Destined for Greatness

Talking about Destiny is a long conversation that inevitably beings with what you thought of the game at launch. I’ve heard my particular opinion on Destiny’s early days espoused a dozen times by professional writers, and writing it all out again seems like a waste of space. At the same time, without stating how I feel about the original form of Bungie’s latest shooter, the rest of the conversation becomes difficult. Here I defer to the foremost Destiny disappointment expert, Jeff Gerstmann of Giant Bomb. In this clip from their 2014 Game of the Year Deliberations, Jeff tries to explain why Destiny is the most disappointing game of the year. Even though it’s just audio, Jeff’s incandescent anger is as tangible as any flame.

At one point in time, that impassioned tirade would be all you needed to know about Destiny. It’s a speech about Bungie’s betrayal, Activision’s greed, and a game that toys with the player’s emotions. But most damningly, it’s a game that does not respect its player’s time. A detailed dissection of what Destiny gets wrong is possible, but has until now felt pointless. Who cares what they need to improve if they aren’t going to?

But Destiny, like the Guardians of its world, is clawing its way out of squalor and, perhaps, towards greatness. Against all expectation, they are beginning to turn this game around.

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Manifest Destiny

Destiny is an MMO. Activision can say whatever they want, but an online-only game with mandatory multiplayer, social hubs, raids, and the inescapable presence of other players is an MMO. It even has ground and flying mounts, for god’s sake. There are two primary reasons Activision doesn’t want Destiny called an MMO. The first is the stigma attached to that acronym- in the popular gaming consciousness, the name “MMO” is closely connected with “WoW addict” and (in those old enough) “Evercrack.” The genre is known for the addictive, compulsive behavior it inspires, as well as the tedious grinding that powers progression. Ironically, Activision’s “not an MMO” Destiny is rife with both of these- it is not the reputation of MMOs getting in its way, but the reality of the game they shipped.

The other major reason Activision doesn’t want you to think of Destiny as an MMO is the content comparison. Simply put, if you thought of Destiny as an MMO, its dearth of content would feel all the more egregious. The expansive, lived-in worlds of that genre, enriched by both thoughtful lore and meaningful player contributions, would make Bungie and their Grimoire Cards flush red with embarrassment, had they any shame. In its nine months of existence, it has cost $100USD to stay current with Destiny’s content. That comes to just over $10 a month, a rate that is certainly comparable to an MMO. But MMOs address issues like balance constantly, and have more content than any sane human will ever see. Comparing the variety and breadth of experiences available in your average MMO to Destiny suddenly makes Bungie’s efforts feel deeply underwhelming.

Obviously, that comparison isn’t entirely fair. Anyone who considers the problem for a moment or two realizes how much more work it is to design an enemy for a triple A FPS vs. one for an ability bar-based RPG. Nearly every part of Destiny was harder to build than its equivalent in a normal MMO, and the extra work gives it added staying power as well. I haven’t tired of Destiny’s Fallen at nearly the same rate as I did World of Warcraft’s Forsaken. Even if by some miracle Destiny had enough content to match World of Warcraft or Final Fantasy XIV, it would then feel oppressively overcrowded. That’s not what I’m suggesting.

However, even accepting the differing value of content Destiny has some very significant holes. Were Destiny a lost cause, it wouldn’t even be worth addressing them. As the game continues to take two steps forward and one step back, the flaws Bungie hasn’t even attempted to fix become more striking. As long as they’re taken in the proper context, there are plenty of lessons to be learned from MMOs. For example, MMOs offer multiple ways to level up- there is not one set series of missions everyone does. There are multiple paths, involving multiple areas. Destiny ostensibly offers multiple paths to progression. In reality, if you care at all about levelling in a timely manner, it has its story missions. Any other modes level you so painfully slowly, while being so agonizingly repetitive, that they are not a serious option.

