So, I wrote the last one about destiny with a kind of finality. At the time, it was because Bungie was going in a direction that meant I couldn’t stick with the game. I wanted to; believe me, I wanted to. It was Marathon that got me through living in a camper trailer in the middle of the winter. It was an article I wrote on Halo that got me a few years of work at Kotaku and enabled me to make the weird indie shit I make these days. I have waxed poetic about my favorite video game gun of all time — the Hung Jury SR4. Destiny was the game I played when I couldn’t afford Christmas presents — during The Dark Below, and I filled up my little brother’s postmaster with legendary engrams (when they were hard to come by) as a way of giving him something at a time when we were living on food stamps.
Destiny has been a safe place for me, a place to retreat from some of the most difficult times of my life, a place where I’ve made friends. And then, one day, in early 2020, as I was flying out to PAX East to meet up with the Hardspace Shipbreaker team (who had employed me to write part of their story and were the first employer I ever had to treat me like I was a person — I love them, you should buy their game and make them all the money in the world), the folks at Bungie said “we’d like to make the game less fun for you, Doc, personally, right now.”
Okay, okay. I’m being cheeky. What they actually said was more like “we want this game to be like Magic: The Gathering.” Reading between the lines, a few comments were things like “we have people who really like this weapon, Breakneck, and they don’t want to use anything else. That’s bad.” I was confused by this because if you make something people love and want to keep maining, that’s how you know you’ve made a success! Chun-Li and Ryu are in Street Fighter because people never want to play anybody else, y’know? The Pokemon Company once found out that every Pokemon is somebody’s favorite. Jeff Kaplan expressed surprise that people wanted to main in his video game about characters. Everyone’s got a main. In the big picture, numbers don’t matter to people because nobody bonds with numbers; we bond with character.
Bungie filled in the blanks when describing sunsetting a little while later, when someone wrote something that — and this is not a direct quote, but it’s the best I remember: “if players are content with what they have, why would they want to change weapons?”
(there’s an obvious solution to this that I mentioned in ‘the last one about destiny’)
So, from that, I took away that Bungie has a specific philosophy, and it goes like this: “as a service game, we need to retain players. There are three ways to do this: additional content, events, and timed content. If players find something they really like, they might not check out new content, get bored, and eventually quit.”
As a developer whose responsibility is to keep the lights on, I completely understand this! But… I can’t help but feel the solution didn’t quite work. As a consultant who’s helped on some of the biggest online AAA games in the world, I have some thoughts.
Those thoughts are meant to be helpful.
I like Bungie. I want Bungie to prosper. As a person who thinks gamer wear is cringe, Bungie is the sole exception; half my wardrobe is Bungie shirts. I am wearing one right now. I never go out without my Jade Rabbit beanies (and I’m super bummed that the store glitched and I couldn’t buy their more recent limited edition beanie after I unlocked the ability to buy it and everything. sadface.).
I know some people hear “here’s my negative feedback” and take it like an attempt to tear someone down, so let’s be clear: I’m writing this because even though I know Corporations aren’t your friends, I like Bungie. I like the people I’ve met who worked there. I’m rooting for them to win.
While I’ll be writing in a tone meant to be conversational because this is my blog and that’s the style I’ve always used, what I’m doing here is basically just giving away a part of what I do as a consultant for free. For any other dev, we’d be in a “unless I know you personally you’re gonna have to pay me for my labor” situation, but I love Bungie’s games so much — they’ve done so much for me — that this is me doing my best to pay that back by attempting to be as helpful (even though my help is not being solicited) as possible.
Now, hey, let’s be real here: this is me, a dude, writing a blog. Every game dev I’ve ever known in my life is generally super aware that you shouldn’t take solutions from friends. However, as someone who has actually done this, my suggestions may be a cut above the rest. That said, any time Bungie incorporates player desires, I always get the sense that some of this stuff is made with a sort of “we need to do this The Bungie Way!” attitude, a feature gets implemented, and then a lot of it gets walked back until the feature is more or less in line with the ways other people have done it. So like, none of this is being written with the self-importance that believes my ideas must, should, and will be listened to. But for any of you reading this — especially those of you who make this kind of game elsewhere, hopefully my feedback will serve as a beneficial case study that empowers you to solve problems in your own projects. This isn’t “bungie, please implement my ideas directly.”
So let’s talk about where Destiny was, where it is, and a few things that might help get it into the best place it’s ever been.
Destiny 1: really good shooting, amazing vibes, story that made no sense, some really odd choices regarding gearing that scream “I want to do this in a way nobody’s ever done before instead of a way that works,” which led to “forever 29” players who couldn’t get to level 30 because the right gear wouldn’t drop. This is a persistent problem with Destiny.
The Dark Below expansion: super content light, I think Schreier once said it was made in only about 9 weeks of development. I think the Crota raid is underrated. Fang of Ir Yut is a baller.
House of Wolves: all of Destiny’s core problems got solved here, but the original game and The Dark Below feeling uncharacteristically un-Bungie left a bad taste in people’s mouths, so a lot of people weren’t eager in checking it out (I’ll call this the Reception Lag Principle: a sequel’s reception is shaded by its predecessor). In my opinion — and this whole piece is my opinion so it feels silly to say, but I figure the reminder’s helpful — the single best combat encounter in the entire series, Skolas, was hidden behind like two hours of non-checkpointed (even raids let you leave and come back) gameplay so I could never get people to do it with me regularly. It also included a god-tier weapon set inspired by the Fallen (that they should bring back in Destiny 2) and one of my favorite Exotic weapons of all time, Lord of Wolves.
Importantly, in House of Wolves, the best leveling Bungie ever had was introduced: you get an orb as loot for playing the game. You put it into whatever gear to max its level. This allows you to avoid the “fuck, I’m not getting that One Thing I want.” It’s the most reliable gearing Bungie’s ever had.
The Taken King: really good expansion, changed the item leveling system out for one that was better in terms of granularity but worse in terms of player gearing (because you couldn’t target gear, resurrecting the Forever 29 problem). It also featured another fantastic raid (and added my favorite gun, the aforementioned Hung Jury.
I’m really fond of The Taken King, but now I’m going to say something that I’m absolutely going to have to substantiate, and trust me, I will:
I think The Taken King is the source of Destiny’s biggest problems, not because it was bad, but because of what happened after. I think the wrong lessons were learned.
Taking Too Much
So, in terms of raw content, The Taken King is mostly some of Bungie’s best content… ever. Also there’s a good Pathways into Darkness joke. The writing is stellar, the pacing is on point, and the systems were solid. And then there was Oryx. Man. I loved Oryx. Genuinely threatening, absolutely apocalyptic vibes, and the entire campaign worked up to the thrilling climax that was a raid.
(I’m sure Bungie has looked at the stats and gone “but people don’t play raids” and it’s like, yeah, execution-heavy content — even moreso with the inclusions of tokens and emphasis on puzzle mechanic coordination over DPS checks — that requires coordinating six different people across their various time zones is gonna limit who can play your content — but I think capping off The Taken King with Oryx as the raid boss made him feel way more meaningful than any raid boss since. Everyone feels like a pushover compared to a guy I once spent ten hours fighting to try and get the challenge mode to work)
There was just one problem with The Taken King: people stopped playing.
“Best it’s ever been” didn’t mean much when, once you’d exhausted everything there was to do except the PVP side of things (and PVP player numbers are dwarfed by PVE player numbers last I knew)… you had nothing to really do other than wait for the next expansion.
So people complained about a “content drought” and left. New content in September 2014 to, December 2014, May 2015, and September 2015 was pretty good. No content from September 2015 to September 2016 was rough.
I suspect, at this time, Bungie came to a conclusion: you gotta give players a reason to keep playing.
For an online game, you need both quality and quantity. The Taken King was all quality, but not enough quantity to last an entire year, and after the unrewarding and bugged Queen’s Wrath event (seriously, I only ever got the chest armor from doing the one mission (and only that one mission) that it gave me every day. It was boring! But it could have been good with some rework!) A five hour game might last you through a couple nights of play; for a game that makes its money by inviting players to get involved weekly, you’re going to need some way to motivate players to play.
You can try a carrot on a stick — giving players some sort of tease that’s never really fulfilled — but they will catch on and they will resent you for it. The best thing to do is also the most impossible: get on the treadmill yourself and start churning out content so there’s always something to do.
