Bungie that shapes everything you will see and experience in the new game. He is, to all intents and purposes, the face of it. Ahead of the studio's big livestreamed gameplay reveal on May 18 I had the opportunity to talk to him about how his team has approached the sequel, how story and characters play a far more important role, and whether we're finally going to get matchmaking for raids. He also shared that Bungie will be partnering with Blizzard for the PC release of Destiny 2. "It will be available exclusively on Blizzard's launcher," he says. "We're gonna be right on there alongside World of Warcraft, Diablo, Overwatch, Heroes of the Storm, and Hearthstone. That launcher is like a tray full of experiences that you can love like a hobby."

Millions of people have very strong opinions about Destiny – how did you decide to really illustrate what's different in the new game for the reveal?
We're showing a lot, man. The message we're trying to get across at this stage is that it's really about three pretty simple ideas for Destiny 2. The first element is that this is a world you want to be a part of, and so we're gonna be sharing the opening mission of the game. Like, it's just a big gameplay demo. We're talking about how the game has activities for whatever mood you're in: activities where you play solo, co-op or competitively.

We're also showing things like the new PvP format, which is 4v4 everywhere instead of 6v6 or 3v3. We've done this for a bunch of reasons – to improve readability while you're playing in PvP and to make it both more competitive and also more interesting for players to get into.

When it comes to cooperative, we're gonna be showing one of our new strikes, called The Inverted Spire which is on the new planet Nessus, and we're showing a story mission called Homecoming, and PvP in a new competitive mode that we're calling Countdown, which is an asymmetric objective mode where you have to plant a bomb in the enemy base and then defend it until it explodes.

A pretty significant part of what we want to get across to people is that there will always be someone for you to play with in Destiny 2. And this is really about how in Destiny 1 we had a bunch of amazing activities – things like the raids or Nightfall, or trials – but they were were locked out from a bunch of players. People who didn't have built-in friends groups or didn't have social groups to play with just missed out. They maybe never experienced a raid, and raids are something that are, like, super personal to me. I love them. I want as many players to experience that content as possible, and with Destiny 2 we're announcing that we've got a way for solo players to finally experience things like trials or Nightfall, and we're calling it Guided Games.

Is this basically matchmaking for raids?
We really want to leverage clans this time. We want to take those groups, which we think are awesome examples of groups playing together, and combine them with players who don't have a social group – we're calling them Seekers. This is basically anyone who doesn't have a social group to play with, and when they want to play an activity like Nightfall we're gonna take all the Seekers and combine them with clans who we're calling Guides. We're bringing these two groups together. I don't want to call it "matchmaking," but we are basically playing matchmaker. When a Seeker gets matched with a Guide, they actually get information about the clan and they can make a decision about whether they want to play with those guys. They get to say "no." It's almost like swipe left or swipe right. If they say "no" we'll find them another clan, and maybe they'll find a group they like. Once they accept, they get pulled into the group and they can play an activity together.

We believe that things like this are ways for clans to potentially find new members and crucially, it's a way to open the game up to solo players who never got to experience most of the content that we love and want to get in more players' hands.

So, was the need to help players connect and the social element the biggest learning from the first Destiny?
I don't want to say it's the biggest learning. I think that when we set out to design the second game we wanted to look at it through the lens of, "What are we learning as we continue to build the game?" Players wanted more things. They wanted more story and more access. So we're addressing the 'more story' part with the way that the campaign is gonna unfold. We've doubled down on characters and character-based storytelling, both from the perspective of the Vanguard with characters like Cayde, Zavala, and we have a cast of additional characters who are all out in the world and they're all new in Destiny 2. Then we also have our villain, Ghaul, who is a character in and of himself. So we've taken some learnings like that, the players want more story and we've brought that into the game, and this other element is, you know, players want opportunities to play all the content. So the Guided Games feature is us finally making all the content in Destiny available to all players.

This time we're gonna set out to explain a lot more. Like, one of the jobs that I think narrative has is to bring people into the world. D2 really has the opportunity to bring people into the universe.

Raids are the heart of your inspiration, right? You've talked in the past about what a big World of Warcraft fan you were. What did you bring across from your experience playing so much WoW?
I think it's really about translation. Taking a raid from a non-shooter and bringing it into a shooter is about translating the feelings, it's not about actual specific mechanical translation. The feelings that matter from cooperative gameplay are those around other people making things easier – it's about being able to see the impact everyone has on the success and failure of the group. There are moments of accountability, moments of responsibility – personal or group-wide responsibility. And so when we were looking at the construction of raids in a shooter, it wasn't about, like, "Let's take mechanic X from game Y," it was about, "Let's create these different feelings." Like, in the Vault of Glass specifically we have a section that's a maze full of insta-kill monsters that you're not intended to fight. This comes very specifically after a period of high action, because we're an action game, and so after this opening sequence that's all action packed we wanted something where we changed the pace and created a pure social challenge. At that point it's all about how you're gonna communicate with other people to get through the space together. That's about the translation of communication from other games to a place where you're running around in first person holding a weapon. The translation of language from, you know, a different experience into our action game, I think is one of the things that has made the raids in Destiny feel so unique.

