Michael Zak isn’t the kind of guy you would expect to find at the centre of the video game industry. He’s an athlete who took up meditation at 14, studied art in university, and worked as a sanitation engineer. He’s an urban gardener who grows his own food, and would visit a modern art museum before he’d go to a comic store. But such wide-ranging interests, these varied talents, are why he was a key creative contributor to Halo 3, one of the most popular video games ever made.
The son of two University of Victoria graduates, Zak, was born and raised in Victoria. His first exposure to video games came when he was five and his father brought home an Apple II. “I played a fair bit of that,” he says, confessing that he had a box of bootlegged games for the early personal computer. “Back in that day, any idea could be a game. Today if you don’t have production value it’s considered a ‘small’ idea.” As he got older, though, he became more involved in sports. He was too busy doing other things to play video games.
Coming out of high school and preparing for UVic, he wasn’t sure what to study. “All my friends went into computer science,” he said. Having taken classes in every subject in high school, “I didn’t know where I wanted to go.” After a bit of soul searching, he realized that art was an effortless task for him. When making art he would lose his sense of time. “There was no will involved in initiating a project. Art was something I didn’t have to think about.”
Zak, BFA ’99, is based at Bungie Studios, the celebrated video game studio in the Seattle suburb of Kirkland. Bungie became a household name among gamers in 2001 when its video game, Halo: Combat Evolved, helped establish Microsoft’s Xbox gaming system. Since then, the Halo franchise—which also includes comics, novels, and a planned feature film—has become a cultural and entertainment phenomenon. In the US, 1.7 million copies of Halo 3 were pre-ordered, leading to first-day sales of $170 million when it was released last September. Worldwide, Halo 3 racked up sales of $300 million in the first week and by the end of the year, 8.1 million units had been sold worldwide. On average, there are about 14 million Halo 3 matches played online every day.
The story of Halo, which features super soldier Master Chief as its primary protagonist, is an epic about an intergalactic war between humanity and an alliance of aliens, called the Covenant. Halo 3 takes place on a battle-ravaged Earth as well as locations in another far off galaxy.
As environment art lead, Zak guided the artists who created the game’s picturesque backgrounds and sweeping landscapes. Computer-generated vistas of the African plains around Kilimanjaro, nooks and crannies of industrial warehouses, the close confines of space vessels, the game’s mountains, trees and grass, and water—all were created by Zak and the production team’s other artistic wizards.
“We’re trying to take the player on a galactic journey. We certainly build impossible structures, because it’s a sci-fi fantasy game,” says Zak. But a lot of his attention goes into the natural details that give Halo 3 its realistic visual appeal. The different ways that leaves decay or tree branches grow are evidence of his push to “get more entropy into the system.”
In February, Zak presented a session entitled “Environmental Design in Halo 3” at the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco. It said something about his success in creating the worlds for Halo 3 that the meeting room was standing room only with about 500 people wanting to hear how he and his team made Halo 3 look the way it does. He spent an hour talking about everything from aesthetics and the beauty of painting with light, to pragmatic issues such as the need to create an environment that provides the player with cover and a clear path from one place to another.
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