This, of course, makes it harder to generate content over time because you’ve got more stuff to bug test now with every expansion! You’re now making weapons that are identical in stats except for cosmetic differences! (there is nothing wrong with this. more on that in a second) You might end up designing something that locks you out of other interesting ideas later!
There’s a lot of things gamers never really consider that designers have to get to before players figure out there’s a problem. Part of the reason Pokemon started removing moves was because they were getting duplicates; you don’t want players to have to suffer through remembering why two differently-named fire attacks are slightly different from each other, after all. So at some point, it’s just easier for a designer to show up, cull the herd, and start with stuff that’s actually manageable.
But… there’s just one problem.
This was a complication of Bungie’s own making.
You see, by House of Wolves, all content could be leveled up to a maximum of 170. In The Taken King, things went up to somewhere in the 300s, and by Rise of Iron, literally 400.
This meant that a ton of activities, from the original Vault of Glass and Crota’s End raids to the Skolas activity in Prison of Elders, no longer mattered. All that cool-looking loot? Yeah, Bungie just… limited what level it could go up to. It sucked, but I think most of us put up with it because A) Destiny had a ton of problems it was slowly fixing, and B) Infusion seemed like it was permanently replacing the problem.
Eventually, Bungie did bring some of the old content up to new levels (though, for some reason, insisted on making the old raid weapons into exotics. Skolas and some of his amazing boss friends, like Urrox, Flame Prince, got left behind and never moved forward at all! There was no reason to do them when your night could be spent doing things that actually propelled you forward), but it was super late.
Me, if I’d been there at the time, I would have argued for putting raids on rotations, or giving players a fixed number of potential raid drops every week (since Raid weapons were fixed rolls but largely really, really good, players would chase them down until they collected them all — then they’d have no reason to keep playing; if you want players to keep playing, fixed rolls are bad for your game, and Destiny 2 really hammered this point home). Bungie now has raids in both D1 and D2 on rotation, thankfully. I believe as I write this, the current weekly raid in Destiny 1 is Wrath of the Machine, a raid I really wish was in D2 so I could play it on PC.
Anyways, the point of all of this is that on launch, Destiny was too small. It wants to be an MMO, but any MMO dwarfs it in terms of viable content. I can log onto FFXIV or Guild Wars 2 or Elder Scrolls Online and do something one day that I haven’t done in weeks. It’ll always be worth doing in some way, shape, or form. In Destiny, replacing content or leaving older content behind meant that Bungie shrunk the game. Knowing that the only way to get the moon shotgun is to do the quests that get me the item that lets me buy the bounty that requires me to get ability kills feels… well, a bit like a drag.
Destiny violated that all-important tenet of game design: because variety is the spice of life, and nobody likes a bland dish, you need to keep your game varied. Soup of the day only takes you so far if you’ve only got three kinds of soup.
When it comes to Destiny, Bungie has always had problems with variety, and in a way, this entire piece is about all the ways that Bungie has grappled with this problem, like sunsetting content in Destiny 1 and Destiny 2, which leads to less per-day variety, which leads to less reason to want to stick around.
The lesson it seems they learned was “we have to keep players invested by releasing lots of content.”
They lesson I wish they’d learned was “players need enough consistent variety to keep them engaged.”
Timelost Shootybangs, Part 2
So, finally, we get Rise of Iron. It’s perfect.
“You can’t really mean that, Doc.”
No, actually, I do. Sure, I might be misremembering things, but by Rise of Iron, every major complaint except “my vault is too small” and “this isn’t on PC” had been worked out. Destiny had the most content ever, and while my precious Skolas encounter (which, despite being something I like, is another variety-trap I’ll talk about later) got left behind, Destiny was honestly pretty awesome.
Unfortunately… well, people were getting amped up for Destiny 2. A lot of us were moving on in life, branching out, playing other games, trying different things (the corollary to the Reception Lag Principle, the Anticipation Cutoff Principle, is that often, the best content gets ignored because people are busy waiting for the New Hotness. If WoW releases its best expansion ever next year but WoW 2 has already been announced, most people will wait for WoW 2, and all the great things from the best expansion ever will be overlooked or even dismissed, which is a shame).
The year of The Taken King had been so dry that I personally started playing other things. Once you lose a player, it’s hard to get them back, and Rise of Iron, while absolutely excellent in every way (put it in Destiny 2 right now and people would say it’s some of Destiny’s best content), was completely a victim of The Taken King leaving a void that many of us filled with other games. Bungie was going to have to win us back.
To do that, they’d have to release a new game entirely.
They were already hard at work on Destiny 2.
That experience was… odd. On one hand, the quality of life upgrades and the PC port were massive. In terms of second-to-second play, being able to clamber when you’d just missed a jump at 120 frames per second in 4K HDR was absolutely magical. The campaign itself was designed well, though the writing was… tonally inconsistent with the Destiny we’d come to know and love (less “fantastic 70s sci-fi” and more “everyone’s kind of quirky now?”).
But the real problem was, yet again, the lack of variety. At the time, one of the biggest issues I called out (more than once) was the lack of random rolls in the game. It was, I said, like getting the same gift for Christmas every single year; you get bored. You start to question why you’re still playing the game if you’re just gonna keep getting the same Scathelocke auto rifle, y’know? Randomized perks add a level of player consideration and desire to a loot drop; what if this Scathelocke is better than the last one I’ve been using?
The first and second pieces of downloadable content, Curse of Osiris and Warmind, did little to solve the problem. The narrative was a bit off — a character who had been a welcome sight in House of Wolves was a weird nuisance, embarrassingly fawning over the character Osiris, for instance, but it was an improvement to Destiny 2. Randomized rolls coming back late in Warmind’s life helped a lot. The original Warmind activity, Escalation Protocol, was a great idea marred by its execution: do the same activity seven times, but you can’t solo it, and you’re limited on the number of drops you can get, and the bosses rotate — the grind was too futile.
“okay, Doc, do we really need to know this?”
Yeah, because the problems I’m going to talk about now come from this place. This isn’t relitigation, this is about building a compelling argument. We got this, you and I. Just bear with me.
Then we got Forsaken, which, I’m quasi-proud to say, did just about everything I said Destiny should do in my USGamer pieces. I think this was likely just a coincidence, but it does at least prove that Bungie and I are on the same same page, or at least the same chapter of the same book. I can’t talk about the MMOs and other service games I’ve consulted on, so I appreciate that it’s a handy anecdote to demonstrate to prove my insight without violating NDAs.
Forsaken did a lot right, but once again, we run into the problem of “cutting off old endgame activities and not bringing new ones up to snuff.” Would it have been nice to start getting randomized rolls on the Leviathan? You bet! It would have been a way to make Destiny feel like it was growing, and, more importantly, it would’ve mitigated player burnout. Spending months with just one raid as the only raid you could play made raiding a less juicy proposition.
Destiny also introduced seasonal activities that were permanently added to the game. This did help expand the experience, which meant that yeah, some weeks, I went and did the Forge (not D1’s Archon’s Forge, which is the best activity ever, and the only non-repetitive event in Destiny history because, while it is wave based, it’s built around doing as much damage as possible and keeping a combo going; once you finish, then you try to keep it going by inserting keys into a machine. Extremely strong flow state that never turns into Groundhog Day), and other weeks, I did the weird Bridge activity that was super fun (but challenging), and so on and so forth.
There was always something to do. And that fuckin ruled. But… there was only one raid that actually gave endgame gear. A lot of stuff, like the Mercury weapons, or the Escalation Protocol weapons, wasn’t worth grinding because they were still stuck on the fixed rolls thing, meaning there wasn’t enough variety to keep it stimulating. Did I love my Badlander? Yes.
Would I slip Luke Smith or whoever I need to speak to at Bungie a $20 bill to get that same Badlander back in my hands? Also yes. I will literally brave the $5 a gallon gas and drive all the way out to Washington to hand someone the $20 to get that specific Badlander back. Not a reissue, that one. But this isn’t a piece about sunsetting, so I’m not going to repeat myself here about that part. Just know I would like to see the level cap removed from my old guns that didn’t hurt nobody (except a whole lot of space aliens and guardians in the crucible who were so cosmically unlucky that they found themselves in my crosshairs, which is just astonishing because of how bad I am at Crucible), especially when the level cap keeps getting moved every time the base power level goes up. I think my 1060-limited items are now all 1350 because of this, so Bungie almost certainly could remove that cap if they wanted.
