One time I did something very stupid.
I was mad that some software had changed, and I was like, I don’t know, 23? 22? Young as shit, and a website I did all my Commenting on — a website that would somehow overlook how stupid I had been a few years later and give me money in exchange for words professionally — had changed its software. I wrote the poor editor in chief (who would later whip me into shape as a better writer and give me money to do it, which I am in awe of because I was a dumb shit) and was like “this is goodbye! forever! I’m never coming back! This new commenting system sucks!
It did, and I was right and community engagement for the sites seems like it plummeted, but I mean, it wasn’t goodbye forever, was it? Heck, I ended up running Kotaku one weekend, thanks to Stephen, the poor editor who I’d sent my shitty little goodbye to. I probably still have it somewhere; I don’t think it was rude or terrible or anything, but it was stupid because that’s what stupid kids bored out of their minds waiting on teachers to request syllabus printing do I guess. It wasn’t bad enough that a few years later, Stephen Totilo would kindly take a pitch, forget about it because of the rush of… I wanna say E3? Apologize, offer to accept three pitches in return, and then after I sent in three and I thought he’d never, ever want to see my work again, out of the kindess of his mother fucking heart, the man emailed me and asked “what’s next?”
What’s next was a piece about Halo: Combat Evolved, an article thirteen years late to The Discourse, and what followed was a fruitful relationship where I got to share my knowledge about games and learn more than I ever thought possible.
This is to say I know two things: first, that I can be wrong about goodbyes, second, that melodrama never did anyone any favors, and third, that frustration can be understood.
Three things. I know three things. I guess.
I developed a skill working with an audience that was passionate about video games but, as I knew all too well, didn’t necessarily know how games worked. Even the ones who did, as I’d found out when I made pen pals with a pro from the comments section, were hungry for good, helpful discourse.
So I did my absolute best. I did my best to write pieces that were helpful, because while other writers at other sites would caution against looking at the comment sections, I found that most people genuinely cared and really did want to know. Some people would post flippant remarks when they felt talked down to, or like the writer didn’t care, but you could be helpful and even if you said something they didn’t want to hear, if they felt respected, if they felt helped, they’d at least find some value in it, and they wouldn’t call for your head.
I don’t do professional games writing anymore after a mix of bad experiences (an editor stole a pitch at one site that now no longer exists, another editor said ‘this piece would be more timely if it had been submitted [when I had submitted it, six months prior]’ and a few other things, my move to indie game development, and a shift of most websites over to reporting as opposed to educational criticism. My work still did great traffic — I think that Zelda piece I did for USGamer was some of their highest traffic that month or year? — and I met so many amazing people, like Evan Narcisse (who was so kind to me that Labor Day weekend I ran Kotaku), Kat Bailey (who took a shot on me for USGamer and I hope I proved her right), and Caty McCarthy (who is tied with Stephen and Kat as one of the best editors I ever had. I asked her to trust me once. She did. That Zelda piece worked out pretty good, I hear). I learned a lot, and I’ve moved over to Medium, where I get to write the kind of rambling, comprehensive, weird pieces that bring out the most in my voice.
I hope, above all else, that I am helpful, though. There is no point in writing if you can’t get something from it.
But the other day, I did something I never thought I’d do.
I uninstalled a Bungie game.
Bungie, y’know, that Bungie. The studio that had produced games that changed me as a person; the studio that made one of the first shooters I ever played, where I sat, wide-eyed, in my buddy Robert’s trailer as his scruffy dog pawed at my arm and Robert said in a hushed whisper “they’re not dead. These guys aren’t dead. They’ll get back up.”
I bought a sound card to get the free copy of Halo that came with it. Dad threw it out because he saw that it had ‘free games’ on the side. I, stupidly, fished out Halo and Halo only. When friends invited me over to play Halo, you bet I was there, despite my parents’ strict policies. The first sci-fi novel I read that wasn’t C.S. Lewis or Jules Verne — the only science fiction allowed by my parents — was a Halo novel (THE FLOOD). I got into comics because I stumbled across the Halo Graphic Novel and read Tsutomu Nihei’s story about Johnson and the Flood called Breaking Quarantine. Halo was one of those special games that informed so much about my understanding of game design.
When I was living out of a camper in the middle of the winter, wrapped up in blankets and stealing electricity on the edge of a church parking lot (and later, thankfully, was able to live the church library), I downloaded Marathon’s source ports from Aleph One (and so can you) and gobbled them right up.
Oni was the first game I pirated, before I had a job, and after I got a job, I went out and bought it because piracy is so much about what people can pay and if you’ve ever lived in poverty you develop kind of a sympathy to most pirates.
I wrote lots about Halo; talked about why 343 Industries’ Halo games kill player motive and make the experience unfun at an emotional level, why I love the Flood, how the ‘choose your own objective’ structure of ONI Sword Base makes it a wonderful level… heck, I have a draft somewhere that says the reason Halo 3 works so much is because it’s a game where I can sit down with my friends and laugh.
Destiny is a game where, shortly after the Dark Below, when I was alone on food stamps, and my brother/roommate was gone for Christmas, and I had no cash, nothing to get him, I logged into his account and grinded out every. single. legendary. i could. I think by the end, I had filled his postmaster and his inventory with legendary engrams. Some time during the year of The Taken King, after a successful night raiding, my brother came out of his room and sat next to me on the couch and he said “I’m grateful for Destiny. It’s been great to bond with you like this.”
Destiny was where I made new friends, helped me work out a lot of my thoughts on online game design, introduced me to my favorite gun ever (even though, yes, i’m the shotgun guy according to twitter) and just… god, I don’t even know. Destiny was the place I hung out with people in some of the darkest times of my life, a game that I learned so well by now that I can just log in, run around, shut my mind off and shoot things.
Destiny, for me, has always been safe.
I look back on my legacy in the game with fondness. Am I sad I can’t use that Hung Jury SR4 in Destiny 2? Oh yeah definitely; Destiny 2 is on PC, which is where I prefer to play shooters, but I’d love to spend all my time on the series’ best planet, Venus, running around shooting Fallen and Vex (I loves me them Hives and Cabals but let me tell u fellas, venus. Venus, oh my god, yes, Venus.). One of my favorite gaming memories is on Venus!
(vault of glass, only 3 of us alive, heroic difficulty, having a bad dad, Max dies before he can cleanse me, I’m going blind, I grab the relic, boom, we’re back in ‘left side,’ the sandy hell portal. Total failure. Atheon health so low we couldn’t see it, but wasn’t dead. “Wipe? Wipe?” echoing through the comms. “Screw it,” says my little bro, pulls his golden gun, jumps off the portal, firing at Atheon… and somehow the fucker goes down. Max gets his Red Death. I could be wrong, but I think that’s when I got my first Hawkmoon).
Vault of Glass is coming back in Destiny 2. Hawkmoon already is, so I hear, though so radically altered it’s not the same gun.
I haven’t logged into the game since… I don’t know when. So the other day, I uninstalled it.
…and, in that overriding desire to be helpful… is there a way to fix it? Because I’d like to go back. Make no mistake. This isn’t a melodramatic breakup letter. This is Doc, almost ten years away from that silly kid being mad about Kinja 1.0. This is Doc, with a game that won GOTYs under his belt. This is Doc, who’s consulted on something like 20 games, mostly AAA, mostly online games.
Wish I could give you the bona fides, but they’re mostly under NDA. Telling you I’m in the special thanks for a shooter like Dusk probably isn’t gonna help you none.
So how about this?
Destiny 2 comes out and it seems great at first, gets higher scores than Destiny 1 thanks to the coherent plot and best PC port I’ve ever seen for a video game (though, fun fact, on my pc, for some reason, if steamvr is installed, I get hitching every couple of seconds), and then… people realize the endgame isn’t there. So I write about it for USGamer. And then I write a little more.
Nine months later, Forsaken hits, and it’s got just about everything I said it would need to in order to be a success.
Now, let’s be clear, I don’t think Bungie read what I had to say, much less magically managed to implement my suggestions in that nine month time period. I am not taking credit for it unless Luke or Mark or somebody else up the food chain there comes out online and is like “oh actually this may surprise you, Doc, but your writing was our bible for Forsaken!” and even then I’m gonna be skeptical as hell.
