Luke Smith, Destiny franchise director, has posted the first part of his very long “Director’s Cut” article… aka the State of the Game.
Part 1, which you can read here on Bungie’s site or below, looks back at things learned from the first Annual Pass along with some insight into design philosophies. It’s a good, lengthy read:
I wanted to try a little experiment with our communications and put together a longer look at where Destiny has been over the last few months and where it’s heading next. I think it’s important to take time to reflect on what’s happened so we can show you where we’re going.
I’m calling this Director’s Cut. Based on how long this ended up being, a key learning from this is “maybe there’s a better way to communicate this than a GIANT WALL OF TEXT!” Let me know. I also may like doing it in a different format in the future, I’ll let you know.
Today, I’m going to talk about more than just the Destiny game and talk some about how we build Destiny and the effects it can have on the team. I think transparency about the game is important and I also want to be transparent about the work required. Sound OK? That’s rhetorical, because a wall of text is coming up.
We’re making a lot of changes to Destiny 2 with Shadowkeep and New Light. We want Destiny 2 to be an amazing action MMO, in a single, evolving world, that you can play anytime, anywhere with your friends.
I’m going to keep referencing that. All the time. Until its true. And then, I’m going to keep referencing it until it’s good enough.*
10 Thoughts on the Last Six Months (Looking Back)
Overall, there are some things about Annual Pass that worked out very well and some real learnings for us along the way. The Annual Pass was a big transition for us. We’ve been moving away from DLC and trying to provide more ongoing reasons to play Destiny. I wanted to start the State of the Game series by looking back at how we got here. I’m going to largely focus on Season of the Drifter to near-present day.
We set up a calendar of content, showed you the plan early, and delivered it.
A lot of you love Destiny for the chase on the way to improving your characters. Between the Annual Pass drops, questlines, and events in between, the team did a great job of providing stuff to do, items to chase, growing fat with strength, et cetera. Destiny history has had many content droughts, but not this year.
But, the Annual Pass was harder on the team than we anticipated.
The scope of what we delivered, the pace that we delivered it, and the overall throughput for Annual Pass takes a toll on the Bungie team. I–and many others–had conversations throughout the year with team members–who had jumped from release to release– about the grind of working on Destiny. Working on the game was starting to wear people down. Here’s an example:
During the annual pass, we invented new, bespoke ways to earn rewards each season. Black Armory had its bounties, Season of the Drifter had the “Reckoning Machine,” Season of Opulence had its Chalice. Each of these mechanics – each with their own lessons – were valuable, but also put the team into an unsustainable development cycle. We needed to develop a more systemic, standardized set of mechanics for progression to keep our teams healthier.
We’re going to take this problem on in D2Y3.
We have a Powerful sources problem
As the game’s weekly sources of Power grew and Destiny grew with it, this – at times – could really feel like a chore. Each season brought with it new Powerful sources and optimizing your character meant that you were maybe still running three story missions every week or returning to the Dreaming City months after those first few magical trips from last fall.
I feel like we needed to do a better job of shifting Powerful sources. We could explore things like changing the value of Powerful sources to create new seasonal efficiencies or retire some Powerful sources as we bring new sources into the game. Simply put, I wish we’d been able do more seasonal curation of the game.
Season of the Drifter Thoughts, Part I
I like Gambit Prime. It felt like a great refinement of Gambit to me. I’d love to hear your thoughts on it.
Matches end quicker, so it feels more efficient. The invading frequency feels lower, so I can Collect and dunk. I think there’s something cool about the roles, although the requirements to get a full set online to inhabit a role meant not enough folks got to appreciate the playstyle diversity.
In the future, we’re going to have to make a choice: Which Gambit is the Highlander of Gambits. Prime or Classic. This isn’t just about removing stuff from Destiny 2 — but the game cannot grow infinitely forever –it’s about focusing refinements and evolutions to the Gambit ecosystem. We think Gambit is sweet and deserves more ongoing support and we want to ultimately focus that support on whichever mode ends up being the Highlander. There can be only one.
