I don’t like going back to older, often criticized games in order to kick them, but Bungie’s Destiny was swarming in controversy last week, and I’ve been holding my tongue on Destiny for months. Last week’s controversy began over packaging exclusive content into a collector’s edition for the release of their newest expansion The Taken King. Included in this bundle was the original game, meaning that steadfast Destiny players could only get the exclusive collector’s edition content if they re-purchased (at a premium) what they had already bought. This doesn’t seem too strange for a video game company, but it was a boil-over point for the abused community. Bungie’s response was disrespectful (they later apologized), but it was more than that. Destiny is a game that has been merciless towards its fanbase since day 1. Tensions have been growing and this was just the point where many fans lashed out. This abuse is caused by bad game design, bad developer relations, and non-stop gouging. There are few games on the market right now that embody almost everything that’s wrong with the industry, and today I’d like to explain why Destiny is such a special game.
Let’s start at the very beginning. Before Destiny even launched, it fell into the growing over-reliance of hype that so many AAA games are falling into now. It was shoved into everyone’s face how this game would be unlike anything anyone had ever seen, something melding shooters with a persistent, changing world that would connect players together in completely new ways (spoiler, Destiny contained nothing new). Every company was pushing the behemoth, especially Sony with its exclusive content. Due to the hype, it was a foregone conclusion that the game would be the record-seller it was. The problem is that hype has to be managed to be effective. Runaway hype is perhaps the most dangerous thing to a new game. It raises expectations, sometimes to unreasonable levels. But the reason Bungie was pushing the hype train so hard was to encourage pre-orders, which publishers equate (correctly) with sales. These pre-order numbers were necessary because few publishers, especially Activision as one of the big four, are willing to take a risk on a new IP without some kind of guarantee.
When Destiny first launched it exhibited the growing phenomenon of the unfinished game being sold at full price and being patched to sufficiency later. I was one of the people who bought the game due to the hype surrounding it. What I found was almost comically predictable at this point: the game had no content. I went through all of the content in about three days. It was easy and boring. Destiny had no end game content. A single, solitary raid was released not too long after release in a patch, which is laughable because many raids should have rightfully been part of the grand multiplayer shooter from the get go. Over time, Destiny has gotten more content, but not much and none of it has erased the problem that all of it should have been in the original purchase. Gamers paid full price for a game that wasn’t even 10% of a real game.
Everything about Destiny at launch was cheap and broken. The story was non-existent. For a game that promised the world, they couldn’t even provide a simple story, but rather chose to randomly send you off to places, spouting proper nouns and not ever giving you a reason to care. My point is that content can be patched in. Destiny can give players new strikes, raids, multiplayer options and what not. What can never be patched is the fact that they didn’t ever show players why THEIR destiny mattered. Everything is hollow, another blank paint-by-numbers MMO. You might as well be playing with an Excel spreadsheet.
So many games get away with patching away their mistakes these days. The standard procedure is to release an unfinished or buggy game and then begin rolling out content and bug-fixing patches over the upcoming months. By the end of the cycle, you have a complete game. Bungie decided to do a far more despicable thing: expansions. The few content patches are nothing compared to the overuse of expansions. When we look at how expansions are generally used, it’s to completely change a game in interesting and new ways and to add huge swaths of content. Diablo II: Lord of Destruction is a completely different ballgame than vanilla Diablo II. More important, expansions are traditionally not released so immediately after release, but rather take time and energy to get right. Nor should they be necessary because a game will already be in a finished state. They are extras, something players will buy because they love the original, not because they need it to have something to do.
Destiny is the worst offender I’ve seen in gouging gamers, more so than even Capcom with its constant re-release of Street Fighter 4. The first two expansions cost $20. For this price, gamers got… not that much actually. Don’t get me wrong, gameplay systems were reworked in different ways (successfully in House of Wolves). The problem was the Destiny launched with almost no content. These expansions did not add much in the way of new content to play through, only different things to grind for. Then we get to the upcoming expansion. This will cost $40, promising more content than the others. I don’t have words for this, so let me try to recap: Destiny was released in September of 2014 for $59.99. In less than a single year, Bungie has asked gamers to put down an additional $80 to make up for the lack of content that shipped with the original game. This is madness, but some gamers will keep buying.
Why will people refuse to quit Destiny? It’s because Destiny was made to be addictive. The Witcher 3 pulls you into its world because of its excellent writing and plethora of interesting quests. Borderlands 2 has people in stitches from day one, goading them to keep playing. Final Fantasy XIV is full of old school charm and a fast and effective combat and progression system (note that all of these games launched with massively more content than Destiny). Destiny is grinding. It is non-stop grinding. You grind for levels. You grind for weapons. You grind to upgrade weapons. You aren’t grinding for any purpose other than grinding itself and the fact that PvP is full of people who are willing to put the time into grinding. The problem is that this is the worst kind of addiction in gaming. You aren’t learning anything new. You aren’t entranced by something. Rather, you’re just putting in the time. It’s effective to be sure, but it’s by-the-numbers gamer exploitation.
With this in mind, Bungie’s comments last week shouldn’t have surprised anyone. Charging players for emotes and Red Bull quests? That evokes the image of a children’s cartoon villain, trying to be as evil as possible, but still being constrained by the G rating of the show. Emotes are pointless. I don’t care if the animations look good. They are something that’s a nice bonus, not something to sell to people, especially in a packed form. Of course the other option is microtransactions, which I would expect Destiny to start doing at some point given its track record. But the real problem is that Destiny gamers are already short on content a year out even if they ponied up the extra $40 on top of the ridiculous price for the main game. To nickel and dime bizarrely loyal gamers for tiny additions is madness. Bungie should be grateful that there are gamers still willing to play Destiny, not thinking up ways of how to get more money out of them.
Bungie has done more to harm players in-game, but I don’t want to get too technical in this post. Suffice to say, they’ve focused on removing exploits rather than crushing bugs. With a wave of their hands, they’ve obsoleted weapons and gear gamers have spent countless hours getting. They’ve undermined the usefulness of their own end game content by not scaling some of it up upon the release of the second raid. Pretty much everything related to grinding weapons or upgrades has at some point been undermined by changes to the system. There’s more, but the point is that even for those who enjoy playing Destiny, they are just one patch away from Bungie taking away all their hard work.
In five years, assuming Bungie hasn’t already jumped ship to Destiny 2, Destiny will probably be a good game (for a price). The problem is that it should have been a good game upon release. What we got was an unfinished game that released with no content that has been hiding behind addicting gamers to its grind in order to keep them along so Bungie can sell them content patches, labelled expansions, that are more than twice the cost of what they are worth. From what I’ve heard, Destiny’s development team is full of passionate and talented people. That almost makes the story of Destiny more tragic. It’s an example that even the best people can make something that does nothing better than exploit people. I only hope that nobody in the industry follows Destiny’s model.
– Mistranslations for the Modern Gamer