(Editor's note: This debate largely took place before The Dark Below, Destiny's first expansion, was released.)
MATT BURGESS: Since E3 2013, gamers have been eagerly anticipating a singular gaming experience, one that combined the storytelling, action, and immersion of the best of shooters, with the loot, lore, and addiction of the best MMOs. An online shooter promising a deep and compelling story in a vast and rich universe.
It's a pity they got Destiny instead.
Despite a fantastically smooth and graphically impressive engine creating a superb platform for both the current gameplay and its anticipated future, Destiny has been marred by the inexplicable and the outright sloppy. Some issues have been fixed, such as the asinine loot system which was more likely to give a trash blue reward for a legendary pickup than it was to give a legendary item. But this sort of thing should never have gotten past beta testing. Over time these sort of issues will be fixed. Patches will smooth the rough edges (where they don't create new bugs – well done guys), and poor choices will be improved. With such a solid core shooter mechanic, and it genuinely IS exceptional, the ten year franchise envisioned by Bungivision really is achievable.
What really hurts Destiny, though – probably fatally – is the content. Destiny is a tiny game. MMOs are sprawling affairs with huge worlds full of lore and details to explore. Destiny isn't. After a godawful and poorly-explained story lasting maybe 10 hours, the player is suddenly slammed into endgame grinding. With only six “strikes” (five on Xbox platforms) and a single raid that can be run only once a week, Destiny takes recycling to absurd degrees. For The Queen's Wrath event, Bungie added "new content", but this literally consisted of re-using some existing bounties to do the same content over again. Contriving new reasons to push players down the same worn paths is not the same as creating new paths.
With the first expansion out, Destiny's future looks grim. It adds a single raid, which should be genuinely fun, and two strikes (a pathetic one for XBoners), which will just slot into the current sparse list.
So Ben, my question to you is: how long is this going to keep players interested? From my point of view – as a player with two level 30s and nothing to do – I can’t see it lasting more than another few months. Can you honestly say you see much juice in this tank?
BEN ALLAN: Well, before we launch into this, I guess I should make it clear that no-one can defend Destiny as some kind of perfect game. The early issues you've mentioned – which seemingly stemmed from a weird lack of thinking things through properly before launch – were clear to all; no-one can hold up the campaign story (to date) as a masterclass in writing or acting, and even players like myself who are enjoying their overall experience have often longed to deliver a speeding scout rifle butt to the Cryptarch's smug blue face. But I think there's more life in this game yet than you anticipate.
I think a big part of the problem people have with the game is down to perception. It seems clear to me that Bungie/Activision hand-cannoned themselves in the foot with the way they marketed the game before launch. It's interesting to me that you start off with making MMO comparisons; I think whoever it was in some marketing department somewhere that first dropped this fatal acronym did the entire enterprise no favours. As an MMO, Destiny is tiny, and players erroneously led to believe by marketing hype and buzz that more or less a full-sized MMO was what was coming down the pipeline were unsurprisingly disappointed. But I don't think that Destiny is really an MMO at all. It's more like a shooter wearing some MMO's hat.
Taken as a shooter, Destiny is pretty stonking huge. As a shooter, it offers a pretty good variety of things to do. As a shooter, it's a really good shooter, as you've already acknowledged. And on top of this, it offers MMO trappings like the loot and advancement system that are enough to keep people busy with its core business – shooting stuff. I think it's really down to the derailment, gorge-plunge, and spectacular valley-floor explosion of Activision's 500 million dollar hype train that has people talking about Destiny as sort of a failed or content-light MMO, instead of the exceptional action game with gorgeous art direction that even its harshest critics acknowledge it is.
So with that sort of reframing or new emphasis on it, I'd ask: how bothered do multiplayer shooter fans really get about playing the same levels over and over again? How much do totally lacklustre campaign stories hurt sales or player numbers for the Battlefield or Call of Duty games? And do your two level 30s really have nothing to do? Have they tried, say, that whole PvP suite in the game that for some reason is only just being mentioned now?
MATT BURGESS: I always find it fun that when talking about Destiny, any criticisms are just deflected by changing the genre. Of course it doesn’t have reasonable lore or any attention to detail and community – it’s a shooter! Of course it doesn’t have a story – it’s a multiplayer shooter!
I’ll say from the outset that I don’t like PvP. I’ve played Destiny’s quite a bit, and I’m not a fan. Sure, I’ve captured some things, matched some death, and been sufficiently patronised by that damned announcer. If I wanted to hear a disappointed voice tell me he expected better, I’d call my Dad. PvP isn’t something I enjoy, and definitely not something I’m good at. But honestly, even as a PvP game, and even disregarding that I have little interest, it’s not a very good PvP game.
