Destiny Has an Identity Crisis

Atheon

Destiny 2 is on the brink of tying up loose ends within the latest season titled “Season of the Worthy”. A lot of mixed criticism has flown through the internet, but as we approach the new season starting in June, we are told of a major change coming to Destiny and fans are less than pleased with it.  This is the impending retirement of some of the game’s best legendary weapons which Bungie casually refers to as “Sunsetting”.

Bungie has spent the last three years of Destiny 2’s cycle attempting to fix systems and create something interesting for players to explore. Unfortunately, some of their ideas fell flat. The original weapon system that Destiny 2 launched with was a revamped system that was originally refined in Destiny 1. Even standard additional content in Destiny 2 has seen a lot of changes, going from quarterly adventures to a more streamlined “season pass” plan. It seems that Bungie has a hard time nailing Destiny down in a place that makes everyone happy. It’s also impossible to make everyone happy when you are constantly changing core elements of the game. Hitting the reset button is just another step in trying to define what Destiny is and how it fits into the landscape of current gaming trends.

Destiny is one of the first games that changed how we experience the first person shooter. Being an entirely unique experience, Destiny is faced with an abundance of challenges. Specifically, how does Bungie set preconceived notions accurately in order to better create reasonable expectations among players? In order to understand the goal of Destiny, we have to understand the elements that make fans repeatedly return to this franchise.

I have determined that Destiny encompasses three main elements when it comes to creating their unique experience: player identity, itemization, and environment. How does Destiny address these key elements, what can they do to improve them, and how do they involve you as a player? Let’s discuss.


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Understanding Player Identity


Similar to associating first person shooters to Call of Duty; I draw a line from MMO to World of Warcraft (WoW). It’s easy to look at WoW and determine what makes it an MMO.  The land of Azeroth evolves over time when new expansions arrive, and so do weapons and armor systems. There is an incredibly large social aspect to the game as well. At any time, you could be in the same city as hundreds of other players. Most importantly, is how each of those players all have made their own characters with their own personal goals. There is an element to personalization when it comes to WoW and that concept carries over to Destiny.

Destiny and WoW offer character customization, essentially handing you a default slate and allowing you to customize your appearance. This is no mere accident, and it’s done for a reason. In a book titled “Gaming at the Edge,” Author Adrienne Shaw explores ideas about characters in games and how players identify with that character. In this book, Shaw states that developers believe that players will automatically relate to characters, and she further explains how that is false. Instead, players tend to relate to characters most when interactive elements between the gaming world and the player begin to occur. But with games like Destiny and WoW, you are not dealing with preset characters, you are building your own. So right from the start it is easy to assert your own personal concepts to your character.  

By spending time making a character, you take pride in that which you made. In a way, with any game that has a concept of creation in it, the Ikea effect comes into play.  The Ikea effect states that by building something, you take more pride in it, and therefore has more value to you. As author Lily Burnheimer states in an article on Psychology Today,While we might imagine that taking on greater labour, costs, and time would lessen the value of a chair or cake, the reverse seems to be the case. We place greater value on things we have worked to create—from the micro-scale of a Lego house to larger-scale creations like affordable housing”.

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When it comes to building the character identity, Destiny doesn’t fully deliver on the concept. Character creation is rather lacking, and perhaps one reason for it is due to various armors obscuring the player’s face. Also the perspective comes into play, as it is rare that you will see your own character in the battlefield; but in more social environments you can choose to not have your helmet on display. Even then, the amount of variety that the character creator has only allows you to make a few choices when determining how you want to be represented in the game. Because of this, other avenues of player involvement need to be explored in order to tie the player down to their emotional investment, essentially leading to gameplay elements being the main priority.

Destiny and WoW do not allow you to make decisions that change the overall story.  Some minor decisions are made but not on the same level of, lets say, the Fallout franchise (sans Fallout 76). In Fallout, you interact with various non-playable characters, most of which will have their own outlook on the environment around them. You can manipulate the landscape and even future quests by acting certain ways, such as eliminating the NPC from the world and showing your ultimate dominance by stealing their cool jacket. Despite this being the complete opposite experience, the example still stands. Destiny doesn’t even allow the player to make any major contribution to the world around them. 

The only instance where player choice has been relevant was during one moment titled “Season of the Drifter”. Players had the choice to align themselves with a shadowy NPC called The Drifter. They could also choose to spy on him and align themselves with The Vanguard instead. The Vanguard is an organization that acts like the police of the last city.  No matter the decision you made, the lasting effects didn’t change your character’s outlook, but it changed your own personal connection to the story. It asked you what you believed in more, further enabling that emotional connection. In the end, what really changed was the weapons and armor that you were rewarded with upon the completion of that arc. Your reward is perhaps the strongest emotional manipulator when it comes to Destiny, and Bungie is completely aware of that.

