You might think that Destiny 2 is a success story. After all, Destiny 2 is the second best-selling game of 2017, and it released to largely positive reviews. With the PC version, Bungie and co-developer Vicarious Visions released a fantastic port. On paper, everything seemed perfect, but then reality hit: something was wrong with Destiny 2.
Within months of its release, Destiny 2 began shedding players far faster than the original game. Popular streamers who had made their living on Destiny moved on to other games, and multiplayer counts plummeted. Now, even financial analysts are suggesting that Destiny 2 is struggling. What happened to Destiny? Can Bungie save it?
Why We Loved Destiny
If you want to understand why Destiny 2 failed, it’s important to understand its predecessor. The original Destiny had launched in a rough state, but Bungie could be forgiven. After all, they had built the legendary Halo franchise up from nothing, but they had never built an MMO-like game before, and they were quick to respond to issues that needed solving. Development on the first expansion The Dark Below was rushed, but Destiny’s raids and content additions were enough to keep players happy until House of Wolves, an expansion released in the spring of 2015 that solved most of Destiny’s lingering problems.
Destiny felt amazing to play. In a world dominated by slow, boots-on-the-ground, stop and pop combat, leaping around with the Hunter class' triple jump or slamming into the ground with the Titan class' smash felt liberating. The enemy variety remains some of the most diverse and tactical in shooter history, especially when rewarding player critical kills with satisfying hit feedback. For players who wanted to face off against each other, Destiny offered a competitive mode called the Crucible, and later, an even more competitive mode called Trials of Osiris. Even after I had completed all the content Destiny had to offer, nothing was as satisfying and blasting enemies for hours on end. Destiny was an easy game to turn on any given day and play for long periods of time. It wasn’t for everyone, but no game is.
Bounties, and later quests and completion books, were crucial to Destiny’s success. Even during content droughts, players always had something to do; it was a great way to encourage players to experiment and feel like they’d accomplished something every day. Supporting this was the loot system. Loot is one of the toughest challenges for any game developer, but Bungie managed it beautifully. In most loot shooters, when a player receives a gun, that gun will feature a small, meaningless stat change or two. Maybe this shotgun reloads just a bit faster than that one and carries some more shells, making it seem like an obvious upgrade, but maybe that other shotgun has more damage per second. Players can get lost in a sea of meaningless stat changes that result in very little tangible change.
Destiny was different. All the guns had static numbers. They all dropped with multiple randomized perks, or small bonuses that impact how a gun plays, like explosive bullets or faster reload after a headshot kill. Not every perk was good, and not every perk worked well together, but according to some enterprising Redditors, Destiny had over a million unique weapon configurations, and around 31 percent of those configurations were deemed “OK, good, or great.” Hunting down the best perk set quickly became one of the big draws of Destiny. Other developers, like Ubisoft Massive (the studio that developed The Division), took note and adjusted their loot systems accordingly.
There was so much to love about Destiny, and Bungie kept pumping out content. Some of the most fun I’ve had in the past year of gaming was a few weeks back, when I returned to Destiny’s horde mode level, the Archon’s Forge, and played with some friends for hours. Sparrow Racing, which everyone begged for, was delightful, though frustratingly temporary. The raids were intense. Few gaming memories are as epic as a flawless run in Trials of Osiris. Guns like Hung Jury, Icebreaker, Found Verdict, and Vision of Confluence aren’t just some of the best guns in Destiny, they’re some of the best shooter guns in history, because they are so fun to use.
Bungie made plenty of mistakes, especially when it came to being stingy early on, but it was good about listening to feedback, explaining what went wrong, and making quick fixes. Some fixes were necessary, others were frustrating, but by the April update after 2016's Rise of Iron expansion, Destiny was one of the best games players could buy.
But there was a problem.
As a live game, Destiny was expected to receive tuning changes throughout its lifespan, and it did, but many of these patches had one thing in common: Bungie really liked to play whack-a-mole. Take, for instance, the patch notes from April 7, 2016, where Bungie’s designers repeatedly state that certain weapons are too good, and as a result, those weapons needed to be nerfed.