Weapon balance is at best iffy. Most of my experience is a one-hit kill. [It feels lacklustre, and there's little variety to it. The first Iron Banner event was an admitted disaster. In Crucible, kill-swapping is routine and absurd, lag is a given, and the Hunter’s Blade Dancer super is absolutely unreasonable. Shotguns are absurdly overpowered in PvP while being simultaneously useless beyond melee range in PvE. The Vex Mythoclast is either insanely overpowered or utterly useless, apparently depending on the phase of the moon. Not that there’s any point to the PvP, when the reward system is completely randomised. And of course, the entire context for Crucible is laughable in the face of what is apparently the upcoming destruction of all civilisation.
Regardless, none of this is relevant to me, mostly because I just don’t care about PvP. This is not just a multiplayer only game, and shouldn’t be treated as one. If the game had been marketed as "Space CoD with Tyrion”, there might be some merit to treating it like that. If it was sold as a multiplayer shooter with a short training campaign I’d be of a different opinion. And I wouldn’t have bought it.
It’s got MMO elements. Why they specifically chose repetitive grinding and shoddy netcode as the MMO elements to implement I’m not really sure. That wouldn’t have been my pick. But let’s look at it as a shooter. First, let me reject outright that it’s a “really good shooter as I’ve already acknowledged”. I did not say it was a good shooter. I said it was a good shooter engine. I think it’s a pretty ordinary shooter. They’ve got the fundamental mechanics right, but the game piled on top of that is a disappointment. There is no context for any of the actions. Who even are the Hive? Glossed over. Who are the Cabal? Glossed over. At least the Vex get some context. Not enough to actually understand what the Vault of Glass is for. Unless you collect the cards. And look at them on your phone, because that’s how you build a vibrant universe.
I would also flatly contradict that Destiny as a shooter is “stonking huge”. The total number of environments and areas of play space are really not that impressive. Now if you want a space shooter with a solid story and epic scope, take a look at Mass Effect. Destiny is tiny in comparison. Players were sold a multiplayer Mass Effect. That wasn’t what they were delivered. No, the game most comparable to Destiny in my opinion is Defiance. Defiance was an online multiplayer sci-fi shooter, which – despite solid gameplay, epic public events, and a fun transport system – suffered from a fairly rubbish loot system and in the end was killed by an ongoing shortage of content. I probably don’t need to labour that.
BEN ALLAN: Okay, you don't particularly care about PvP. That's fine – I'm in the same boat, to a certain extent. But an awful lot of people do. If we're talking about Destiny's ongoing appeal to the masses, it seems a little hasty to write this whole side of it off. Sure, there have been some balance issues. But which online shooter hasn't had a few of those early on? No pre-release plan survives contact with the player base. I'd argue that if people are bringing up these nitpicks, it's because enough people are continuously thrashing PvP (and by implication, enjoying it enough to keep doing that) that they get noticed.
And anyway, do they really break the experience? How many times does someone bring the Mythoclast to a fight – one in 20 matches? Last I looked, Bungie reckoned 15 percent of daily active players had completed the Vault of Glass – which is the only way to get that weapon – so I'll allow it might be a shade more than that. And isn't the complaint "shotguns are absurdly overpowered in PvP" really just a euphemism for "No fair, other people are always shooting me with a shotgun before I can shoot them with a shotgun!"? No wonder that announcer sounds so disappointed; that sloppy scattergun work is letting down the entire human race, man. Because that's what's at stake! Because reasons.
So yeah, that's my way of conceding that the "context" to all of this is somewhat lacking. I'm glad we can agree that the mechanics are excellent, because if you are not grinning like an idiot after you empty your weapon into a horde of charging Thralls, begin to reload, start to panic, and then finally take the last one out with a split-second to spare by flicking the Rogue's throwing knife into its head, there may be no joys left for you in the medium of gaming. But sure, heart-pounding thrills aside, people like a good story. I like a good story! And you, me, and everyone else are wondering why Bungie decided to surgically excise almost that whole part of the game and put it somewhere else. This was admittedly a deeply weird decision.
But the thing is, if you do go to the effort of going to look up what lurks in the Grimoire, a lot of it is really quite good. Taken as a serious intent, Bungie's whole "10-year plan" spiel demands that they have a decent mythos and some good writing in place, and they actually do – it's just that for some reason, it's not in the actual game (it all smacks of the rumoured last minute changes, to me). With any luck, this is on their list of things to eventually address – a list that they've already demonstrated an admirable resolve towards in terms of working through it as fast as they can.
But even in the game, the visual design is doing a lot of the scene-setting work for them. Descending uncertainly into the creepy depths of the Hellmouth; blatting your Sparrow through the Venus drizzle along the Ishtar Cliffs; watching Vex eyes light up in the darkness of a long abandoned, sand-swept complex on Mars; these are moments that help to create the epic scope you're talking about. There's a sense of decay, forgotten glories, and – above all – mystery that the game does really well, even without text to read or Dinklebot spouting on about Gate Lords or Warminds. The feeling is that the game content at launch is merely the Guardian's first step into a much larger universe, with many discoveries and revelations yet to come.