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The Importance of Proper Itemization

The gameplay loop of earning weapons and armor that increase in power the longer you play is the driving force behind Destiny. With games like this, time is a resource. The more time you put into the game, the chances of receiving a reward are increased. Two aspects of rewards are essential to creating this addictive gameplay loop. They are the power of said item and how it provides you an advantage within the game, and timing of when the reward is given to you.

This “carrot and stick” idea is a traditional motivational concept. It’s summarized by BusinessJargon.com as “a theory that asserts, in motivating people to elicit desired behaviors, sometimes the rewards are given in the form of money, promotion, and any other financial or non-financial benefits and sometimes the punishments are exerted to push an individual towards the desired behavior”  

When it comes to Destiny, the reward is the weapon or armor you receive for the work that you put in to earn it. Grinding out bounties is a task that must be complete in order to receive a powerful weapon. The punishment for not doing the task is the belief that you are being left behind. Fear of missing out, or FOMO, is also at hand here. If you don’t partake in the activities, then you lose power. If you lose power, then you won’t be effective as a player. And if you are not effective as a player, then the game gets harder as future content is released. Another insult to injury is the pact mechanic. Endgame activities require additional players. If you do not have the required items that other players deem necessary for you to be effective, you become ostracised from the group.  This is just one of the reasons why sunsetting is considered.

If you are someone that does all of the tasks, and you do earn all the weapons, you will have the easier time adjusting to future changes as well as be sought out to help with challenges. Gaining power makes you a commodity within the universe that Bungie and many other companies built. Many developers do not want to lose the playerbase to something like not being powerful, so they implement catch up mechanics to help ease casual players into a position of power. Destiny has done this in the past and WoW is currently doing this as they lead up to a new expansion.

This is a concept that is especially true for any game that has a competitive element to it.  If you do not grind for a good weapon in the game, then you will be left behind, or you may not have the upper hand in comparison to someone who did put in the work to get that weapon. If you did get the weapon, well then you’re going to beat your competition if they are not properly armed against you. That is the concept that Destiny has and that is called “most effective tactics available” , or META for short.  

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The situation that occurs, and the current problem is that the META changes too often and a part of this revolves around itemization.  I mentioned before that players will only use certain powerful weapons in order to complete tasks within the competitive and cooperative environments.  By understanding how to read and utilize the proper META, players can become non-stop killing machines. Using a shotgun may be a cheap tactic, but it works. By not using that same tactic then you will fall behind and most likely quit the game. This is yet another reason why sunsetting is considered.

I briefly mentioned the idea of commitment before, but the timing of when powerful items drop is also incredibly important. I mentioned goals before, and if we stick with the goal of the most powerful weapon, then when is a good time to earn it? That is the second issue when it comes to itemization. How do you balance the concept of time versus reward?

Balancing out time and rewards is perhaps the hardest part about playing a game as vast as Destiny (or WoW for that matter). In a way, you are aptly rewarding your players for the time they put in. But what about players that play every day but they don’t play as much as someone else? Unfortunately, this is a situation that just cannot be bent.  Because if you start rewarding the most powerful items to players that do not put in the time, those that did put in the time will leave and go somewhere else. If goals are complete too quickly, and there is nothing else to chase, your players will find something else. And that is not what companies these days want either.

According to a study titled “Game Reward Systems: Gaming Experiences and Social Meanings” authors Hao Wang and Chuen-Tsai Sun explore the concept of rewards and when they are given. According to their study, timing of rewards is important as they are delivered between lulls of plot elements, and delivering proper rewards at the right time will keep players invested. If rewards are not delivered upon the proper time, players will stop playing the game and move onto something else. It is also up to the developers to ascertain the level of reward given to a player based on their own level of commitment.

By taking the most powerful weapons and limiting their capabilities while introducing new weapons delivered in a timely fashion, Bungie hopes to even the playing field for future players that may deem the current field to be pitched to one side. This is a great thing for players who may be returning to the game after a hiatus (hi, me). For players that have been dedicated to this game for years, this is viewed as a bad thing. This means that the work they have put into the game in the past equals out to nothing, and that the time they spent isn’t seen as respected. Meanwhile, the reality of this situation is that the grind never truly ends, and it is up to players to either grind out to achieve their goal of power; or break the cycle and stop playing. It’s a strong gamble that Bungie is willing to make.

