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Breaking In - Scott Bilas

Destiny is an ambitious project for Bungie. We’re creating a game that is bigger than anything we’ve ever created before. To do this, we need new tools that will let us create new worlds. You could say that we’ve taken our own approach to game design to the next level. Fortunately, we have this guy to lead the team that is bringing our new world builder to life.

Who are you, and what do you do at Bungie? 

SB: My name is Scott Bilas, and I’m the lead engineer on Grognok, the shiny new world building tool for Destiny. If you experience something in Destiny, there’s a good chance it passed through Grognok’s digestive tract on its journey through the Bungie human caterpillar. I also tend to get involved with, um, inter-caterpillar initiatives to, er, keep the “system” moving as fast and efficiently as possible. Ok, let’s move on from this analogy.

Please. I just had breakfast. Can you digest those details a little bit more, and tell us what that means to you, specifically?

SB: My job is to take the hurricane of requests spun in for Groggy from all over the studio and then (a) see how my gang of four can make it happen or (b) yell “squirrel!” and run for my life. On the code side, I act as an architect and caretaker, building and refining systems (mostly in Grognok) that can handle the scale of content and production team size for this game.

What element of your work are you most excited for players to experience in Destiny?

SB: Engineering ultimately reduces down to this: helping smart, creative people take what’s in their heads, refine it, and get it into the hands of players who will then shoot each other in the head. There’s a direct correlation between game awesomeness and the number of iterations the smarties can do before we ship.

Grognok’s particular chunk of this problem, world building, has perhaps three pillars: (1) huge quantities of game content, (2) specialized content creation workflows, and (3) “stop making me click eight times, I should only have to click once”. As we improve our handling of each of those, the rest of the team uses the recovered time to pack even more awesomeness into the game.

When you’re not putting tools into our hands that we can use to build better worlds, how do you spend your time in the one that exists beyond our development floor?

SB: I’m active in the usual Northwest pastimes – climbing, yoga, biking, SpaceChem, snowboarding, camping, travelling, staring at the wall, beer drinking, watching our sports teams lose, walking between raindrops… My wife and I have also become very involved in local charities.

It seems like that wide variety of personal interests could have taken you in any number of directions. Did you dream as a child of being a professional rock climber?

SB: I wanted to be an architect! Though once I found out the time investment required to earn my stripes and be able to do my own thing, I redirected to virtual architecture (i.e. software engineering). With software, anybody with a cheap computer and free time can construct worlds and be the master of their own destiny. Bonus: I don’t have to worry about people dying in my virtual buildings.

On the contrary. If we do our jobs right, many people will die in your buildings – albeit with the luxury of a respawn. How then did you set yourself on the path of creating these dangerous construction sites?

SB: I have a computer engineering degree from Iowa State, class of ‘95. My family moved around a lot when I was young, which was huge for my development, but this tree-hugging rain-loving sky-gazing Pacific Northwestern kid needed to return home to Seattle. So I graduated early and haven’t really looked back.

Was college a valuable investment for someone who wanted to build virtual worlds?  

SB: Too much time has passed to separate things that I learned on my own from what I picked up in school, except for one thing that I remember learning from a great ISU professor. This one thing sticks out in giant, neon colored letters with normal mapping and sparklers and everything: the concept of “It’s Good Enough”, also known as The 80/20 Rule. It is a (curiously recursive) pillar of good engineering.

You make a very important point about learning and growing on your own. What were your proving grounds before you came to Bungie?

SB: I’ve hung my hat at a string of startups and small studios where I held many non-programming roles like IT guy, studio head, server admin, project director, technologist, and tester. Mostly, though, I’ve been a propellerhead, designing systems and writing code.

Every experience, whether positive or negative, has prepared me for each next stage in my life, the most recent one of which has become Bungie. I can never predict what will be useful, sometimes years later, so I try to embrace everything that comes at me. Well, except math.

Tell us a joke about how you took all those experiences and turned them into a job interview with Bungie.

SB: A guy who works at a company that is going out of business walks into a bar and gets recruited to Bungie by a friend on the inside. Never underestimate the power of The Central.

Of course, the punch line to that joke is when that same guy walks into our studio to get beaten up by hiring managers all day long. How did you survive?

SB: The last time I had to do a real interview was in 1999, so I was worried about being out of practice. Turns out I was worried for no reason – Bungie has a great interview process. My lineup included people with interesting problems to chew on; no trick questions, no pointlessly obscure knowledge required. So along with the technical discussions, it wasn’t far off from a dense day at work. I had forgotten how much fun interviewing is, having been on the other side of that table for so long.

The hard part for me was actually the programmer test, which I enjoyed greatly except for the very last problem. It involved math and gameplay, both of which I’m fantastically terrible at. After days of headbanging, I gave up and flunked that part, and probably would crash and burn again if I got a second chance. The interview, though? Lots of fun, gimme gimme.

If interesting problems are what you crave, we just give and keep on giving. What’s the best thing about that never-ending stream of challenges?

SB: The best thing for me is seeing Grognok up on screens all over the studio, watching hundreds of people using it to assemble different parts of the game that will be played by millions of people around the world. Even after three years, I still can’t believe it works. Feels like just the other day it would barely run for more than a few minutes at a time without crashing. Now, it’s literally tens of minutes between crashes. My work here is done.

