Destiny 2: minor lessons in game design

Old style posts! In 2021!

Today Bungie released a sort of manifesto detailing their ever moving plans for Destiny 2:

The main feature is the removal of “sunsetting”, a truly awful solution to a problem that the previous game director forcefully pushed, despite it was obvious from the very beginning that it would fail.

Since the explanation is terse and straightforward, why not commenting it.

Destiny is a loot-based game where weapons and armor you acquire can be leveled up to the current cap. Therefore every item is virtually always viable, as long you keep upgrading it.

This created a “power creep” because in order to make players chase new loot, devs had to make that loot more appealing by making it more powerful. Giving players incentive to leave their former stuff behind and adopt the newer stuff. Because new = better (more powerful).

The consequence of that is that something powerful arrived, and then had to be eventually nerfed, in order to fight that power creep and make the game once again balanced.

“Sunsetting” was meant to solve that situation and avoid the powercreep. It works by creating a smaller, curated loot pool, by giving all loot a fixed expiration date. It means that new loot that is added doesn’t need to directly compete with old loot, because old root is pulled out. New stuff in, old stuff out. Not being there, it doesn’t create competition with the newer stuff, so the newer stuff doesn’t need to be more powerful in order to be more appealing.

(This is what they want players to believe. The truth is that curating a small loot pool requires less work than a giant loot pool, and Bungie has serious production issues and is looking for ways to cut costs.)

Why did it fail, and it was obvious it would, without the need to test it?

Because it’s all smoke and mirrors without any substance. What the model DOES, instead of what bullshit story it tries to make you believe, is making players go through hamster wheels. Like all progression systems that aren’t built around content.

Look at this scheme:

– Before-sunsetting > the player goes through the hamster wheel because there’s a tasty reward at the end (a more powerful weapon).

– With sunsetting > the player is pushed through the hamster wheel, to PAY BACK A DEBT.

It is not surprising that the feedback loop where you pay a debt feels worse than the one where you are rewarded.

That’s really all there is.

Removing your current weapons, so that you are forced to obtain new ones, and so avoiding competition between old and new, doesn’t fix ANYTHING AT ALL. It’s a solution to the effect instead of the cause. It’s very clearly silly and misguided. A blind, partial point of view driven by convenience. Incomplete analysis leading to broken solutions. Trump’s way of being, to make an obvious example: saying things that are convenient, BELIEVING they are true. The true mark of an egomaniac (and that can always be verified, since they always lack motivation and proof, when you dig, like in this case).

As I said, all progression systems work like that. The difference is that they are usually a part of a bigger system. They are built around content. A progression system by itself is a pointless hamster wheel, even when it’s a well designed one. Destiny is a game with a severe lack of content, so the best solution is to maximize what is there, give it value. Bungie chose the opposite, employing the standard MMO technique of mudflation: removing the relevance of old content. Yet it works for MMOs when there’s content to offer, and it fails for Bungie because they cannot produce enough. In this scenario, “mudflating” the little content they have equals shooting themselves in the foot. Emphasizing hamster wheels, rather than content, and then pushing players through them by creating debts, only damages the ecosystem further. Until the game is left to bled out.

Game design isn’t politics. You cannot bullshit players through sleight of hand of a carefully worded a blog post. If your game design is full of rhetorical bullshit it just won’t pass the test of reality.

In the world we’re imagining, we’ll have space at the top end to create powerful Legendary weapons. Legendaries that are just better than other items in the classification. We’ll be able to do that, because the design space for weapons will expand and contract over time. Items will enter the ecosystem, be able to be infused for some number of Seasons and beyond that, their power won’t be able to be raised. Our hope is that instead of having to account for a weapon’s viability forever when we create one, it can be easier to let something powerful exist in the ecosystem. And those potent weapons entering the ecosystem mean there’s more fun items to pursue.

Legendaries that are just better than other items [because the other better items are gone].

Better not because they are better, but because there’s nothing to compare them to. Sleight of hand.