I'd actually be interested in some sort of virtual acreage comparison between Destiny and Mass Effect. Sure, Mass Effect (god bless her, and all who sail in her) has a lot of real estate, but let's not forget that it is also a game series where the player character can't so much as jump. Destiny offers big ol' beautifully-designed environments, and having put many hours into the game, I'm still discovering new nooks and crannies all the time. It certainly feels big to me.
But let me put it to you, then: how much content would be enough? How do we fix Destiny so that Matt likes it? Would a new planet and that fresh environment be enough to pull you back in, or is it more the lack of motivation to play once you've hit the level cap – isn't that a common problem to nearly every game that has such a level cap?
MATT BURGESS: I want to clarify first that this isn't a level cap issue, it's an end-game issue. There is literally no matchmade content – none at all – over level 24. Given a needlessly generous hour and a half to run the raid, and an hour each for the weekly Heroic and Nightfall, that's a total of three and a half hours a week of "endgame" content. Not at level cap, this is just anywhere near it.
I also want to agree with you and acknowledge the design of the game. It's actually a pity some of its best features are subtle ones. For example, players landing at the Tower can sprint to the hanger to see their own ship being parked. And heading to the very back of the Summoning Pit shows a destroyed world of cobweb-bound rocks, which is oddly impressive. Also remarkable is the sky in almost every level. It's well beyond the painted skybox afterthought of most games, featuring beautiful effects and the debris of ruined worlds. Top stuff.
The question of what would get me back is an interesting one. And I think honestly Bungie is on the right track. In the last few days there have been a number of announcements that suggest to me that Bungie is not just listening – it’s playing. It’s experiencing the same frustrations we are, and is looking to fix things. A few lucky pick-ups have made it fun for me, but I have friends and clanmates who have run seven to ten raids without a single raid armour item, locking them at level 28 or 29. I've heard horror stories of people doing more than twenty runs and still not being able to get to thirty.
But that was then, and the future looks better. The Crota raid will apparently track your progress and your loot, and more intelligently determine whether you're "due" a reward. The longer you go without, the better your odds. This is a very good thing.
And the raid itself should be a very good thing. The Vault of Glass was exceptional. It was a fantastic piece of content implementing innovative and original gameplay ideas, challenging players with complex and engaging strategies, and giving players an experience and accomplishment that has been missing through much of the rest of the game. It was epic, detailed, challenging, and fun.
It was also, unfortunately, a total mess in its implementation. VoG launched mid-September, meaning it's approaching three months old, and it still contains breaking bugs in basic mechanics, especially the portals. These bugs aren't necessarily removed in patches either – sometimes new ones are added instead.
What Destiny needs to do is stick the landing. The Dark Below pack could be what it needs to go forward. Vault of Glass for all its qualities was just hurled at players as a loot source, not a key part of an evolving story. But if Crota's end is as buggy and cheese-able as Vault has been, even their artificial delaying of Hard Mode until January won't keep players engaged for long.
After that, Destiny will need is two things. One of them is new content. There is a second expansion called House of Wolves, but it's currently scheduled for 2015, which could be anywhere from February to December. If it's anything after around April it could be a major problem.
The other thing they need to do is stop screwing it up. There are constant issues coming through on new patches. The most recent, for example, accidentally stopped players getting ascendant materials for their first public event. There are long-existing bugs such as spawning without heavy ammo that have never been fixed. Bungie needs to stop doing that, but mostly they need a little of the attention to detail that shows in the art to carry through to the management of the game.
When the Queen's Wrath event started, one of the available bounties was a number of kills while wearing her gear. Unfortunately it wasn't possible to actually get her gear. Similarly, Salvage Crucible bounties came up for a long time, even though the Salvage gametype wasn't available. Out of the last eight visits from Xur, he has offered warlocks Voidfang Vestments six times. The shader seller has never gotten new items. It just feels like there's a lack of attention paid to the running of Destiny as a crafted world.
To me this comes down to faith. Can we trust Bungie to get this together over the next few months, and let them build on the great platform they've built? Frankly, I have my doubts.
BEN ALLAN: I guess this depends on what one defines as "endgame" content. Even leaving aside the option of PvP – fair enough, not everyone's keen on it – you haven't mentioned the daily heroic story, which is a mission that can be played at level 28 and rewards with ascendant materials every day. There's also always the option of heading out on patrol in search of public events, possibly using a site like Destiny Public Events to speed things along. These events offer useful rewards for higher level players, and in some cases – like that of Venus's "Prevent Vex sacrifices" missions – a decent gameplay challenge no matter what your level. So I suspect the definition of endgame here rather depends on the enjoyment one derives from simply tooling about in the game's systems and environments.
