Certain to be one of the year's biggest games, Halo 3 is on everyone's radar. In anticipation of this upcoming blockbuster, GameCritics.com was fortunate enough to interview one of the extremely talented minds creating this eagerly anticipated title, artist extraordinaire Shi Kai Wang.
Before getting started, a special tip of the hat goes out to Laurel Garcia for arranging the interview—Laurel, your next all-natural sandwich and organic smoothie are on us.
And now without further ado… let's hear from Shi Kai.
GC Brad: Thanks for taking the time to talk with us, Shi Kai. Can you please introduce yourself to our readers and tell us a little bit about your position at Bungie?
Shi Kai Wang: I'm the 3D art lead here at Bungie for the Halo 3 project. Been at Bungie since '98, so I'm considered a "Grizzled Ancient" in the Bungie lore.
GCB: Can you tell us about your education and background, and how you originally got into games?
SKW: I went to the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and got a bachelor's degree in Industrial Design. While I was in school I was lucky enough to be part of a start up PC game company called Mobeus Design a friend of a friend was putting together. During my time there I was solely a concept artist and was able to create a good chunk of my portfolio work, while briefly learning some 3D programs. This was my start, and when I graduated I took the portfolio and tried getting a job at both FASA and Bungie, and here I am.
GCB: What have been the high points of your work on the Halo games, and what have you been the most proud of? Additionally, how has your past work influenced what you're working on now?
SKW: There's been a bunch of high points I've said in other interviews, so I'll try and think of one that I haven't said yet. All right, I think the launch for Halo 2 was a big highlight. We were going around in Redmond, WA to different stores at midnight to meet and greet folks who were in line to buy the game. Almost all were really thrilled that we came out and even took the time to talk to the fans. One of the best customers in line was a dog and its owner; the dog wore a homemade Halo tee because that's her name. That's when I realized you know you've penetrated your audience to the core when they name a dog after your game.
My past work before Halo was not surprisingly a lot like Halo. The game Mobeus Designs developed had a plot that was somewhat similar. Distant planet, cybernetic soldier, the works. So I think if anything, that helped to give me a warm up for what was to come at Bungie. If anyone is interested in looking it up, it was called Esoteria.
GCB: What games or people in the industry do you admire, and have you drawn inspiration or been influenced by others in your field? Outside of games, what would you say your influences have been?
SKW: Lately I've been more inspired by games that are trying to reach outside of the realm of typical gaming, like Guitar Hero. It's thinking like that that will drive the game development outside of what's possible. Screw market research, just do something that you think is fun and go for it. The success story of Guitar Hero is very inspiring, partly because I remember going to see their booth when they were in the basement of the E3 convention center. I remember playing the demo and thinking, "Well I don't know, I guess it's all right." Then of course a year and half later it's the biggest game out there.
As for influences in art, I've grown up on anime and that had a very direct influence to what I created. I'm not nearly as inspired by anime now as I was, but I still appreciate it. To name a few artists that I was influenced by: Katsuhiro Otomo, Masamune Shirow, YAS, Akira Toriyama, Miyazaki. Current artists that I think are awesome: Craig Mullins, Sparth, Bengal, Katsuya Terada, Nirasawa, and Niheii.
GCB: What do you think about the current state of the gaming industry in terms of both design and technology? As an artist, how are things different developing for the Xbox 360 format as opposed to the original Xbox?
SKW: You're asking me this question at a state where I think games (at least in the US) are going the way of movies; too much focus on representing realism and not enough on style and quality. I think it's quite evident by the number of FP clones and war games out there that we tend to think clutter and noise is what next gen is. I believe things like Guitar Hero and even some Wii games are proving to everyone that gameplay is where it's at, and people are starving for new ideas. But this is good, because it's allowing new companies to come in and succeed where big ones have stagnated, and that's when you're going to get the gems. Just like where there's been a lot of focus on indie films lately, I think there'll be a lot more focus on games that are more out there, that are pushing the way people play games.
Developing for the 360 has been awesome, great support and great hardware. The downside to the switch is the amount of content we're trying to fill. The amount of time it takes to create content has more than doubled and has created pipelines that are much more complicated and unforgiving. It forced us to set priorities on what we considered is important and necessary vs. plain aesthetics. But it's fun to see more resolution and more power to what was possible.
GCB: Obviously a lot of hard work and effort goes into creating a game, and I don't think anyone would disagree that games can't be created without artists. However, as an artist yourself, do you think that games are art?
