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Breaking In - Annie VanderMeer Mitsoda

With the development of Destiny, we’re working from a vision of an adventure that will surprise you with twists and turns that will deviate from the trail that you’re following. On the road to becoming a legend, you’ll encounter challenges that you weren’t expecting. A great metaphor for how this will feel is the path that one of our designers followed to arrive at Bungie. It just so happens that she’s helping to create the spaces where you’ll adjust your own course. You’ll find that her transcript is as long as her name.

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

AVM: I’m Annie VanderMeer Mitsoda, and I’m a game designer on the Public Events team. That means, when you’re running around various locations in Destiny (be it the dusty plains of Mars or the vegetation-choked ruins of Venus) and you see a warning about an event nearby, I’m lucky enough to have had a hand in creating it. I help decide the structure of certain event archetypes – the cover available to the player, the flow of the combat, the player objectives – and take charge of their placement in certain locations.

Those are some pretty big forces with which you’re meddling. Ultimately, how will your decisions impact the way we play Destiny?

AVM: Ideally, they’ll make the world seem more dynamic and alive, with exciting challenges everywhere waiting to be discovered, and enemies with their own agendas and goals independent of the player. Also, you know, extra fun stuff to shoot.

That’s awesome. You have your hands on the controls of things that gamers think about all day – an enviable position, to say the least. Tell us about your role in the ultimate Public Space – that being the real world outside our studio. What are your interests outside of work?

AVM: I suppose saying “playing video games” is a given, or should well be for game designers! At the risk of sounding too domestic, I love working in my garden (the Pacific Northwest has a fantastic climate), cooking with my awesome husband, and doing random kitchen experiments like making preserves and infusing vodka. I made a batch with fresh peaches not long ago and it is superlative. I dig on making jewelry, and I have my own etsy page. I write and draw, although not nearly as much as I used to. I even had a webcomic back in the day. While I’m a fan of wine, I’m becoming a bigger nerd for scotch/whiskey/bourbon. I am already a massive beer geek. The spouse and I bottled some Cascadian Dark Ale we’d made with friends about a month ago, and I hope to start brewing myself soon. Honestly, there’s kind of a staggering amount of fantastic stuff to see and do in Seattle, and my interests keep growing by the day.

You’re like a modern renaissance woman. How were you able to pick just one thing as the focus of your career?

AVM: When I was younger, I wanted to be a video game designer. Although, honestly, at age seven, I had no real idea what that was. All I knew was that I really wanted to make video games. I also wanted to write and act. Fortunately, I’ve been lucky enough to write for and do voice acting for games. Now I just have to get that giant mech suit I’ve always wanted.

That sounds like a parking nightmare in this town. Let’s back up and explore how a young lady goes from wanting to make games to actually making them. It’s a popular dream. How did you make yours a reality?

AVM: I graduated from Macalester College with a degree in English Literature. Though it may not seem like I use my degree directly, I think any knowledge you accumulate is helpful in game design. I also studied psychology – great for anticipating player reactions – and paleontology, which um… helps me convince people… that dinosaurs are rad? OK, I guess I don’t really use that one directly as much, but I did get to use my study of geology in an art meeting to reference the Earth’s hotspots and how they influence the terrain of the surrounding area.

That’s awesome, but kind of bizarre. Basically, you’re telling us that you followed a path of academic chaos that somehow landed you in a very important seat here in our studio?

AVM: All knowledge can be useful. Not to be a downer about it, but a good education is the best Plan B one can have. Even if one doesn’t end up utilizing it precisely how it might have been intended, it can still be absolutely handy. And, I can tell people cool stuff to look up on the internet to fascinate them during lunch breaks! (For example: look up Turritopsis nutricula and Diatryma on Wikipedia and if you don’t think those are cool then man, I don’t even know what to do with you.)

Immortal Jellyfish, while totally cool, don’t have the spine for the journey that leads to making games. We’d rather hear more about you. What is something you’ve done that prepared you for life on our team?

AVM: Previous to Bungie, I was a content designer at ArenaNet, where I worked on the Personal Story of Guild Wars 2 and moved to the first Living World team. Guild Wars 2 was the first truly multiplayer game I worked on, which entirely changes the way one thinks about play spaces. Though I worked on content that had a linear storyline, it was also the first real opportunity I had to work with large-scale content that can be encountered at completely variable times. That puts unique pressures on how you communicate to the player.

Now we’re getting somewhere. How did those challenges shape your view of game design?

AVM: I picked up a suite of lessons about how to teach mechanics to players on the fly, and how to deal with environments that are not these slender, scripted rides through a game, but a sprawling kind of playground. It’s kind of like the difference between plotting out a movie and setting up a theme park. There are lessons that carry over from one to the other, but there’s a lot that has to be learned that is unique to each.

What does all that mean in terms of what we’re creating now?

AVM: Since Destiny is such a radical departure from Bungie’s previous games – moving from that carefully scripted linear experience to something much more open and emergent – I’m carrying that knowledge with me, as well as past design sensibilities I’ve picked up from the other games I’ve been lucky enough to work on in the past!

On that note, let’s find out if you’ll be equally lucky in the future. How did you happen to score an introduction to Bungie?

AVM: Employee referral! I also pointed out that, as a game designer, I have invented curses for not one but two fantasy races, which is something I am very proud of.

