ThinkBoxly is the personal developer blog of Lucas Chasteen, author, programmer, artist, and always learning. Read more

Thursday, December 04, 2014

Destiny has Become an Exercise in Frustration

Alright, videogame reviewers, fair’s fair: you get to say “I told you so” on this one. In a few days Bungie’s latest console offering, Destiny, will turn three months old, and while it hasn’t lost relevance like Titanfall (arguably the biggest other release this year) it is steadily becoming more and more inaccessible and lackluster as weaknesses that were present from the start are finally coming to bear in some pretty serious strokes. If you recall, I was initially pretty hard on all the folks who couldn’t just sit back and enjoy Destiny, because indeed it was enjoyable…for a while. The game started off strong, dropping me into this vast new universe to explore as a fresh new character to grow and develop as a Guardian. But then not only did it fail outright to exposit on this universe in any meaningful way, after a while my character hit level 20 and the game switched from a pretty enjoyable XP system to one of the worst loot mechanics in modern gaming. Even then Destiny’s fatal flaws weren’t immediately obvious, simply because I got into the game on day one and at the time pretty much everyone playing was in the same boat as me. But now that a few months have gone by, I wonder if anyone who isn’t a day-one player stands any chance of surviving in Destiny at all.

Here’s the situation: once you hit level 20, XP no longer improves your character’s ranking. It will still unlock armor and weapon upgrades for you, but that’s it. And the key word there is ‘unlock’. In order to actually use these upgrades, you have to purchase them with in-game loot. Ah, but first you need gear to upgrade. And how do you acquire it? With more in-game loot.

The kicker: that in-game loot is all randomized, and not in your favor.

In a traditional MMORPG, learning the game world is an important part of the experience. You need to know which areas have which enemies that drop which items when you defeat them. That sort of depth is absent in Destiny. In a scenario where your rank beyond 20 is determined by the power of your gear, getting any worthwhile random drops or decodeable engrams is nigh on impossible. It doesn’t even do you any good to dismantle (Destiny-speak for ‘sell’) all the junk. Sure, you get some Glimmer for it, but none of the game’s better gear can be purchased with plain cash. If you want to go the retail route you’ll have to pledge your allegiance to one faction or another and fight against other players in the Crucible to ‘level up’ your faction and earn Crucible Points to spend on gear instead. Only it takes dozens of hours to sufficiently level up a faction, and dozens more to earn the points to make it worth your while. There’s nothing to set these factions apart from each other, except that they all share the same weak selection compared to the neutral Crucible Master, so why would you align yourself with one of them anyway?

But all that is only a buildup to where the real frustration lies: the Crucible itself. Plenty of gamers will buy into a game like Destiny specifically for the competitive multiplayer, but these days you’ll need the patience of a saint to get anywhere in it. Getting your hands on the most powerful gear is a slow, frustrating process, but by now enough players have done it that if you aren’t part of the level 30 club, you are guaranteed pulse rifle fodder. And worse, the more people that actually do attain this lofty status, the harder and more aggravating it becomes for anyone else to do the same. The primary means of building up your faction is taking on Crucible Bounties—challenge goals for you to complete on top of each match’s basic rules—but good luck getting anything done when you can empty an entire magazine on an opponent that can eliminate you in a single shot. And if you do happen to have a good match, don’t expect Destiny to reward you for it. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve sat at first place watching empty-handed as several of the lower-ranked players receive bonus items. All in all, it’s an unbalanced, broken ecosystem at its very core.

And don’t expect updates to fix it, either. Those expansion packs Bungie has had planned from the start? Yeah, they’re just more of the same. The problem with Destiny’s problems is that they can’t really be patched out without fundamentally changing the game. The only real fix for Destiny is Destiny 2. Sure, Bungie could make it easier to obtain high-level items beyond level 20, but then there would be that many more overpowered players slaughtering newcomers. They could reduce the power of high-level items, but not only would that be incredibly frustrating to anyone who put in the woefully disproportionate effort to obtain them, it would remove the need to upgrade from lower-level items in the first place. No matter how you slice it, any immediate adjustments to Destiny’s imbalances just results in a bigger mess.

A ten-year franchise, Bungie? Not like this, it ain’t. Of course, this is exactly the sort of thing that happens when a company gets overconfident. Planning entire series is a risky thing. You’re much better off focusing on making one good product and then taking it from there. To presume upon the longevity of something that doesn’t even exist yet shows a lot of audacity—a trait all too evident in the post-Halo Bungie we have today. Why is there no text chat, no Raid matchmaking, no item trading in Destiny? Because that’s not the ‘experience’ Bungie wanted to create. Why was Martin O’Donnell, legendary composer and sound designer for Bungie, terminated without cause? Who knows, maybe his methods no longer fit with how Bungie wants to do business. Now, I’m all for trying new things, but sometimes the old formulas have lived on as long as they have for a reason. Just because Bungie revolutionized gaming once with Halo doesn’t mean that any new thing they try is a guaranteed success or a superior way of doing things. We’re talking plain ol’ big headedness, here. And even if they hear gamers’ concerns and complaints and have a change of heart now, it’s already too late for Destiny 1.

Well, good thing Activision already confirmed for us that Destiny 2 is in the works. Bungie’s universe isn’t so bad as to turn off consumers altogether—there are, in fact, over nine million registered Destiny players—but the first game to take place in it is merely a taste of what it ought to be. When you manage to team up for a strike without losing your connection to Bungie’s finicky servers or are lucky enough to be pitted against opponents of roughly your same light level there’s still a lot of fun to be had, but as time goes on that is becoming an increasingly rare experience. And there’s no way newcomers a year from now will be able to advance when those nine million players of today are level 50 (or wherever Bungie has set the cap by then). Destiny’s randomized universe is still worth salvaging, but in three short months it will already take a reboot to do it. Here’s hoping Destiny 2 is what Destiny 1 should have been all along. Until then, one sad fact is for certain: for anyone under level 30 Destiny has gone from fun to frustrating, and it will only get worse with time.