“They’ve broken the Beckenstein limit!”
-Ghost, Destiny

It’s a symptom of a larger problem, which is how end-heavy Destiny is. The process of leveling to 20 in Destiny is incredibly tedious- even if you do the all the story missions, you don’t actually get enough experience to hit 20 off of that. Indeed, there are gaps where you have to stop doing story missions and get experience other ways, or you’ll be too weak to continue the “plot.” (As mentioned, the other activities you have to fill these experiences holes with are unrewarding, both in terms of enjoyment and actual XP.) Completing the main missions is the most direct way of leveling, but that doesn’t make it a great experience- the missions are repetitive and unengaging, for the most part. Its few notable exceptions make it all the more frustrating- clearly Bungie knows how to make more enjoyable Destiny missions, and simply didn’t invest the effort to do so.

What’s more, one of Destiny’s greatest assets isn’t present at all in the leveling experience. The way Destiny handles legendary and exotic equipment stands out as unique in a crowded genre. For the vast majority of the game, you are receiving weapons with perks no more elaborate than “sometimes holds an extra bullet when you reload.” The legendaries and exotics have perks that genuinely change how you play. They have upgrades that turn your rocket launcher into a cluster bomb launcher, make your machine gun get more accurate the longer you hold down the trigger, or cause an enemy’s head to explode in a cloud of lightning when shot. The equipment’s differing effects make choosing your gear far more interesting, and without them, you’re simply picking whatever has the highest damage or defense rating.

It’s perfectly reasonable to withhold exotics from people who aren’t at the level cap- the truly over-the-top and crazy equipment works best as a reward for people who’ve conquered the toughest challenges the game has to offer. However, it’s quite common in other RPGs to throw in a few low drop rate purple items (like World of Warcraft’s famous Staff of Jordan) so  players who are still leveling get a taste of what will eventually make their Destiny experience special. Bungie doesn’t demonstrate any understanding of how to train the player- the early game teaches you to think of weapons as nothing more than their damage ratings. It undersells the significant work that was done to make gear engaging and different later on.

Right now, leveling is something you put up with so you can experience the endgame. But if such a large percentage of your game is merely to be tolerated so you can get to something fun, isn’t that a big problem? Why can’t lower level players experience a piece of what makes the endgame great- in a game where the endgame is the only part that’s worthwhile? Why does the game make no effort to hint or foreshadow the fun you’re going to have when you get to the end, or make the journey enjoyable? These problems haunt vanilla Destiny, and the game’s first expansion, The Dark Below, made absolutely no effort to fix that.

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The Dark Times

The Dark Below (or TDB for short) is a name that is often spat rather than said in the Destiny community. Players were already lukewarm on what a faction grind the endgame turned out to be- adding in another faction that was even harder and more time-consuming to level was downright insulting. The game’s balance was distorted with some (presumably) well-intentioned nerfs and buffs that made PvP a nightmare and left an entire weapon class (auto rifles) unused. Best of all, the DLC was offensively lean. For the player who likes to do Strikes, Bungie added a remix mode called “Nightfalls,” where randomized damage multipliers ensure that victory feels unearned and death unfair. Hot on the heels of the success of the Vault of Glass, Destiny’s first raid, Bungie added a new raid made up almost entirely of recycled content and significantly less enjoyable than their first six-man dungeon. These additions are all mixed bags. For a game so starved for content, any addition should be appreciated… but these ill-conceived additions are hard to be grateful for.

Then there were the things that Bungie clearly just didn’t think through. Honestly, it’s hard to believe that none of TDB’s mistakes have been altered since. Even if you assume that Bungie stuck to its guns to save face on the changes they made, it’s baffling. Why is the new exotic auto rifle, to date the hardest weapon to obtain in the game, the weakest endgame weapon? Why is the novelty bolt-action sniper rifle, with the slowest firing rate in the game, also bizarrely inaccurate? And why is there not a single ounce of content added for people below level 20? That’s the biggest flaw in your game- why is it the one part that is completely untouched?

I wish I could beat TDB up for longer, but all there is to do is name every addition or change while asking  “why?!” It’s a baffling expansion that depressed a lot of players. “If this is what the DLC is going to be like,” many thought, “then this endgame was all for nothing!” A lot was riding on the next expansion. It… delivered? Sort of? It’s complicated.