In a June 2016 update, Bungie Sandbox Designer Grant Mackay argued that Hunters had higher win rates, therefore, hunters had to be too powerful. High-skilled players will tell you a different story. Hunters were popular because they had the best air control. Fixing this would have required nothing less than a total rework of Titan and Warlock jumps to make them feel equally agile; indeed, once Titans figured out a glitch that buffed their movement speed, they became the favored class. Instead, Bungie nerfed their most popular class, much to the chagrin of their players.
Hunters had a lot of disadvantages; one of them was that Gunslinger Hunters, a subclass, only had one fun grenade: the tripmine. Players picked it because the other two grenades felt awful to use. Bungie wasn’t actually sure why it was popular, saying that “it’s possible” the grenade’s success was due to its versatility. Anyone who played Destiny at length could tell you why the tripmine was popular: it felt great to turn your target into a unicorn.
Bungie’s solution to the grenade’s popularity was to remove the ability to stick the grenade to other players. Rather than making the less popular grenades fun to use, Bungie made the popular grenade unfun to use. Now, Gunslinger Hunters had no fun grenades to use at all. While this unpopular decision didn’t impact win rates, it still frustrated players.
Throughout Destiny’s lifespan, as amazing as it often was, Destiny’s nerfs were based in a strange interpretation of the data that assumed popularity was equivalent with power, and reducing power would make everything equally viable. Bungie appeared to prefer making enjoyable mechanics less fun to acknowledging less popular mechanics and making them better.
When players relied heavily on Hand Cannons, Bungie nerfed them. When people resorted to certain shotgun tactics like blink and slide-shotting, Bungie reduced shotgun range. As the sniper tactic of res-sniping gained prominence, Bungie nerfed ammo counts. Throughout Destiny’s entire lifespan, Bungie’s entire strategy seemed to be to find the most popular, most fun mechanics in the game, and nerf them to be in line with the gameplay that players didn’t enjoy. Worse still, many of these adjustments were made based on PvP data, despite PvE being considerably more popular.
One of the last major updates to the game dramatically limited ammo spawns in competitive play. Players who enjoyed using shotguns, snipers, and fusion rifles were no longer able to enjoy those weapons as they once had. The game’s huge Reddit community hated this change, but Bungie failed to acknowledge their concerns at all. In fact, it was about to make things a whole lot worse.
Sucking The Fun Out of Combat
If you enjoyed Destiny 2, it’s tempting to suggest that because the sequel sold more quickly than the original, it’s a better game. The reviews are better too: Destiny launched with a 75 Metacritic average on the Xbox One, and Destiny 2 scored 87, a full 12 points higher. I’ve met plenty of people who believe that there’s nothing wrong with Destiny 2. After all, they enjoyed it a great deal more than its predecessor, so they are happy to argue that it’s the better game. Unfortunately, few of them still play Destiny 2. Once they played through the campaign, some strikes, and maybe even the raid, they were done with Destiny 2.
This is by design.
In Destiny, players had three classes of weapons: primary, secondary, and heavy. Primary weapons are your standard, generic shooter weapons, like pistols, burst-fire rifles, semi-automatic rifles, and automatic rifles.
Secondary weapons are the more interesting weapons, like sniper rifles, shotguns, and fusion rifles. They're weapons that are more specialized in their function, like the long-range snipers or the charge-shot fusion rifles. The third class, heavy weapons, were generally great, high-damage weapons like rocket launchers, swords, heavy machine guns, and one particularly awesome heavy fusion rifle called Sleeper Simulant that fired beams of energy that could bounce around the map.
In Destiny 2, there are two primary slots and one heavy slot. One primary slot has no elements, and the other primary slot has elements. Functionally, there is almost no difference between having the right or the wrong element for a mission—you never feel like you need to try weapons you might not otherwise use, which means you never have the opportunity to discover a new favorite. All the interesting weapons: snipers, shotguns, rocket launchers, fusion rifles, and swords, were jammed into one slot.
The end result is that combat is far less interesting now. You’ll never get to experience that dirty res-snipe or clutch shotgun kill. Over the past few weeks, I’ve returned to Destiny with a friend who has only ever played Destiny 2; he told me that Destiny feels like the sequel to Destiny 2, not the other way around. Both of us agreed that Destiny was way more exciting when you could hit someone with a primary, then mop them up with a shotgun or fusion rifle. It felt better because the combat options were a lot more diverse. With the new system, there’s rarely a reason to try anything special other than a rocket launcher.