Is that the story's job in Destiny 2? To keep poking this social stuff along, more than just telling a story?
This time we're gonna set out to explain a lot more. Like, one of the jobs that I think narrative has is to bring people into the world. D2 really has the opportunity to bring people into the universe. Story and narrative are a big part of what makes you decide that you want to enter a place. It's not just about, you know, if you think the jokes from the trailer were funny. It's about whether you think, when you see the world, that it looks like a place that you want to go, a place that you want to be a part of.

When you see the characters, whether it's your Guardians, or whether it's the characters we create – well, are they characters you want to inhabit, characters you want to be like, characters you want to love, characters you want to hate? Narrative and story in a bunch of ways is about bringing all of that together, it's about opening your arms up and giving people a big hug. Then, once you're in the game, that's where a bunch of the other systems take over: the convergence of other players, things like public events. In D1 those public events were sort of buried and hidden but in D2 we have maps for all of our new planets, and on those maps we're gonna advertise things like public events to players. You'll be able to see when you bring up your map when there's a public event that's gonna happen. The public events have story, and they have fiction associated with them, and they have villains who are a big part of them. Then when you go to this public event you're gonna see, like, "Oh, there are other players here," and so we're taking that as an opportunity to create moments where players can collaborate.

We really want to tell a story where the player is the tip of a spear in a scenario where our power and our home has been destroyed by a villain. The Guardians of the universe have lost everything. Like, these superheroes who've been running around for the last three years are utterly powerless. And that's not just the player character. That's also the non-player characters, the Vanguard, everyone – they're all just mortals now. They're just regular people like you and I. And the player is ultimately gonna drive a bunch of the action to bring these characters back together and tip over the villain who's arrived in the system.

Story is an opportunity to bring people into the world, and I think at times we will benefit more when the story feels like it propels the universe forward. Destiny 2's story is going to set a bunch of stuff in motion for the franchise.

Was story where you started? When you sat down to make a sequel to a game that's massive and beloved by millions, what was the first thing that you did?
The first thing that we did was something we call the scenario design and that's basically the elevator pitch for the game story. And I almost always also write a trailer. Like, I write what I think the first trailer for the game should be – but it's not something we ever actually make. It's an important thing for us to think about, though. The goal for me when I sit down to do that is to ask if I can write a scenario that when you hear the ideas, you'll lean in and go, "I think that could be a game." And then when I tell you the story of the trailer, you could close your eyes and see it. You could imagine sitting in a theatre watching it, you know, at a press conference or an award show or whatever, and be like, "Oh shit. I want to buy whatever that is."

From there, then we get into the high level statements for the project. Like, what are the three things that we're thinking about for this project? Those three things end up being sort of like the guiding lights. For Destiny 2 they were the core messages I mentioned earlier: a world I want to be a part of, and where there's always something fun to do. We want to unhide the fun of Destiny. And the third one is that there's always someone to play with. With those three things it gives you a really easy way of describing Destiny 2.

How close is what you've done to that original scenario that you thought of back in 2014? Is it pretty close?
Yeah, it is. It's the scenario that we sat down and wrote. That's Destiny 2.

The way you articulated it back then, was it this idea of being the tip of the spear, powers taken away, powerless superheroes? Was that the elevator pitch?
That's where we started. We knew we wanted to make some big changes to Destiny, both from a franchise perspective, from a gameplay perspective, and certainly from a narrative perspective. So it was about constructing a scenario that allowed us to do that.

In terms of characters, from the first trailer it appears that Cayde is much more important. The vibe is much lighter than the last game. Is that a purposeful tonal shift?
That trailer is a great look at Cayde, but of course it's a trailer – so you've kind of got him turned up to 11 or 12. We want the new game to be something that has a bunch of different character types. Everyone is not gonna be making jokes the whole time. That's certainly not appropriate. We hope the game and its characters are fun to listen to – that's definitely a goal, but we want to have characters who are occupying their own separate spaces. You know, we have a character like Cayde who's a funny, charming rogue, but then Ikora is very serious and cerebral, and Zavala is very action oriented and, again, very serious. So, we start with those three, then we ask, "well, what are the holes that we have in the character tapestry?" There are many. So in Destiny 2 we're coming up with a bunch of new characters to fill them.