Destiny had another major systemic issue regarding gearing: players want to work towards something every season, and that’s why most developers include some sort of leveling system in their game. It’s a kind of necessary engagement roughage, something to make the lizard brain go ‘woo, things are happening’ without simply making a two thousand hour long wholly original linear corridor shooter, right? If you feel like you’re making progress, it’s easier to stay engaged.
Problem is, the only way to level up is to get lucky. You don’t get to be deliberate. It’s the Forever-29 problem — the reason a lot of people quit the game in the first place back when Destiny 1 first came out, and the reason people still fall off to this day. The level grind isn’t fun — just the other day, someone was moaning to me about how annoying it was to need a specific item for infusing stuff up to the proper light level. If you get a gun you like, it sucks to spend tons of resources to keep it relevant as you level it up until endgame, y’know?
Heck, just the other day, I saw someone on the reddit complaining about gearing. While I’ve begun dipping my toes back in, the consistent question I receive from former members of my near 100-person clan is this: “will Destiny respect my time? Because if not, I’m just going to go back to Final Fantasy XIV.” Every time, I’ve had to go “well… sort of,” and then in trying to explain the overcomplicated means of gearing, they go “okay so it isn’t” and decide Destiny isn’t where it needs to be to bring them back.
Recently, it came out that Amazon will run out of workers, not because of incredible employee retention, but because of significant employee churn. Turns out people resent feeling unrewarded and they will look for jobs elsewhere; if Amazon runs out of employees, Amazon can’t function as a business. Games are the same way; if you churn through your employees by prioritizing a small portion of your dedicated fanbase — if you can’t establish enough loyalty — eventually your IP dies because people don’t want to stick around.
Unreliable gearing has been a problem since 2014. That was 8 years ago!
If you’re Bungie, you might go “hmm, okay, I see what you’re saying, but if people could target something in every slot to level themselves up, wouldn’t they get through it too fast and stop playing?” Yeah, I got a solution for you, but let’s really drill into the core problems facing Destiny because sometimes, what players say they want and what they actually want are two different things, and poor communication of player needs and awkward solutions to their problems don’t always work out. We’re not here for band-aids, we’re here to give our players the fuckin’ Super Soldier Serum.
Take, for instance, sunsetting. Bungie’s messaging framed the problem like “if people use the same gun a bunch, they won’t want to buy the DLC with new guns!” A lot of youtubers and streamers liked the idea, because their job requires them to play the game over and over again, and so they optimize their loadout, which homogenizes their experience and… woah, hey, we have the variety problem again! When I wrote about Destiny for Vice, a big Destiny Youtuber basically pointed his fans at me and said “this guy is wrong.”
Eventually, after he realized how bad Sunsetting was for not just him, but everybody else, he finally was like “I believe sunsetting can work… but this isn’t the right way to do it.” To my knowledge, no defender of sunsetting has offered a viable way to do it that solves the problem (and, hey, I’d appreciate an apology for all the hate that got directed my way); these people aren’t game designers, though. Content creators are usually terrible for feedback; their feedback will always be about how the game can give them more ways to create content. A game that’s good for content creators is often not a game that’s good for paying customers.
If you’re playing Destiny 24/7 and burning out, you’re going to want to get through content as fast as possible. You’re going to seek out the most meta weapons of all — which is extremely counter to how people play video games when they’re not influencers — and you’re going to try to speedrun everything. It’s not about fun, it’s about mitigating boredom; being forced to mitigate boredom if you can’t control yourself because playing the game is your life seems like a good solution… if you’re one of like fifty human beings out of millions upon millions of players.
Sunsetting killed player motivation for a lot of people. My nearly 100-person clan all but died after sunsetting was announced; many of them went over to Warframe or Final Fantasy XIV. Do you have any idea how many people will tell me about specific guns they like? If there’s one thing I can predict with perfect accuracy, it’s that any conversation with a lapsed Destiny player will invariably result in them asking if a certain gun they liked using was playable, and they will shut me down when they hear that no, sorry, you can’t get that Apostate with Snapshot anymore, and the one in your vault can’t be used in any of the content that actually lets you progress. If you’ve got all the loot in an activity and it won’t level you up, why play it? What’s the point?
But this isn’t a piece about why sunsetting weapons sucks, because you know that already.
The point is that we have to be comprehensive in our explanation of problems in order to offer useful, actionable feedback. We’re required to be clear, and the people receiving the feedback are required to be understanding. Like if I say “the flashing lights here can cause epilepsy” to a team, and they come back with a different kind of image that can trigger epilepsy, the problem itself has not been solved, only the symptom. We want to solve the problem, which is “don’t cause epilepsy,” not “this specific pattern of lights should be changed.” The change itself doesn’t matter; the results are what we’re after.
For a while, I wrote about the problem with Destiny feeling like a chore. If, every week, you go to the Blind Well to get your powerful gear, do precisely two runs, then do exactly 3 strikes with the elemental modifier set properly, then do your one raid (and until recently, it was always the same raid)… that gets boring. It’s another Variety Problem, right? But it’s one caused by a solution to the problem of gearing!
Leveling up without any way to know how you can get the items to level up isn’t fun; having discrete tasks every week that make it easy to make a checklist of what you can do to level up solves that problem a bit — but the core issue was randomness! You can still do every single powerful gear activity in a week and, as several friends have experienced, getting nothing but Titan marks for an entire week is extremely frustrating. Several people have explicitly cited this to me as the reason they refuse to return to Destiny. It’s second only to “but I paid for that and now I can’t do it” in terms of “why I will never trust Bungie again.”
Final Fantasy XIV is a lot of my former Destiny friends’ daily driver these days, not Destiny. It was Bungie’s ball to fumble, and the gear score system combined with “do these specific, repeatable tasks for a chance at getting the thing you want that you need to get permission to enter content you paid for” sure is a fumble. No one likes being unable to go into a raid with their friends because they got unlucky with drops (this is also why most of my friends don’t play gacha games anymore — they were tired of not getting things their friends got).
Now, Bungie has addressed this a bit by limiting the level increase to 10 levels per season, but it’s a band-aid for the problem that is gear score leveling in the first place. It’s just… way better to gear in a game like FFXIV than it has ever been in Destiny. There’s a reason my friends are constantly posting pictures of progress in FFXIV showing off how many classes they got to 90 and almost nobody posts “wow I just got to light level 1590” or whatever these days.
Honestly? If I was brought into Bungie headquarters and was told I could make 3 changes to the game to bring players back, one of those three would be this:
Players should be able to go to Master Rahool every week with powerful engrams, ‘buy’ something for whatever slot they personally need, and if they don’t like the specific item Rahool gives them (say you need an energy weapon but you don’t like that weapon’s roll), infuse it into whatever they had. Destiny already has the “store engrams and ‘buy’ things with them” system in place, so this seems like the simplest built-in way to address that problem. Is it the best? Maybe, maybe not. It’s something that would require hashing out in a design meeting.
A Bit More On Variety
Yes, yes, I fully recognize the irony in consistently hammering home the point that variety is Destiny’s biggest problem and always has been, because it means my essay isn’t varied, but I hope that in discussing how the problems are interlinked, I’m providing you with every possible ounce of context.
Look, Bungie very clearly has this pattern that begins when players ask for something. From the outside looking in, it feels like someone at Bungie goes “okay but we’re gonna do this The Bungie Way,” an then you get an overly complicated version of something (the initial plan for unlocking cosmetics was not great! the weapon crafting system needing 500 different currencies to work put an excessive cognitive load on players!), which Bungie eventually removes the convolution from and it becomes a lot like what players asked for.
If I was actually consulting Bungie on Destiny 2, and I was asked to advise the fine folks at Bungie to do one thing, it would be this: you guys have a tendency to overcomplicate things. What you want to do is reduce overall cognitive load on the player in order to get them into a flow state; the more complicated your individual systems are, the more people will bounce off them. What you want to do is create a bunch of player-intuitive systems (imagine that your average player isn’t the most experienced gamer) that require few mental steps to get through (e.g. only having one material for crafting weapons), so the player can focus on the stuff that’s mentally stimulating rather than exhausting: the best-in-class shooter gameplay you have going on.
