I walked into the Bungie offices and immediately felt an unexpected twitter of excitement deep down in my belly. I'm aHalo fan, no doubt about it, but I never expected to feel or act so excitable and flustered. Yet, there I was, looking around at the midnight coloring of the walls and carpet, the moonlight glow on metal, and the labyrinthine setup of dark cubicles, and my hands started to sweat. I was in the belly of the beast!
If that wasn't exciting enough, we convinced Shi Kai Wang, an artist at Bungie since August of 1998, to answer some questions for us. I wanted to know how he got his job, what he did, and how it felt. I knew you'd want to know, too.
Violet Leigh: What is your background?
Shi Kai Wang: I studied industrial design at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. The program taught me the basics of design philosophy, which are also used here at Bungie. I trained in Photoshop, Illustrator, Quark, and surprisingly, Pro-E. In industrial design, you learn the basics of drafting and the fundamentals of machining. I learned 3-D programs on my own at a game company, where I was working to put myself through college.
Leigh: Besides Halo, what else have you done?
Wang: While in school, I worked for a game company called Mobeus Designs. We put our overly zealous college heads together to come up with a game called Esoteria. It had enormous potential, and I think that went to our heads. Ultimately, the company folded because we didn't have enough funding. The game was then picked up by Bandai. It finally shipped to stores right around the time that I graduated. We never saw a penny from its sales, but from what I hear, some hardcore fans really dig it. Other than that, when I first joined Bungie, I helped out withMyth II Soulblighter, and then Oni. But, on those, I only did production help, so it really was nothing.
Leigh: When you interviewed at Bungie, what was it like?
Wang: The interview process (back in Chicago) was very down to earth and informal. I went in for the interview right after I graduated. As soon as I realized that I was the one who was over-dressed, I knew this was the place I wanted to work. Key players like [art director] Marcus Lehto and Robert McLees looked at my portfolio, and that was about it. After the interview, Jason Jones offered me the job on the spot, and by the end of the interview, we were cussing like old friends.
The most important thing that I noticed during the interview was that Jason was trying to get a feel for the type of person I was. He wanted to make sure I would fit into the company and become part of the culture. Now that I'm in, I can see how that pans out. Bungie's culture is definitely unique and not a good fit for everyone. I think it is so important to interview the candidate and make sure that he/she fits personality-wise, especially since Bungie emphasizes team cooperation.
Leigh: What work did you do onHalo?
Wang: I was hired initially as a conceptual artist. As Halo went into its production phase, I started working on 3-D development and effects. Most of my conceptual work was geared towards the Covenant and their objects.
We delegated the design assignments so that each race had its own styling. Marcus headed up the design of the humans. I took the Covenant, and Eddie Smith had the forerunners. It all worked out perfectly.
Later, as with every project that is coming to a close, there were odd jobs that had to be done. No one wanted to tackle the effects side of things, so I took it, not knowing that it would consume my time almost to the end of production.
Leigh: What were some of your challenges when working on Halo?
Wang: The biggest challenge was changing platforms so many times and having to reinvent ourselves in the process. We took the game from real-time strategy (RTS) to third-person to first-person to PC to Xbox. With each new decision came new responsibilities. Xbox allowed us unlimited power to create cool effects, but it meant that we had to step things up a notch from our previous expectations. The ability to create multilayer effects, bump-map objects, and scale effects in real-time made it cooler because we could imitate life better. But then, we found out that imitating life was harder than we thought.
For example, it's hard to recreate details like dirt reacting when shot by bullets, sparks flying when metal hits metal, and alien environments actually looking like they could exist. Plus, since we were making a game that wasn't based on reality, we had to try as hard as we could to mimic it without using too much stock footage or pictures, like most games do nowadays. Making the environments believable, I think, is what made it difficult, especially because we were trying to create something that didn't actually exist. How do you draw a plasma shield generator emitting plasma and make it look realistic, but not gamey? Where's the stock footage for that?
Another challenging aspect of working on Halo involved our own expectations of ourselves and what we could achieve. The whole team had this small-time business attitude, where we thought we were going to take over the world. Although we got acquired (by Microsoft), that didn't ruin our ambitions. Everyone that worked on the game wanted it to be good so badly that we had to re-evaluate everything we did. We didn't stop at one, two, three, or four iterations of a character, object, effect, or level. We pushed till we [couldn't] push anymore ... or weren't allowed to push anymore.
Leigh: If you had to pick one thing, what are you most proud of in Halo?
Wang: I would say the final design of the elite Covenant; he went through several iterations—not as many as the cyborg, but still a lot. I'm fairly proud of his final design and how well he fit into the whole Halo universe. I'll be even more proud when the action figure comes out!
Oh, and there were those little bugs in the swamp level. They're just animated bitmaps that made them look like they were flapping and glowing. FUN!
Leigh: When Halo finally went out the door, and you were done, how did you feel?
Wang: The joy of completing a Gold Master game is knowing that you'll get to sleep in your own bed and not have to wake up in the same spot you've spent the last 16 hours. The end ofHalo was a bit anticlimactic; it wasn't until almost the beginning of Halo 2 that we had a little meeting congratulating everyone for the success of our work. Everyone was so tired that, when the game was done, we all just dragged ourselves home. I believe I spent a good month just enjoying life outside of work, catching up with friends and family. I was obviously too tired to travel.
Leigh: Are you working on Halo 2?
Wang: Yes. My objectives so far are pretty much the same as the first game. Except, this time, we have a lot more characters and a lot more work. You can't rest when you're part of something this hotly anticipated—you just can't. The things people are coming up with require a lot of work, but they're going to be so cool!
Leigh: Can you give us an insider's scoop on what Halo 2 will have that Halo didn't?
Wang: The trailer for Halo 2 already shows off some of the highlights we're including; as for the rest, I believe you'll just have to wait and see.
Leigh: Well, I don't know about y'all, but I can hardly wait for Halo 2 to come out! I loved the work Shi Kai did on Halo. Thanks, Shi Kai, for your contribution to a great game and for this interview.
By Violet Leigh