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A Sheep in Wolf’s Clothing

Taken on its own, House of Wolves (HoW) is not a great piece of content. It’s good. There’s a new wave survival activity that’s partially randomized, in an attempt to keep things fresh for multiple playthroughs. It includes a new mini story campaign that actually tells a decent tale while remaining engaging. There are minor-seeming changes to the way armor and weapons are handled that actually make managing your endgame equipment far more rewarding. There’s more than this besides, and it’s all solid stuff. While it never goes above and beyond, it actually manages to not feel like a ripoff- hardly high praise. However, in the wake of the TDB shitshow, HoW felt like manna from the heavens to Destiny players.

Really, it’s Destiny at its most earnestly underwhelming. It caught everyone off-guard when it added an entirely new type of special weapon to the game… and then it turned out there were only two of them, and both were level 20 weapons. (Again- Bungie doesn’t seem to care at all about adding any pre-20 content.) The wave survival mode turned out to be far more repetitive than expected, and while it was indeed somewhat randomized, it was mostly randomizing the order things happened in- and not what happened. You got the same enemies and the same objectives every time, presented in a different sequence in order to feel “fresh.” Of the new bosses they added, nearly half turned out to be mechanics-less slugfests where you simply had to shoot them until they fell down. The new PvP mode Trials of Osiris is designed in a way that puts a much greater burden on Destiny’s balance than anything before it has. In doing so, it served to highlight just how lousy that balance is, to the point that people often call it “Thorns of Osiris” (after Destiny’s single most overpowered and everpresent PvP gun, the Thorn).

And yet, House of Wolves tries,, while The Dark Below clearly didn’t. It seems unlikely that Bungie will release any significant game changes for free- thus far, anything bigger than a bug fix has been paid DLC. It’s unclear if that’s their call or Activision’s, but when it comes to the future of Destiny, it hardly matters. Now that HoW has shown the PvP’s weaknesses, there will be no real change to its balance until the next DLC. This places a massive burden every time a content drop happens- it needs to wow with new activities and content, but also fix all the things that Bungie wouldn’t patch in the meantime. You’re not just paying for new stuff, you’re paying for them to repair what they’ve already sold you. House of Wolves manages to be worth its what it’s asking, through earnest effort that sometimes misses the mark. The Dark Below wasn’t even worth the time it took to play. So what’s next?

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Watch the Throne

Originally, I wanted to be pretty hopeful in this part of the article. When Bungie revealed their next big drop for Destiny, The Taken King (TTK), there was plenty of reason for optimism. It will include Destiny’s first new mission area since launch, it’s adding a new slot to your equipment loadout, there are three new subclasses, there’s a new raid, there are new strikes… it sounds like Bungie’s really pulling out all the stops for this one. The price tag stung when I first heard it- $40 is a lot for a piece of DLC, even with what they’ve said it includes. Still, there was reason for optimism as we sat and waited to learn more.

Instead, we’ve been treated to a torrent of dismissive disrespect from Bungie. Games devalue over time, and it’s no surprise that Bungie has announced a discount package for new players to release alongside TTK. However, the steep discount on offer caused some players to feel cheated. Newcomers can get the base game plus all three pieces of DLC (TDB, HoW, and TTK) for $60. If they’re in the mood to get fancy, they can get all of that plus exclusive in-game items and physical collectibles for $80. This is in comparison to the $140 that same content will have cost veterans, the most recent of which will not even be four months old. They don’t get the extra bonuses from the $80 edition, either.

Picking Bungie’s mind about this perceived injustice led them to declare that if they let their fans, we would “throw money at the screen” to get the items included in the CE (in this excellent Eurogamer interview). This level of blatant condescension to their player base piqued no small amount of ire. In an attempt to fix it Bungie graciously said we could buy the in-game items for the $20 that was the difference between the regular and collector’s editions of this new package. They have graciously given us permission to throw money at the screen after all.

Amidst all this, Red Bull announced a partnership with Destiny that included an exclusive Red Bull story mission representing their “brand values,” some sort of coaching from eSport athlete Michael “Flamesword” Chaves (and it is baffling to even know what that would mean in this game), and an XP boost ala Call of Duty. By the time Destiny is a year old, it will have asked its veteran players to pay for  $60 retail release (which is by now heavily discounted), $80 of DLC (that new players can get for far cheaper), PlayStation exclusive strikes and weapons, exclusive cosmetics from two different collector’s editions, a Red Bull exclusive mission, and per-can XP boosts. All the while, they refuse to address the most basic of issues about game balance and a terrible early game experience. One wonders what they do with all the money, because it doesn’t seem to be improving the game.