I didn’t need to grind out new Moon weapons this week, but I found myself getting bored grinding the new Leviathan event and last season’s Psi-Ops battlegrounds over and over again, so I jumped back in, ran around on the moon, and had a grand old time. Even did a couple old dungeons with friends; sure, I have all the weapons, though I could use better rolls on a few. The fun was just in doing something to break up the monotony of grinding a couple specific activities over and over again. But I’m a person who’s aware of when I’m getting bored and won’t slam my head into a wall until I burn out because it’s literally my job to identify issues like this for other game developers.
Logging in to do something different every night kept me going in Warframe way past the game’s expiration date — getting every weapon and maxing it out was fun, but there’s so much to do in that game that even when I get bored of one activity, there’s always something to switch to.
A core problem with Destiny 2 was that… well… it doesn’t know how to handle variety well at all. Like, for a while, it was “one planet is The Planet For The Week,” but it gets boring to just do activities on that planet, especially when the weapons that drop have identical rolls (Garden Progeny 1 is absolutely stunning, but not when you get it 10 more times and nothing’s different about it).
Destiny 1 handled this really well: its original bounty system was loose enough not to force you to go anywhere you didn’t want to go, but guided enough that it made sense to go to Venus (because of all the vex/fallen bounties) one day and then go to Earth or the Moon the next (because suddenly you have a lot of hive/fallen bounties), and so on. It was softer, encouraging curation of player time, rather than the more rigid and exhausting “there is no point to go to Io this week, we want you to go to Nessus only.”
This just creates mental fatigue, which is the predominant reason people quit games.
Warmind’s activity, Escalation Protocol, just like Court of Oryx and Prison of Elders in Destiny before it, and just like… well… just about everything after it, have this same problem with variety (yup, there was a reason I was setting that up!): it’s not fun to do the same activity X number of times to get the same reward.
Let’s take a newer activity, Blind Well: you can do it twice a week for loot. The way it works is that you go to the middle (always). You kill enemies until you need to go to one of two zones (left or right). Then you will go to one of two other zones (also left or right). Then you will fight whatever boss is on the weekly rotation. The end.
It never changes.
A pal of mine, Brian, who makes the roguelike Caves of Qud, once told me the key to randomizing content is that you need multiple axes of randomization. Destiny, I think, doesn’t really have this. Oh, sure, you might run to the right side of the arena to capture a plate or the left side, but that’s about it.
Destiny has, more or less, always done this. Take Prison of Elders. You go into a room, you take on one wave, then you are given one of 3 different objectives. You will do that wave with that modifier (kill the guy, capture the plate), and then you will do a third and final wave with that same modifier. It’s been a while, but after this, I believe there’s a new boss. Pretty similar to Blind Well, right?
What about the latest activity on the Leviathan? Go to one of three locations, activate a thing, kill enemies, kill special guys who give you a scythe. On the second wave, you will have to go kill some psion dudes and the guys they spawn. Then you repeat wave one. Then you fight a boss.
Then you repeat that entire paragraph above for Tier 2 of the same activity.
Then you fight one of the three weekly bosses on rotation.
Seeing a pattern here?
The pattern is the problem; for this season, what you’re going to do is play this activity over and over and over again in order to progress. It’s not all bad — one thing I really like is that there are hidden chests to find after you beat the boss, and the length of time is much shorter than the original Escalation Protocol — but it’s always the same thing. It’s predictable. And that’s the problem.
I dunno if it’s a philosophy or a tech issue, but either way, it’s still a problem; it’s still something people will burn out on. When the grind was unbearable during Season of the Worthy, the Warmind events where you hoped people would match in so you could grind three identical waves and then do the boss wave burned people out so bad that many of us quit right there. I managed to make it two weeks into the next season. Bummed I couldn’t finish that season pass I paid for and it’s gone forever.
Woof. Right. So.
Bungie has created two warring forces!
First, there’s the season pass, which says “play the game a lot in order to get the content you paid for, or you lose it forever.”
With the season pass, you are obligated to play the game on Bungie’s schedule or you forfeit the stuff you actually paid Bungie money for. Yeah, I’m a bit salty I never got that ornament for the Duality shotgun because the combination of Bungie-driven pressure to play and external pressures like my heart surgery meant I missed out on several season passes. It’d be nice if I could take a 3-month break from Destiny for a while, come back, and catch up with what I spent money on, because I would then be inclined to spend more money in the future.
But, in order to grind this thing on a short timespan, you also have to be doing a select series of events inside of Destiny’s larger pool of potential things you could be doing. The gearing/loot/progression/whathaveyou system says “do these specific activities a lot, even though they don’t have a lot of variety and fairly limited loot pools” (the Leviathan event has one armor set, one old weapon set, and one new weapon set, but you have to grind it a lot to get weapon blueprints, and since it’s just the same three waves over and over in the same single room, it can get a bit tiresome).
In other words, you do a bunch of the same task within a limited time frame. It’s a recipe for the worst thing that can happen to a video game:
IT WAS ME, AUSTIN! This Was All About Motivation ALL ALONG!
I’ve said this before and I’ll keep saying it until the day I die: Game design is about getting players to take interesting action. When your game isn’t varied — or worse, your game’s system pushes players to do specific things in specific ways, limiting the possibility space the players operate in — it demotivates people. It burns them out. They stop wanting things, and that’s when they stop playing.
Players are a lot like cats; if you keep a cat in a room with nothing in it, well, congrats, you’ve put a cat in prison. Cat brains require a specific amount of stimulation in order for the cat to be happy — it needs toys, boxes, and other things in order to function. Humans are the same way; it’s why variety is such an important thing. Our brains require a certain level of stimulation, and predictability robs us of that stimulation; when we know what’s going to happen and we no longer anticipate it, then the activity ceases to be stimulating, which means we are not just unmotivated to keep doing it, but we become motivated to do something else.
I wrote about this — and how Bungie was fantastic at giving players a framework for variety, when I wrote about Halo for Kotaku years ago.
You’re playing a shooter. Some Marine stands in front of you, barking out commands. Whatever he’s saying doesn’t really matter — it translates to little more than “shoot the bad guys!” Eventually, he steps out of the way, you run forward, and you dash through narrow corridors, using a host of weapons that more or less function exactly the same.
Run into a room full of enemies, take some damage, the screen turns red, duck into cover, wait a few seconds, repeat. If you die, you’re back at the checkpoint, waiting for a Marine to stop shouting…
It’s Groundhog Day.
The rest of the essay explains how Bungie’s design in the Halo games avoided this problem. If you’re treating a shooter like a timeloop story, then you’re getting just as bored as the members of SG-1, like in the episode “Window of Opportunity.”
You don’t want them to be bored because they’re disengaged, if they’re disengaged, they’re not spending money, if they’re not spending money, you go out of business and you have to tell hundreds of employees that they’re losing their homes, medical benefits, security, happiness, everything because of it. There’s a lot at stake when your game isn’t engaging.
So, if I’m Jim Bungiesmith, president and god emperor of Bungie Games and I’m trying to make a profit, I need to be thinking about how to mentally engage players.
Obviously, new content is great — if Destiny was just the Red War campaign, players would have dropped it, so adding things like the Witch Queen campaign (which is excellent, by the way, other than the Throne World weapon set not including an 80 rpm/lightweight frame shotgun, a 140 rpm hand cannon, or a 360 rpm void machine gun, for shame!!! Shaaaame!!!!) helps. But obviously doing that condemns your team to a death march, and presumably you want players and devs to be happy, because, even if the fictional Jim Bungiesmith is a super greedy person, he still knows that happy devs make more inspired product, and happy players spend more cash.
It’s always a good thing to make people as happy as you can.
Okay, so, how do we create variety? Do we create a bunch of unique, bespoke systems that requires players to memorize massive volumes of knowledge in order to play? Sure, it was easy for me to figure out how to farm for weapons on The Moon and figure out how it’s different on Europa and then adapt to the new system for weapon crafting… but I learned these three things about once a year; that’s plenty of time to learn things. For new players, this shit is overwhelming.
So… just “keep adding on a bunch of game-specific esoteric knowledge” is probably the wrong way to go. It sounds like variety, but it’s the bad kind; if you plan meals for a week, you probably aren’t randomizing all your ingredients, right? You’re probably just randomizing the specific dishes. One night is pasta, one night is steak — it’s not “okay this time we’re going to boil the pasta in pickle juice and then we’re going to pour caramel sauce on it.” Directionless variety isn’t variety.
I hope I’m making sense so far; I’m trying to be at least somewhat entertaining in these metaphors. In my mind, once you read the last paragraph, you chuckled. I hope in my attempt to be exhaustive, I’m not coming across as condescending, just super direct and as clear as possible so there’s no room for any of us to miscommunicate.