But I do this for a living, and I have seen games years prior to their announcement and release, and I have offered up super in-depth reports on how to improve them. Some can listen to me and have, and some of those games are critically acclaimed; I played a very, very small part of that success. Others have totally ignored me, and while the jokester in me wants to add at their peril to make you laugh, this is writing, and sometimes people read writing as more hostile than it’s intended.
What I did — and what I’m good at, because I’ve done it for quite a few people — is telling people how players get invested in online, service-based games.
So with Destiny 2: Forsaken, I had nothing to do with that project, and I’m sure Bungie didn’t even know I existed, much less took my decisions into account (there was the mysterious season right after where we had that awful hung jury scout rifle pinnacle that felt like a personal insult and then that absolutely could-have-been-excellent gambit scout rifle that felt less like a personal insult and more like the natural result of scout rifles in destiny 2 sucking ass compared to destiny 1, so maybe they did pay attention — read more on that in the hung jury article I linked above), but the reason I was able to say “this is what they oughtta do” and accurately predict that people would be very happy with what happened was because, well… that’s my specialty.
I’m also a narrative designer and I’m pretty good at that too. Check out the upcoming game I directed, Adios, if you want to see what I do with a bit more money than $0. Or if you want to learn all about the chestnut tree blight, ghost navigators, corpse disposal, or soda machine repair as a hobby. Also Ishtar, that ancient Sumerian goddess who once threatened, during the Epic of Gilgamesh, to open the gates of hell and let the dead devour the living because she was mad about the Bull of Heaven, is being resurrected during the events of the game but that’s uh, that’s for the sequel. Adios is a bit more restrained.
Right, but, back on topic.
The point is, stupid kid Doc said ‘goodbye’ because he was mad about the features of a commenting text editor and was scared that his primary source of human contact (disability sucks) was going away.
Smarter (maybe?) adult Doc said goodbye to Destiny because every time he logged in, he felt a little sad. Because every friend had already gone on before him, except Brian, whose excellent game Caves of Qud you should play.
So that’s what this is about.
I give a fuck and im tryinna be helpful and I know that when someone criticizes something you put your heart and soul into it can feel awful, but I’m over here thinking ‘please, god, just let me be helpful.’ I only mention the bona fides to exude confidence because I want to look you square in the eye and tell you “I got this,” and I want you to feel reassured by that confidence. We are in this together, you and I, and I am here to be helpful as fuck and so I feel I should tell you why I know I got this.
And now I have, so let’s get started.
I don’t normally do multiple drafts, but the first time I wrote this I started off talking about how Bungie had previously handled Destiny. There’s an advantage to this, which is showing how we got to here from there. But the truth is, I’ve already written about this a lot; you might get the sense we’re treading old ground.
Here’s what you need to know: Bungie promised the idea of a fascinating game, but the one idea that stuck with me the most was the idea that this was your journey, one you could experience through time, a kind of alternate life. As a person who is disabled and cannot afford serious medical care, Destiny is unique in that it offers actual escapism by allowing you to create your own history. This is not just a game that you play once and finish, this is a game where you earn battle scars. This is a game where I can pull open my vault and say “yeah, I remember getting that.”
I remember Bungie talking about that too on a podcast, years ago. 2013, maybe? 2014? Destiny wasn’t out yet, but I’d moved into this apartment and I was finally back in school, ready to learn after my diagnosis had killed the dream of flying for good.
It was something about like, you get a gun, it stays with you for five, ten years. And when I played the game, and I got my first two exotics — icebreaker, then the last word — I got it. I think I finally got rid of my original Comedian shotgun after they started offering a version with higher-tier stats. My Shadow Price and The Devil You Know are in that vault somewhere. So’s my Vision of Confluence.
Couldn’t tell you about my guns in Ghost Recon. I think I have a Barrett M82 equivalent. Borderlands? Yeah, the guns don’t matter.
In Destiny, they do.
I’ve argued before, and I’ll argue again, that in Destiny, guns aren’t just goals, they’re characters. They sit in your screen, change how you move. Just changing your reticle can make a gun feel different; a shotgun is going to make you do things that a scout rifle user won’t be doing, y’know? The gun influences your physical playstyle in Destiny in a way no gun in, say, Borderlands ever did. Some of this is level design, encounter design, player build, and other stuff, but the guns aren’t disposable.
And that’s why Destiny, like Monster Hunter (Capcom’s best selling game ever), Warframe, Pokemon, and every shooter hero where someone has a main, matters, because when you get a gun, you add a new character to your party, and that character changes how you play.
So you can probably tell what this is about, if you know about Destiny. But trust me, we’re gonna go places you didn’t think to get there, so if you don’t know what this is about, don’t worry; the guys who think they know where we’re going know as much as you do.
You aren’t lost, the journey’s just getting started at uh, 2,900 words in. :)
In 2014, what we got from Destiny was a confusing story that didn’t have the kind of get hype vibes that Halo did. I could go into why but the short version is that they don’t have a IWHBYD modifer and the long version, abbreviated, is that Halo is a game about being a Space Hero Doing Heroic Shit and Destiny was a game where you did things for unclear reasons with stakes that didn’t make sense. And there was really bad loot drop pacing and no real sense of what an endgame (what you do after you finish the story, which is effectively an appetizer) should be and you had just one activity, called a raid, to play if you wanted to hit your maximum power score.
They figured it out with a lot of trial and error and working closely with their fans and making some great fuckin decisions along the way.
And then Destiny 2 dropped and was like “actually, fuck the idea of randomized loot for some reason, and also scout rifles have to suck ass now.” In my USGamer piece, I said non-randomized loot was like getting Final Fantasy 7 for Christmas. Sounds good the first time you get it, right? But… what happens if you get it every Christmas? At some point, you know it’s coming and you already have it, so why seek out more? This was the biggest problem facing Destiny 2: once you got one gun, why continue playing activities? What could you get from those activities that actually mattered?
Bungie’s answer to the randomization issue was tokens that you’d either get directly or by breaking down loot. Basically every vendor had this “give me whatever you got and after you give me enough I’ll give you a free lotto pull.”
If you don’t know much about How Humans Do Shit, which is the point of this blog and all the design posts I do, you might think “oh that makes sense. we know humans can be motivated to do activities through stimulus of the pleasure center in the brain thanks to classical conditioning, so a lottery system sounds like it would be really compelling!”
I write all my articles with the assumption you, whoever you are, are an expert in something, but not necessarily what I am talking about. This means you are smarter than you might even give yourself credit for, and you know a lot, but you might not know what I’m talking about. My assumption is if you’ve made it this far though, you’re interested, so apologies if you already know how conditioning works; this is for the rest of you who are smart but also new to this topic:
There are two kinds of conditioning. One is classical, one is operant. Classical conditioning is like, when you smell delicious food and you start to salivate. Operant conditioning is when you touch a hot stove, go “ouch!” and resolve not to do it again.
Some dude named Pavlov basically figured out that his dogs would begin salivating as soon as they saw the trainer who brought them food instead of when they sensed the food; the physical stimuli made their brains go “ooh, yes, food!” and get excited.
Anyways, some very clever people went “hmm, what if we can make people’s brains go ziiiiing! when they engage in behavior we want them to engage in? Supposedly we could manipulate people into doin what we want?”
I’ve said it many times because I want to hammer it home: game design is the art of getting people to take interesting actions.
Some people think game design is using classical conditioning to manipulate people into sticking with their game.
But there’s a problem.
There’s this dude, Daniel Pink, who wrote this really cool book, Drive, which is about Why Humans Do Shit. As you know, that’s basically everything I ever write about and it’s a topic I’m fascinated by, and the book is supremely fucking cool. Part of the reason?
Because… it turns out classical conditioning doesn’t work.
“What? How could that be? Isn’t it peer reviewed?” Yeah, and it works for a little while, but — and this is super crucial — what we find is that after a short while, it stops working. It actually makes people resentful, disagreeable, grumpy as fuck. Humans love play, but psychological compulsion tricks, through forcing us into a box of extrinsic rewards, eventually turn joy into chores.
