Online sci-fi shooter Destiny, released in 2014, had a strange effect on some of its players. Unlike World of Warcraft, or most other games that people play every day, it didn’t have hundreds of hours’ worth of different planets to visit, enemies to defeat or characters to get to know. You could play through the entirety of Destiny’s story in 10 hours; beyond that, it offered only a small selection of daily “strike” missions and an arena to challenge other players in shootouts. Yet people played for hours every day. A significant portion of players spent a thousand hours or more with the game over two or three years, as recorded by the ironically titled WastedOnDestiny.com.
Aside from the draw of spending time with friends, this compulsive factor stemmed from Destiny’s loot system. Sure, you’d be playing the exact same missions, strikes and raids, in the same places, shooting the same enemies. But every time you did, there was a small chance you’d get lucky and score a covetable weapon or piece of armour.
The sequel, 2017’s Destiny 2, dialled this back. Instead of awarding precious loot randomly, it gave consistent rewards to everyone through weekly challenges. At a time when the gaming industry was grappling with the ethics of compulsive loops and the problematic patterns of behaviour they could encourage, the change was forward-looking. The original Destiny felt, at times, like a very pretty slot machine with some nicely engineered sci-fi guns. In changing that, Bungie hoped to coax players away from grinding the most efficient sources of loot relentlessly – an approach that onceled to thousands of players crowding around a particular cave on the Moon in the original Destiny, shooting endless waves of aliens in the hope of eventually coming away with a prized gun.
For the past year, Destiny has been an odd hybrid between a hobby game, intended to be played indefinitely, and a game that players could finish – at least on a weekly basis, before the timers reset and new missions are introduced. This was welcomed by players (and critics) who didn’t want Destiny to feel like a second job. But a vocal portion of Destiny’s more dedicated players opposed the changes. Rather than being pleased that luck had been largely phased out, players instead bemoaned the lack of variation in rewards and the loss of a favoured endgame pursuit.
Bungie was, it seemed, trapped. The developer wanted to respect players’ time, but the players themselves – or at least, the most vocal part of the community – wanted the game they had come to treat as a hobby to continue providing reasons to play. So in the new Destiny 2 expansion, Forsaken, randomised weapon drops are back, along with more ways to fill time shooting aliens and robots on beautiful planets.
I asked Steve Cotton, Forsaken’s game director, how Bungie views the balancing act between giving players enough to do and rewarding compulsive play. “We found with Destiny 2 – and this is the case, I think, on any game – that players don’t want to be told when to stop playing,” he said. “Even if they probably should stop playing, they want to believe there’s always something for them to do, and they want to be able to make that choice on their own. Destiny 2, as much as it was trying to respect players’ time, had a very bad way of showing you when you were done playing and not giving you more to do.”
Scott Taylor, the game’s project lead, agrees: “We think Forsaken does not tell you to stop; it’s always welcoming you back with new things to do.”
The new version of the game doesn’t fully return to the slot-machine vibe of the original Destiny. High-level weapons and armour are still doled out as rewards for structured activities, rather than simply dropped at random intervals by enemies, and the game has maintained a distinction between “legendary gear” and “powerful gear” – only the latter of which will really matter to most players after the first month of play. Your character can reach level 500 doing pretty much anything, but to rise above becomes progressively more restrictive: first weekly and daily challenges, then the weekly ultra-hard Nightfall strike, and then eventually only the raid (out on September 14) will take you that final step to the cap of 600.
The Forsaken expansion has also made it easier than ever to see the weapons and armour that you’re yet to find – even if you can’t do the raid this week, there’s likely to be some hole in your collection that you can work your way towards filling.
The question here is the same asked of games like Fortnite, currently at the centre of tabloid panics: what’s the difference between a game that’s addictive, and one that’s just … fun? Is it necessarily bad if someone wants to play a game for 30 hours a week? Is it ever a good thing? Critics of Destiny 2 would argue that, in attempting to curtail the compulsive elements, Bungie accidentally removed the fun as well. So now, says Taylor, the approach is to focus on fun first and foremost.
“Is this cool? Do I want to play this? Does it make me want to go home and play right now? If the answer’s no, we shouldn’t do it.”
Cotton wants Destiny 2 to let players create their own stories, moments to discuss with friends the morning after: the long-distance headshot that won the game, or being the sole player who revived all five of their teammates, saving the raid from doom. Ridiculous moments in Destiny history such as the aforementioned “loot cave” have become legendary among the community. “[These events] made Destiny something that people were talking about,” he says. “It’s powerful. Ideally, we’re making those stories intentionally, but we know that some of them are built around the rough edges we leave in the game.”
But, after my own hundreds of hours playing Destiny and its sequel, it is also clear that the game exerts a hold beyond the memories, the stories, and, well, the fun. In fallow periods, I’ve found myself doing daily mundane story missions out of habit. A hobby became an obligation. Bungie’s first attempt to fix that problem was to try, in Destiny 2, to reduce the feeling of obligation, but players rebelled. Now, instead, they’re trying to keep it enjoyable for longer.
It’s a new balance that will please people who have all the time in the world more than time-pressed players who want to log on and have fun for a couple of hours a week. But there are plenty of Destiny players with all that time and more – and when those are its most dedicated fans, and usually the people spending the most money, their needs will inevitably come first.