What do we do? My thinking is that you… actually let it be player-directed.
Like, okay, from the top down, let’s say our primary player motivator is twofold: we have the extrinsic reward of “a number goes up and I get new stuff,” and we have the intrinsic reward of “I want to see where the story goes.”
I think Bungie’s doing pretty good on the story front except for the part where they remove it all, making the game completely incomprehensible to anyone who isn’t treating it like a job (several people, including some of my friends who are influencers with millions of subscribers, have explicitly stated to me that this is a problem). I missed a couple seasons and I got no clue what’s happening other than this Crow dude is boring and feels woefully off the mark for what trauma’s like (as a person who is currently undergoing trauma therapy, I find his characterization deeply condescending and think he’s the worst character in series history) and Zavala’s backstory is Even More Tragic Than Previously Anticipated (and I love that) and somehow Calus is a fungus now.
But like the actual story? Crow aside, it’s fuckin awesome. Also, kudos to everyone who worked on The Witness. Genuinely alien shit, absolutely here for it. I need more of this alien thing, holy shit.
So, narrative, we’re doing good on and nonstop bespoke content will kill our employees for a quick buck, so it’s not worth anything. Let’s move on to systems. If we’ve decided that our power system is sacred, I’d say the suggestion I made about Rahool earlier is a good start. If you wanted to let players direct things a bit more, consider maybe giving each planet its own specific engram pool; imagine getting a pringle — yeah that’s what my fellas call powerful engrams — on Nessus. You take it to Rahool. It’s got the Nessus symbol (Destiny 2 launched with engrams that did this! see the Arcology engram vs the EDZ engram!). He goes “what do you want, Guardian,” and you’re like “okay gimme an energy weapon, because I need progress in that slot.” He goes “cool,” then gives you an energy weapon. Roll’s entirely random, the weapon is whatever energy weapons drop on Nessus, but that’s okay; if you don’t like it, you can infuse it to bring the number up.
“but, Doc, the global loot pool just kinda puts everything into the same bucket.”
Yeah, about that… there should be no global pool. Every planet should have its own set.
This means a player in search of variety (‘I’ve played a lot on Mars this week, I think I’d like to go somewhere else’) isn’t doing specific tasks in the hope they’re getting random gear, they’re instead hunting down whatever gear they feel like and changing it up when want, because the underlying system is always the same. What the player chooses to do — patrols, events, planet-specific activities — becomes varied through player desires (“i want this specific gun only found on this planet, okay, now i’m going to get a chestpiece i really like over on that one”).
You may be saying “but Doc, the Moon, Europa, and Throne World all have targeted weapon drops.” Well, A) the other planets don’t, B) you still get world drops on Moon/Europa/Throne World, and C) each of those locations has unique ways to get weapons that aren’t super varied. Like the quest for Tranquility is always “get 25 sniper kills but only on the moon and also do a bunch of moon specific activities;” it’s never “do 10 patrols, kill 20 thrall, complete 1 lost sector, open 5 chests” or anything like that. If you pick up the sniper, you know what activities you’re doing, and that means you’re being Groundhog Day-ed.
As a designer, you can give players a little nudge with a central bounty vendor (rather than having a bounty vendor on every single planet) that, like Destiny 1, encourages but doesn’t prescribe any specific destination. “What am I doing today, bounty vendor?” The robot pauses, goes “y’know, Mercury is needing your attention, hint hint, nudge nudge,” but you can go “fuck off, I’m going to kill Cabal in the EDZ and Vex on Io because that’s what I want to do today.”
Ideally, a player goes “if I’m on this planet, these are the things I will be able to obtain, and if I’m on that planet, I’ll get a different set.” You might get ’em through opening chests, leveling vendor reputation (I think the Fynch system from the Throne World is good; every planet should get that retrofitted if possible).
I recall someone from Bungie stating in an interview or TWAB that they felt they’d made a mistake by giving out “too many legendaries…” during the fixed-roll system of Destiny 1.
I’m not sure how to say this, but I think that was a complete misread of the situation. Functionally, Destiny only has legendaries. There’s no real reason to use lesser-rarity weapons (and I can’t remember the last green or white level weapon I’ve seen) except if you’re trying to save your level-up materials when grinding gear score. If it were up to me, I’d cut the idea of “legendary” entirely and put all weapons on the same playing field: same number of perks, same stats, random rolls for everything.
The issue was never “too many legendaries,” it was… say it with me now…
“Not enough variety.”
Fifty Better Devils that are the exact same aren’t worth much. Ramping that up or down does nothing. Adding random rolls does, but because of how randomness works, you need to give out a lot more to compensate for the fact that somehow someone is still putting Hip Fire Grip on sniper rifles. (genuine question: why? is it just because of the mistaken old adage that some loot has to be bad for other loot to be good?)
Giving players specific, dedicated locations to target different ‘families’ of loot (so they can always put a hunt for one gun on pause and move on to another for a while) would go a long way towards solving the variety problem. Eliminating the “I have to do the same tasks to MAYBE get the gear I want” issue would help as well. I’ve given you a rough idea of a solution, but there are always others.
“Where I am and what I receive” should be where most of the variety comes from, and “how frequently I swap between activities” will really make it pop.
So, okay, let’s say we do this. I suggested in my last piece that weapon crafting should be a thing (and lo and behold, Bungie added weapon crafting, once again showing that we are in of the same mind on a lot of this stuff), but uh… it has… some fundamental problems. They’re not even Bungie’s fault, it’s just a basic thing with crafting in a loot game.
Weapon Crafting Problem
Okay, so! In a game where loot is the primary reward (even the first trailer for Destiny 2 recognized this!) and overall driver, you run into a problem: variety.
Yes. I’m sorry. We’re not back to this because we’ve got a weird fetish for it, we’re back to this because all these problems are interrelated. In this case, the variety problem comes from this: once you can build exactly what you want, why would you do the activities in the hopes you get the loot you need?
Warframe’s answer to this was “you need a shitload of materials to craft anything, and there’s basically a massive venn diagram of venn diagrams interconnecting every destination so you need to go to tons of different places to get mats which will always be useful for crafting something.”
This system was interlinked with the overall account level system, which was brilliantly tied to obtaining every item in the game, rather than making an XP bar go up or finding stuff with higher light level (I’m sorry, I know it’s power level, but you’ll never take this from me unless you hire me and make me write official documentation where I am forced to use the correct terminology).
Because Destiny is rooted in heavily siloed activities, Bungie’s thinking seems to be “well, if you could craft an Iron Banner weapon, why would you keep playing Iron Banner?” I think that’s completely correct. Now, you could make it so that players require Iron Banner currencies to craft IB weapons, but if you do that, you run the risk of having five hundred different inscrutable currencies. I bet Bungie’s team knows this, because they’re smart as hell.
A similar problem emerged with random rerolling in House of Wolves, by the by. If it’s too easy to get something, then people stop playing. It seems like crafting and loot games might be incompatible, right?
Don’t worry, I gotchu!
When I suggested weapon crafting back in the day, I anticipated this very problem; we want players to be motivated to spend time playing the game and feel rewarded for doing so instead of making it so easy to get loot they’re demotivated to play.
What we want is rewarding longevity — we want players to want to play our game. We do not want to turn players into people who resent the game for becoming their only job, and we do not want to make our players so bored they quit. We need to be stimulating, not discouraging or demotivating.
So what do we do?
I realize the extreme difficulty of simply completely reworking the crafting system in its entirety — I am not saying “you must do this,” but I am saying: okay, a pitfall of your system is it doesn’t have enough blueprints in it, but if you give it too many blueprints, you disincentivize players engaging in activities. For instance, I will likely not do Wellspring ever again because the predictability of the activity (spawn, shoot dudes, capture the plate that no player seems to want to stay with me on, shoot some triangles as you go down a corridor, blow up a tank, shoot more triangles to move the boss to the end, ok we’re done) provided with the fact I got every single blueprint in it means I don’t want to play more if I can help it. Like the Blind Well and every other activity in the game, being the same thing every time is somewhat uninspiring as a player.