So when you get a Better Devils hand cannon after a few matches, it loses its luster. When it’s a static roll instead of a random roll… well, then it’s really bad. Pulling the lottery doesn’t make the experience more compelling.
What’s a static roll vs a random roll? Well, we’re gonna need to remember this later, so here’s the short version: every gun in Destiny has these things called perks. The perks change how the gun works. Like, you might have a hand cannon that fires 140 rounds per minute, and it might come with the perk outlaw (which makes your gun reload faster after you shoot an enemy in the head for a headshot kill), and it might have firefly (which causes enemies to explode when they are killed with a headshot, damaging enemies around them).
We would consider this a ‘god roll,’ in the destiny community, because that’s a gun that has two perks which compliment each other. Contrast that with a sniper rifle that has “hip-fire grip” as one of its perks — snipers are not accurate when fired from the hip. You could instantly delete a disappointment like that from your inventory, unless bungie introduces a sniper-only perk that’s like “non-boss enemies damaged by hip fire grip take increased damage for x seconds,” and suddenly hip-fire grip combos really well and the gun gets more interesting.
For a while, we only had ‘static rolls,’ which means every Better Devils had the exact same roll. Once you got one, you didn’t need to farm (play specific areas of the game over and over until you get what you want) because there was nothing to farm. Static rolls meant there were only 200 guns, and like 5 of them were great and the rest were not as great so you knew what you could and could not break down pretty quickly, which meant that most loot was disappointing, and getting god tier loot twice was also disappointing, because there was no reason to have two of the same weapon.
I heard someone from Bungie once say in an interview that the problem with D2 Year 1 was that they gave away “too many legendaries.” Not true. The drop rate was fine because the only viable weapons are legendary and exotic; the problem was, with almost no guns, you ended up getting Final Fantasy VII for Christmas, Thanksgiving, and heck, even Arbor Day. I only need one copy of FFVII, thanks. What am I gonna do with 50? Same thing with static rolls.
So… Bungie would have to change things.
They’d have to introduce random rolls.
The Problem With Random Rolls
This is not a problem, but some people think you need to ‘balance’ a co-op looter game that’s about running around killing NPCs. That’s silly, fuck balance, all my homies hate balance. They want guns that make them feel great to use and they want to figure out insane builds (a build is where players figure out the right equipment and character perks to do a specific task really well, like, maybe have a bunch of stuff for recharge rates and then boost your healing stats really high so that you can constantly keep your party alive by having your ability to heal players up at all times).
“but doc, what about competitive multiplayer”
idk last time I saw publicly available data for destiny player time directly from bungie,
Nearly all of the player time was spent in PVE content.
So, unless this has changed, I question the primacy of competitive multiplayer in this; nobody cares if you go into a strike and some guy makes your life a little easier because he does 16% more damage than you. I do this all the time with friends in Genshin. It absolutely rules that my buddy Xavus, can go in and fuck ’em up with a character called Ganyu and some amazing relics he farmed. He helped me finish some difficult shit and I really appreciated it. Co-op insane builds to let players zip through content rules.
Bungie, however, does not want to balance PVP separately from PVE except when they do that exact thing, which means that PVP must, absolutely must, be prioritized despite only accounting for like 15% of all player time (in this slide from 5 years ago which may not be accurate now) in the game, because nobody wants to feel like they lost because Jimmy Gunfingers got really lucky on his loot and Janie Bulletsmith didn’t get lucky on hers. Everything gets put in this super narrow band of what is and is not acceptable so we can mostly agree that the reason we lost is because the other guy either cheated or we were suffering from lag, or because we were simply going easy on him, not because he had better loot.
So I’m personally going to — as someone who doesn’t like PVP and is thus biased — make the absolutely, definitely unbiased statement that fuck PVP, just give everyone in PVP a khovostov (starter gun with fixed rolls iirc), offer up a free for all mode that’s chaos and lets you bring in anything you want with the understanding that it is free for all, and be done with it.
But for the rest of us? The ones actually playing 90% of the content that makes Destiny Destiny?
We got a problem with random rolls too, and it pains me to say it, but it’s damage perks.
So, like, look. The more you play a service-based game, the faster you want to get through content. A damage perk is very, very good for this. Rampage (D2)/Crowd Control (D1) is basically just a combo meter that increases the damage you do for a time after a kill. Pair that with a good headshot gun and you get an Outlaw/Rampage gun that absolutely slaps. It is never not a bad choice.
It is often the best choice.
That means that you end up in a situation where you have random rolls, sure, but now every Kindled Orchid and Finite Impactor and Nation of Beasts, if it drops with that, is the right gun, and if every single one of those 140 rpm hand cannons have the exact same perks… then… why grind for them?
Why play Destiny at all?
Why Play Destiny At All Indeed?
The reason we play Destiny is, according to a trailer for Destiny 2, “for the loot,” but if all your loot is genuinely identical, you run out of things to get. If your loot is randomized but one perk set rules them all, then it’s effectively not randomized and simply harder to get. The more perks you have, the more possibilities there are for interesting guns, but with the seemingly self-imposed problem of “we can’t really go wild with our perks because it could fuck up multiplayer,” and the understandable issue of damage-dealing god rolls being at the top of the totem pole (which is kind of caused by there not being crazy perk variety), you end up with loot that doesn’t feel super varied.
In Destiny, you basically have two kinds of meaningful loot (I don’t think tokens, shaders, or the game’s equivalent of gold are that meaningful): guns and armor. Armor determines how long you survive and occasionally gives slight bonuses like “a faster grenade recharge” or “super energy on headshot kills of the darkness.” Sadly, you’re never going to find an armor set in Destiny that, like, says “on every melee hit, gain a stack of ANGERY and after 10 stacks of ANGERY, store a SUPER PUNCH that gibs everyone around you in a 10 foot radius,” and then find several perks that make you punch more gooder.
Guns are as we’ve described: they got two perks, and when the two perks work together, the guns are desirable as heck.
When you play Destiny, right here and now, you are probably saying “there is a gun that looks cool and I would like to use it,” and then you are doing the activities it takes to get it until you get it, and if it’s a roll that makes you happy (I had this snapshot/fourth times the charm sniper rifle called Beloved that was, well, my Beloved. Spent real money getting a skin for it. BIG MISTAKE. Will explain more on that when we get to The Big Problem Facing Destiny Now).
In addition to this, Bungie has something called “power level,” which is a bit of a misnomer, because it isn’t about power.
Okay, so, every three months or so, Bungie ends a season and begins a new one. One season, the power cap might be “100,” and that means you have to have power level 90 or so to get into the majority of the endgame content. The next season, the power cap might be 200, so you have to be power level 190 or so to get into the endgame content. It’s a bit more complicated than that, but that’s the general idea; power acts as a gate for the high end activities, so you play the game to get the gear that will let you engage in those activities.
How do you reach that score? It’s an average number of all your gear, basically. So to reach 100, you need your three guns and 5 armor pieces to all be at level 100. If something drops at 90, well, that’s gonna drag that total down. So you want to get gear with a higher number until everything is at the average you need so you can reach the required permission score.
In season 1, power level 100 means that an enemy vandal might die with two shots to the head. Season 2 rolls around, and you are at power level 100. An enemy vandal suddenly takes twelve bullets to the head. If you grind the power treadmill over and over and over again, eventually, you will get to power level 200… and the vandal will die with two bullets to the head.
It is a pointless exercise. You never really become stronger, in the sense that you can go to a level 5 place at level 4 and shoot him in three bullets, but at 5, which is his level, it will take two bullets. No matter what, whether it’s level 10 or 200, you will never become a monstrous murder machine. It makes sense; at some level, we want the shooter to feel good as a shooter, so one shotting everything with a bad gun because our level is high will feel bad to us, but it also feels bad to do content we’ve done before and find the goalposts have been moved and now we have to do chores to make Number Go Up.
Power is a gate.
Yes, the lizard brain loves to see Number Go Up but the motivated human brain gets bored of this. With the exception of Destiny, every single video game with a power system has failed miserably; no one is going to those games for the power system. It is most definitively not a selling point of the game, nor does it keep people around. That buddy I mentioned earlier, Xavus? Yeah, one big reason he cited for quitting Destiny was “ugh I don’t want to have to regrind every single season.”