So, the way that I keep all of this in my head is: I play the shit out of the game. I love Destiny. I have a significant amount of playtime at home, and it's my hobby.

What was your role on Destiny 1 versus Destiny 2?
My first job on Destiny was as the lead designer for the raids, and so that involved finding a bunch of talented folks who could join Bungie and become the raid team. Then we worked together on what raids would be in a first-person shooter, and we built a bunch of prototypes. Ultimately we built the Vault of Glass, which was Destiny's first raid, and basically while we were finishing that, in March of 2014, I was also working on the game that ultimately became Destiny 2.

I'd been given the great responsibility and became the lead on the second game, and that's where my partnership with Mark Noseworthy began. He's my project lead on the team, and was my executive producer on The Taken King. That's where we sort of formed into a small group – the Taken King leadership team has all stayed together since back then. That was really important to us. There's a bunch of folks, but we wanted to keep everyone together and then continue to grow that team, because we had found such a camaraderie in working together.

Back around Christmas of 2014, Mark and I had this, like, sort of dopey idea that we should all just go out to dinner, for the holiday – that core leadership group. We call it Triage here at Bungie. Anyway, we all went out, and for one night we just didn't talk about work. We just shot the shit and got to know each other better. It's funny how you can work so closely with folks for so long and never get to know them. That's become an annual tradition for our team now. Every Christmas holiday we always go out to dinner, and after we file this next game we'll probably get together and have a barbecue. It's really important to build that sense of fellowship and rapport between a small group of leads that all sit together.

What kind of things did you learn about each other that helped make the process either smoother or inspired you? What kind of things came out of getting out of the work environment?
So, Mark Noseworthy and I had been friends outside of work for a few years as well before we started working together in 2014, but the first day that we went to work together I walked up to him and he was like, "So you're my Robin?" I was like, "No, I'm Batman." We all had to work out how we would work together. Mike Zack, our art director, has excellent taste, and so we had to figure out how we could leverage as much of Mike's taste as possible. Or Justin Truman, who was our engineering lead on The Taken King – he is so pragmatic, and he's one of the best game developers I've ever met. And so we had to work out the best possible way to deploy him. A lot of what we've done with our team is talk about it in terms of zone defense, from sports. Like, we think of it as a bunch of unique skills in a series of circles that are interlaced together. Like, imagine you're in the Olympics logo but, like take all those circles in the Olympics logo and crush them together closer. We have people with specific unique skills and weaknesses. For example, I'm totally color blind. Just totally. So the art director is gonna have to have all of the color responsibilities. Justin is an engineering lead, and I have no engineering overlap, so he's over on his part of the Olympic circle on that stuff he can see. But we have so many people who have these interlocking sets of circles and it's allowed us to look at different problems as a group and, like, divvy them up, even when they're things that are completely out of our area of expertise.

Were you working on two projects concurrently? Were you doing Destiny raids for some of the time and then working on Destiny 2? How do you keep all that in your head?
So, the way that I keep all of this in my head is: I play the shit out of the game. I love Destiny. I have a significant amount of playtime at home, and it's my hobby. When I leave work, where I've been thinking about Destiny, I'm home and I'm playing the game. I'm playing with my friends. I don't play with folks from work. I'm engaging with the game as a player, and then I'm back the next day thinking about changes. Coming back with ideas and telling different people about where the vision is for their area. It is like a hobby of mine. Like, you remember when we worked together at 1UP eleven years ago, and I was really into WoW? People would yell "Raid!" down the hall, and I would be there. And in the way that World of Warcraft was my hobby back then, well Destiny is now. It's pretty mind-blowing to me that I have the opportunity to work on my hobby.

Back then your passion was WoW, but at that point had you set your sights on really wanting to make games?
Actually, at that point no. Like, games were still this magical thing to me. I have an English language degree, man, and, like, minors in film and psychology. I did not think at all that my education equipped me to make entertainment that I loved the way I loved Bungie games and certainly World of Warcraft and Blizzard games. I was really dedicated to the idea of covering games like an industry 12 years ago. I really did not have any aspirations to make games.

Destiny is a game that very visibly evolved in a period where everything is chronicled by everyone all the time, and you did so much to adapt the first game. What did you learn from the process that helped you shape what you're doing now?
We think about the game in a bunch of ways as the sum total of our learnings over the last three and four years. In fall of 2014, in July or August, before Destiny 1 shipped, my team was already working on The Taken King, and we were already working on the next version of the Light system, and so there's this thing where one of the challenges is how we keep all of this in our heads. We're always kind of projecting into the future and thinking about the next round of changes, the next thing that we need to deliver. Sometimes we get that right, and I think with the transformation of Light we made some really positive steps. But then in releases like House of Wolves you saw Petra and Variks sort of emerge as characters, and we started to delight in the presence of other characters for the first time. I think TTK pushed that a step further with Cayde and Eris. For us, working on Destiny 2, it's all about the lessons and takeaways that we're drawing out of all the games we've been building here. It's challenging, because there are some times when we don't have all the time we want to react. Thankfully, with D2 we haven't used up that reaction time yet, but we're about to launch a new Destiny platform that is going to keep being built on, you know, until we stop. And so, for the studio I think it's really exciting because it's a fresh start for all players, and it's also the opportunity to continue to improve our craft, and to say, "this is the new floor. How are we gonna build on this over the next few years?"

