So…Destiny. Perhaps you’ve heard of it? Joking aside, I’ve been tempted to present some kind of long-form evaluation on Bungie’s newest franchise for quite some time whether in the form of a review, blog, or perhaps a series of one or the other. Where to start was always one of my biggest hurdles. It’s a game with ripe pickings aplenty for someone like me who finds it to be a regrettable early purchase: the dangerous nature of hype, storytelling mishaps, MMO/FPS design, and more. Rather than focusing on multifarious elements, what if we were to look at the game’s systems as a business structure in it of itself? Games provide wonderful possibilities to shoot friends, explore worlds, and much more, but the underlying mechanics can be manipulated in invisible—yet tangible—ways to perpetually feed a player’s sense of accomplishment.
A Gamasutra article penned in 2001 (1) could be considered a presage as to how game rewards appear to be handled from any spectrum these days, AAA to mobile. That’s because it hones in on ratios and rewards by looking at one of the most prominent fields in cataloguing human decision-making: behavioral psychology. The gambling and advertising industries are some of the clearest examples of putting those psychological studies to the test. Carefully considering these ratios can mean the difference between a fizzling fad and a long-term trend.
For decades, gamers have been trained to know the reward schedules within many games. The amount of coins necessary for Mario to get another life, how many more “points” (be it kills, score, or otherwise) until being able to unlock a new weapon, and how much more XP until the next character level are all concrete systems for players to grind towards. Yet not all fixed schedules are the same. There’s been a plethora of arguments bandied about as to why Titanfall’s player base dropped off so quickly for a game that was so hyped and lauded. Many of such reasons were grasping (2) (3) in my opinion. It was mechanically sound and nuanced, but some time with Titanfall 2 confirmed one of my suspicions with where the first felt lacking: reward ratios. By having so many of the enjoyable weapons (Anti-Titan or Pilot) so easy to unlock it deflated that enthusiasm of grinding for so many when it didn’t seem like there was much left to grind towards other than becoming a next-gen Pilot. No amount of Titan tattoos, Seasons to earn new ranks, or new achievements could strip that away.
Now the question becomes: what if this balancing of fixed systems were eschewed by a variable-based system? Enter the Skinner box. As previously referenced, the Gamasutra article cogently charts out B.F. Skinner’s theory of operant conditioning and finding the correlation in the variable-based schedules of his pigeon-feeding lab studies and the gambling slots found at casinos. The key wasn’t in the inherent value of the final reward but in WHEN they were given.
Skinner boxes are essential to many MMO’s so naturally Destiny would follow suit. This ‘Random Loot Generator’ operates under a simple line of reasoning: if you don’t know when the next loot drop is coming then there’s the possibility—however slim—it could happen at any moment. Just like my time with World of Warcraft, Star Wars: The Old Republic, and then Destiny, that very hook is what kept me coming back. Out of all the hours spent on Destiny, one of my fondest memories was in getting the Thunderlord (Year 1) Exotic after one of my worst PVP matches of the night. That’s right! One of Destiny’s staples, which was flaunted on the E3 stage demo with animated electrical currents streaming around the gun magazine, was now all mine out of pure chance. I’m sure all of us who’ve played Destiny have been burned by the Cryptarch hundreds of times by now, but I look back at this singular corny moment of a random Exotic drop as continually giving myself a what-if mentality to keep grinding just…a little bit more.
It’s not all about reliance on one type of system either. Compacting as many reward intervals in as possible helps in placating the notion of every reward being based on chance. There’s a surfeit of fixed reward schedules to be found in Destiny too:
-Want some matching PVP armor? Start collecting Crucible marks.
-Raids and Strikes (with varied difficulty options) promise something nice at the end
-Patrols, which can help with collecting PVE bounties
-Faction-specific goodies that can’t be bought until you get a better reputation with them
-General grinds to upgrading your character’s abilities, your new weapons, and new armor
It stacks up into feeling like a fluctuating set of priorities to keep players hooked into this unending feedback loop, despite ninety percent of the rewards from said loop will just get dismantled anyways. If you’re wondering why a Bungie-termed “shared-world shooter” doesn’t even allow trading between different players, well, consider this the answer. The very notion of sharing or some kind of auction house runs sharply athwart the behavioral ouroboros they’ve so fastidiously designed.
