Not too long ago, Bungie announced something we all knew: Destiny was an MMO. For years, Bungie shied away from the term, eager to avoid the assumptions and expectations that came with the genre, but we all knew the truth, and it was relieving to finally hear Bungie admit it. Destiny is an MMO.
At GDC 2013, Bungie game director Christopher Barrett explained that "the real tragedy, especially if you're an artist, is your content really only gets used once," pointing out that players rarely repeat play a linear campaign. "You have very little reason to return to those spaces. We didn't want Destiny to work like that." He explained that Bungie wanted Destiny to be a world that would give players a reason to come back to all the art Bungie made.
At first, Bungie tried to go the traditional route, updating the game with sporadic expansions, but the workload was too much, so Bungie introduced a new model: the seasonal update. Instead of releasing major content updates once a year, Bungie started dropping smaller expansions that included items to earn and events to play. Each season has seen the release of new weapons and activities, like this season's Menagerie, and quests for exotic weapons like Lumina and Truth.
In many ways, the seasonal model is a success, and with every release, Bungie does an even better job with it. I recently replayed Forsaken with a friend, and we cut through that campaign in two quick nights of play. The season pass makes Destiny more engaging on a monthly basis, and the price for it is something I'm comfortable paying for. Each season has a distinct theme and series of gear, interesting secrets to uncover, and genuinely exciting weapons like Austringer and Blast Furnace. Bungie has added a lot of content, and most of that content looks great, plays better, and is pretty fun the first few times you run it. Still, there are some lingering problems.
Not too long ago, a game developer buddy of mine asked me why the Archon's Forge from the original Destiny was so much more fun than activities in Destiny 2 like Escalation Protocol. In the moment, they're both really fun, but Archon's Forge had much more lasting appeal. In trying to answer him, I think I figured out why Destiny 2 isn't quite there yet.
While Archon's Forge guaranteed great loot that helped you level up on nearly every run, rewarded you for playing well by giving you huge battle axes to level your foes, and featured individual runs that lasted maybe five minutes at most, Destiny 2 does the opposite. Its events instead pressure you to play as optimally as possible in lengthy encounters for very little reward.
Running Heroic strikes in Destiny might help you earn iconic weapons like Grasp of Malok or Imago Loop. Running those same strikes in Destiny 2 will give you blue tier gear so weak you can't even use it in the strike playlist. Activities like the Blind Well are stuck on a three week rotation, which means that you face the same boss every day for an entire week, where Destiny's activities could switch up the bosses every single time you played. In other words, Destiny 2 feels like Groundhog Day.
How The Loot Chase Works (And How It Doesn't)
Service-based loot games live or die by the quality of their loot and how often they dole it out. With Destiny, once players finish the campaign, there's more to do. You can return to destinations like Venus and Mars, completing daily and weekly missions in the hopes of getting better armor and weapons.
Destiny 2's biggest problem on launch was predictability. Like a linear, campaign-driven FPS, if there's nothing to surprise you, there's little reason to play more than once unless you really enjoyed the experience. Adding randomness to Destiny 2's loot went a long way toward making the loot chase exciting.
But there was still a problem: the chore loop.
To perform the game's most challenging activities, players need to raise their power level. The only way to level up is to participate in something I'm calling the chore loop, a series of tasks that never, ever change.
Here's Destiny 2's map:
Every week, when you log into the game, you will see those gold emblems floating around various game destinations. These destinations are always the same, with the exception of the weekly flashpoint. Destiny 2 will always ask you to run three strikes with the weekly element, play five crucible matches, and so on, which means that every week you play looks identical to the last. It's incredibly boring.
That wasn't always the plan.
Back in 2013, Bungie co-founder Jason Jones and then-writer Joseph Staten laid out a series of seven pillars that defined the Destiny experience in an interview with IGN. Three of those pillars really stuck out to me as something that the original Destiny had, but Destiny 2 lost, much to its detriment. First, Destiny needed to have a bunch of fun things to do. Second, it needed rewards that players cared about. Lastly, it needed to provide a new experience every night.