Why hasn’t Destiny failed? Because the things it does well mean that we play despite the power system. When Season of the Forge came out, Bungie wanted people to do a bunch of stuff they’d been doing for every season prior, rather than jumping into the new content. It was an arbitrary gate meant to keep people from just… jumping in and having fun. The fans were understandably upset — they wanted to do the new content they’d paid for immediately.
There’s something to be said for wanting players to develop skills that help them get better at doing content, but “replay this exact same set of chores — and they are chores — every week until you are strong enough to do the new content” isn’t compelling to, I would say, most human beings. It is not why we care.
Like I said, I think most of us care about guns.
We’d care about builds if Bungie had those in Destiny but we don’t yet. I’m hopeful we’ll get them one day.
But, back on track: a big issue with the power system isn’t just the futility of it all, the way you get locked out of things you used to be able to do just so Bungie can make you do it again, it’s also that Bungie’s path for leveling up was… well… predictable as heck?
Log in, look at the map, and you see the same tasks every week. Go to The Weekly Planet and do X tasks until you got The Powerful Gear. Earn Y amount of Clan XP until you got The Powerful Gear. It never changed, except to rotate between, say, the weekly planet, but you’d do the same tasks on each weekly planet, so the point is moot. Since raids only come out once a year, Bungie, as I recall, only ever had one raid give powerful gear at a time, which meant that instead of having 5 or 6 raids to choose from, it was always, yup, the exact same one.
After a while, going into the game every. single. week. just so you could do two (exactly two) Blind Well runs in the Dreaming City (memorizing each pattern of enemy spawns to absolute perfection because there are only so many potential permutations) for a shot at one (just one) legendary piece of equipment… well, it didn’t feel rewarding (because of the limited loot pool), and it felt rote (because it never, ever, ever changed).
One reason Destiny was a better game than Destiny 2 is that its daily bounties were curated in a way that took you to different destinations without forcing you to go anywhere super specific. You might have bounties for Vex and Cabal, as well as some resources on Mars. Best place to go today would be Mars. Next week, the best place is probably Venus.
This meant that for us, every night was different, because Destiny’s bounties were an incentive to try different things every night. When I wrote about Destiny 2 for Vice last spring, I ran some quick math and determined you had around 65 daily and 65 weekly bounties to pick from; everything ran together and there was no way to really just log on and go “tonight is a Nessus night,” or “I really want to run strikes with fusion rifles today.”
“Ah, so, we finally have the answer. Doc quit because every season, he had to grind and regrind an endless series of numbers for no real sense of progress, and when combined with the fatigue of repeating the same activities over without any distance from any of them, the experience became quickly overwhelming. Surely the answer here is to simply remove the grind and vary up any rewarding weekly tasks, yes?”
Well, yeah, oh, that’d help Destiny a lot, though I suspect if you locked me in an elevator the people who had the power to say “yes let’s cut power from Destiny” they’d be like “oh no, is this a Devil (2010, dir. John Erick Dowdle) situation?” but after that they’d probably be like “well what do players do every season if they don’t make Number Go Up?” and I’d probably be like “well we’re trapped in an elevator so I sure hope Number Don’t Go Down” as a joke and then they’d kill me.
But, before they killed me, I’d use my blood to write “give the player a different kind of number instead,” and it would be so cryptic that we won’t come back to it for a bit in the essay and you’ll just have to keep reading.
So yeah, Destiny started losing a lot of its luster for me and several of my friends when we realized we were just making Number Go Up but we weren’t actually getting anything meaningful from it, but hey, at least I had my guns, right?
I did. But then someone ruined them for me.
Here’s how making a loot game where loot is specific bites you in the ass: you can only make so much.
Take a shotgun. You’ve got four RPMs (55, 65, 80, 140). You’ve got two perk trees per shotgun (on Badlander, my favorite-looking shotgun since The Comedian from Destiny 1, both trees have five perks) and two more stat trees (one for stats relating to the barrel, one for stats relating to the magazine). There are four (now five, as of the last expansion) possible elements: kinetic, solar, arc, void, and the new one, whatever that is. There are some other stats, but they’re not really as significant, and most players aren’t going to see the difference between a 64 and a 66 reload speed.
As a designer, let’s say you sit down and you make a spreadsheet. Every gun has to be unique. Cool.
So you’ve got Badlander, and it’s an arc shotgun at 140 rpm. The next, most obvious differentiation would be a kinetic 140 rpm shotgun, like One Small Step. Or hey, you could make Wishbringer, a solar variant at the same RPM.
Then, to differentiate them further, you could mess around with the potential perk rolls — maybe this shotgun has overflow, so when you pick up special or heavy ammo, the magazine is overloaded and you get more ammo than you would normally. Maybe that shotgun gets rampage, so you do more damage the more enemies you kill. You might consider a little overlap between the shotguns, but eventually, eventually, you are going to run out of design space unless you add new elements (which Bungie did in the latest expansion), or you add new perks (which they’ve been doing every season, bringing back perks like the excellent Clown Cartridge from Destiny 1).
What’s the point of adding new guns every season? If a player falls in love with a gun like Breakneck, why would they chase new guns you make? What is the point of concepting, modeling, texturing, animating, sound designing, and all the other -ings that go into making a new gun if people are like “yeah this gun I got 10 years ago is the best gun.”
Well, in Pokemon, I am all about the Living Dex, which means capturing one living example of every single of the 900-something Pokemon that exist for my collection, like some sort of angry 10 year old zoologist (in Pokemon games you can only ever be a 10 year old child). So for me, the answer is very simple: I’ll hunt down anything that’s new and shiny.
And I suspect that in Destiny, most people will chase new things too, just for fun. And then, like me, they will probably go back to their favorite loadout (d1: hung jury, found verdict, sleeper/d2: steelfeather repeater, badlander, 21% delirium or interference vi).
There’s nothing wrong with this! In Pokemon, I always have a Rayquaza in the party if I can, and I generally keep my starter. I’m actually trying to breed some Pokemon right now for an all-dragon run and will try to avoid using anything else ’cause I love the way they all look!
But apparently that wasn’t the case for Luke Smith, the boss-man on Destiny.
I still really like playing this game. I’ve acquired almost every weapon in the game (whyyyyyyy Anarchyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyy). I have some pretty slick rolls on a few of them and near-miss “internet-approved god rolls” on others (Spare Rations Rapid/Kill Clip and then Full Bore and a quick visit to Disappointown with Alloy Magazine). Like many of you, I end up gravitating to a few weapons and just using them instead of everything else. Sure, the Outlaw Multikill Clip Breachlight I farmed from Season of Dawn is nice to have (and I love the art for the Dawn weapon set) but is it really going to displace my go-to PVE kinetic weapons? Probably not. I know that.
I recently sat with a couple of external folks who really love Breakneck. It’s the only thing they use. They aren’t ever going to use another primary weapon in Destiny 2. Why? Because they don’t need to.
Man, that’s real fuckin interesting to me, seeing as how as I recall Breakneck, at the time this was written, was still bugged with a bug that made it do less damage if you actually got its perk to work. Use the gun as designed and it gets worse! Yet, here were people who loved it so much that they didn’t care; they just wanted to keep using the gun.
Isn’t that awesome? You designed a successful gun that people love even when it’s broken. That’s an amazing achievement, surely!
In this piece, Luke floated an idea: what if we ‘sunset’ weapons?
Remember how I said power cap was a stupid as hell pointless grind that existed to add absolutely nothing to the game and it’s never benefited any game it’s ever been in and i personally really really dislike it? Well, Luke was about to present a plan to weaponize the ‘doc hates it’ factor of the power system.
Look, I don’t know whose idea it is, and I don’t want to shoot the messenger. Luke just happens to be the one presenting all of this and so I’m like “here’s what Luke said.” I don’t want you reading this and going “wow doc hates this guy.” No, the guy just delivered an experience that was like being a crash dummy getting slammed into a wall at mach 5 so people can find out what happens to internal organs at that speed. I don’t know whose idea it was, and I bet if Luke and I sat down and talked it out over burgers, we’d have a great time, because he seems really personable in interviews. Plus we both worked at Kotaku at one point in our careers.
But I do really, firmly believe this system hurts the players, and that, in the long run, will hurt the game.