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Embracing the Environment

So this has been long enough, and I feel that I have touched on two of the more important aspects of what defines Destiny and the problems pertaining to the game. The third one is quite obviously the environment that surrounds the player. In WoW, new environments are introduced and with their arrival, new items are brought into the reward pool. These items also hold a value of power, yet you don’t really see a lot of players complain about this.  

People do not complain about this because for the first several years that WoW was live, Blizzard set an accurate precedent. They recognized the power increases among players and when the ceiling was reached, they built another floor up with the help of an expansion. Every two years Blizzard releases an expansion, continuing to expand large elements of the story as well as present something new to look at as you are endlessly grinding out tasks. If WoW never changed the landscape for 15 years, the game would seem rather bland and players would most likely drop off. You need visual change to send the message of prolonged growth.

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Destiny also has expansions, but they are nowhere near as vast as what WoW offers.  In the last year, Bungie has repurposed old content from Destiny 1 into Destiny 2. This also angered some fans as they believe that this is a lazy tactic. The Moon returned to Destiny 2 some time ago, but the excitement is gone from it. Bungie dressed it up to resemble something new, but the truth of the matter is that players don’t find it exciting because the change in this environment isn’t enough.  

On the production side, taking content from a past game and re-purposing it is much easier than creating a whole new area from scratch. It requires more time and effort, and sometimes development cycles take longer than expected. A project could be almost finished but then a mishap occurs setting the project date back. This has happened on multiple occasions within the last year to multiple titles, and we are going to see it more with the current world affair. Either way, Bungie is attempting to add more value into their game because the audience is there and to maintain your audience you have to continuously deliver new experiences. If you don’t, your players get bored and they leave.

Besides that, Bungie faces a new challenge as they separated from Activision back in 2019. Their pool of resources may have shrunk a little, not allowing them to constantly deliver these unique environments. Best case scenario, the return of the moon may have saved Bungie some time, allowing them to work on other areas of Destiny.

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Making Ends Meet

Destiny is a fickle beast of a game to nail down. We understand the more psychological aspects of this title and how it engrosses the fanbase into a world filled with endless lore. The question remains though, how does Bungie address the issues at hand and create a much more thriving experience?  The answer is very hard to determine because it requires a lot of resources, but it involves the three aspects we discussed in a backwards fashion.  

First, we need better environments to explore. Currently some environments just feel half-baked and incomplete, perhaps giving the feeling that corners were cut. Then we need gear that is accurately defined by the aesthetics of said planet. And we need to make that gear still obtainable as time goes on perhaps at an easier rate, not at an increased power level but just for collection purposes. Bungie then needs to use the items in a way that creates a positive player identity within the gamespace by allowing players to use a customization system that perpetuates player creativity. With those steps in toe, introducing concepts like “sunsetting” should be a much easier pill for players to swallow.  

Most importantly, as Bungie continues to grow the Destiny franchise they need to desperately set a precedent. Basic rules and systems need to remain in place without being constantly changed at the drop of a hat.  When the first Destiny launched six years ago, Bungie should have kept to the standards they set. Instead of creating a Destiny 2, they could have built upon Destiny further similar to how Blizzard builds upon WoW.  I want to experience The Vault of Glass again, but I do not want to pop in a whole other game to do it.

As Destiny keeps on changing, players become angry because they do not know if their time is respected. Bungie understands the agony of their players, and hopes to expand on a universe that has something for everyone. They want your time in their game to be rewarding, and to give you a sense of accomplishment and pride in what you do without making you feel punished. One thing is for sure, Destiny is a unique experience, one that sets the bar for all other developers out there who hope to achieve the same level of success. Bungie has always been a trailblazing company with a dedicated fanbase. As long as they set a defined path, Bungie will continue to thrive, and perhaps live past the 10 year cycle that was initially set for Destiny.  

Can we call Destiny an MMO with so many systems in place that reflect titles like World of Warcraft? No. Instead we can refer to Destiny (from here on out) in the same way we refer to watered down, low calorie beers; and call it an MMO-Lite. Much like those light beers, we need to properly set our expectations and anticipate the taste of something missing.

By Steve Esposito

Steve Esposito is a dedicated content creator with a focus on his love for technology, video games, and the very industry that oversees it all. He also takes part in organizing the Long Island Retro and Tabletop Gaming Expo as well as a Dungeons and Dragons podcast: Copper Piece. You can find him on twitter @AgitatedStove

One Comment

  • I haven’t played such games and I am not sure if I am gonna play the game any time time after reading this article. Destiny certainly isn’t a game for me

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