That said, we hear you that not everyone is excited about a season that overly focuses on one part of the game. Destiny is a game with a lot of breadth and we agree that this season felt too specialized.
Season of the Drifter Thoughts, Part II aka Let’s Talk About Reckoning
(and Encounter Design)
The first time I used Phoenix Protocol at home, I knew it was over. It’s an exotic coat that refills my Well of Radiance and then refills itself as I “slay,” so that I can continue to place my Well of Stand Here to be Borderline Invulnerable and Deal Tons of Damage. Datto has a great video that talks about Well of Radiance’s effect on the PVE game.
I wondered, How are we ever going to make content that fairly challenges players again?
With Reckoning in Season of the Drifter, we got a taste of what kind of content we’d need to build to challenge Protocol-wearing Warlocks. Matchmade encounters that accost you from all directions, plant snipers off in the distance, and put players in between a pincher attack of many whelps, handle it (I wanted to link a thing here, but it’s definitely not T for Teen) and giant bosses (also eff you Knight Taken guy).
This is what it had to be. We were breaking encounter rules left, right, and center on the Reckoning bridge, in no small part due to players in always-active Wells of Radiance becoming invulnerable gods, holding all six infinity stones all the time.
In Reckoning, we set out to build an activity that could be relatively easy at Tier 1 and scale up to very challenging at Tier 3. We have an internal team here codenamed: Velveeta (they were formed in the wake of the Crota’s End modem-unplugging debacle to help find the cheesiest things to do/use in the challenging PVE portions of the game) – these players are some of our craftiest.
Once Velveeta can get close to beating something, or beat it outright, that becomes an important data point on our “is this hard enough?” evaluation. We give them a bunch of tips like “here’s how this works, can you beat it?”, so if they can, it’s a good indicator of the action game and gear game working together.
Let’s talk about encounter design. Generally, in activities we expect players to complete alone (dungeons, raids, zero hour-type activities can play by a different set of properties!) or in matchmade groups, there are a number of guidelines we use when we build them.
- We don’t want to spawn enemies behind the player.
- We want players to play a game of taking space from enemies.
- We want players to have cover where their shields and health can recharge, or where they get to be smart using geometry, movement, ability and gunplay to dig enemies out of cover, and make interesting decisions about target prioritization.
- We want players to be able to understand where in the space enemies will come from, and if we’re going to reverse the combat front on players (AKA spawn enemies behind them, we want to telegraph that.
- We use dropships, spawn clouds, audio cues, all kinds of tricks to try and prepare players for reinforcements.
- As character power was dramatically increasing (more on reasons for this increase later on), the encounter rules got thrown out the window.
To summarize this: Destiny had sweet gear and in order to create challenge in the Reckoning we broke a bunch of our encounter design philosophy. That sweet gear, coupled with the encounter design meant the number of ways to viably/efficiently progress was dramatically reduced. We want Destiny to be a game where you have lots of choices with your character, build what you choose to do, and funneling those choices down to only one in Reckoning is something we don’t want to repeat. There’s more about damage and player power sprinkled in this update, and even more on the rest.
Last, last note: I think it’s totally sweet when an activity challenges you to use something other than your favorite item. I don’t think the whole game should work that way, but when it’s time to bust some shields on the Shanks in Zero Hour, I had a use for that Distant Relation scout rifle in my vault.
Season of the Drifter Thoughts, Part III aka Now Let’s Talk about Difficulty and Touch on Sandbox Nerfs
I started to talk about challenge/difficulty above and drifted (heh heh) to encounter difficulty. But, it’s all related.
When the media would come to play our Halo games for an event, we’d always recommend they play the game on Heroic. Heroic changed a bunch about Halo combat – it made enemy weapons more accurate (but not too accurate); enemies would fire more frequently (which made you feel like a hero when you dodged them); it increased projectile speed; and Heroic lowered player outgoing damage (so that the enemies would survive longer and make their way further through their behavior tree – and therefore appear more intelligent). There’s more than just the above going on, but that’s a quick summary of some of the changes.
But here’s why: we asked the media to play the game on Heroic, because when the game is challenging, overcoming the challenge feels incredible.
