In February 2018, things weren't looking too good for Bungie. Destiny 2, despite being one of the most successful games of 2017, was losing players fast.
In February, we explored how Destiny 2 had gone from being one of the most popular video games of the generation to a monumental dud. Later, we talked about what Destiny 2 would need to do to win us back. Now, here we are, 11 months later, with two expansions released. How's our favorite shared world shooter doing?
Last we saw, it was in dire shape. The loot wasn’t exciting, there wasn’t a lot to do, the first two major expansions managed to disappoint, and even though shooting felt good, the lack of weapon loadout variety and inability to pull off clutch plays held the game back. While Destiny 2 had its defenders, most of them played the game’s campaign once, traded it in to their nearest GameStop, and went on with their lives. The people who wanted to keep playing weren’t too happy.
The Destiny series is, at its core, a loot game. Activision knows it, which is why the advertising for the game prominently featured loot. Bungie knows it, which is why it rewards players with loot for every activity and showcases loot when hyping up new expansions. Everyone knows it. When you play a loot game, it’s not about playing the campaign once and finishing up; it’s about having a game you can log into every single day and getting worthwhile rewards for doing so.
The biggest problem was that Destiny 2 was a bad loot game. Once you got a revolver like Better Devils, that was it. Every subsequent Better Devils was the same gun. Bungie tried to change this by adding Masterworks, but getting one extra bullet in the cylinder or a slight increase to range wasn’t exactly thrilling.
After Destiny (which ended with five destination planets, tons of endgame activities, 16 strikes, and four full raids, as well as endgame activities like Challenge of the Elders and Archon’s Forge), Destiny 2 felt anemic in comparison. Its planets felt smaller, there were fewer playlists, far fewer loot items (for example, Destiny ended up with 41 legendary-tier shotguns, Destiny 2 has just over half that), no strike specific loot, and dozens of other shortcomings. Not only did the loot feel repetitive, Destiny 2 felt small.
The Path to Redemption
There were tons of problems with Destiny 2, and Bungie was determined to fix them. It started with the game flow, introducing the Masterwork system, which wasn’t that impressive for most weapons but was essential for exotic weapons. The Go Fast update made the game feel more satisfying to play. With Update 1.2.3, Bungie introduced bounties, which felt better to unlock than the planetary challenge system and rewarded players with loot, currency, or materials instead of tokens.
Bungie made other small changes throughout 2018, introducing loot exclusive to Nightfall strikes and adding a triumph system that gave players a series of challenges to complete to increase their Destiny score. The most important change was one that we clamored for: a new weapon system that would offer players significantly more variety in their loadouts. These changes were awesome, and they made playing Destiny 2 a better game, but there were still plenty of problems. Forsaken, Destiny 2’s first major expansion, looked to change all that.
With Forsaken, Bungie came out swinging, killing off fan favorite character Cayde-6 and introducing a new enemy race called The Scorn. The campaign was big and juicy, and, most importantly of all, avenging Cayde’s murder wasn’t the whole story. Over the next several weeks, players leveled up, explored two new worlds, and defeated Riven, the monster responsible for Cayde’s death, in a brand new raid. Bungie introduced dungeons to the game with the Shattered Throne, added a new activity called the Blind Well, and added a few new weapons and armor to earn. It is the best Destiny 2 has ever been.
Most importantly of all, Bungie introduced randomized loot. Sure, you could run a Nightfall one time, and you might get the new Nightfall exclusive hand cannon called Warden’s Law, but what if it rolled with a perk that didn’t benefit slow-firing hand cannons? It might be worth running the strike again, trying for a better roll. Now, instead of some guns having bad perks and never being worth using, every gun has a chance to roll with great perks, which means every gun is potentially viable. It’s easier now than ever before for Destiny 2 players to get good guns, and it gives players more reason to play.
For the first week or so, it seemed like Forsaken really had made Destiny 2 a better game. A new character, Spider, gave players chances to hunt down unique enemies for more chances at legendary and exotic loot. Every week the Dreaming City location changes, so the enemy spawns, secrets to find, and ascendant challenge events are different every time. Forsaken gave us a more interesting and rewarding game, but the cracks quickly became apparent.