The first Destiny did that. Even though content drops were few and far between, players could always log in to find something new to do every day. Want to run strikes? Cool, there's loot that only drops in strikes that's awesome and worth grinding out. Want to do a raid tonight? All right, that will help you power up. Maybe you just want to complete bounties so you can level up your chosen faction. Great! Today's bounties include kills on the moon, fusion rifle kills, and hive kills. Time to head off to the moon, run around, kill aliens, and have a good time.
I get the logic behind the chore loop; in Destiny, you were never sure when you were going to level up, and some unfortunate players could go weeks without seeing powerful gear. Unfortunately, the current solution is too prescriptive; it turns Destiny 2 into a rote experience. When it launched, Destiny 2 performed poorly because the loot and the chore loop were predictable. Bungie fixed the loot problem, but the chore loop drags it down. It would be a lot more fun to log in and play however you wanted and know you'd progress for doing it than feel forced to play activities you might not even enjoy every week. You shouldn't be at a disadvantage if you don't want to play Crucible or can't put together a raid crew.
If the chore loop were removed, the loot chase would still hampered by a lack of generosity, and the seasonal model has tackled this problem with mixed results. Season of the Forge required players to complete lengthy bounties with multiple steps to get just one shot at a good weapon, and only 7 of the game's 17 weapon types were available to farm in the forges. Season of the Drifter introduced The Reckoning, which let players play a lengthy PvE activity that was easy to fail for a shot at armor that was only useful in a single PvP mode, Gambit Prime. Season of Opulence gives players the ability to chase the loot they wanted, but The Menagerie can take upwards of 30 minutes to complete for a single item.
The ratio of loot usefulness to time spent playing doesn't really favor players all that much. Destiny 2 simply isn't that generous.
Another issue is that every one of these new activities is ruled by a timer. Instead of letting players play in the way that feels best to them, timers discourage players from experimenting; when the only way to complete content is by beating a timer, a lot of weapons become completely useless. I love using scout rifles, but scout rifles don't work in most of Destiny 2's endgame because of some changes made to them about a year ago. If I use a scout rifle on The Reckoning's bridge, my team will almost certainly run out of time and we'll fail.
Even if you do complete these activities in time, there's a good chance you'll earn blue gear, but if you're good enough to be doing these activities, blue gear is completely useless to you and you have to waste time breaking it down. Not only that, but every one of them takes a really long time to complete and some, like the Blind Well, are time-gated, meaning you can only get meaningful loot once or twice a week. Rather than being a way to spend time in the game, they become a single checklist item.
Destiny 2 should be a game where players log in, choose whatever activity sounds fun to them, play it, and feel rewarded for their time. Right now, players feel like activities are prescribed to them, and then those activities often take too long to complete for very little reward. It felt possible to grind strikes for the Imago Loop in Destiny. It doesn't feel like the same experience is possible in Destiny 2. Destiny needs to support players who want to have a good time rather than dictate the terms of their experience.
With Every Major Expansion, There's Less To Do
When Destiny released in 2014, many reviews focused on the lack of content, which was odd for an MMO that pretended not to be an MMO. With its first two expansions, Bungie addressed the content problem, and by August 2015, Destiny was a robust game that included, among other things, three raid-tier activities. But when The Taken King dropped a month later, Destiny's endgame was reduced to just one raid. Bungie didn't remove the earlier content, it just raised the overall power level (then called "light level"), so while old content like Vault, Crota, and Prison was stuck at 170, for the next 12 months, there was only one endgame activity, King's Fall.
Christopher Barrett said that Bungie wanted to give players a reason to return to the wonderful places it had made, but the power level limits meant players had no reason to return. In an MMO like Destiny, loot is everything, and the reason players will return to content time and time again is to get that content. If the content doesn't drop gear worth using, there's no reason to keep playing it.