Important to note here: Challenge isn’t something universal. In an action game, challenge can be largely personal. One person’s challenging might be easy to someone else. We’ve historically thought about the main Destiny campaigns as something we want to be pretty easy (I think D2’s campaign was actually too easy at times), and as players push further into the post-game they’d be able to find more challenge. Across Destiny’s history we haven’t had enough challenge deep into the end game, and that’s definitely something on our list as we head toward fall 2019.
Overcoming challenges is a huge part of what makes an action game’s moment-to-moment engaging. Action games are a delicate balance of growing stronger, the game rising up to push back, introducing new challenges that force you to learn/become more powerful/master a new element and — at their best — creating the fist pumping moment of celebration when you achieve victory.
But Destiny has an RPG component, too. And the RPG component is about customization, optimization, and it’s a way for players to choose how they overcome challenge. The entire time we’ve been making Destiny, the action game and the RPG have been fighting. It’s the forever war. The RPG has the power to dramatically overcome the action game, and the action game has the power to render the RPG game irrelevant. It’s a line – by nature – Destiny will always have to straddle.
In order to create challenge during Season of the Drifter, we needed to break a bunch of encounter rules, have exotics like Phoenix Protocol basically function like a key (or hope you match with multiple Radiance Warlocks) which then unlocks success in the matchmade encounters of Reckoning. There’s a really good video from Slayerage on this in the context of the nerfs we made heading into Season of Opulence.
Those nerfs also saw Whisper of the Worm get its day in court. If I could turn back time, we’d probably not run Whisper as the original Black Hammer infinite ammo design. However, considering the year before had Destiny 2 feeling very restrictive and power-limited, I think we did the best that we could with the knowledge and intuition we had last summer.
Whisper was an outlier that lets you stand still at a safe distance, in a pool that makes you borderline invulnerable, never having to reload or relocate for ammo, and allow players to deal piles and piles of damage on giant bosses who aren’t threatening. This isn’t your fault! It’s ours! We’re making some stuff too easy and allowing players to circumvent parts of the game! Mechanics that circumvent the ammo game (relocate to pick up ammo bricks) or completely ignore the reload animations (a critical part of weapon tuning) are mechanics that create the kind of outliers that we ultimately have to tamp down before the game spirals into the boss health version of Reckoning bridges.
The other significant set of changes we made to the game during this time were taking down the Super Snowball exotics. With as powerful as Destiny Supers have become (they are – on the whole – dramatically more powerful than Destiny 1’s Supers), using your Super to recover your Super is an amplification to player power that the challenge and difficulty game can’t keep up with. But, we’re going to talk about Supers much later on.
Difficulty and challenge are important parts of mastery. There are more changes coming in Shadowkeep (buffs to things like Scout Rifles, nerfs to mechanics that circumvent the ammo economy, refactoring of the way damage stacking rules work) — we’re gonna talk about it in the next episode.
Season of Opulence, Part I: the Pursuits tray is a Caterpillar in a Cocoon–Questlog is the Beautiful Butterfly
I’ve seen streams and videos of people beating activities in Destiny blindfolded. I cannot imagine developing the muscle memory and memorization (nevermind the thumbskill required) to be good at Destiny with the blast shield down.
When things fundamentally change in a way that interrupts muscle memory and mastery, it is frustrating. The initial set of changes to the Pursuits tray earlier this year did a few things beyond upsetting muscle memory. It certainly didn’t get as far as the team wanted in its initial release and it also didn’t feel like an improvement over what previously existed.
It felt like we started to redecorate your house but we didn’t finish it (and sometimes, that’s how things in a live game can feel).
The morning after the Pursuits changes went live, I talked to some folks on the UI team about the feature. They had Reddit open.
“Have you read it, Luke?”
“Nah, I haven’t.”
They were crestfallen. Not just because of the sometimes-harsh-feeling feedback, but because this team wanted make something sweet, exceed your expectations, and meet their own expectations. None of those things happened. We wanted to try something different with Pursuits, in the sense that we knew where we wanted this feature to end up, but that we’d take some iterative steps to get there. I think we’ve got to do a better job ensuring that while we’re remodeling your house, the potential of the renovation is clearer either in the game or via some communication here on the site.