SKW: There's a lot of art IN games, if that answers your question at all. If a game chooses to be art while being a game from the beginning, I think that sort of realization can happen. Take REZ for example, or ICO and Colossus, (and of course, Halo) all had a very distinct style and approach from the get go, and if any of them were displayed in a gallery with just clips of it running, I'd pay the overpriced cover to experience it. But for the majority, the art is there to help with the gameplay, not necessarily the other way around. Because ultimately the money you've plopped down is for a game, and very few cross that line to becoming interactive "art." I think I'm a pretty pragmatic person, and the more years I'm in the industry, the more I believe that any art that goes into the game needs to be considered as such, to help supplement the gameplay. Now that'll be all different if Bungie decides to take it towards the other direction from the beginning.
GCB: As someone working on one of the biggest, most hotly anticipated releases, I'd imagine that your free time is extremely limited as Halo 3's launch date approaches. But, when you do have time, what games do you like to play and what are some of your favorite games of all time?
SKW: You're right, I rarely have time to play any games right now. I don't even go on Live to play 'cept for testing our own game out. But you will see me and some others in our game room playing the Fist of the North Star fighting game or Street Fighter: 3rd Strike. Mainly because the games are quick and you get your stress relieved fast, what with all the shouting and trash talking. But as for favorite games of all time, they have to be Super Mario Brothers, Doom 2, Marathon, Quake, Street Fighter 2 (duh), Excite Bike, Ikari Warriors, Double Dragon, oh man there's too many!
GCB: Although the Halo film seems to have hit a few snags on the way to theaters, was there any discussion of using your concept art and design work for the film, or were the people behind it planning on starting from the finished graphics in the actual game?
SKW: Now that the film has been indefinitely put on hold, all the hope of swapping cool art between Weta and Bungie is gone, and all the dreams of traveling to NZ to hang out with the kiwis have been crushed. But yeah, it was to be a collaborative process. Who knows, maybe it will all come back together again someday, there's still hope.
GCB: What advice do you have for readers who have ambitions of breaking into games and dream of doing what you're doing now?
SKW: Breaking into games is not as hard as you think. Take opportunities to get internships, contracting positions, mentorships, go to conventions, conferences, etc. All of which will help you to connect with the people you would want to work with in the future, and if you've got ambition, talent and drive, it will show. I believe getting a job in art is a relatively straight forward process, because most of what you can demonstrate is visual, and if you have good stuff it'll be right there laid out on the table. Make sure to keep practicing your art in both 3D and 2D, and a good basic art foundation is priceless when it comes to being a game artist, because it allows you to communicate your ideas in more than just one way.
GCB: I have to ask… on your bio page, you have an icon of the Decepticon symbol as your picture. Are you a big Transformers fan? If so, who's your favorite, and why?
SKW: Yes, hell yes. Transformers was one of the best cartoons to be created, and it's obvious that it had lasting power on a whole slew of generations. I'm just so glad that they're issuing out masterpiece Transformers, it's like an adult kid's dream come true.
I will have to say it's a tie between Soundwave and Optimus. Both of them have just awesome design, extremely simple but to the point. I mean c'mon, Soundwave with his digitized voice (even though he's an analog tape player), and Optimus with his square but regal design is meant to be recognized.
Now as for that abominable feature film that's coming out on the 4th of July…that's a totally different story.
GCB: I know we're off on a tangent here, but the new TFs are a pretty big departure from the old character designs… do you dislike the new visuals from an artistic standpoint, or more for nostalgic reasons?
SKW: BOTH! Logically I see how they want to create a new franchise, to sell new toys, to promote a new start for the series. But c'mon, why did the series live for so long? Because of the fans who love it, and the fans who love it don't want to see this new version that is such a departure in terms of style that you can almost treat it as a different franchise. Like I always say in the office: "Transformers: A movie loosely based on the awesomely great 1984 cartoon series." I'm sure they'll grab a lot of new kids into paying big bucks for this new line of toys, but you won't see me in line that's for sure.
The design side is just plain ridiculous. It's jumbled up mech junkyard parts that's just overload…yet once again another American movie that doesn't know when to stop. It's almost as if they came up with the CG technology to be able to interpolate tons of pieces of geometry and decided to design around that tech. Why? Streamline what the design was and bring it up to date, but please don't change it completely.
Again, I'm bitter because this will be the 2nd director that screws with my childhood. What are you gonna do? I guess I'll make a stop motion short with my masterpiece Transformer toys…
GCB: Fair enough.
And from our readers…
Chaos Wielder asks: How does the design process for weapons work? For instance, how does one graphically represent "oomph" value?
SKW: We get questions like this a lot for the artists. Basically people are asking how do you make things "cool"? There are a bunch of fundamental design elements you can draw from to help with the initial design of an object: size, proportion, flow, function, color, etc. But then once you're past that stage, it becomes less of a science and more art, and that's when it becomes more of the artist's own personal twist to it that adds the "zing."