Save the jokes for the bar. Our work is far from done. What did you today to move us closer?

SB: Woke up thinking about SpaceChem. Biked into work. Checked out the climbing wall to see if anything new was up, and spent a few minutes thinking about a route I want to set. Raised my desk to standing height and moved some work I was doing on the bus last week from my laptop over to my main box. Typed some curly braces and semicolons for a while. Did our daily, ten-minute “stand-up” meeting. Debugged some dots and ampersands, added some braces. Ate some cashews. Started researching a couple requests from different departments for new stuff they need from Groggy, put on fireproof suit to go discuss. Had a sammich. Reviewed curly braces and underscores someone else checked in. Found a couch and drank a beer while catching up on some email. Thought about tonight, where I’ll be grinding skin off my hands and knees at the Seattle Bouldering Project. Spent the rest of the day moving curly braces and asterisks from one place to another.

I can only assume {and will only ever assume} that keeping track of all code must take a sharp mind. Is there anything special that we do to keep you focused on all those curly braces?

SB: Bungie is truly the land of perks. You can’t walk five feet without tripping over a perk or finding a new perk sitting on your desk in the morning, or getting an email about an upcoming perk, or HR reminding you about a perk you weren’t taking advantage of. Even my wife gets perks from Bungie. I feel the love every day.

What’s your favorite shade of love?

SB: I think I’m going to get all sappy and pick the team. I’m surrounded by brilliant, driven people who inspire me every day, challenging me to do better by simply being who they are. And not just on the job, but in the real world as well. For example, seeing people biking into work, or setting fun climbing problems, or doing weird crossfit-looking workouts on the deck, is super motivating.

I’m often reminded of the first word that popped into my head when I originally visited the Kirkland studio a few years ago: “Firepower”. This place has serious firepower. Bungie is driven to excellence in every possible direction and I love it.

What’s been your single proudest moment of personal excellence?

SB: Earlier this year, Joe and Barry went down to GDC to do a presentation on Destiny – inspiration, concepts, origins, the creative process, Tiger Man. Great presentation. They opened the curtains on what we’ve been doing for the past few years, and so of course a lot of the studio was watching the live stream.

Editor’s Note: Our community had a front-row seat as well.

SB: Part of the presentation included a short video, which I don’t think most of us had ever seen, demonstrating Grognok in action in a major way for the first time in public. It was sweet too, Ryan did a killer job. After the video finished, the GDC audience applauded. Then the entire Bungie studio spontaneously applauded and cheered. Throughout the day, many people made a point to also come by our area and congratulate the team on our work.

It’s not often that engineers get that kind of direct recognition for their work, and in such a public way. When I think back to that day, I still get all warm and fuzzy and a bit teary.

Wipe those tears away now. Like you said, the drive to excellence ain’t over. Can you share with us how you’ve stayed on the forefront as an engineer over a long career marked by a lot of hats?

SB: I used to do much of this by being active in the community, giving talks at GDC, running a blog, participating in the real world. Joining Bungie has changed all of that. By the time I finish a day here my tiny brain is so exhausted that I just can’t bring myself to do anything tech related after I leave. Maybe I’m getting old.

Therefore, most enrichment I do has to happen on the job. I’ve always had a policy of putting 20% of my work time into research, which delivers in unexpected ways, and at unexpected times. This includes keeping up on rss feeds, browsing Stack Overflow, reading articles sent out by friends and coworkers, and then beating it to death in technical discussions over lunch or while climbing. I constantly look for opportunities to weave this research into new work and apply some of that awesome science. Often it will crash and burn or end up abandoned due to “Squirrel!”

It always advances the craft.

Humble suggestions about your tiny brain aside, your footsteps would be hard ones to follow. Can you drop a few breadcrumbs for people that might be daring enough to try?

SB: First off, note that I’m only speaking for engineers here.

I’ve found that people wanting to work in the industry generally fall into two categories. First are the young people who want to go straight into games out of school. This has been covered endlessly online, so I don’t have much new to offer - other than to say “get off my lawn!”

In my first professional job, we were building stuff from scratch on top of 16-bit Windows. Today you can get a full game engine, world editor, starter resources and IDE for nearly any platform for cheap or free. Also included will be luxuries like the hosted bugbase, source control, and collaboration tools. It’s glorious, and it’s only going to get better. Take advantage, it’s an exciting time to be starting out.

In the second category, there are the older engineers who have been working on stock market chart ticker simulator rss feed touch apps (or whatever) for 10 years. They’re bored.  They don’t know anything about making games, but they don’t realize what great demand there is for their skillsets. They don’t even think about working at a place like Bungie. Well, we happen to be hiring tools engineers right now and we don’t care nearly as much about game-specific experience as we do about smarts and passion. Send your CV in to our Jobs page!

And there’s your call to action, alpha geeks. It turns out that curly brackets work in a lot of places. Scott has a construction site to return to, so that you too can suffer a horrible fate there someday – or climb to the top of the scaffolds as the champion. If advice like this is valuable to you (or just interesting in terms of who is making the games you want to play), you can find more stories like this in the Breaking In archive.
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