Well, rather than letting players directly craft the thing they want with the perks they want, imagine taking the ‘red border’ system of Destiny 2’s current crafting system, but when you break down a red border shotgun, you get a “shotgun frame.” Take that frame to, say, the gunsmith, and give it to him. He goes “alright, cool, I’ma need you to calibrate this frame for me,” and gives you a random mission (like, between 1 and 3 steps, pulling from a pool of 50 possible objectives ranging from “kill dudes” to “finish patrols” to “complete playlist activities”). Basically, it’s stuff that encourages variety by gently nudging the player towards a wide selection of activities, rather than the current Moon crafting system, which is like “you want the shotgun? well, that has exactly one objective: ability kills,” and it never changes.
In this example, we have one weakness — each weapon frame is, in a way, a currency, but I think “shotgun frame” is easier to parse than like “Radiant Hydroblizzard Jujubes” or something. You’re like “oh yeah, cool, I can build a shotgun with this. I’m going to see Banshee.”
“Okay, Doc, but you’ve talked about targetable loot; this seems like it goes against your suggestion of targetable loot!”
Well, the way I’d do it is this: every destination has a vendor, right? Even strikes have Zavala. So one idea would be that you actually turn the calibrated weapon at a vendor of your choosing, and they’ll give you whatever their destination’s weapon is. Go to Titan, give it to Sloane, your shotgun is a randomly-rolled First In, Last Out. Go to Io, it’s Baligant. You get the picture.
Do any activity to get a chance to get a frame which lets you target a specific weapon. Maybe, if you don’t want to get rid of the existing crafting system, consider using that location to, I dunno, ‘focus’ a weapon towards a specific masterwork.
(by the way, I kinda wish Bungie would introduce a “one time currency” that can change a weapon, maybe after you’ve used weapons of that type a certain amount so your Weapon Familiarity goes up — I’ve got this Full Court/Clown Cartridge Love and Death grenade launcher, but before it was reissued, I had one with those same perks and Spike Grenades. I loved that roll, but when it was sunset and reissued, I had to grind for it again. I’ve done… maybe two Love and Death runs since. I just don’t have it in me to try to get that Spike Grenade model, and I would like if maybe there was a way to change exactly one thing about individual weapons — not build an entire god roll weapon, just tweak something to my liking a little bit)
Anyways, that’s one possibility. Right now, there just aren’t enough craftable weapon types in Destiny 2 (chasing down blueprints is currently my primary motivator to do things in the game) but if you add a lot more, pretty soon it becomes pointless to engage with anything except crafting because then people won’t do the activities. Crafting’s in a weird place right now.
The Motivation Problem, Revisited
anyways, here’s a twitter thread
I sometimes rough out essays through twitter threads, and this has been a long time coming.
So, if you know psychology, you’ve probably heard about intrinsic and extrinsic rewards. You have also probably heard of them because you have been reading this essay, and I did briefly foreshadow them.
Basically, intrinsic rewards are “i really like stories about cowboys so im happy to read a story about a cowboy,” or “i love the smell of raspberries so im going to eat one,” or, in other words, things that come from within, and extrinsic rewards are things like “a salary” or “loot.”
In most psych 101 courses in college, professors tell their students about a guy named Pavlov and his experiments conditioning animals, especially dogs, into certain kinds of behavior to get extrinsic rewards (like treats). It’s a bit like programming — input an impulse to your subject, and they’ll output a desired response.
Thing is… remember how we discussed the idea of humans requiring a certain level of stimulus to be happy? Yeah, turns out that too much of this style of conditioning — it’s called operant conditioning — makes people fuckin miserable.
In fact, a while ago, I read up on some studies where people were reporting that rats subjected to operant conditioning after a certain period of time became, well… miserable. Dogs would literally bite their handlers. Humans? Oh, buddy, humans got depression and anxiety. They even got aggressive. The initial burst of desirable behavior quickly turns into hostility. Operant conditioning only works for sprints, not long-distance marathons, and service based games are marathons.
If you’ve ever wondered why the most toxic communities in gaming are for service based games, well, it comes from three things: operant conditioning, size (any sufficiently large community becomes vulnerable to toxicity because tone and anonymity are hard), and the way devs constantly shift sands under players (like how the Overwatch community got progressively worse as Blizzard kept trying to make people relearn characters they liked until everyone kinda fucked off and Overwatch 2 seems like it’s getting Morbius level attention, and not “people actually want Morbius back in theaters” attention).
Operant conditioning might work for like, a few months, but after a while, it makes people go nuts. It is psychically damaging, because the human brain has basically been strip-mined for emotions and dopamine, and now there’s nothing left. It’s very bad to do this to people.
“Okay, so, if that’s true, why doesn’t everyone lose their minds after too much time working a job?”
So, working a job gives you the extrinsic reward of “money,” and receiving money is generally pretty nice. In fact, now seems like a good time to rattle the tip jar, because being a disabled indie dev in the middle of Kansas who needs to spend more than a Nintendo Switch’s worth of money every month on medical care sucks ass. So!
If you think my work has value and you want to help me out financially, that would be great because being disabled in America is expensive. I’m putting all this out there for free because hey, I used to be in poverty and couldn’t get by without government assistance; I know what it’s like not to have resources available to you that other people have in spades. I don’t believe people should be denied access to educational materials like these just because they’re poor. My hope is that those of you who are able to support are willing to help not just me, but the people who can’t afford a lot of access to other game design materials. If you’re able to help and you think this goal of providing access to people who need it is good, here’s how you can help me keep writing:
Other ways to help include sharing my game Adios with people, leaving reviews if you liked it, and telling people about my articles. Also, if you’re a publisher, I literally have the best narrative team in the entire world (consisting of television and movie writers who have written some absolutely stellar stuff), and we are about to begin pitching a strategy RPG that is like nothing you’ve ever seen before. If that seems up your alley, slide into my twitter DMs.
Operant conditioning would be something more like a slot machine or a gacha game: pull the slot, maybe you win big (exciting!) or maybe you lose money (very likely). Over time, this burns you out; you end up like the dogs that were biting their trainer’s hands. In small doses, a slot machine can be fine; in bigger ones, it can be devastating.
A consistent salary at a job won’t make people go insane the way that “the anticipation for rewards turning into anxiety at the manipulative nature of rewards due to the way it fucks up our dopamine receptors” does.
Personally, I think we, as devs, have an ethical responsibility to avoid doing harm to our players, and I think a lot of the hate players send our way can actually be traced to some devs putting addictive mechanics into their games, making their players depressed and angry, and then the players, like the dogs, bite the hand that feeds them.
How do you combat this? With intrinsic motivation.
In my thread, an example I offered was Final Fantasy XIV, saying something along the lines of “since the story is a coherent whole from beginning to endwalker” (hehe, pun) “you can literally build up emotional attachments to characters over time; the extrinsic motivators like leveling work as psychological WD-40, but they’re background; the story is foreground.”
Part of the reason I think Destiny churns through players like Amazon churns through employees — you see individuals get really into it and then falling off as the Operant Bullshit Syndrome sets in — is because it’s heavily tied to random rewards as a primary driver, but there’s more to it than that; Final Fantasy XIV has those as well.
So what’s the difference?
Well… you can play all of Final Fantasy XIV right now. That means you can meet a character in an opening cutscene and then, as you play the game, you will gradually come to know everyone. You will form emotionally fulfilling attachments to them (not as fulfilling as real life, but as fulfilling as fictional characters can be).
A friend saw me playing Destiny a week or two ago and decided to give it a shot. He found the intro pretty incomprehensible, saying “okay, I’m just not going to pay attention to the story and just be here for the vibes.” Dude’s a professional writer on a brand that dwarfs every video game you’ve ever heard of — he loves stories, and we’ve worked together on side projects for years. This is not the kind of guy who normally goes “yeah uh, fuck stories, I’m out,” but the intro was so incomprehensible to him, that’s exactly what he ended up doing. The other day, as I ran a strike on Nessus, I found myself wondering how anyone would ever know who Failsafe is and why she was being so weird. References to the Red Legion and Cayde abound — but why? Who knows them?
Unfortunately, the only way I can think to fix this would be to literally put that shit back in, or at least rework it significantly.
You want people to care? You need a coherent narrative, not the Cliff’s notes. You want them to care more? You respect the time they invest. At no stage of this is removing content the right thing to do unless you want to create toxic addiction that puts you on a hamster wheel of trying to find more players while your ex-players are working against you by telling people “don’t play this, they don’t respect your time and there’s nothing to care about.”
