The unlikely story of how one game designer found her Destiny
When I was younger, I always wanted to make games.
Of course, reality rarely matches childhood dreams -- especially in an industry that’s changed as much as gaming. Instead of a handful of people doing everything, modern games are built by hundreds of people.
That’s why I was so happy to get the chance to speak to a professional. M.E. Chung is a game director at Bungie, where she currently works on the Destiny series. And what better way to speak to a game designer then to talk while playing classics like Super Mario Kart?
Like me, Chung grew up playing games. Unlike me, she never thought about making them… even though it was apparently obvious to everyone else around her.
She had two older brothers who she credits for her interest in games -- but in the days before consoles came with built-in support for more than two controllers, she was often the one who missed out.
“When we were playing any games, I was the one on the side not getting to play,” Chung told me. “So instead I’d draw levels and write the maps.”
Chung also credits her parents for not limiting her screen time, as she spent more time online looking for communities of people who didn’t quite fit in -- and found a lot of people just like her. But it took the intervention of a college professor before she discovered her calling.
“He made me think about, what am I really passionate about? And it was like, holy crap, my whole entire childhood, my whole self-identity, my understanding of my relationship with my brothers comes from playing games.”
Amazingly, Chung was headed for a career in medicine -- but the year she was supposed to head to med school, she pivoted to games.
Her parents took a little while to get to grips with her career change.
“That was the year I was supposed to start med school, and I didn’t go… my parents were pissed for about ten years at me!” says Chung. “And I was like, I need to make games, it’s my mission, I have to help people who feel like they don’t fit in find a community of people that they think they can fit into.”
She worked on Tomb Raider and BioShock 2 before landing at Bungie to work on Destiny, a shooter very different to anything that came before it. Taking elements from Halo and elements from massively multiplayer online games like World of Warcraft, Destiny was a shooter where you shared the world with other players. It’s not just about going on missions or quests with them, though you can certainly do that; it’s also a game where, while progressing down your own path, you’ll run into a separate group of players doing their own thing.
There’s something else about Destiny that really fascinated me. When most games are done, they’re (mostly) done. Sure, sometimes there’s a few post-launch bits of downloadable content, sometimes there are fixes that need to be done, but Destiny is different because it’s never really finished. It’s a “live” game, one that continues to evolve and support players for years at a time.
So I had to ask: What’s it like working on a game that’s never truly done?
“There’s the good and bad,” says Chung, who explains that there’s a certain euphoria from finally shipping and being done with a game, and watching gamers play it… but also a certain regret. “Nothing you ever make is what you thought you were going to make.”
Earlier this year, I was fascinated by one tiny detail in the game God of War. Your character has a mystical axe that you’re able to toss around but also recall to your hand at will -- similar to Thor’s hammer from the Marvel Cinematic Universe. There’s something just so satisfying about calling the axe back to your hand in God of War, seeing it hurtle towards you, and hearing the satisfying SMACK of it hitting your character’s hand.
Chung’s own game, Destiny, similarly has a great “feel” to it. The way your character responds to your controls, the feel of firing a gun just seems right, somehow, in Destiny. But it’s something that’s so hard to quantify. I struggle to explain it verbally -- so I had to ask Chung how they design something like this.
Her answer? Lots of work. Even she was surprised, coming from her previous companies, just how seriously Bungie takes the feel of a game.
“It’s not just one person working on this, or a small team, it’s 30 to 40 people working on this for many years.”
We didn’t stop there. As we switched from Super Mario Kart to Super Mario World, our conversation continued, talking about how important music is to games, or why your favorite game may not necessarily be the best game -- and Chung revealed the title that she thought had a huge impact on her life. You can find all of that conversation (and all of the Super Mario Kart action) right here in the full interview.