Destiny was awesome because I could log in every day and have fun shooting shit with my friends, and then, as the seasons trickled in, one by one, Bungie started introducing systems that, on paper, look like great ways to get people to do things (conditioning!) but in reality don’t work for more than a few weeks.
After that… you get burnout.
So, what’s weapon sunsetting?
Remember how I said that in the power system, every item has a number, and that number is averaged to create a permission value that lets you into certain activities?
Well, in Destiny, you might grind hard for, say, The Comedian (because the goal of Destiny is to play the activities it offers and get exciting loot with awesome perks as a result, so your first Comedian might not have the perk combo you want), but then, the next DLC comes out and suddenly, your power score (called light at the time, but no one cares now) can’t get higher. Uh-oh, you just wasted all that time grinding, which blows. Time to grind again! Maybe you get new guns, but what if you really fell in love with that Comedian. Sucks, right?
So in the next DLC, Bungie introduced Orb.
I can’t remember the name. All I remember is that Orb go in gun and gun become maximum power level, and you could do the endgame to do any activity you wanted with any gun you loved. This was really smart.
Then, a few months later, we got infusion, which didn’t work at first, but Bungie quickly fixed it and it became the go-to-system. Any loot you got at equivalent level, if it was in the same slot, could be infused into gear to bring the gear up to the power level you wanted. It was a good way to get rid of gear you didn’t want in favor of gear you loved.
That’s how it worked from like… whenever they fixed it in 2015 or 2016 to, well, the year of our lord 2020. Find a gun you love and take it with you on your journey. This was the Destiny promise — the thing they’d talked about in early podcasts and interviews finally taking shape (someone actually linked me to the podcast once, it was on archive.org, but I misplaced the link! if you know where it is, my twitter DMs are open). Your guns had a history, they were part of your journey. Shin Malphur, iconic non-player character, had his gun, The Last Word, and I had my mother. fuckin. HUNG JURY. This shit was my journey; I carved a path through Destiny’s universe. I wasn’t just some dumb government mook going through a bunch of AK-47s until I found the AK-47 with the biggest magazine, my Hung Jury SR4 had laid low gods.
There was the hiccup with the move to D2’s static rolls, but they worked that out within a year and we were back to the good stuff. Perfect world, I would have gotten a gun transfer from D1 to D2, but I digress. Forsaken was Destiny 2 at its best (Rise of Iron, Destiny 1’s final DLC, is my favorite time period, but that’s because I still had Hung Jury and Icebreaker).
Sunsetting put an infusion cap on the guns.
So, hey, you get a Hung Jury SR4 in Destiny 2? (god I wish), well, go fuck yourself buddy, because it’s capped at 1040 light and the new raid wants you to come in at 1200. Favorite gun ever? Gun so brilliant you’ve tried to find out what it costs to get a physical prop made by one of those studios that makes realistic looking video game guns made even though you can’t afford it?
I fucking love Hung Jury SR4 in Destiny 1, but in Destiny 2, I fucking loved my Badlander.
Don’t get me wrong, it still exists.
It’s sitting there in my inventory.
See that kill counter? Yeah. I’ve killed a few enemies with that gun in my time. It is part of my journey. Many Badlanders have come and gone, but this one is mine.
And, by the way, it’s capped at 1060 light, so it’s not coming into the newest raid with me, since that cap is way above 1060.
See, Bungie won’t outright delete your old guns, the ones that you may have purchased skins for (like that Beloved I mentioned several thousand words back), but they will make sure there is no content you can use it for, because the only content you can use it in is content that won’t let you Make Number Go Up.
A sunset gun in Destiny 2 is as useless to trying to get something meaningful in the game as going back to Destiny 1 and just fucking around there. There’s no real point. You’re done. You can’t go any further. You can shoot some guys in a patrol where you’ll get some loot with less than zero use and that is all you can do.
I’m not going to lie, it makes me feel pretty gosh darn bitter. Even writing this now, I, an adult man, am upset that I fell in love with a little bit of data on the internet and someone at Bungie said “I don’t want you to have fun with that anymore because I want you to chase new bits of data on the internet,” and decided to make it useless with the flip of a proverbial switch.
I worked so hard for these guns! I put countless hours into farming the perfect roll! I played Destiny to get the guns I want… and… for what?
Sunsetting kills the human connection.
It also kills motivation.
I mean, think about it: if I log into Destiny right now, I am going to do something. What will I do? Well, I can either do the hundred or so bounties that are in game, that are just like they’ve always been, or I can go “I want a specific weapon and I am going to do the activities that let me chase it.”
Destiny’s never been great about focused tasks (I could write an entire essay on how I would change this given the chance), but still, I know if I go do a Shadowkeep thing from fall 2019, I can (presumably) get a moon shotgun I really want. But now it won’t drop at current light level, so why would I? It literally serves no point, but before sunsetting, I was grinding that every week trying to get an ideal roll because of the promise I could take it with me into any content I wanted.
With sunsetting? Nothing lasts more than a year. I never would have gotten Nation of Beasts, a gun I spent 18 months grinding for, taking the only encounter it drops in as payment for sherpa-ing raids, and it’s going to expire in two seasons. That’s six months.
What a waste of our time!
In a game where you have to play content over and over to get the loot you want, in a game where you can grind even more to add kill trackers to your guns so they have a sense of history, and in a game where you can literally spend real cash money for gun skins, someone thought it was a great idea to render all of that time and money completely wasted by giving every single piece of gear an expiration date.
How is this anything other than a terrible idea?
I Will Now Explain This Terrible Idea
I hope that my tone still comes across as jocular. Maybe you can sense my frustration here, and I’m making it absolutely clear I think sunsetting is an objectively bad idea, but like I’m hoping the previous line plus the subhed match in a way that makes you laugh. The goal here, like I said, is to be helpful. To do that, I feel I have to be comprehensive, which is why this article is currently 8,798 words long at this point in the drafting process.
A buddy of mine, Rami Ismail, said that at Pax West (this was at Pax East and we did not understand how bad Covid would get), we should host a panel where the two of us debated sunsetting, which had been announced a few days before. “We could get Luke to sit behind us and he could react but he couldn’t say anything, it would be really funny, I know him, he’d be down for that.”
Rami is fine with sunsetting, I am not. Could be a fun debate. I want this piece, as you are reading it, to make it clear where I stand but I want to make sure you are entertained too. If I ran into Luke at the park next to my house, after setting proper social distancing protocols in place and asking “how the fuck are you in Kansas?” I would likely engage in a jocular, fun conversation. Dude seems fun as hell in those streams, I just disagree with the decisions his team has implemented to the point of feeling kind of bitter about spending any money on the games.
I do not like the idea, but I’m gonna put a severed horse head in his bed either.
What I am going to do now is to tell you, as best I can, what Luke said about this decision, what I think is the reasoning behind it, and why I, as someone who is one of the foremost experts in the world at service-based online multiplayer shooters who found refuge and friendship in this game and then watched all of my friends leave, think it’s a terrible idea.
(And how to solve the problems presented with a system that also makes players more likely to play Destiny instead of realizing there’s no reason to)
Or you could go to reddit where the most popular posts are about how shit sunsetting is, or you could go to Youtube where Datto, that super popular youtuber who once tried to dunk on my article about why sunsetting was bad is now going “why am I even playing anymore?”
I was right, and I’m not saying that out of arrogance, I’m saying that out of expertise. This is always what was going to happen. When you put an expiration date on loot in a game about seeking loot with character, even your most die-hard fans, people who did not believe me when I said this would happen, are eventually going to go “wow, Doc was actually right about this.”
Datto is still hopeful that there’s a right way to do sunsetting, but I can tell you that no, there is not. It is implicit in the concept. Sunsetting kills value and forces you to grind and regrind every season. It’s taking the utterly worthless power system and doubling your labor, if you care about getting good loot despite it expiring, or it’s doing to you what it did to me, which is… make you stop playing.
Because, seriously, why invest time in any piece of loot if it will go away on someone else’s whim?
And if loot is Destiny…
Why play Destiny at all?