Put in broad terms: people love doing stuff they care about on an emotional level — I have an attachment to guns I grinded hard for, but now that I know Bungie will take content away, I have less drive to play. I don’t buy Silver anymore. I haven’t even tried to run Altars of Sorrow again (in between the time I typed this and the time I’m doing an edit pass, I did in fact try to run one), and, quite frankly, I shouldn’t have to. I already have a perfect roll that I spent something like three seasons trying to get.
It’s one of the best-feeling snipers in the game, even though it’s not meta. I could go get an Apostate again, but uh… it doesn’t roll with snapshot anymore. So there’s no point. Now I’m demotivated to play.
What would I rather do right now? Play more Destiny or go play Godfather: The Game for the first time (I have an affinity for Xbox 360 era games and, like Destiny, they’re my comfort food of choice)? Normally, I’d’ve said Destiny, because it’s the best feeling video game out there, but as Bungie moved towards “run the treadmill so you can get things, now we’ll take things away so you can start over,” I just… I guess I want to know why I should care?
Why Should We Care? Or: Some Thoughts On How To Encourage Players To Fall In Love Again
You, Sally Bungieperson! You, John Bungiesmith! What do you want me to want? Why should I, a player who put thousands of hours and hundreds of dollars into your game over its lifespan, want to keep playing? What do you want me to do as a player?
I know that, as a game dev, it can be pretty boring to see your own work over and over and over again… but, how do I put this… there’s something about Destiny constantly chasing new stuff to add to the game (because it makes sense! People 100% come back for new content!), leaving old content to rot, keeping the game consistently too small, and robbing it of variety that makes it difficult for me to Word of Mouth this game to my friends.
“Does Destiny respect my time?”
“Well, kinda! It’s way better than it’s been in a while!”
“You’ve been saying that since Europa.”
“Well, it’s kinda true!”
“But they’re still deleting stuff and I’ll never be able to catch up on the story unless I watch it on YouTube. I thought they realized this was a problem back in Destiny 1 with the grimoire.”
It’s not exactly verbatim, but you get the gist. I’ve had this conversation with dozens of people in the past few weeks. It’s always — always — the same. They’re afraid to come back to a game that doesn’t respect them and gets repetitive in how it siloes its activities.
I hope I’ve proved a point throughout this: constantly introducing new content, but rigidly limiting the ways players can engage with that content, discouraging players from playing on their own schedules, is a massive challenge facing Destiny right now, and I say this as an expert in the fields of player motivation and retention. There is a healthier, more compelling way to make your game.
Now you may be asking, “okay, you’ve made some suggestions, but we obviously aren’t obligated to take them on board, and even if we do tweak things like directed play, even if we bring back your favorite planets (Mars and Titan), even if we bring over some of our best content ever (Archon’s Forge and Skolas/Urrox), and even if we rethink activities in ways to make them more flexible and less Groundhog Day…
“How do we keep people consistently interested in Destiny?”
Well, okay, so, right now, you introduce activities — say, the Blind Well. I love the aesthetics of the Dreaming City weapons. If it were up to me, like I said earlier, I’d make it so every single legendary that drops in the destination is Dreaming City only. I’d silo rewards on a per-Destination basis, so players who aren’t wanting to pursue those weapons will have other things to do.
You know what I’d do?
Suggestion The First
Well, first, I’d consider revitalizing that old content and drip-feeding updates occasionally. People ran out of loot to get from Blind Well? Well, what if, one TWAB, you said “next week, we’re adding a machine gun to the Dreaming City?” My heart would be set aflutter if Mars came back with a high impact scout and a low rate of fire Rasputin-themed machine gun.
“But doc, what if the guns aren’t all orthogonal?” Hey! Only game designers care about that; it’s an invented problem. In a loot game, the primary driver is aesthetic, the problem with Destiny 2 is that fixed rolls made guns not matter and in a shooter, that’s death for a looter shooter. But in a long-running game, you need both things, because players will eventually want to have their old mains with them at all times. If I have an identically statted up pair of aesthetically different shotguns, I’m going to pick Badlander over Basilisk because Badlander has a sleek aggression that I prefer to Basilisk’s chunkiness!
Bungie had it right when they said they thought that the fashion game mattered, and you can see that in games like Final Fantasy XIV. You want people losing their goddamn minds over an aesthetic; Destiny 2’s problem during Year 1 was that it was all aesthetics, no substance. You want substance, but it doesn’t have to be unique for every single gun, and once the gun feels brilliant to play, then the player priority shifts to aesthetic desire. You need both. You don’t need every single gun to be unique (but if you really want to do this, consider either having a system where players can ‘store’ a roll in the catalog to pay cash to pull out, like Shin Megami Tensei’s registration system, or letting players give you $10 for another 500 inventory slots).
So yeah, I’d focus on revitalizing old content by adding to existing pools. I’d love to see a Vow of the Disciple shotgun. What would bring me back to grinding weapons on the moon isn’t trying to regrind a new Apostate, it’s going “oh wow, now there’s a linear fusion rifle with Apostate’s aesthetic!”
(I don’t personally like high ROF hand cannons and machine guns, and I don’t like slug shotguns because the reticle feels wrong when matched with the weapon behavior, so I’d personally be like “fuck those” even though I know this is extreme bias in line with my “what if we simply deleted every warlock in the game” ideas. this is a joke. please laugh. and then delete all the warlocks.)
Suggestion The Second
Bungie has publicly stated people didn’t like faction rallies, but it seems we have different interpretations on why, because to me, it’s obvious the problem with faction rallies was that grinding a single thing over and over again to get tokens for fixed-rolled guns that were unexciting wasn’t a compelling activity.
Faction rallies are a good attention spike for players, especially as a short term activity that’s no big loss for players if they miss it, much like Iron Banner. Rather than making it “I have to grind this so I can beat other players,” turn it into “ooh, here’s a fun activity once or twice a month that gives me some unique rewards!”
Thing is, so was Queen’s Wrath (which sucked because it seemed to be super broken for a lot of players like me, who only got ONE MISSION to do daily and ONE ARMOR PIECE to drop only. Great idea, just… didn’t work! No variation!)
But… y’know, since humans have allies in Cabal and Fallen as well… you could theoretically rotate three different ‘faction style’ PVE events here. Not just My Chemical Romance and the other two human factions (btw where did Shohreh Agdashloo get off to? I can’t find her. Is this story bullshit Bungie deleted? Probably not because they never do stuff with the factions lol), but the Reef, the Fallen, and the Cabal. What’s a Cabal-themed hand cannon look like?
We know what the Fallen set could look like already…
So, hear me out: what if, once a month, a faction popped into the tower? They have some themed bounties — kill one group, open another group’s specific chest type, etc — and they have an activity, where you load into Crucible maps and have to kill enemies that spawn there. I’d look at Archon’s Forge for inspiration here; cut out the hard counters of champions, make it all about kill combos. Give players a few rounds, as the round changes, new modifiers pop up — not just stuff like “chaff” or “iron,” but “this round, Machine guns do 2x damage” or something. Let players be chaotic, focusing on building up a combo multiplayer, and then reward them with additional chests or weapons (remember how the Archon’s Forge gave you hammers that felt amazing if you were performing well?) as they play.
Random rolls and “something with minimal cognitive load that feels super rewarding for keeping a combo up” would feel really nice.
Don’t do it with the overly-prescriptive “bows and sidearms are what we want you using this season for barrier champions” stuff, don’t force players to think constantly about it. Just let em jump in, kill as long as possible, and increase the number of rewards. Maybe offer an emblem to the top 1000 people in the leaderboard for score or something. Make it very non-committal, absolutely zero “you had to be there.”
Players will join because it’s cool, and they won’t resent you because they felt like they were held hostage and had to. I can’t tell you how frustrated I was when trying to get people to help me grind for a new Hung Jury when it was about to be removed from the loot pool; if I didn’t have to worry about it, I wouldn’t.
Suggestion The Third
Remember when playing Destiny, you’d get vanguard rep for doing patrols and stuff? You’ve got that now with Fynch rep in the Throne World, but since the loot for the EDZ isn’t up to snuff, there’s no incentive to go playing in the EDZ. So you could revamp all the planets in the game to be as rewarding as the Throne World. I think that’s a good move.
On top of this, I’d bring back Destiny’s faction rep system. Remember how declaring yourself a member of a faction would mean that no matter what you did, you always, always, always got rewards for being in a faction?