It's frustrating, working hard to get cool gear, then having that gear made obsolete so you can't have as much fun with it as you used to. I want to jump back into Escalation Protocol, but nobody wants to do it anymore because there are only three guns, and only one of those guns is useful anymore because changes to the existing systems rendered them vestigial. Bungie is sitting on a mountain of content that's fun but no longer has worthwhile loot to chase. From Destiny 1 alone, Bungie's sitting on six patrol zones, four raids, three firefight-style activities, and fifteen strikes that are already designed and built.
So, why is Bungie doing this? I think it's because it believes, incorrectly, that it has to. Take this recent comment by Luke Smith in an interview with Polygon: "The Artifact is one part of this philosophy around making sure that in Destiny going forward, our seasonal content feels like it's got a sense of momentum." It seems like Bungie wants to create a sense of progress by replacing older activities with new ones, but what it really does is take away player ownership and give a sense of wasted time.
Destiny's Problem Is About Player Ownership
Going into Shadowkeep, Destiny is a game that's almost there. When Bungie adds content, that content is often good. It generally takes way too long to fix things that aren't fun-scout rifles, my favorite gun type in Destiny, have been useless in endgame activities for an entire year now.
Bungie's biggest problem is its current philosophy: Destiny ties players into a progression system that is so reliable it feels rote, seasonally adds new modes and missions that rely far too heavily on restrictive timers, drip-feeds randomly-rolled loot in a way that makes a lot of content feel like a waste of time, and routinely sunsets perfectly good content. In January, Bungie had seven firefight-like activities. Two seasons later, it has brought that total to nine, and it looks like Shadowkeep will add a tenth. Counting seasonal events like the Haunted Forest, Bungie's up to 13, and those events only last a few weeks before they're removed forever!
The season pass model is great when Destiny is adding new options, like chasing down Lumina or running around the Menagerie, because the more stuff you have to earn and the more ways to do it, the happier you are. But when timers mean that you have just one way to play and the power chase feels like a treadmill, Destiny stops feeling fun.
So, how does Bungie fix this?
In a perfect world, I think Bungie should dedicate an entire season to quality of life updates. Rainbow Six Siege had Operation Health, Blizzard gave Diablo 3 Patch 2.0.1, and EVE Online got Crucible. Guaranteed powerful gear is a good idea, but the chore loop pushes players to repetition. Kill it. Frustrating timers like The Reckoning's or the raid revive system make Destiny less fun. Remove them. Eliminate the concept of vestigial content and let players earn a Zenith of your Kind with random rolls!
Bungie has repeatedly referred to Destiny as a hobby, but what good is a hobby when your investment feels wasted? Destiny should add content as a way of maintaining momentum, but sunsetting content from the Vault of Glass to the Mercury weapons just feels frustrating. If Bungie's leadership is saying that it sucks for players to skip old content, then... don't do that? Sunsetting great content for newer content every single season is costly and inefficient; it doesn't make the game better for developers or players. An MMO needs to be eternal, not ephemeral; I couldn't form attachments with the Mercury guns the way I did with my Hung Jury SR4 because one gun stuck with me until Destiny ended, and the others were useless within a matter of months.
Five years ago, I think Bungie's leadership had the right idea: Destiny should be a game where every night is different, where the gear you get is awesome and matters, and where there's always reasons to go back to the old stuff. Right now, Destiny 2 is a game that's so preoccupied with adding new content and so afraid of being generous with time or loot that neither the game nor its players have room to breathe.
Destiny 2 is so close to perfect. It's a weird, beautiful mess of a thing, with a world I love inhabiting and enemies I love fighting, but it's an MMO, and MMOs are hobbies. If Bungie wants to make Destiny the best game it can be, then it needs to double down on what makes it a hobby. Games matter to us when they make us feel like our time matters. Destiny 2 needs to shed the ephemerality and embrace generosity. Then we'll feel like our time matters, and then we'll have the game we've always wanted to fall in love with.