We want a Questlog with great tracking that can help players prioritize what to do next.
Oh, and this fall, bounties will be separated from quests and PC players can assign a hot key that takes them directly to the Pursuits menu.
Season of Opulence, Part II: The Evolving Eververse
Last year, we thought long and hard about Eververse and how we wanted to change the strategy around microtransactions in Destiny. As some folks have smartly pointed out, MTX is a big part of our business being a live game. I’m not going to say “MTX funds the studio” or “pays for projects like Shadowkeep” — it doesn’t wholly fund either of those things. But it does help fund ongoing development of Destiny 2, and allows us to fund creative efforts we otherwise couldn’t afford. For example: Whisper of the Worm’s ornaments were successful enough that it paid [dev cost-wise] for the Zero Hour mission/rewards to be constructed (this shit matters!).
The storefront, which we launched alongside Season of Opulence is the first part of the strategic shift we’re making with MTX. The decision to run old content in Bright Engrams instead of making new Bright Engrams is another part of the shift. We want to believe that our players would rather just buy things they like from the store. Earlier this summer, we detailed a bunch of the changes coming to Bright Dust and Eververse this fall (and if you haven’t read that, go check it out here).
The storefront is going to get another round of enhancements this fall, too. We’re going to move it to the Director, so you don’t have go to the Tower and see Tess to interact with it. We’re giving it some Class specific content, so if you’re on your Titan looking for Titan Universal Ornaments with smaller shoulders, you’ll see Titan armor on one of the store’s subpages. We’re also going to make it so that the pieces you’ve already acquired from a given set reduce the Silver price of the set. For instance, if you are 3/5 Optimacy set on your Titan, the cost to finish the set in Silver will be reduced by 60%.
There are some other philosophies here that we haven’t made explicitly clear:
We have made deliberate choices related to cosmetic items and not having them come from gameplay. Gameplay rewards are where you get items, power, mods, perk combinations, stats, triumphs, and titles. The aesthetics for armor blurs the line some – we want players to get cool armor from activities and the world that feel thematic to where they were acquired. Cosmetic items like universal ornaments, weapon ornaments, shaders, ships, sparrows, emotes, and finishers typically come from the store (There are exceptions, but generally speaking, that’s how we think about this).
We are continuing to try and separate capability/gameplay from vanity. Armor 2.0 and Universal Ornaments are big parts of this separation. This is also why Finisher perks are mods that can be socketed into equipment, so that their aesthetic can stand alone.
As always, we welcome your feedback and thoughts.
Season of Opulence, Part III: The Menagerie is Sweet
Have you ever been to an amazing party for something like the Super Bowl? It’s the kind of party where there is an incredible spread of snacks rolling out throughout the event, amazingly comfortable seating, an A/V system and TV that makes you jealous, and super sweet people to hang out with. Once you’ve been to this party — the Super Bowl anywhere else never feels the same (invite me back somedayyyyyyyyy).
This is how I feel about Escalation Protocol. Once I had the feeling of running around in public bubbles, fighting giant bosses with a bunch of players (even though getting into a good instance of Mars for Protocol was a pain in the butt!), public gameplay never felt the same. At its peak, when you have a bunch of players slaying big ol’ bosses, Escalation Protocol is one of the best things we’ve added to Destiny 2.
The Menagerie – a six-player matchmade activity where you make progress no matter what – is awesome. Its “learn-by-watching mechanics” means that it doesn’t require communication between players. The way groups can make progress – even if they don’t kill the boss – means the real efficiency gain is by learning and executing the fights quickly. Hasapiko, Beloved by Calus — and also beloved by me — feels like a great translation of World of Warcraft’s Heigan the Unclean** into an action game.
There’s a lot to like about the Menagerie, but I’m going to close the activity part here with: We love the Menagerie, it’s a great middle spot on a six-player activity pyramid, with Raids sitting at the top. Escalation Protocol (aka Partying in Public) is a great base. We want to do more activities like this, but in the context of what we learned and in a way that we can better support them over the long-term.