Yeah, I’d rejoin The Cure if you made it so every time I gained rep anywhere, I also gained a little bit of Paramore reputation. Being able to get my Deviant Gravity A (until Hung Jury SR4, it was my favorite legendary in Destiny) or Crypt Dweller SR1 from Jimmy Eat World either by ranking them up passively as I do activities (so no bounties!) or by buying them outright as the vendor’s weapon selection changes would feel really good. The more you play the game, the more likely you are to get cool shit. It feels good to get but it isn’t something you obsess over trying to grind. It’s just a nice little “wow oh cool I leveled up again!”
Suggestion The Fourth
So, back in the day, Luke did his whole director’s cut thing where he said this:
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.
Part of aspiration is the pursuit that comes with it and, right now, the way we are (and have been) treating weapons in Destiny 2 isn’t actually fueling the aspiration engine.
As I recall, at the time, Breakneck was so broken that its core perk, when activated, actually lowered damage. Players were choosing to main it — and maining is awesome, it’s why people rioted when Capcom tried to remove Chun Li in the 90s, and why people hated when The Pokemon Company refused to let them bring their Pokemon forward in a time-honored tradition that had been going on since Gen 3 — because even though it wasn’t the most optimal weapon, it was their favorite.
That’s a sign you’ve made a good gun!
When I look at what Luke says here, the impression I get — and I want to ask him some day — is that he’s concerned that if players find a gun they’re happy with, they won’t move on. If he’s got to release new content, why would people want to play with it
So my suggestion here is… give every single weapon in the game a universal expertise score. Put it in the collections or something. Like, imagine you get a Duke Mk. 44. It’s not the best one in the world, but it’s pretty cool. What if, at various levels of gun use, you unlocked things? Skins, account bonuses (+10 more vault space!), things of that nature? Maybe even the ability to, say, change a weapon’s masterwork, or unlock an adept version?
In the past, a player had a number by their name showing their level. Destiny had a normal, XP-based leveling system until you hit like level 20, and then it turned into the gear system. It went through a ton of iterations until the current one, which… shows your season pass level. I don’t really care that some guy is season pass level 69, do I? Doesn’t mean anything.
What if, instead of a seasonal number, increased expertise in various weapons (fully leveling them via using them and getting xp would be the least restrictive), resulted in an aggregate number that went next to the player’s name, a way of showing off how experienced the player was in Destiny.
Now we’ve got a chase, and a big motivator becomes “getting and mastering all the new content Destiny has to offer,” but it’s not time-limited, it’s something you do on your own term.
(the only big pitfall here? getting too clever and sunsetting content that should be mastered, so for this to work, you’d want to settle on a very specific system for this and never undo a player’s hard work, so you’re not devaluing player time)
So if a player gets Breakneck and loves it, they might want to use other weapons to level up their account, and then they’ll go right back to using their favorite weapon. It’s the best of both worlds!
Suggestion The Insane
Bungie did a thing I liked: they introduced weapons that had unique perks and were really, really fun. Looking at you, Recluse, though for me, it was 21% Delirium cause of that sweet, sweet Overflow on a Machine Gun perk (even though I don’t normally like 900 RPM MGs). It just felt super enjoyably rewarding to use. Killing Tally was pretty good too.
Then they cut them because, hey, when you make a weapon too overpowered, people refuse to use anything but.
Now, I have an issue with the way Bungie interprets data, or at least the way we’re told they interpret data — a lot of justifications we receive publicly in TWABs and other Bungie messaging seems to go like this: “you guys use this a lot so we’re nerfing it because that’s too powerful.”
As a Hunter, let me tell you: the grenades sucked ass except for the tripmine; the issue wasn’t that tripmines were powerful, it’s that they were satisfying to unicorn somebody with, and the hit feedback on the “ball that eventually blows up” and “wispy cloud of fire bits that can track sometimes” never felt as good. It wasn’t power, it was that the stickiness on tripmines was a premiere example of just how good Bungie can make things feel.
Now that we’ve got Solar 2.0, I finally have a new favorite grenade: the thermite grenade. It’s so satisfying to set up in the same way that wave frame grenade launchers are! Love that to bits. I hope they don’t make it unpleasant to use because it gets overuse!
One reason I don’t really like running the ice class is the same issue — I don’t get enough really strong feedback from the grenades because they’ve got the same problem traps do in most games: set it and forget it means you don’t get immediately pleasurable feedback.
So when Bungie looks at data, they go “this is used a lot, and that’s bad because it means it’s powerful,” but when we look at things like Breakneck, we can see that an objectively weak gun still has its proponents. Okay, so… hear me out… what if Bungie brought back pinnacle weapons… HEAR ME OUT
…as a way to preview and test new perks for public consumption? One season, you give people an overpowered version of a perk like Killing Tally, the next, you introduce it to the general pool and nerf it until it’s in line with average Destiny perks. The weapon gets its time in the sun, it isn’t pulled out of rotation, and players don’t feel it was unfairly nerfed — because other guns have the same perk?
Can Recluse and its amazing gun feel come back if its Master of Arms perk was nerfed to the point where other guns could drop with it? And if the perk is deemed ‘too broken,’ could it not just be replaced with another perk?
That solves what I feel appears to be the core problem with sunsetting right now — Bungie doesn’t want those pinnacles to ruin the meta again, and this is how I’d personally think about solving it.
A field can no longer sustain life when it is forced, day after day, week after week, month after month, to grow the same crop. You must rotate the crops — you even, sometimes, need to give the field time to regenerate. You cannot simply extract endlessly.
Destiny’s non-varied structure relies on a constant influx of activities that are ‘new’ on the surface but fundamentally not super varied in their execution. Do a series of waves in extremely predictable ways, okay, cool, we’re done now. That’s it. Every time, that’s all there is to it. Do the same activities to get the same powerful gear to maybe get a chance at leveling up. It’s exhausting.
When combined with a fear that stuff people paid for is deleted, or the (totally proven) understanding that you can never catch up with the story by simply playing the game (“Final Fantasy XIV reworked some stuff but you can still play the whole story!” was a big point many people made to me), and when validated worries about not having one’s time respected because they are punished for not playing rather than rewarded for logging in (see: Iron Banner doesn’t upset people, Season passes expiring do)… it’s a recipe to cut off your potential for growth.
Bungie could be the biggest MMO in the world. It could beat Final Fantasy XIV, even. But how it motivates players needs to change.
You’re shooting yourself in the foot. Please shoot space aliens instead.
I hope this was helpful!
I thought I’d never write about Destiny, but, hey, I did. So. There you go.
I have one problem with how Bungie has handled weapons on a cosmetic level over the years. Oh, there’s some great sets, but… well, here’s an example.
It’s clearly a weapon of human provenance with some spiky hive bits added on. As we pointed out earlier, Crota’s End raid from The Dark Below, where Fang of Ir Yut scout rifle comes from, was made very quickly. I love the Hive aesthetic, but I feel this set didn’t go far enough. The next year, Bungie introduced us to the King’s Fall raid and while the weapons were bespoke, and I like a lot about their silhouettes, I wasn’t really into the fleshy red bits. It didn’t feel truly, identifiably Hive to me. I looked in my vault recently — I don’t have any King’s Fall weapons like this Silence of A’Arn.
They’re great looking weapons, but man, if Bungie made hive weapons that looked like Hive architecture, I would be so goddamn happy. You have no idea. I know it’s a silly thing to put in a post that’s largely about trying to offer helpful suggestions regarding player motivation and retention, but I mean, shoot your shot, right?
Post Script: Bugs (All Of Which Are Serious And I Definitely Didn’t Include Any Jokes)
- I still have last season’s “get to the podium” quest in my inventory. I can’t get rid of it, nor can I go to the podium.
- For multiple seasons now (more than a year), Hawthorne indicates she has something for me. She has nothing for me. The notification will not leave.
- Icebreaker does not appear to be in the game, please fix.
- Telesto probably did something.
- Hunters throw knives and they go away for ever. Titans can pick their hammers up. As a hunter, I can go in to hit someone and my knife goes flying; if I miss, I recover. Titans have a more mentally stimulating flow state here in the “I need to find my hammer” thing.
- Someone changed the legendary shard exploit and now I only have 200 and I have no idea how I’m supposed to farm this. Please fix.
- As far as I can tell, vsync literally does not work. I’m getting a lot of screen tearing.
- Did ya’ll ever fix that problem I had with frame drops when Steam VR was installed and running, even though it wasn’t being used with Destiny at all?