That said, I can definitely see what you mean about endgame vs level cap. For me, someone with an Xbox One whose friends nearly all own PS4s, removal of the match-making from the higher level activities is one of the most irritating and obvious mistakes Bungie made. They've made noises about addressing it soon, and I can only hope that they will.
But do you know what? I'm feeling pretty positive on that count, because as you've mentioned, Bungie seem committed to addressing the issues and frustrations that people are feeling around the game. What we've heard about The Dark Below augurs well, with more attention supposedly paid to tying mission content into a satisfying story, the "about time you get something" system you've mentioned for raid loot, and some of the more interesting gameplay mechanics from the raid dropped into story missions – all stuff the players are after.
Moreover, I feel like Bungie really deeply desires to turn Destiny into a truly a great game. It's obviously been a massive undertaking for the studio, a passion project that they clearly intended to be a magnum opus, and I imagine no player of the game can be more frustrated than the people at Bungie themselves that it hasn't quite yet hit the heights that they were clearly aiming for. I suspect a fly on the wall in there would have been able to make an excellent study of human depression as the initial wave of reviews rolled in.
But I reckon that's probably only spurred them on. For all the fumbling with bugs and failed implementations (“Iron Banner, the PvP mode that disables level balancing except it actually doesn't!”), there's a palpable sense of wanting to fix things that seems to emanate from the studio with each new patch. (Head back to that shader seller – she's got a few more options than she had at launch, although they still don't rotate for some reason.)
Conveniently, they certainly have more than enough resources and focus to throw at the game to make fairly rapid adjustments to it, as well as to hopefully power out that content you're after at fairly short intervals. And if their artistic reputation isn't enough motivation for them to up their game, let's not forget that both studio and publisher have invested a lot of the folding stuff into the property, and it certainly won't be in their five year financial plan for interest in it to peter out rapidly.
Fortunately for all those concerned suits though, Destiny as it exists today may be flawed, but it is a great platform. And although the people in charge of building on it from here may have been taken by surprise slightly with the challenges of running the loot systems and social features and providing the reliability required of a persistent online universe, I think they've got the resources, motivation and track record to pivot where they need to and finesse things up elsewhere.
But yeah, let's hope that House of Wolves makes it out sooner rather than later. And let's further hope they're right now beavering away at what every single player of the game without exception is hanging out for: some more of the game's gorgeous skyboxes to go with those Jupiter and Saturn cards you can find in the Grimoire (and not just as PVP maps either, guys... not everyone's into it).
MATT BURGESS: The time has come now for the rubber to hit the road for Destiny. The expansion has now dropped, giving players access to lots of new currencies, and a tiny bit of new content. Having had only the smallest amount of time to play I will admit to being grudgingly pleased. The new story missions are solid and do well to work players towards the strikes and raid. But with all the polish there are typical teething issues as well.
Unfortunately there is some pretty cynical pushing of players down the DLC route, including removing content from players who haven’t bought it. Still, in the short term, maybe there’s hope after all. Long term? I’ve gotten more confidence since even the start of this article. There are still deep and bizarre flaws in the game (seriously, no map?!) and the grind will remain in place, but at least there’s some fun injected back into it. How long this lasts is anyone’s guess.
BEN ALLAN: I must admit, having spent some time defending Destiny and Bungie over the course of writing this article, I facepalmed when I logged on after the DLC dropped and saw that weekly strikes had become DLC-owner affairs only – c'mon, guys, you're not making life easy for me, here.
That said, early reports suggest that the new content makes many of the improvements players are looking for, although others still seem unimpressed with the storytelling (I haven't had the chance to dip in for myself, yet.) One does wonder if these incremental changes and content drips will be enough to sustain player interests until Bungie can drop a new planetary environment on us; but that, when it happens (which it surely eventually must) will surely cause a fresh resurgence of interest.
But whatever the future content plans are, I think the positive thing for Bungie and the future of the game is that despite the grumbling, people are still enjoying playing it. Anyone that bought Destiny on launch day has now almost certainly thrashed most story missions several times over, done many hours in the Crucible, and has probably blown everyone's favourite glowing purple eyeball Sepiks Prime away about 50 times. But from what we're being told anyway, the playing numbers are still good, which speaks to the enjoyable basic gameplay Bungie have crafted. New content may be arriving at a dribble, but perhaps with a base this solid, a constant dribble is all players may really need to keep the disc spinning.
But hey: let's all hope that the tap opens up a bit more. Note to Bungie: I'll happily forego the ability to perform aerial stunts on my Sparrow if it means I can be biffing throwing knives around on Io or Titan a bit sooner.