Over the past few months, more and more of Destiny’s community has caught on. Slayerage, one of Destiny’s biggest streamers, made a video discussing the weapon system in-depth a few months ago. When the standard bullet-slinging weapons dominate two of the three slots, and all the exciting weapons get crammed into one slot, the combat variety becomes disastrously monotonous.
Bungie could fix a lot of Destiny 2’s problems by converting to the original Destiny combat, but that is no easy task, and the problems don’t stop there. While swapping freely between primary, secondary, and heavy weapons allows for the most engaging combat variety, having two exciting primaries fighting alongside each other would be pretty great, but once again, Destiny 2 gets in the way.
A Loot Shooter With No Loot
Destiny is, fundamentally, a series about earning loot. At a glance, Destiny 2 is more generous, but there’s a problem: while the original game gave players a huge variety of ways to earn better gear, Destiny 2 mostly limits players to earning tokens, which can then be exchanged for a random weapon. Want to play the raid? Enjoy those tokens. Feeling like some Crucible? Token time! Exploring one of the game’s patrol zones? Expect to receive plenty of tokens. It was fun to get weapons like Fatebringer or Gjallarhorn from a boss drop or treasure chest in Destiny, but you won’t be screaming "OH MY GOD IT HAPPENED!" in Destiny 2.
Even if you get a gun like Better Devils from something other than a token, it will only be exciting once. Legendary weapons in Destiny tend to have four perks available at any given time. One of my favorite guns in Destiny, the semi-automatic rifle Hung Jury SR4, has two amazing headshot perks, Triple Tap and Firefly, which both reward players for getting headshots by refunding bullets to the magazine and creating explosions after headshot kills.
It’s possible to get other rolls on the Hung Jury. I know some people prefer the in-air accuracy buff granted by Icarus, and others are all about the quick-aim perks like Snapshot. That’s the beauty of Destiny’s system: the rolls are random, which means that it’s possible to get whatever version of the Hung Jury you might want. This means that every time you get a new gun, you’re going to want to check out its perks to see if it suits your play style more than the gun you currently have.
This isn’t that surprising, of course. Most loot games feature randomized loot because that’s the only way to keep things surprising; thinking about the perks available to players and how those perks affect the way you use the weapon is a big part of the fun of getting new guns. Before Destiny 2’s release, the game's director Luke Smith expressed an awareness of this problem, saying “How can my second, third, and tenth Better Devils hand cannon be interesting? That's a question we should be asking and answering as quickly as we can.”
Five months after Destiny 2’s release, Bungie has no answers. In Destiny 2, all the guns have static rolls with fewer perks than before. One of the best guns in the game, Better Devils, will drop with three perks: Extended Mag, Flared Magwell, and Explosive Payload. You must pick between the first two perks, which are more or less equal in terms of damage output, and the third will always be active. Worse still, every single Better Devils will drop with those perks. Once you’ve earned a Better Devils, getting another one to drop stops being exciting. It will always be the same gun.
It’s like receiving Final Fantasy VII for Christmas in 1997… and then getting an identical PlayStation copy for Christmas every year after that. It was great the first time, but once you have it, what’s the point of another copy?
None of Destiny 2’s weapons are exciting. There’s never a chance to get something as amazing as Hung Jury, because every gun’s rolls are predictable and every gun has fewer perks than in Destiny. Some of the best perks in the original, like Tripod (which let rocket launchers fire three rockets before needing to reload), are completely absent. Others, like Firefly, have been turned into weaker perks like Dragonfly, which still creates an explosion, but the damage has been so dramatically reduced that the perk might as well not exist.
Exotic weapons and armor have been nerfed as well. Young Ahamkara’s Spine lost its signature perk, no longer giving players two tripmines. Telesto lots its signature power orb drop. Red Death, an amazing pulse rifle, made it over to Destiny 2 as Crimson, a hand cannon. As a result, Crimson loses the accuracy, range, and ammo pool that made Red Death a meaningful weapon; as a hand cannon, it’s one of the worst exotics in the series’ history.