That, friends, is why I finally reclaimed my hard drive space. Because… what’s the point? My friends are all gone from Destiny; we’re all playing Genshin Impact and Elite Dangerous now. I don’t love either of these games near as much and I am so, so, so frustrated and heartbroken that I can’t still be looking forward to more Destiny content alongside them. But they’re done. They’re burned. Destiny did not value their time, so now they don’t value Destiny.
So, did Luke Smith think “we should rob all loot of value” was the right decision for his company’s game?
Oh almost definitely not, that’s just the only thing sunsetting will ever be able to do. You cannot have loot that possesses value and an expiration date simultaneously. That just does not exist.
So… what was the goal?
Look, a lot of things have been said about sunsetting, primarily by Luke. I think some other Destiny people have said stuff about it too. Not all of these things make sense.
At some point, for example, someone at Bungie tried to justify sunsetting as an issue of balance. As you already know, I don’t care about balance because it’s a PVE game, but that’s me. Cool. But here’s the weird thing: Bungie reissued a gun that was the exact same as the version that came before. Same perks, same stats, everything. Just had a new date. So say you had 11,000 kills on the old version of the gun capped at 1060 light, and now you got a new one that was capped at 1250? well, say goodbye to the gun you loved, because it’s trash now. That 1250 gun can get the same rolls, but by the time you get it (given how difficult it is to target specific loot in many areas of the game), you might only have a couple months before it expires.
…aaaand then it happened to several other guns.
So it can’t be balance, right? Like if you’re saying “damage perks bad” and then rereleasing those guns with no changes at all except the expiration date, the impression I get as a player, especially if I’m a player that doesn’t know anything about video games, is that you are not being honest with me. If you were like “yeah so we ripped out these guns and here they are again but without perks that made them 2% stronger that was apparently such a big deal,” I’d be like “oh okay that makes sense that you’re cutting out the perks that were the obvious winners,” and it wouldn’t solve the issue of sunsetting still being a complete waste of time caused by the waste of time that is the power-permission system, but hey, it would match the justification and I could understand it.
But as someone who’s been covering games for a decade and working on them for quite a while, even I have absolutely zero clue why anyone at Bungie would say “sunsetting is for balance” and then bring back all the old guns with absolutely zero changes. That, to me, says that it is not for balance. I do not understand the messaging there.
If you want to balance guns but then rerelease them without any changes at all, my assumption is that at best, you gave up on the idea.
Let’s go back to Shadowkeep.
On The Fear of Missing Out
You know when McDonald’s is like “limited time only! the McRib!” and people go buy the McRib because it’s limited time only? Well… game developers have started doing that with ‘season passes,’ which are basically a thing you buy that has tasks to complete or levels to grind, and as you grind them, you get rewards.
There is usually a free track (seen at the top) and a non-free track (seen at the bottom), and once the season ends, the pass expires. This means you start experiencing FOMO — the fear of missing out — as the season continues.
In Destiny 2 Year 2 — the year of Forsaken — a season pass meant you got real content, like quests and locations to visit, which was awesome, but as I recall, Bungie said that producing this level of content wasn’t sustainable without the support of their publisher Activision and the two helper studios, Vicarious Visions and High Moon Studios.
So with Shadowkeep, Bungie instituted a new policy, where we had season passes, like the above, that would give rewards for earning XP. These passes would expire every season, which meant you’d want to grind every single day to get the items, or you’d risk wasting the money you spent. One time, I missed out on an achievement for a particular season and now, any time I look at my season progress — which was to get to level 200 of the season pass, I think about how I had come down with the flu and passed out at literally level 198 and will always have a big gaping hole in my list of completions that I can never fill. That sucks.
Having played Genshin Impact, I can definitely say I’m not entirely upset with the model, but Genshin doesn’t have exclusive content that requires you to grind 100 levels to get to either; it’s mostly just bonus rewards you can get by playing the game normally, and it requires about 20–30 minutes of play each day (with tasks that have hard caps on them, like “log in” and “mine 10 items”) instead of multiple hours. Bungie is just “get lots of XP” which means you can go hard, burn out, and feel like it’s a chore to log in and do more every day.
Negative sentiment. We want to avoid that.
That said, Bungie also introduced a lot of content that felt like it could’ve been permanent — entire questlines, locations, even new game modes, so it felt like they were dropping the same amount of content, just… they were also making that content expire after a few months.
It felt like a raw deal, and it felt like you had to play or miss out on the items forever. Bungie promised less FOMO in the future, but… is FOMO — literally fear-motivated play — a good idea at all?
What’s better: feeling pressured to play something, or simply not experiencing that pressure by playing something else? Most people who I spoke with that quit said they’d just rather not deal with that pressure in their life.
Personally, I wish Bungie would go back to the idea of record books, which were basically season passes that never expired. No FOMO, no pressure. You still feel like you want to complete them because you paid for them, but you can get them at your leisure. I think that would help a lot.
Still, Shadowkeep and its successive seasons drove away all my friends because no one wanted a game they played for fun to feel like work. I managed to stick it out three seasons, but tapped out in the fourth. I haven’t even tried the new expansion for Destiny.
Bungie promised ‘less’ FOMO in the future, but it appears what that means is there are now alternative ways to earn the guns that have expiration dates on them. Before, Pluperfect was gone for good. Now, there are some new ways to earn a Pluperfect. That’s cool, I guess. Sounds like maybe some quests will stick around too.
Feeling pressured to play, combined with the double whammy of weapons having expiration dates… it just doesn’t feel good, man. The weapons themselves are ephemeral; all your labor has no value because you can’t control it — you can’t do what you want for what you want. It’s up to someone else. You can’t main a weapon, can’t carve your path, can’t take what you want into the content that you want whenever you want, and what for? Why do this?
Well, my thinking is this:
The expired guns haven’t been removed from Destiny. They’re still in the game. I can go into my inventory and grab an expired gun like it’s no problem. So it’s not a “the game is too big and we had to delete the files” issue, because the files still exist in game.
The weapon balance thing doesn’t seem true because we’re seeing the exact same weapons and rolls come back in newer revisions like the McRib; there’s no change here, which means that balance likely isn’t a concern. If they wanted to rebalance the weapons, you’d think they’d pull the problematic perks or change the stats, but they haven’t.
So… I think that really leaves us with one option, and that’s FOMO.
Grind hard now so you can get the gun as soon as you want, because in a matter of months, it won’t be useful anymore. If you don’t play now, you suck.
It’s the psychological concept of negative reinforcement. My capital-A Assumption is that someone at Bungie heard “FOMO bad” and instead of going “yeah, you’re right,” responded with “but how do we motivate people to play the game if they don’t feel pressured to play?”
Why do I think this?
Well… here’s Bungie:
Right now, if a new Legendary weapon isn’t better than the current best-in-class, there is no reason to replace your existing weapon with it. If a new Legendary weapon is better than the current best-in-class, we risk power creep, removing challenge from the game, or making the item mandatory/the only option for challenging activities.
And here’s Bungie again:
Sure, the Outlaw Multikill Clip Breachlight I farmed from Season of Dawn is nice to have (and I love the art for the Dawn weapon set) but is it really going to displace my go-to PVE kinetic weapons? Probably not. I know that.
Reading between the lines is always dangerous, but I think we have Bungie outlining their priorities right here: we want people to chase the new loot we add to the game.
Why would someone play Destiny’s new content — and spend money on it — if they are content with the weapons they have?
Let’s be clear: there’s nothing wrong with wanting to make money. You’ve got to keep the lights on and keep your team well compensated, after all. People are counting on you! That’s important!
Now, I’m going to tell you something you might not believe, but it’s true: people sometimes love guns because they put in effort to get them (me and recluse), because there’s a story there that made them fall in love with the gun (like me wanting Hawkmoon bad and being the last person in my friend group to get it, so it felt extra special), or because they just love the way it sounds and feels, despite its lack of efficacy (like me with Badlander or the people Luke cited with Breakneck). People do not only pick guns because they are powerful, and while Bungie has often cited “this gun is used a lot” as an argument that the weapon is too powerful, I think you’ll find that aesthetics and feel contribute a great deal more to adoption. Most Destiny players aren’t on reddit looking for the rarest, coolest gear.
Heck, remember this chart?