Forsaken's Content Problem
Take Misfit, for instance, an awesome energy auto rifle. It looks virtually identical to Ether Doctor, a kinetic auto rifle. The same is true of pulse rifles, hand cannons, and shotguns in this new expansion. Many guns feel like simplistic reskins, and in a game where players can change their gun’s appearance with shaders, Destiny 2 feels lacking. This is compounded by a lack of weapon archetype diversity. Forsaken introduced several new hand cannons, for instance, but many of them all occupy the same 110 RPM archetype.
In Destiny, perks were way better, not just because the game had more exciting perks—like Tripod (which let rocket launchers fire three times before reloading), Grenades and Horseshoes (which detonated rockets when they were near enemies instead of flying harmlessly past them), or Firefly (which caused enemies to explode on kinetic headshot kills)—but because every gun dropped with multiple potential perks.
In Destiny 2, guns drop with fewer perks, which means more guns need to drop before you can get a roll you’re happy with. Even worse, guns are element locked, so if you want a void Badlander or a solar Misfit, you’re out of luck. The system isn’t bad, mind you; it is, as I said, the best Destiny 2’s ever been. It’s just not as good as Destiny, which had a lot of great perks, randomized elements, and more possible perk rolls per gun.
Unfortunately, there are other issues. The scout rifle, my personal favorite weapon class in the game, is completely useless, suffering from severely reduced damage compared to basically everything else. If you’re using a scout rifle, you’re a detriment to your team, and Bungie seems to have no interest in fixing it in PvE, where it’s failing the most.
Getting duplicate weapons is a huge problem as well. I’ve received dozens of auto rifles, snipers, and sidearms from the Dreaming City, but I’ve only seen the hand cannon once and the shotgun twice. While it’s great to get the Tigerspite 40 times, giving me plenty of chances at a good roll, other gun types don’t seem to drop at all—making it impossible to get a chance at a good one. I have not received a single exotic that was new to Forsaken, instead getting duplicates of exotics I already owned. Bungie claims to have introduced dupe protection, but this does not appear to be true. It’s not just items, either.
One of Spider’s weekly bounties, the Gravetide Summoner, showed up for several weeks in a row, much to the chagrin of players who wanted to fight other bosses. A Nightfall, The Hollowed Lair, was stuck on rotation for weeks, and even after it disappeared, it popped right back up immediately. This issue with repetition gives the impression that Destiny 2 has very little content, and when combined with the issue of a limited loot pool, makes Destiny 2 feel like a smaller game than ever before.
There are significant bugs as well. Bungie introduced the Heavy Ammo Finder perk to gear, but stacking this perk appears to drop fewer heavy ammo bricks than not having it at all. In the case of several bugs, rather than fixing them to work as intended, Bungie picks strange solutions. When a perk on The Warden’s Law’s was found to work incorrectly, Bungie removed it from the game, replacing the curated roll with perks that actively harm the gun’s efficacy. A Hunter exotic called the Oathkeeper had a bugged perk, so Bungie changed the wording instead of fixing it.
The loot pool is dreadful; only some of the year one weapons were brought back in year two. Edge Transit, a grenade launcher, quickly became a meme because it was the only heavy weapon that dropped across most activities. Bungie had to update the game to add a few more to the pool, but there still aren’t that many. Destiny had nearly 35 legendary heavy machine guns. Destiny 2 has two: Hammerhead, which is available in Black Armory, and Avalanche, which was available as a limited time drop for The Dawning event.
On the whole, Forsaken puts Destiny 2 in the best place it’s ever been, and yet the game still feels smaller than Destiny ever did. The frustrating issues with repetition or failing to fix common complaints harsh its otherwise great vibe.
Bungie has a plan to fix the content problem: the Annual Pass, which gives a year’s worth of content for $35. That year begins with The Black Armory, which offers a new raid, a new heavy machine gun class, a power level increase, some reskinned weapons, and some new quests. Most importantly of all, it features a new event: Forges.
Forges work like this: players fast travel to a patrol zone, walk or drive a very long distance out of the way, realize they’re out of ammo, fast travel somewhere else, travel all the way back to the Forge, and press a button. They matchmake with three other players and fight off two waves of enemies before taking down a boss. At the end, the Forge pops out some loot, and they’re done.