Bungie has recently attempted to address some weaknesses to the lack of randomization with the addition of Masterworks, a special class of legendary weapon that offers minor stat buffs and occasionally drops orbs of light, objects that reduce the player’s super ability countdown by a few seconds, but getting a Masterworked Better Devils that boosts your magazine size means you’ll get just one extra bullet, while an improvement to handling is more or less unnoticeable.
A combination of boring weapon systems, static loot, fewer perks, and less interesting perks means that loot, the primary reason to continue playing a game like Destiny after completing the story, is no longer meaningful. The game is built to reward every action with loot, but the loot system is the most sterile I have ever seen. People are leaving Destiny 2 because there are no solid reasons to keep people playing. There is no reason to purchase any forthcoming DLC, because there is no loot to look forward to with this system in place.
The end result of all these nerfs is that Bungie no longer feels the need to play whack-a-mole. While Smith argued that the static rolls would make it easier for the sandbox team to adjust the weapon system, Destiny 2 has had almost no significant sandbox updates in the past few months. Destiny 2 is predictable, flat, and boring, and no one is happy about it. Players are abandoning the game in droves. Trials of the Nine participation, a good standard for judging Destiny’s health, recently had a 71,000 player weekend. In the first Destiny, for three years Trials participation never dropped below 145,000 players, even after months without a content update. Destiny 2 having half that many players in just five months is dire.
What Can Bungie Do to Save Destiny 2?
One of the most difficult things for a game developer to do is parse player feedback. Shortly after Destiny 2’s release, one of the most popular Reddit threads was titled "You don’t miss random weapon rolls." That sentiment has changed drastically as it became clear just how boring it was getting the same guns over and over again.
Players have expressed frustration with the current slow speed of the game compared to its predecessor. There are complaints about how boring the Crucible is when the only strategy is for a team to stick together. Players are frustrated that so much of Destiny 2’s loot is locked behind the Eververse, Bungie’s cash shop, where in Destiny, players could get cool ships and sparrows for completing in-game content like raids. Players have repeatedly requested zone chat, private matches, 6v6 combat, Nightfalls without timers, and other features.
So many of these problems are the direct result of ignoring what made Destiny such an endlessly playable game to begin with. Bungie’s passionate community has seemingly endless complaints about the sequel. Nightfalls should never have had timers. 4v4 should have never replaced 6v6. Private matches were a popular element of Destiny, so why were they removed from Destiny 2? Destiny rewarded players with unique loot for specific activities; why doesn’t Destiny 2 have them? Players loved uncovering secrets in Destiny, so why were all secrets removed from Destiny 2? Why do grenades take so long to charge? Why is the player speed so much slower? Thankfully, Bungie is finally addressing some of those concerns. It has even made efforts to improve the game speed.
I think Destiny’s fans are glad that Bungie is at least trying to make things right. The developers have promised adding text chat to some parts of the game but getting that working isn’t going to stop people from leaving the game, nor will it bring people back. It’s not that these things don’t matter, but they aren’t the changes that will bring players back to the game. If the Eververse was removed from Destiny 2 entirely and the shader system was reverted to a permanent system tomorrow, most of the players who left won’t come back.
The only way to bring players back is to give them a game that’s fun to play and loot that’s fun to obtain. Destiny understood that, and it’s why it’s one of Bungie’s most successful games. Destiny 2 doesn’t, and it’s losing players far more quickly than its contemporaries.
I uninstalled Destiny 2 a few weeks ago, and I don’t know if I’ll ever reinstall it. I still play Destiny with my friends, even though I’ve put more than 1,000 hours into it already. If Bungie wants me back, it’s going to take more than saying that we’ll see “weapon slot and archetype improvements” in Fall 2018. I need to hear that shotguns, snipers, and fusion rifles are returning to the secondary slot before anything else. I need to know that random rolls are coming back in a month or two, not this fall. I need to see tripmines regain their former unicorn-granting sticky glory, while the old exotics get returned to their previous power levels. I need Bungie to excite me again.
Right now, Destiny 2 doesn’t.