So many of the weapons Bungie has here are blues or raid weapons — this isn’t about power, it never was. It was about what made people happiest. And happy can mean a whole lot of things. I used my Vision of Confluence because it’s one of the best-feeling guns in game history, not because it was statistically just plain better at killing other people. Heck, there were tons of better guns. But that gun… I still remember exactly when it dropped. Vault of Glass, second encounter. First raid run in my life. We had 7 people in the call, only one of us had actually done the raid before, and Trevor was just telling us what to do while we explained what we were seeing to him.
What it looks like to me, sitting here on the outside, is that instead of going “you know, maybe people don’t like feeling pressured into playing our game and are at their happiest when they feel like there’s something to aspire to rather than feel pressured into,” someone high up the decision-making hierarchy went “okay, so we heard specific reasons for why FOMO sucks as “content disappears too quick” and “we can’t get guns.” We’ll play whack-a-mole with the complaints but we have to keep FOMO in.”
Obviously I’m not a fly on the wall, I have no special insights, I’m just telling you what this looks like to me. I could be wrong. But we do know the community said “we had FOMO and here’s why,” and Bungie went “here’s a new kind of FOMO” in response. I don’t think that’s something anyone would disagree with.
Our current FOMO is “if you don’t grind as fast as possible early on, you get less time with the loot.” Like, if I boot up Destiny right now, I have way less time to enjoy the new ice element weapons than someone who played it on launch day. That makes me feel like there’s no point to logging in at all. It’s FOMO going too far — better not to deal with the anxiety at all than embrace it, you know?
I think that FOMO, like power level, is a sacred cow that shouldn’t be quite so sacred. Negative reinforcement — pressuring people into playing the game like McDonald’s pressures you into making sure you get that Shamrock Shake before it’s gone again — ends up making people feel resentful.
In a lot of my consulting work, I focus predominantly on positive sentiment. We find that players spend money on what makes them happy. They spend time on what makes them happy. You want a high attach rate? You need high positive sentiment.
FOMO creates short term gains at long-term expense. When someone feels like there’s no point to playing, they’re likely to quit. My guess is that Destiny is hemorrhaging players and Bungie is trying their best to keep their proverbial heads above water by generating a lot of new content for players to chase and finding the players are insatiable and the audience churn (new player joins, leaves, is replaced by another player) is higher than it should be.
If we break it all down, and we look at what our problem is, it’s simple: we want players to chase the new content we put out. We, presumably, also want players to be happy.
Gear score and FOMO make players feel like there’s no point, and that’s why you have people going “why am I even playing?” Why did I buy that Beloved skin for a gun I can’t even use anymore? Why would I spend another entire August trying to get a beloved that be useless in 11 months time?
At some point, players, even hardcore players like me, with two thousand plus hours in the Destiny series, are going to have to stop playing. We just can’t keep up with the game’s demands.
So how do you fix this?
How To Fix This
Let’s be realistic here: I have absolutely 0 insight into Destiny’s innards. I think the engine is called Tiger and there’s a tool on it called Grognok. I’ve watched some GDC talks about networking and stuff.
This is me:
With that disclaimer in mind, let me tell you how I’d personally suggest reworking Destiny’s innards to make players happy and reduce the burden placed on the developers to constantly generate new content.
So, let’s pretend we’re logging onto this hypothetical new Destiny at the beginning of a brand new season, once we’ve completed the story content. In other words, a pretty typical night but with new stuff to chase.
I boot up the game, send you a friend invite, and we ask the question people always ask in service-based games. “So, what are we doing tonight?” Well, there’s a new shotgun that just came out with the latest DLC, so I’m partial to picking that up. Okay, how do we get it?
In Destiny 2 right now, a lot of stuff just… like, drops by doing anything in the game. There’s no way to control it. If it’s in the world pool, you’ll get it somewhere. Want a Duke Mk. 44? Uh… just kinda… hope it’s one of the fifty dozen guns that drops.
What if we could target it though? Okay, this new gun will come from the new destination, so we’re going to go there. We head to the patrol zone. Now, I want a shotgun specifically — how am I going to do that? Well, in most games, you’d do that by targeting a specific enemy or location where that drops. In Destiny, maybe that means a specific lost sector. Or maybe we could take shotguns we don’t like, break them down, get ‘shotgun components,’ and take them to the gunsmith, who would give us some sort of “uncalibrated shotgun frame,” which would have quest steps on it. We complete those quest steps on the planet we like and boom, the next shotgun that drops is guaranteed to be from that destination’s drop table.
Now imagine every destination in the game has its own distinct drop table; this gives us control over what we want, but it’s still fuzzy enough that we aren’t guaranteed specific items.
How can we encourage the players to visit different locations? That’s easy — Destiny 1 already solved this problem, and I discussed it earlier. Drastically cut down on the number of bounties in game, and give the players a single bounty board with rotating targeted destinations. Keep the bounties diverse enough that players can go wherever they want, but if players see “kill lots of cabal and vex,” they know Mars is going to be the easiest place to get that, not so much a stop on Earth and then a stop on Venus.
Now, this helps us out a bit; it means that we’re getting new items for completing new content. If you have a Breakneck and you want to main it, that’s fine, but if a new game mode or planet pops up and you want to play the new content (and show me a gamer who’s going to stick with Destiny 1’s Mars and not at least try to visit, say, Europa, come on), you’re going to get the new loot. And if you get enough of it… come on, you know gamers. They’ll try anything out for a little bit.
But how could we get them to really try out new weapons?
So my first thought is that we should interrogate our base assumptions, right? Do we actually care if players in Monster Hunter refuse to try anything other than greatsword? Is that really bad for us as developers if they won’t?
Well, I’ll leave that for you to mull over and move on.
Let’s assume you’ve decided that yeah, we want players to try new guns. I’ve already done my best to illustrate why ‘forcing players to leave guns they like behind’ might not be the best way to make players happy with your game, so it’s best I present an alternative, right?
Here’s what I’d do:
Give every gun in the game a progress tracker.
Think of it like this: I get a gun I’ve never had before; let’s call it the Nostromo’s Hope. It’s a shotgun. The rolls aren’t great, but hey, it’s got this nifty progress tracker on it. Because it’s a shotgun, the tracker says I should try to get X kills with this type of shotgun, and because it’s elemental, it wants me to get Y shield breaks. Maybe it’s got a few more tasks on top of that.
I do the tasks and I get to Nostromo’s Hope level 1. Maybe that unlocks a skin for future Nostromo’s Hope shotguns. I get a new one with better rolls; I break my first one down. Since the progress tracker is gun-type-wide rather than on a per-gun basis, I’m safe to chase the best possible roll I want.
We can incentivize players to grind with every single gun in the game by making these incentives account-wide. Maybe you get a slightly better glimmer cap, or 1% more bright dust on bounties with bright dust. Little incentives that don’t make you more competitive in PVP, but do make getting loot just a little easier overall.
If using guns gives you something, that’s good.
Another thing I’d probably bring back is a number you can show off to your friends; Destiny had a grimoire score, for instance — players with a high score were clearly experienced, players with a low score weren’t. It didn’t impact combat efficacy, but it was nice bragging rights. It also was a way to look at someone running around on the moon, see how low their score was, and shoot at them to get their attention, then do emotes until they came over and saw the treasure chest you’d been shooting at so they could get loot. I made friends that way! Big fan of grimoire score. If “using a gun and maxing it out” contributed to a score, you could see how players would want to use and max out every single gun just to prove how experienced at Destiny they were.
Luke said he wanted people to aspire in Destiny — then let them aspire. It is not aspirational to grind a bunch for a gun that will be left in the dust a year later. It is not aspirational to buy a skin for a gun you thought was going to be there until the servers died only for them to decide a new kind of FOMO would render that purchase a waste.
I haven’t talked about the unprecedented move to delete entire destinations and campaigns, making the game smaller than ever, which I think was incredibly ill-advised, but is likely the result of the tools just not letting the game compile after a certain size. If it’s a literal technical limit, then I can understand. If it was done just to McRib the destinations in Destiny, then… that is appalling and I hope Bungie changes course. I can’t see a valid justification for deleting massive amounts of content that I paid real money for on a whim unless it was technical, and even then, it makes me uneasy.