It’s a lot like Halo’s beloved Firefight mode, which players have been begging Bungie to implement for years, except it’s way shorter. It’s also an endgame activity, so most of the players who booted it up on launch day expecting to jump in were too weak to finish it and had to grind activities that had been in the game since it launched a year ago in order to make an attempt. Bungie responded to this by quickly lowering the overall power level, but there’s just not a lot there. Over its first few weeks, Bungie released three additional Forges (with one more remaining).
I’ve managed to make it through two a few times now, and while I enjoy the Forges, I think it’s a great example of Bungie’s biggest failing as a developer and Destiny’s greatest failing as a series: there isn’t enough to do because Bungie keeps trying to reinvent the wheel.
The Forge isn’t Bungie’s first attempt at a Firefight-style mode: it’s the seventh following Prison of Elders, the Court of Oryx, Archon’s Forge, Escalation Protocol, Blind Well, and the Haunted Forest. Each addition had its own strengths and shortcomings, but instead of stopping to fix them, Bungie left each event behind when releasing more powerful gear. Every single event had a different set of rules and approach to loot. Take Escalation Protocol, for instance: its guns and armor can’t drop with randomly-rolled perks, so you might as well ignore it completely. The Haunted Forest had just one unique gun as a reward and was only available for a limited time.
The Archon’s Forge from Destiny, on the rare occasions when you actually managed to matchmake with other people, was the best event. Archon’s Forge had up to six players, tons of legendary gear, and helped players level up simply by playing. You could leave whenever you wanted, but the more you played, the better it got. Archon’s Forge rewarded you for playing well, giving you powerful axes to slam your foes. It had unique loot and let you grind as much as you wanted to level up. It was thrilling. You’ll never get to play it because it was exclusive to Destiny.
The new Forges (they have the same name, but different rules entirely) are limited to three players. It also only has three waves, doesn’t reward you for playing well, and doesn’t leave ammo or orbs of light around, so if you run out of ammo or ability energy, you have to leave, find a rally flag, and walk all the way back to start again. When you finish, the entire thing resets. While it’s easier to matchmake in the Forges, there are so many downsides compared to Destiny’s original Archon’s Forge that it’s considerably less fun to grind.
Players have been asking Bungie for years for matchmade, more-than-three player PvE activities, and Bungie constantly does literally anything else, reinventing the wheel time and time again, making interesting but flawed content, then leaving it in the dust rather than improving it. Instead of improving one really good wave-defense game mode, Bungie introduces new ones with new flaws. It’s frustrating, and The Black Armory expansion is the latest in a long line of predictable disappointments.
What Can Bungie Do?
Despite players spending more money on it, Destiny 2 barely becomes a bigger game with the new season structure, which is leaving them feeling frustrated. The new scout rifles in Forsaken, for instance, replaced almost all of the old scout rifles. I wanted the Manannan but never once got it to drop; now it’s gone. Events like Escalation Protocol don’t even offer scout rifles. Curse of Osiris gave players 11 new guns; none of those are competitive with Forsaken’s weaponry. In discarding the past of Destiny 2, it feels like the game is smaller than ever before.
Bungie solved the problem of getting a weapon once and never needing another, but traded it for a new problem: not having enough weapons to obtain. It’s a weird problem to have, and one that none of Destiny's players enjoy, which is exactly the kind of frustration that keeps players from returning.
Destiny 2 is more fun to actually play than it's ever been, but it’s a far cry from the highs of the first Destiny, a game that, in its last few months of life, brought almost all its old content forward. Bungie's biggest mistake is that it doesn’t have enough content to even bring forward. We heard this when Destiny released, when expansions came out, when Destiny 2 released, and when Destiny 2’s expansion released. A big part of this is because Bungie continually introduces activities, then leaves them behind in favor of new ones every few months. In a loot game, if the activity doesn’t provide meaningful loot, there’s very little reason to keep playing it. With every update, all activities should stay current in order to keep players happy.
So what can Bungie do? Give players more activities to do and more loot to obtain. While it would be nice if Bungie could churn out new content constantly, it’s expensive to create a single gun, draw the concept art, model, texture, rig, animate, test, create sounds for, and implement it in the game. It would be easier to look elsewhere.