Our in-person interviews have been described as a curse of our own invention. What, in your memory filled with interesting trivia, was our finest tactic for keeping you guessing in the hot seat?

AVM: Switching gears! One interview group would bring up a design challenge, and we’d start talking it over, and then their time would be up but I wouldn’t want to stop talking about the challenge because man, we were coming up with some really dynamite stuff. It was a lot of fun – I had to keep reminding myself it was Business Time, not Fun Game Design Playtime.

We like a healthy blend of both. Now that you’re in the mixer, what is the best thing about working for Bungie?

AVM: There is a level of focus here that is really unlike any other place I’ve been. Everyone is really friendly and easygoing, but from the moment you walk in the studio, it’s business time, and everyone is intently at work. It’s really intense, and a little intimidating, but when you’ve really got something to dig into, it’s like slipping into the fast lane. There’s a drive present here that speaks to the level of dedication of Bungie employees and the love they have for what they’re working on.

Prepare to merge! How would you describe just one day in our fast lane?

AVM: After making myself a strong cup of tea (a must-have), I scan my email while starting up Notepad++ and the ever-faithful Grognok. Then, after placing a new public event and doing an initial set of tweaks, I make the necessary changes to the ambient script for the area and compile it. If there aren’t any issues, I start the exporter in Grognok – then lock my computer (you gotta, with certain jokesters around) and head out to the gym. Once I get back, I grab something to nosh on for lunch, play through the level a bit whilst I nom on whatever it is I pilfered from the kitchen (string cheese: the lunch snack of champions), and take notes on what I’d like to change about my placement. I spend the rest of the day tweaking elements of that event in the level until I feel it’s good to go, then check in the level and script, and let my team know it’s ready to be tested and reviewed!

You speak in code that must only make sense to an industry veteran with access to propriety tools. But that’s the whole point of these chats. What is something you do to keep that rare mind of yours healthy and focused?

AVM: There’s an LA Fitness next door, and the free membership there is perfect for getting me up and moving on Monday/Wednesday/Friday. It’s a great kick in the butt to shed the suet of my sedentary lifestyle! And man, so many Bungie employees are in such good shape it’s preposterous. Like so many other things at Bungie, it’s like “man, look how cool that is, I want to do something that cool” – instead it’s like “Holy crap, Bungie folks are super fit, I must make that happen for meeee.”

Aside from living up the example set by the guys who hang out on the pull-up bar in the kitchen, what is the biggest challenge associated with what you do at Bungie?

AVM: Patience and foresight. Our tools are way powerful, but they can take a long time to do their work at times. Iteration is a careful process. Also, there’s an insane member of people working on this project, and the thought of potentially introducing any issues that might block the studio is intimidating as heck.

You’re right about the fact that we’ve grown a lot in recent years. We needed fresh talents like yours to create this living world for our game. What was it like to join our world?

AVM: At many other companies, when you start, you’re the “FNG,” someone who has to get sussed out and eyeballed and basically put through the wringer before they’re given anything solid to handle. Not at Bungie. The interview process is so thorough, they’re damn sure that they want you when they offer you the job. Since Day One, I never had any New Guy kind of jitters, or feeling like I needed to prove myself, or anything less than respect and kindness from everyone at Bungie. My lead dropped a major task in my lap really early on with full expectation that I could take it and run with it, and it felt excellent being able to do so with confidence in myself and the knowledge that others had confidence in me.

Now that you’ve settled in and proved that you can rise to the challenges of your role, how do you plan to reach new heights in terms of your skills?

AVM: In my spare time, I help out with writing and game design at my husband’s company, DoubleBear Productions, and help out with the occasional UI or character design element. I’m definitely not the best artist, but I’m working on improving my skills. Even though I’ll never be able to match the professionals, I enjoy the change of pace, and it definitely helps with being able to communicate expectations and collaborative elements with other departments.

In addition to that, I think part of being a game designer is not being able to switch that tendency to be curious, to examine. The best games can make me “shut up and enjoy the fun” for about 80% of the time.

This has been a fascinating conversation, but all good things (like the best games) must come to an end. Let’s wrap things up with a solid vote of confidence for those that you may have inspired. What recommendations would you make to someone who wants to do what you do?

AVM: EDUCATION! Seriously, get a solid Plan B. That may sound disheartening or crass, but did you seriously not read what I said earlier about everything being valuable when it comes to game design?! That also counts for other non-game design things!

MAKE GAMES. No, I’m not being a jerk! You can do it! You can do it right now. You can’t huck a rock ten feet these days without smacking into a game that has a toolset attached, or a big mod project. Don’t wait for someone to start dropping paychecks in your hand. If you love videogames and want to make them more than anything else, hunt down the means and just start wailing away at it. It doesn’t matter if your first efforts suck. It matters that you try, and learn, and keep at it.

Finally: Be tenacious. Be empathetic. Think not just about the game you want to make, but try thinking outside of your comfort zone for a change. Don’t beat yourself up if you fail. It happens. Just pick yourself up and try again. You’ll get there!

If our public spaces are half as engaging as one of the devs who is working on them, we should be in excellent shape. Annie’s story is an unexpected one, and we wouldn’t have it any other way. There are many ways to join the Bungie team, whether you think Dinosaurs are awesome or not. If you’d like to read some more of them, take an unexpected turn through the Breaking In archive.
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