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Destiny: Rise of Manipulative Game Design

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.



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coolbeans459d ago

I hope everyone enjoyed the blog. Please feel free to submit your questions and/or comments below. :)

Here are some more links I'd like you to check out on the subject of Skinner boxes.

And I really hope you take the time to read through link #1 as it's quite a fascinating time capsule when considering how games have morphed in 15 years.

TankCrossing459d ago (Edited 459d ago )

Tis a good read. I'm not sure a developer understanding and leveraging human psychology around rewards is necessarily a bad thing though. It could just as well be called good design.

When they tie those same hooks in with a system of micro-transactions that's the time to riot. Destiny is relatively light-touch on that front.

Kokyu459d ago

Um no its not festival of the lost this year didnt nothing but push Micros and the Dawning is shaping up to be doing the same thing.

TankCrossing459d ago

@Kokyu fair enough. Destiny's hooks never really worked on me and I stopped before the cash shop was introduced. I can't say I'm remotely surprised that Activision would expand on that.

coolbeans458d ago

"I'm not sure a developer understanding and leveraging human psychology around rewards is necessarily a bad thing though."

On it's own, I wouldn't have a problem with it either; however, considering to what lengths it's been used in F2P games to the create "whales" it's been consistently used to bad ends.

As I said below, I wanted to be sure not to suggest Destiny's on that same level as Farmville; that's a different beast. But there's a less insidious, yet still tangible, kind of creep within Destiny's reward loop.

Perjoss459d ago

I quit when they started adding all the micro transactions, I understand why they added them but for me it made the whole experience feel cheap, nothing solid like it felt at launch. Call me old fashioned but I only expect to see nickel and diming in a free to play game, not a game you pay full price for.

Jmanzare458d ago

All micro transactions are cosmetic. I've been playing since day one and the optional micro transactions don't bother me at all.

akurtz452d ago

you earned cosmetics thru compeleting missions and raid, especially on hard difficulty. they were worth it and rare

GrimDragon459d ago

Good blog. I have to say though what you pointed out is a testament to good game design. Keeping your player base hooked and coming back for more is not an easy task. i don't think anyone should feel cheated or manipulated in anyway though. At the end of the day it's a business and like any business it's about making money. Bungie at least from what I can tell does not go overboard with micros and dlc much of it is optional and I see them trying to keep it balanced. Creating games today is costly many great game studios have folded or been bought by larger companies.

The danger in this practice might be for those OCD compulsive types who spend everything on a game get so addicted miss work and lose relationships but that's not the majority and that's not a single companies problem. A companies only problem is staying relevant and making money.

I for one can appreciate a game like destiny who's overall game design is more than just about loot.
At this time this has been the only game I have ever had that keeps me coming back three yrs later when I have nothing else to play. That to me is an amazing feat. And why Iam looking forward to destiny 2

coolbeans459d ago

Thank you.

"I have to say though what you pointed out is a testament to good game design."

Well...I don't think that's the right word to use. Because when discussing "good design" (in my mind) a whole other can of worms opens up regarding AI, level+quest design, etc. "Effective design," on the other hand? I think that's one of the few unanimous qualities everybody can agree on with Destiny--vanilla or current version. Indeed, what Bungie has done to keep that base coming back for more is quite remarkable in its own right. Credit where it's due. I just find some uncomfortable facets as to how they went about doing that. That's why I put such emphasis with a term as "manipulative" in the title.

Of course it's a business, but like any business so intertwined with an art some annoying practices are bound to pop up that shouldn't be ignored either. And I think you may have missed some of the later links discussing how Bungie's handled DLC. I was one of the few that waited a couple of weeks for Taken King and I can tell you I felt insulted by how much of the PVP stuff I was locked out of until ponying up more $$$. Check #7 link to see what I mean.

"I for one can appreciate a game like destiny who's overall game design is more than just about loot."

Absolutely! When going into this, I tried very carefully to outright claim Destiny is "just Farmville in a Bungie MMOFPS" or something like that. As I brought up with my #5 link, there is an argument to made about the context in which Destiny's utilizing its reward loop. And, once again, to their credit: the way they've made it compatible for both binge players or those who want to play in short bursts is impressive.

I don't want to outright discount all of Destiny's good qualities; however, after considering HOW and WHY Bungie's set it up the way they did it makes me a bit worried of where they'll go from here.

GrimDragon459d ago (Edited 459d ago )

Ah yes I see your point. Your right if at some moment destiny execs get hit with the greed bug we could be in for a very infuriating experience with destiny 2. Right now what I really appreciate about bungie is that they really listen to the fans at least to some extent. But if that should change than dam that's going to really suck.

Fingers crossed though beans let's hope that won't be the case and destiny 2 will be less manipulative and more awesome in every way. If not I look forward to another blog about it from you:)


coolbeans458d ago

Hey if Bungie eases my worries, then I'm down for that! Although, like with this blog, expect me to be fashionably late in conjuring up the D2 material. :P

Take care.


generally feel the same way about the Idea of destiny 2.

If the rng in that game is like it is in this and there are no other options outside of that which give me a chance at getting a weapon I want one way or another then Ill give destiny 2 a miss.

Personally just don't find the time I have to spend and the chances I have with Rng giving me the weapon I want with the perk I want to reward me enough to want to play it anymore.

I do enjoy the gun play etc, but the grind is not for me and I feel its time to move on to other games that offer more.

rezzah459d ago

Post this on bungie's forum and send the link.

coolbeans459d ago

Hmmm...maybe I will. Never thought of doing that so I appreciate the suggestion. :)

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