If we want the loot chase to be aspirational, then I think the best way to do it is: make loot targetable, make using every piece of loot contribute to some tangible benefit to the player (but making it game-wide and not per-loot basis), and then letting that contribute to some kind of number that lets players show off how invested they are. That’s aspirational.
The last thing we wanted was for you to look at your favorite gun or helmet and decide that it had become obsolete. Since the reveal, we’ve read a lot of ideas for how this could have been done better. Your feedback is clear: The time you have invested in your stuff should be respected.
Bungie’s mantra should be the message they sent to us in 2014: the time you have invested should be respected.
Right now, it isn’t.
Roll that shit back.
But, okay, let’s say that we’ve done all that. Is Bungie out of the woods? I don’t think so, because I think there’s another core issue plaguing Destiny right now. I’ve alluded to it throughout the piece, but I’d like to go really hard on it now: even if our loot was respected, Destiny feels like a chore.
I’ve talked about how moving to a more permanent kind of season pass would be better (in fact, I imagine if you left season passes up forever and people could buy them whenever, you’d see a lot of new people buying them and it would increase revenue and there would be no meaningful blowback) because it wouldn’t pressure players, but there’s also an issue with, like… how do I put this.
Okay, you know how I said that for a while, to grow your power, you had to do the blind well every week, or you had to do one specific raid for a year? Imagine if some of that stuff rotated a bit more. Like I’ve said throughout this piece, Destiny worked well because it was optimal to go to Mars one night and Venus the next with those bounties, or try different multiplayer types. This reduced burnout. The guaranteed power progression system meant that things were a bit too rote. What if every week featured one of Destiny’s 8 raids and raid lairs, and you could earn a currency in this raid that would let you buy stuff from the raid vendor, who had a rotating stock beyond just the emperor Calus stuff? Like, I’ve never, ever seen the hand cannon from Garden, and it looks amazing. I’d love to have a bit of a safety and be able to just outright buy the gun from the vendor if it ever popped up in his stock.
Since raids no longer offer fixed loot, the once-a-week grind might not even be the right move at all, especially if we were to kill the power system entirely.
Another good fix would be to pull a Genshin and limit the amount of XP players can get in a day so they aren’t burning themselves out; an alternative would be to make seasons task-based like record books, so players are targeting specific, interesting activities rather than just finding the optimal XP grind and sticking to it.
More randomness would help; I loved the Archon’s Forge in Destiny 1 because the only goal was “be as aggressive as you can.” With a lot of the newer horde-type modes, there are specific, predictable elements that make them feel boring. It’s better to go “are we killing enough enemies to get the axe? fuck yeah!” than “okay, we ran to this node, so now we are definitely running to that node because I’ve memorized this rotation.” That gets, well, rote.
Ideally, in Destiny, we are logging in, going “what do I want to do tonight?”, targeting that, earning something cool, and logging off happy. Every night, we should feel like we have progressed in some meaningful way.
There are other things we could do; right now, it’s worthless to get blues. They serve absolutely 0 purpose. Same for items like weapon telemetries, which seem to serve no function.
What if weapons could drop at various rarities, like, say, a Badlander that’s common tier vs a Badlander that’s legendary. What’s the difference? Well, a common Badlander has none of its perks unlocked, while a legendary does. This means if you find one you love, you can put materials into it — earned from other rarities of weapons — to upgrade it. If you don’t need common materials, you can break down enough to put them into a forge that levels the material up to uncommon, rare, or legendary.
Now, everything that drops suddenly has a use. We’ve mitigated disappointment. You can see that common has a god roll, but to unlock it, you gotta play the game to get the materials to level it from common to Legendary.
Rather than pressuring people to play, we’re giving them reasons to, and we’re doing it without disappointing them. Even disappointments have a use.
There’s so much more we could do too; remember factions? In Destiny 1, I loved them and swore my allegiance to Dead Orbit. Simply by playing the game, I’d passively level up my faction rep and get various rewards.
In Destiny 2, someone from Bungie said people weren’t really using faction gear much; I suspect that’s because faction gear was all fixed rolls, which were never best in class, and to get them, you had events where you just… grinded, over and over and over and over again. I burned out so bad on the first two that I couldn’t even try to do the third faction event. Never did get the catalyst that was on offer.
I actually love the look of a lot of that faction gear and would main it purely because it’s fun. I still remember my Deviant Gravity-A machine gun from Destiny 1 and would kill to have that gun again. I’ve obviously talked a lot about the Hung Jury SR4.
So… what if events were different?
As one of the Civ IV designers said: “players will always optimize the fun out of your systems.” They’re always going to make a game unfun if there’s an optimal way to play, because that’s how human brains work. So what if events weren’t “just get the most XP,” but more like… “this week, shotguns have an increased drop rate,” or “hey, a special quest is up and at the end, you get a rare skin” or something. Just little attention spikes that aren’t “PLAY NOW OR DIE” but like… well, I’m playing Pokemon Go, and they had a quest where I’d have a chance to get my favorite pokemon, a Rayquaza. All I had to do was catch two Kyogres, two Groudons, and some other task, and blam, I’d go face to face with a Rayquaza.
Imagine doing little events like that instead. Just a little reason to join, and if you miss out, it’s cool, because it wasn’t anything too huge. I can still get an Aron, for instance, but it had a briefly higher shiny chance.
What if factions went back to being “a thing you grind passively and, if you want, a thing you can spend various resources that you obtain just through normal play on,” and events weren’t so much like A Big Whole Thing Where We Change The Entire Crucible but like… “hey, triple XP weekend,” or “it looks like we’re getting increased sniper spawn rates on Europa for the week!” Just… little nudges to play, reasons to chase what you want — goals to work towards, rather than the ever-encroaching stressor of FOMO.
If we take the chore out of Destiny — design our tasks with more “playing the game gets you stuff that’s always useful” and “it’s always different every week,” rather than “do the exact same shit every time,” the game stops fatiguing the players. With no fatigue and no pressure, suddenly the game is fun, rather than stressful.
What we want is to create opportunities for the players, rather than pressures.
So… well, that’s that, I guess.
I don’t really have a closing for you. This piece is rambly because it’s the last day of January and I wanted to get another piece out this month and already deleted the first draft of this and wrote a new one entirely from scratch. It is 14,531 words long right now, which is ten thousand words longer than Luke’s original Director’s cut.
Look, the truth is, I’m lonely. I can’t keep playing Destiny anymore because all my friends are gone. They’re gone because the game pressured them out of playing; they felt like there was no point. I’m happy playing Genshin with them. It’s nice to listen to them in Elite Dangerous. We played games like Danganronpa together over a stream, and we’re all eagerly awaiting Monster Hunter Rise.
But still, there’s a big, Destiny-shaped void in my life. I don’t think any of us are happy with how Destiny ended up, and so many of us, whenever someone mentions Destiny, are like “oh man, if only Bungie hadn’t…”
We clearly want this to work out well. We are rooting for Destiny. But Bungie’s decision-making seems to be about negative reinforcement and classical conditioning, and turning a game that should be fun into work just… well, it isn’t working for us.
I wrote this because I want the best for Destiny. I want to help, like I said at the start of this piece. Bungie, I’m on your side, and I hope you know that. Heck, remember when Luke himself wrote about what was wrong with Halo 2 and you gave him a job? I hope you’ve still got the desire to listen to that kind of feedback, knowing that your critics are some of your biggest allies. I want you to succeed. I want to be happy playing Destiny again.
(I am not asking for a job, however, I definitely wouldn’t say no if it meant being able to afford insulin)
But the other day, I uninstalled it because I can’t feel pressured into playing my favorite game. I want to feel happy. I want to have something to look forward to. Looking back at all the guns I’ve lost along the way just isn’t doing it for me.
I want to keep maining my Hung Jury SR4, and I want to do it with my friends, laughing and blasting away at space aliens.
I got more articles coming soon! if you like my work, you can donate to my venmo at @forgetamnesia or my paypal at https://paypal.me/stompsite. I’ve also got a patreon at https://patreon.com/docgames! Check out my next game, Adios, on Steam, and wishlist it if it sounds cool to you! It’ll be coming to Xbox and Steam very soon. Doctor’s visits cost me around $150–250 a visit, so I appreciate all the help I can get.