Bringing all original year one content up to snuff would be a good way to start. Bungie only brought 16 weapons forward from year one and none of the armor sets. Taking content already in the game and making it relevant is the first and, hopefully, the easiest way to give players something to grind for. Add perks to Escalation Protocol gear! Let the weapons drop with random rolls! In a dream scenario, Bungie could occasionally add new gear to old activities, like an EP rocket launcher. In terms of new functionality, a transmog system would let players look their best while keeping the best stats. Adding set bonuses on existing gear would give players reasons to more thoroughly hunt down gear and prioritize specific builds beyond just the perks.
The problem with bringing Destiny 2 gear forward is that fans might be tired of it; for a long while, Destiny fans have been complaining about the state of Destiny 2’s armor, which has moved away from the post-apocalyptic trappings of the original armor and more towards a high fantasy aesthetic. Fortunately, Bungie is sitting on a goldmine of content.
For fans, Destiny’s perennial problem is its lack of content. It’s been one of the most common complaints since Destiny launched. Players want to boot up the game every day and have something interesting to do. Bungie’s current structure gives players a checklist; players complete that checklist and they’re done playing for the week. It feels like too much busy work and not enough like fun; it’s not a player-directed process. At the same time, building new content, from design to art to production to balancing, is a hefty amount of work, which makes it difficult for Bungie to keep players engaged.
This is partially a problem of Bungie’s own making: it routinely renders content worthless, and in some cases, removes it from the game entirely (like the Trials of Osiris in Destiny or the faction rallies in Destiny 2). Instead of building on a great foundation, it constantly resets the game, removing interesting content. Destiny had five destinations. Destiny 2 has eight. It could have thirteen if it included all the locations from previous games.
Activision’s biggest frustration with Destiny right now is that players are in what they describe as “wait and see” mode. They say they want to see the “full core” re-engage with the game, and despite Forsaken, that hasn’t happened yet. While Forsaken made Destiny 2 a lot more fun, plenty of people were burned by an entire year of Destiny 2’s shortcomings. Bringing back content with high nostalgic value is the best way to attract those players, because there's no better way to get someone’s attention than show them something they already love.
In this scenario, everyone wins. Bringing back the four old raids alone, would give players—if I’ve done my quick napkin math right—41 guns (including 4 exotic weapons), 15 armor sets, 6 ships, 4 sparrows, 5 armor shells, 5 shaders, and 13 emblems. That’s a lot of loot to chase. For PC players, that’s all new content as well.
Bringing back the planets would be even better. Letting players return to one of their favorite patrol zones would be a lot less work than building an entirely new one, surely. It might take more work to add a planetary vendor and Lost Sectors, but Bungie could just… not do that, especially if it’s a free update. Returning to the Cosmodrome, even if it’s just Rise of Iron’s much smaller Cosmodrome, would be incredible. Bring back some old strikes and weapons and you’ve suddenly got a very compelling reason for players to dip into the game.
When Destiny 2 reset the game completely, players felt like they lost a lot of time and effort; this move alienated players who loved the first game. Where’s the thrill in spending dozens of hours hunting down Luna’s Howl if you won’t have it in Destiny 3? Why spend real world money on a cool new dance if you don’t get to keep it? Bungie should be making Destiny bigger and bigger, not constantly removing items from the loot pool every single season or sequel.
Heck, Destiny’s Curse of Osiris DLC brought with it 11 guns to chase, including one of my favorites, Perfect Paradox. I can’t use Perfect Paradox effectively in new content—there are plenty of better guns to choose from in newer content. But I worked hard for it, invested a lot of time in getting it, and it is, in my opinion, the best looking and sounding gun in all of Destiny. It has objectively worse stats than newer guns. It’s a shame that using these gorgeous guns means handicapping your team.
When games like Warframe do big, free updates, they attract more players than ever before, making a lot more money in the process. When The Division introduced its new global events, which featured PvE modifiers and extremely powerful gear, it enticed a lot of players back to the game. Bungie’s $35 entry fee for an event with just four maps and a handful of new exotics is lackluster in comparison.
If Bungie and Activision want to re-engage that core audience, its biggest problem is a lack of compelling content, and its best hope right now is to solve that problem by enticing players back with the powerful allure of nostalgia. I love Destiny. I have loved it since I first explored the Cosmodrome during a closed test back in the summer of 2014. It has given me thousands of hours of enjoyment, and I’d love to experience a thousand more. Forsaken did a lot right, but there’s still a long way to go. I hope Bungie figures things out very soon.