Bungie's Mark Noseworthy on Breaking Bones and Building Worlds for 'Destiny 2'

"We made a game we want to play," the 'D2' project lead says

Bungie's Mark Noseworthy Credit: Bungie

As a child, Mark Noseworthy thought he might one day follow in his father's footsteps and become a police officer. Tall, boyish, and clean-cut, he has the look of a cop about him. But the Nintendo Entertainment System had other ideas, and a trip to a friend's house in the 1980s changed everything.

"I'd been exposed to video games prior to that, like Atari and ColecoVision, but they were trash to me," the Canadian-born developer says. "When I finally saw the Nintendo, my mind was blown. I think [my friend] was playing Castlevania at the time. And then I just needed one so badly. I couldn't consume video games enough." By age 13, pre-internet, Noseworthy had subscriptions to six different magazines like Electronic Gaming Monthly, Next Generation, and Nintendo Power. He would devour strategy guides and memorize cheat codes to his favorite games, such as Mike Tyson's Punch Out!! He still remembers the password for unlocking the playable Mike Tyson character, he tells me, before reciting it from memory. Eventually, the obsession became a dream. "I knew from a young age," he says, "I want to make video games."

After graduating from the University of Manitoba with a degree in finance and marketing, Noseworthy spent time at Nokia Games and then Relic Entertainment before making his way to Bungie. At Relic, he helped ship The Outfit, an Xbox 360 launch title, and real-time strategy games like Company of Heroes and Dawn of War II. Those weren't the sort of games he liked to play, however, so he was eager to make the move out west to work on 2010's Halo: Reach, for which he's credited as an engineering producer.

He went on to executive-produce The Taken King, the largest and most inspired of Destiny's four major expansions, and is now the project lead on this year's eagerly awaited Destiny 2. With three weeks to go until release, Noseworthy is taking the pressure in stride; He hasn't yet resorted to putting up a cot at Bungie headquarters and sleeping in an office. He lives nearby and still enjoys coming to work in the morning. "Some people get into games and they're like, 'Oh, my God. This is not all fun and games. This isn't for me.' But I was hopeful that – because I was so passionate about games – that if I could get into the industry, I'd have a career that was like a calling."

Growing up, he saw the importance of cultivating a healthy work-life balance. "I thought the way to do it was to take the thing I care the most about, in terms of my passion – you know, video games – and make that my career. To chase that."

The biggest part of the job today, Noseworthy says, involves taking director Luke Smith's vision for the project and figuring out how best to implement it using the resources at their disposal. "I'm thinking, OK, but how do we actually build it? And then how do we also keep a team that's motivated and happy to do it?' " He likens his creative philosophy to the North Star, guiding the various teams toward the singular goal of making a something great. If you can get people to understand the key goals, or pillars, of the project – "the why behind things" – then the specifics can fall into place. "Artists, engineers, designers, individual people on the team – they all bring something special to the table. They've got some unique perspective from their life, from their careers and their education, and you want to bring that out of people," he explains.

"We're trying to make the game more generous and more clear about cause and effect."

"I don't know what it's like leading a team of six, seven hundred people, building a skyscraper or a stadium. I have no idea what that's like. But in entertainment – certainly the people we hire at Bungie – they want to make something that matters," says Noseworthy. "We consider ourselves members of the community as well as the developers. And for, I think, the vast majority of us – Destiny 2's gonna come out, and we're gonna keep playing it." In fact, he's already put in for time off. Once the game releases, he plans to take a family trip and then play a whole lot of D2. "Because it's fun. We made a game we want to play. And when you combine those three things – give people clear goals so that they'll understand the why, and get them to see that they have the possibility to really impact the product and make it truly great, and knowing that they, too, want to play it with their friends and their family – those things really motivate people."

Destiny 2 presents a big challenge for Bungie, and Noseworthy doesn't shy away from admitting where the first Destiny fell short of the mark. For one thing, the studio struggled to maintain harmony between the complexity of a systems-heavy, RPG-style multiplayer game and an experience that felt inviting to new players.

"It was a game that became difficult to recommend," he says. "It got to this point where, you know, your brother-in-law or someone would ask you: 'Hey, should I be playing this Destiny game?' And my first instinct would be like, 'Mmm, I don't know if I've got enough time to carry you for that period of time, where I'm gonna have to explain everything.' " One of the biggest aims for the sequel is to make sure that the treasure-hunting aspect, where you slay some big monster from outer space and then the game rewards you with loot (e.g., a gun or piece of armor), feels satisfying for every type of player. "We're trying to make the game more generous and more clear about cause and effect," Noseworthy says.

The other issue the developer has addressed with their upcoming sequel is the first game's convoluted narrative, much of which was relegated to the Grimoire, an archive of short fiction and vignettes at website Bungie.net. "With the Cabal and the main storyline of the Red War, we're trying to tell a relatable story with memorable characters, where you want to anticipate what's gonna happen next and push the story forward. And that means having a really interesting villain," says Noseworthy, who at several points during the game's development worried about how Ghaul, the game's antagonist, might be received. “Are we making him too sympathetic? Are you almost rooting for him? Because at some point, you know, you might fight him. And you've gotta want to win."

Ghaul is the leader of the Red Legion, an alien invasion force that arrives at the start of the game's opening mission to devastate the Last City on Earth – the location of the Tower, players' home in the first game – and seize an otherworldly object known as the Traveler. The Traveler, a giant floating sphere that arrived in our solar system centuries ago and brought about a Golden Age of social and technological progress, is the source of the Guardians' (i.e., players') magical abilities in Destiny, and, understandably, Ghaul wants a taste of that power for himself.

Noseworthy recalls meetings where, in trying to map out Destiny 2, Bungie's leadership looked to the past – at games like Halo 2 and Halo 3 – to help them understand the opportunities presented by making a full sequel rather than another expansion. "Every Destiny can't just be about threatening humanity's existence, where the sun's gonna blow up every single time," he says. "But I think what you can do every single time is to make the story relatable. And for us the loss of home, and wanting to get back what was taken from you, felt like a very relatable scenario for people... How do we make it so that it's something people can understand, you know? Because we have not always hit that bar, in Bungie's history, and so we wanted something people can understand and relate to – so that they can really care about it."

Making a sequel also comes with a sense of freedom. It's a chance to welcome new players into the shared world of Destiny while considering how best to serve the future of the series. "With Destiny 2, you get to say, 'Hey, we're gonna wipe the slate clean – narratively, in terms of the sandbox and player progression – and start fresh,' " he says. "You get to break bones."