But to break it down before that stage, we start with a general idea of what type of weapon we want, whether it's a pistol class, rifle class, support class, melee, or a specialty weapon. Then we figure out which race it is meant for, and what sort of function it has and we start concepting. Once we get a concept that we all like, we mock out the general size in 3D and bring it into the game for 3D and size check. This is where a lot of back and forth happens between design and art, and where we try and finalize the pre production of the weapon. When everything gets green lit, we go in and finish the weapon off. Somewhere between 3D mock up and final shipping game is where the oomph gets applied, and we usually call that "the Bungie Spice."
CW: Conceptually, what did you draw on for your design of the Covenant race? That is, what inspiration went into their design?
SKW: That's hard to say. I don't believe there was any one source of inspiration. But we did took a lot of queues from nature, like beetles with their whole carapace shell Fresnel effect, the Jackal was based on bird anatomy, the Grunt's a monkey, turtle and crab, the Brutes being a mix of rhinos and gorilla, and Elites being more reptilian. The Prophet was a fun one because we wanted a creature that was very expressive but in a way that you can relate to. So the easiest way was to exaggerate human features and put a tiny spin on it, thus the elongated earlobes, big eyes, and wide mouth. Visual design cues for the Covenant as a whole needed to be distinguishable from the other two races, humans and Forerunner, so we went with the obvious choice of making them shinier and curvier.
CW: Halo draws from standard sci-fi conventions (humans, techno-aliens, buggy alien guys). Graphically, how did you (and Bungie in general) originally attempt to differentiate Halo from a canon already full to the brim?
SKW: I think many artists create because they want to express their own interpretation on things. With Halo we wanted to do it our way, but even then it was more of self expression rather than a way to purposefully differentiate from the crop. Ultimately what ended up making the game what it is was a good sense of art direction and a good creative team.
We definitely have some of the greatest folks in the industry working on this series, which helps :). But I also believe what sets Halo apart is the whole package. It's not just a great game with OK art, or great art with OK gameplay, or great sound and mediocre art, etc. It is an overall great experience in all fields of a game that people can appreciate. And once you have something that reaches that point, then the rest kind of becomes automatic. Fans will start delving into things you'd never have thought they'd see, or create communities that greatly appreciate your work, branch off their own ideas based on your work. All of which is because you've created a solid foundation for them to keep going back to pull from. Like all things that are good, it's always good even when you go back for the 100th time.
Critic Gene Park adds: What do you believe are Halo 3's strengths, and what sets this work apart in terms of what has been imagined in the series so far?
SKW: I'll keep this one simple; Halo 3 is what we've always wanted Halo to ever be.
LordFarid asks: What is the max amount of people that can play against each other in the multiplayer? Also, considering that multiplayer is alleged to be the focus point of Halo 3, I'm curious what to expect.
SKW: I can only say what was already stated in our press releases, and most of which you guys already know. 16 players multiplayer…and you can still play split-screen games, system link games and co-op for Campaign… That's all we've talked about right now, for anything else you must have patience, grasshopper!
LF: One future of the MMO-style game is something like the MMOFPS game Huxley. My question is, has Bungie ever considered making a Halo MMOFPS or are they considering it for the future?
SKW: If by consideration you mean water cooler conversations then yes, but as far as any serious plans, no. We'll always be about making games that speak to us, and if it is a MMOFPS in the future then it's that.
Critic Daniel Weissenberger adds: With Halo 3 rumored to be more multiplayer intensive, do you feel this represents a growing split in first-person game design, with one side being the multiplayer blast fest, and the other side being the in-depth first-person adventure game? In general, I'm wondering if it's a conscious decision to move away from narrative gaming, or just a normal reaction to the marketplace. Also, is there pressure to deliver a more multiplayer-intensive experience in the sense that it's easier to sell extra content (maps, etc.) for a multiplayer game that people to play for a longer time due to the social aspect than it is for the typical single player game that gets put aside after completion?
SKW: Bungie has always been about multiplayer, playing with friends or enemies live is always more fun than playing against bots. That said, Bungie also loves us some story! So we've never considered one or the other being more or less important, we've treated both as parts of a game that is equal in value. We've taken to heart the horrendous responses to the end of Halo 2 (half of them were our own) and really took it up a notch for Halo 3. We know people love multiplayer, and so do we and thus we put a lot of effort into that as well. I think when Halo 3 comes out, you'll find that you're satisfied from all sides :). Also practically speaking, it's easier to talk about Multiplayer and not worry about spoiling the fictional experience for our fans. For the second part of that question, Bungie will never make decisions that are based on sales or figures. We will always make games because of the same reason we keep playing them, because they're fun.
GameCritics.Com extends our most heartfelt thanks to Shi Kai Wang for taking the time out of his incredibly busy schedule to speak with us about Halo 3, the state of the industry, artistic concerns, and of course… Transformers.
Thanks, Shi Kai!