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Breaking In - Andy Xiao

Previously in the Breaking In series of hard hitting exposes from the trenches of game development at Bungie, we talked to Kailey Frizzell about tackling the bigger moments in the story that awaits you in Destiny. This week, one of her teammates has volunteered to go thusly under the microscope. To make sure the story we’re about to tell blows your mind, we task this guy with some very special operations.

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

AX:  My name is Andy Xiao. I’m a generalist on the Spec Ops team. My responsibilities include modeling, texturing, rigging, animation, shader effects, working with emitters and scripting. I spend a lot of time prototyping and creating placeholder objects and effects, as well as executing on some of the spectacles you’ll see in the game. My job demands that I must be as flexible as possible so I can service different departments to get things done.

A true Spec Ops mission is designed to be invisible. By the very nature of your gig, will we see some evidence of your work in the game?

AX:  I’ve worked on a lot of spectacles in Destiny. Those moments are the ones our players will be discussing around the water cooler, in the elevator. Those moments are going to catapult the game from awesome to “HOLY !@#%”.

When you’re not creating game content that will make our eventual player base shout expletives at their television, how do you build awesome moments into your own life?

AX:  I’ve been studying Astronomy and physics courses by listening to college podcasts. Once in a while my friends and I would get together and play Magic: The Gathering (my favorite color is mono white). My cat and I are HUGE Seahawks fans.

It sounds like you’re in the center of our storm at Bungie – helping to assemble a cathedral in the middle of a hurricane, if you will. Has that been the realization of a life dream?

AX:  When I was younger, I wanted to be a game developer. No joke. The first game I ever played was Contra on NES. I immediately asked my cousin, “How do they make this?” Along the way, I picked up some art skills, but I’ve always wanted to make video games ever since I was a little kid.

Was it “Contra” that had you hooked? Or is there another title that can lay claim to your inspiration?

AX:  Contra had my attention, but it was Command and Conquer: Red Alert that made me want to get into the business of making games. I had so much fun playing that game and watching my friends play it. I wanted to share that level of excitement and joy with everyone.

You mentioned picking up some skills. What stops did you make along the way to learn what you would need to know to enable excitement and joy?

AX:  I have a Bachelor of Science in Game Art Development from The Art Institute of Portland. The first 3D program I received training on was Maya, and I can’t live without it every day.

Portland is pretty close to our cradle of development here in Washington. Were we your first stop, or were there some evolutionary detours on your way here?

AX:  After my adventure with a startup game company in Florida, I landed a contract gig at Bungie working on Halo: Reach as a 3D artist. When my contract was up, I spent 2.5 years working at Sucker Punch on inFAMOUS 2, inFAMOUS 2: Festival of Blood as well as inFAMOUS: Second Son. Along the way I’ve worked with many talented artists and chopped off their heads and gained their power picked up a wide range of skills from each of them. The tips and advice they offered were tremendously helpful.

So, you’re a boomerang employee! We’ll talk about your final boss fight with Bungie in a moment. How did you win your first bout with the Bungie recruitment machine?

AX:  For my art test on Halo: Reach, I went above and beyond the requirements. I recorded every step of my process and created a step-by-step walkthrough on the decisions and techniques I’ve used to finish the test. I even mimicked Halo 3’s graphic design in the presentation of the walkthrough. The many hours of slaughtering each other on the same screen back in College finally paid off!

Then, years later, you were back to land a seat on the Destiny team. Was that interview harder? We do like to provide increasing levels of difficulty as your campaign progresses.

AX:  I knew I wanted the generalist position really badly when I interviewed with Bungie and I also knew that the position of the job really demands one to be knowledgeable in many fields. The hardest part was trying to convince Bungie that I have a wide range of skills in a short time. It’s like trying to show someone your collection of Pokemons and you have to scroll through the pokedex with lightning speed.

And still, Bungie chose you! What’s your favorite card from our deck?

AX:  Everyone here at Bungie cares. They care about the game, they care about the quality of their craft, and they care about each other. It’s this super positive energy that feeds off of each other and you can’t help but feel extremely excited about the things you are working on and how it will hold up in the eyes of our players.

That a great high-level summary, but we could use a boots-on-the-ground perspective. Can you give us an idea for how all those positive vibes can impact one day in our studio?

AX:  I can’t start the day without a nice cup of unsweetened Earl Grey. Once the tea has been secured, I’ll check emails to see if there’s anything I should pay attention to. The rest of the day, I’ll be working on the task and checking in periodically with my Product Engineer on bugs and technical problems. Once in a while, pictures of cats and funny captions will magically appear on my other monitor. I have no idea why it keeps happening, but yes, you can has cheeseburger.

We all need rations when we’re kicking ass. Do you have a favorite?

AX:  The beer fridge provides elixirs that just melt away the stress. I can’t imagine making video games without the presence of beer. Did I mention there’s a beer fridge? 

You did. You’re making me thirsty. Aside from staying sober, what’s the biggest challenge for a special operator like you?

AX:  The things SpecOps work on are really cool. At the same time, they’re really vulnerable to being broken. You often hear devs talk about “A fix of a bug causes another bug.” It’s one of the many challenges we face. Considering that we’re literally bending the system in the most creative way possible to create incredible spectacles, we have to be really careful when it comes to approaching every task.

Of all the really cool things that you’ve worked on, which was the coolest?

AX:  I did a lot of work for an activity that just came online. Previously most of the content was placeholder. I wasn’t sure how my art and execution would impact that part of the game, but my doubts went away when our design lead Luke Smith came back with the good news from playtests, describing everyone’s excitement when seeing new content and how they were in awe of the art. That level of excitement was exactly what I hoped to bring out of our players. That’s when I realize Bungie is the place for me to do just that.

I know the activity of which you speak. Nice work! That’s a high watermark, but we’ll still expect you  to top it. What’s your plan to get better at what you do, so that you can outdo yourself?

AX:  I like to model cars in my spare time, because they’re really organic and complex in shape. They are perfect for honing your modeling skills. I also frequent polycount to check out threads on new workflow, new tools, and read about how other artists solve both artistic and technical problems. It doesn’t hurt to have a mental database of how other people troubleshoot, because one day it may apply to you. Thanks to Bungie, we have access to the GDC Vault. There are many good lectures on a variety of subjects. I often listen to them so I can catch up with the latest in the industry.

As someone who decided to make games after playing Command and Conquer, you know that games have a way of inspiring people. If someone told you that they became equally inspired by playing Destiny, what would you tell them?

AX:  Find out what you want to do, what you’re good at doing, and what you want to achieve with your skills. Simply playing a lot of video games isn’t enough to make a video game. If you have a clear vision on where you want to be, sail to it, don’t let any winds sway you.

I think everyone can be a game dev. You may not get the role you wanted initially, but be patient, and keep looking. Everyone’s different because we have different aspirations, skills, and focus. This industry is an amazing place where talents from all corners of the world gather together to make magic happen. If you can find your focus, with hard work and perseverance, you can be a part of the industry.

My old man always told me, “When you fail, be patient. When you succeed, be humble.”

Our readers are anxious to play this game. Point them in the direction of something they should enjoy once they get there.

AX:  Keep a look out on the public events. They are one of the coolest things in the game. The talented SpecOps team and I put in tremendous amounts of work in them. We hope they will blow you guys away!

How about you? What will you be enjoying when your work is released into the wild?

AX:  I’m a huge loot guy. Looking forward to the phat loots and decking out my character with my friends!

The SpecOps team has a lot of friends. Like Andy said, they work with a lot of different departments to enhance some major moments in the game. To get to know some of his other teammates, check out the Breaking In archive.
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