Season of Opulence, Part IV: The Chalice of Opulence and Somehow Even More Season of the Drifter Thoughts
Having some ways to target and farm some specific gear in Destiny is great. We did a version of this with Black Armory weapons but the very, very long character-specific attunement questline for the Forges was a bit much. We made the Opulence attunement account-wide as a result.
The Chalice was an even bigger version of targeting rewards. Players could unlock different sets of armor, different weapons, and even select their Masterwork perk roll.
Pause on Chalice thoughts.
We will come back to the Chalice. Let’s talk about how we build the game.
While content for Destiny is released serially, it is largely developed in parallel. For instance, while Forsaken was in its final few months, Black Armory was well underway, and Season of the Drifter was in development while Black Armory was being built, et cetera. For years people have wondered “Why doesn’t release X do the thing content drop Y did? Get it together, Bungie.”
This is one of the reasons why. So even though Menagerie is sweet, and Chalice is great, while Shadowkeep was being built, the Menagerie and the Chalice hadn’t yet been released. So we didn’t know how players would react.
Because we have so much to build, we frequently find ourselves having to place many bets at the same time. This has paid dividends at times – we discover new and awesome things like Escalation Protocol or Menagerie – and this has also resulted in things that feel like setbacks at other times.
An example of a setback is the reward chase during Season of the Drifter. There are a bunch of super awesome weapons in Drifter (One Two Punch Last Man Standing), but the path to them isn’t clear like Black Armory or the Chalice. We didn’t do a good enough job of rewarding players for their time or giving them clearer paths to some of the sweet weapons in the release. If we had a do-over with this season’s rewards we’d probably have dropped Armor directly from Prime and maybe used Reckoning combined with learnings from Menagerie’s fail forward mechanics to let players chase awesome rolls on weapons they could love. While I got pretty lucky with a Rapid Hit Kill Clip Spare Rations, I personally had more fun chasing my Kindled Orchid or Austringer.
Unpause. Back to Chalice.
The Chalice isn’t perfect. Being held hostage by THE rune you want to drop from a Strike or Crucible to go make the weapon or armor piece you’re coveting is pretty frustrating.
But having more ways in the game to pursue loot in a deterministic fashion, while preserving the hunt for a great roll, is something that we hope to explore.
Things left unsaid-ish while looking back
- There’s a lot a lot a lot of awesome stuff we didn’t spend time talking about (Tribute Hall, Lumina, that cool Drifter cinematic with the Taken Captain, lore books, Vanguard/Drifter choice, et cetera).
- Full disclosure: I’m almost always going to focus on opportunities for improvement, rather than celebration!
- We’re in the midst of Solstice and Moments of Triumph so the learnings for those are still bubbling up.
Looking Ahead to Looking Ahead
The rest of the Director’s Cut updates are going to focus on Shadowkeep and the changes we’re making this year. Here are some of the topics that will be included:
- Supers and PVP in Destiny 2
- Armor, Stats, Mods, and Tradeoffs
- Powerful Sources, Prime Engrams and the World
- Damage numbers, damage stacking rules
- And more
I know this is a lot to read (because it was a lot to write). I appreciate you taking the time to make it this far. Like all things with Destiny, it’s a journey. The next two parts of this journey will look at the RPG and Combat game.
See you soon,
*It’s a set of aspirational goals that can help guide the team to create better experiences for players who love Destiny. And it’s a simple way to describe how we’re thinking about the game to all of you. And even when it’s true, there will always be work left to do. And we’re committed to it.
**Fun fact: Heigan the Unclean was often called the “dance” boss in the WoW Raid Naxxaramas and Hasapiko means “the butcher’s dance” in Greek. It’s a little nod back to Blizzard’s Xûr reference.
Gary is Owner and Editor-in-Chief of Vortainment. He’s usually posting news and reviews, and doing all the back end stuff as well. He likes to play video games, watch movies, wrestling and college football (Roll Tide Roll).