Remember that Gamasutra article I’ve been mentioning? Turns out the writer, John Hopson, was working at Bungie as the Head of Research and Customer Relationship Management Lead prior to leaving; his track record involves several prominent AAA and indie titles: Halo, Age of Empires, Trials HD, and Shadow Complex among those listed. From what little is provided on his LinkedIn profile page (4), research and analytics into methods of positive player experience and longer playtimes seem to be his focus. Notable quotes: “Worked with engineers and designers to create game systems to allow data-driven, personalized in-game communications and interventions….” “Hired and managed a team which conducted over 300 research studies of various types, including usability, playtest, surveys, focus groups, and user interviews.”
Now I can imagine the type of heat this could generate from Bungie diehards; suggesting I’m just bleating on and on and on about Destiny when other valid examples can also be used, extenuating Acti-Bungie’s perfidious behavior in the process. But before going any further, I should be certain to clarify that user research, analytics, etc. to keep players excited isn’t something bad on its own; furthermore, I understand it’s easy to find Skinner boxes embedded within quite a lot of games today. There’s actually a well-articulated, positive video on Destiny’s core gameplay loop I’ll leave a link to at the end (5). It’s a defense that I can certainly respect despite not concurring with nowadays. Perhaps that’s in part—or in total—influenced by the ends Bungie’s gone with this DLC.
Where I see many DLC practices for shooters trying to give extended life, either with more maps or story-related content (Bioshock: Infinite), Destiny’s psychological push to get DLC sales feels akin to squeezing your patience in a vice. Because of Destiny’s looped structure with the base game’s story giving no substantial finality, the DLC feels less like sequels or epilogues and more akin to missing chapters; as if the base game was really just a content pipeline to drive players to spend, spend, spend on “expansions.” And given thorough examinations of what was happening to Bungie behind the scenes (6) it’s not surprising to see why so many feel this way. Yes, this opens up the floodgates to talk about DLC culture in other games as well but Destiny feels like these problems have been cranked to eleven.
We can look at Activision’s other big shooter, Call of Duty, to compare and contrast. Oftentimes, when Season Passes and DLC are brought up with it or other CoD clones it’s a slice that’s meant to be dedicated for the hardcore base. This is shown when selecting game modes:
-Map pack #1 Domination
-Map pack #1 Team Deathmatch
-Map pack #1 Bomb
There’s a very clean section dedicated to those who have the map pack(s). For Destiny, The Taken King’s arrival OVERWHELMED the Crucible options, leaving only three selections open—and a plethora of other discontinued content—for vanilla Destiny players (7). Think about that: even if one were to own House of Wolves and Dark Below so much Crucible content would be locked out with Taken King’s appearance months later. This same mentality has occurred with Rise of Iron (RoI). Seasonal events like The Dawning now require this expansion for players to participate (8). And since new PVE content—some of the best parts in these packs—is behind this paywall they’re essential in making the game worthwhile. To put the cherry on top, I can’t help but feel this is exacerbated even more by the fact that this has a T rating. An easier purchase for parents to swallow during holiday shopping hooking a younger audience (or at least meant to be younger) into this devious web of psychological tricks.
This galling arm-wringing is only stacked by later implementations of micro-transactions (limited to emotes) and year-long Playstation-exclusive content. Now I get bringing that second point up opens another can of worms on timed exclusivity; but I think the most frustrating part for me is the timed exclusive weapons that’ll be outdated by the time of their arrival on Xbox platforms and I still had to pay the same amount for the Season Pass. And as far as all pre-RoI timed-exclusive maps, I think I’ve yet to play on any of them (as of today) so I don’t get why they don’t appear to be in rotation.
It’s critical to note my candor for the series’ transactional polices doesn’t mean I entirely dislike Destiny either; in fact, I vividly remember playing The Taken King upon release and seeing a lot of additions and improvements that felt like a solid expansion. It’s the one time I was thinking to myself that maybe, just maybe, Destiny clawed its way to being a good game. Some semblance of a story was there and it was quite a fun romp. But after a quiescent period from it and the disappointing release of this new expansion, I’m left with a hindsight of seeing the execrable monetary methods that’re irrefragable in their malicious intent.
I’ll happily goof around with friends on there, enjoy some PVP, or whatever, but if my worried presentiments of Destiny 2 replicating this behavior seem to be coming to fruition then I’ll hold off until I see “The Collection” emblazoned on the cover—and on discount; perhaps I won't even bother at all. It's a frustrating consideration but seeing these subtle brain tricks invading the "hardcore" sphere of this industry is getting rather worrisome.