“I don’t even have time to explain why I don’t have time to explain.”
-The Exo Stranger, Destiny

When Destiny first came out, and everyone realized just how little of it there was, the nightmare was that there would never be enough content to make the game worth playing. The real nightmare is much worse: there will be content. Not tons of content, but enough to turn the game enjoyable. It will be entirely focused on the endgame, making the process of getting to level 20 a mere time sink, instead of providing quality entertainment. It’ll cost you far more than it’s worth. And, for extra kicks, parts of it will be exclusive to a specific console or energy drink.

I have had more fun with Destiny in the last few weeks than in all of the rest of my time put together. I have done raiding, I have PvPed, I have played with friends. I’ve seen cool guns and armor with capabilities I’ve never seen any other game try before. And I’ve seen Destiny’s art truly at its best- amazing-looking sci-fi warriors battling against aliens both strange and somehow familiar. The more I play, the more conflicted I feel- there’s so much cool here, and there’s so much bullshit burying the cool. Every time Bungie opens its mouth, they announce another mound of garbage with a few gems embedded within.

Will I play The Taken King? God, I hope not. I hope I have the restraint to say “go fuck yourselves” after the complete lack of respect and consideration Bungie has shown. I hope I’m long bored with anything Destiny by the time September rolls around. At the same time, it would really break my heart to just turn away from the game, and forget about it. Destiny, as Jeff Gerstmann said, should have had it all. It’s got the talent, the pedigree, the design, the time, and the place. The things holding it back are greed, scheduling, and impatience. If the money and time was invested to bring the game into its own, there’d be no contest. Even what they’ve shipped makes it clear they have the skill to make the Destiny we all want.

Activision is the only reason that Destiny was able to happen- the infusion of money and support they offered Bungie let them turn that dream into a reality. But as is the case with everything Activision touches, Destiny has turned into a twisted version of itself before it even came out. Haste and greed took their toll, and the game we have is as compelling as it is distressing. As sad as I would be if Destiny had never had a chance to live, I think that would have been better than the two-faced devil Bungie now calls their baby.

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Hope for the Future

The book isn’t closed on Destiny yet- not by a long shot. The game is improving. Smart changes are being made, even if they aren’t enough. Destiny is famously a game made with a “ten year plan”- they expect to keep it going for another nine years. If they’re going to course correct, they have to do it early. And with Activision’s blind greed driving them, the only feedback they’ll respect is voting with your dollars. As often as Bungie likes to say “We’re listening” when it comes to their community’s opinion, they never say “And we are taking it seriously.” For all their dishonesty, they don’t like to out-and-out lie- and it would be a lie if they said they were taking the community’s thoughts seriously. Luke Smith’s disastrous interview is the perfect encapsulation of their attitude- as long as the fans are paying, they don’t care what they say, because they know what Destiny needs better than any player ever will.

With that in mind, let’s hope that The Taken King is a failure. Let’s hope that all the fans declaring that they’re “done” with Destiny after this kerfuffle aren’t just blowing smoke, and that there will actually be monetary repercussions for the way they’ve been handling this game. I am not optimistic about The Taken King, or how much it will respect my time and money. I am, however, still hopeful about Destiny. If the community can stick to its guns, and show them that disrespect and disdain has real financial consequences, then Destiny will be okay. Activision is capable of respecting its player’s investments, and treating them decently.

However, if the fanbase caves on this after making such a stink? There’s no greater confirmation of everything Bungie’s been thinking. “Of course you bought it after all. Your complaints and threats amount to nothing, and you will eat up whatever we offer, because we know what you want better than you do.” This isn’t the Bungie that argued with Microsoft to get the Cold Storage map for Halo 3 released for free, instead of paid. Activision has changed them, as has time. And if the fans can’t prove that they’re worth taking seriously… then Bungie won’t.

Perhaps the biggest disappointment of 2014 will also be the biggest disappointment of 2015.