You've always been a big sports fan. Has that been an influence on how you approach design?
It's a huge part of it. I played sports in middle school and high school, before I broke my hand. The part of it that was always so appealing to me was being part of a team. "We're all in this together." Some of that bleeds into our designs – like for the Vault where you have those long transitional spaces where you're not in combat, where you're moving through space. The reason why we do that is because in those moments where there's no combat and all you can do is move, there's nothing to do other than talk to who you're playing with. That means you have opportunities to talk about your husbands, your wives. Share. Use this downtime to create social bonds. That's a really important part of it. 

I always do a couple of things: I order the game from a retailer so that it comes to my house and I get to open it up like everyone else. I always take a day off, just like I would if I didn't work on it.

Sports have a lot more influence on competitive game design than a lot of players give credit for. Do you talk about it a lot?
We do, and we also talk about our clans as sports teams in a bunch of ways. Like, there's this amazing element of the NFL were when the Patriots win the Super Bowl, everyone on the team of course gets a championship ring. You know who else gets a ring? The groundskeeper. You know who else gets a ring? The head of merchandise. These aren't people who are on the field when the team wins the championship, but they are part of the team, and we're applying that same philosophy to clans in Destiny 2. Just for being in a clan, you are going to receive rewards even if you're not online when your raid team completes the new raid or has great success in competitive PvP. There's a chance that you'll still get a reward from that activity, because membership has its privileges, and being a part of a team is about more than just having to show up every day. It's about being a part of this great organization. We also wanted clans to be a place where you didn't feel obligated. Just passively being in a clan and playing the game each week still creates some progression for your clan and you're getting rewards for participating.

I want to dig into what makes you tick these days. I remember you and I chatting when you first got to Bungie 10 years ago, and it just being a culture shock in terms of how much your life became working on this thing. What drives you these days? Is it still sports? Is Destiny a big chunk of your life? What else inspires you?
Well, for me, if I added up the time that I've spent at work, the time I've spent sleeping, the time I've spent playing Destiny, whether it's a development build or the retail build, it doesn't and hasn't left a ton of time for other stuff. That's not me just saying I work a lot, it's that I have become the hobby in a bunch of ways. The passion that I have for doing this is because I love the game and I love the universe, and I love the people I've met doing it.

I went to this large Destiny meetup, but I went completely unannounced. I just wanted to show up and be among people who love the game. And, you know, of course there were a handful of people who recognized me, and I was happy to say hi, but I was mostly just rejuvenated by the energy that people have for this game. I was out with my partner and her kids last week, and we were leaving a restaurant, and I was just wearing this, like, goofy hooded sweatshirt I'm wearing today that has the giant 2 on the chest in, like, different languages, and a guy stands up as we're walking out. He's looking right at me. It's like he knows me. And he reaches out his hand, and I push my partner and the kids back a little, because I just don't know what people are like. He's like, "Dude, I love this game. I love it so much. I cannot wait to see what you and the team do this fall." And I, like, introduced myself and then walk right over to his wife and his daughter and was like, "I'm sorry. I hope he's around and hanging out," and, you know, gave the guy a hug, and we went our separate ways.

Things like that, you know, are incredibly energizing to me. With something like the Vault of Glass, when we were building it, I never thought about how many people were gonna play our game, because I think if I did I would completely crack. Instead, what I think about is, you know, "are my friends going to enjoy this together when it comes out?"

You know, when the Vault of Glass was released, the Sunday before it was released I fell asleep and I had 55 messages on my phone when I woke up. My father had a heart attack, and I flew home immediately and missed the launch of this beautiful thing that the team and I had worked so hard to create. My father is fine, by the way. But the thing that I missed was the opportunity to love the game as a hobby with my friends in that same moment. For me, whatever we're releasing, whether it's House of Wolves or Rise of Iron or Taken King, or Destiny 2, I always do a couple of things: I order the game from a retailer so that it comes to my house and I get to open it up like everyone else. I always take a day off, just like I would if I didn't work on it. Like I did with games that I loved growing up. I would take a day off just to play it. Because for me, it is a hobby. And it's such a privilege to get to work on this thing that I'm so fucking passionate about.