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Gamedevelopment

What Destiny's Failures Can Teach Us About Game Design

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Released early this fall, Destiny was arguably the biggest game of the year. As a massive undertaking from Bungie, expectations were high upon its release and sales followed accordingly. 

Now that the game has been out for a while, it's become apparent that some marketing snafus and a few key design mistakes held Destiny back from becoming the game everyone was hoping it would be. In this article, we'll take a look at how and why Destiny failed to meet its lofty expectations, as well as what these shortcomings can teach us about game design.

1. Don't Over-Promise and Under-Deliver

Few games have ever had as much hype as Destiny. Excitement for the game started building even before it was announced; as soon as Bungie declared that they were moving away from the Halo franchise, gamers everywhere were giddy with anticipation for their newest project. The Halo games were all top-of-the-line products, with tight multiplayer, and cinematic campaigns that resonated with many people. Destiny was expected to be great even before anybody knew anything about it.

Then the marketing machine rolled in and the hype got out of control. The game's initial reveal was nothing more than some concept art and some story details from a leaked document, and people were already hooked. Eventually the game was officially revealed to the media as the first instalment in a series of games to be released over ten years. Everything about Destiny just screamed epic, and media outlets and trade shows had a never-ending supply of new details, previews, and trailers for the game.

Unfortunately, this massive hype contributes to Destiny's most obvious flaw: it over-promised and under-delivered. All of this press was filled with details about the game, and how it was to be one of the biggest and most expansive experiences the medium had ever seen. Players were told they could explore their entire solar system in a massive multiplayer open world, with a strong narrative to tie it all together and a solid competitive shooter included on the side.

That's not the whole thing, is it? I thought Pluto was the only planet that got kicked out of our solar system.

The game that actually launched is a pale imitation of the game that was promised, containing only a few planets in our solar system, and a narrative that manages to be cliché and boring and yet also border on incoherence. The gameplay feel of the shooting and movement is excellent, but the game has nowhere near the amount of content people expected, and much of what was promised simply never came to fruition. Even worse, trailers for the game even just months before release featured characters, cutscenes, and environments that are nowhere to be seen in the final product. This type of marketing is disingenuous, and does nothing but leave a sour taste in players' mouths.

It's unclear at this point whether this was an intentional deception on the part of Destiny's marketing team, or if there were more complicated issues that led to the discrepancies between what was advertised and what was released. Game development can be complicated, and things don't always go as planned. What we can learn from this is clear however: don't promise more than what you are confident you are capable of delivering.

Destiny is not a terrible game by any means, and actually has a respectable amount of content for a triple-A shooter, but because of the way it was marketed, players were left feeling let down when they otherwise might not have been. Promising more than you realistically expect to deliver does nothing but create disappointment and animosity for the final product, regardless of its quality or the amount of content it actually offers.

2. Progress Gated by Random Outcomes is a Bad Idea

It seems like every game needs to have RPG elements these days; loot systems, skill trees, and character classes are popping up more and more in genres where you typically wouldn't expect them. Like Borderlands before it, Destiny brings the RPG to the shooter, with questing and character progression being just as important to its core design as landing headshots and well-timed melee attacks. However, Destiny's levelling system is unconventional to say the least, and the game suffers tremendously for it.

Just like almost every other RPG, Destiny initially allows players to accrue experience from killing enemies and completing objectives. When players level up they learn new skills and get access to new gear, just as you would expect. The system is common because it works, and working towards the max level of 20 is great fun. Unfortunately, players quickly learn that 20 isn't really the level cap, it's the highest level that can be gained from traditional experience points. Players can continue to level up, but only by finding and equipping pieces of high-level gear. The better your gear, the higher your level.

Light level 26; the grind is underway.

Many MMOs thrive off this type of progression system, with players being required to constantly find more powerful loot to tackle more difficult challenges. The cycle of gaining power to defeat enemies you couldn't before is fun and engaging in many games, but Destiny just doesn't do it right. Higher-level gear isn't really better than lower-level gear as much as it's just higher-level. The only perceivable difference between lower-level gear and higher-level gear is that your character's listed level goes up.

Since it's virtually impossible to kill enemies that are a higher level than you, your ability to access end-game content is arbitrarily gated by the level of the gear that you have found. This poses a problem because gear drops are strictly random, there is a small chance at any point of finding good gear, and so you simply need to repeat enough of the lower level activities and hope you get lucky with your drops. It is possible to buy decent gear, but the amount of currency required for even just one piece is absurd. The grind is immense and unreasonable, even when compared to other games in the genre.

All of this means that progression in Destiny's endgame is entirely tied to outcomes outside of the player's control. Since there are no reliable ways to increase the chance of getting good loot, players no longer have any agency in their own progression as soon as they hit level 20, leaving the game feeling like a glorified slot machine. Having progression tied to blind luck is incredibly frustrating for players, and is simply an example of bad game design. The lesson here is obvious: always make sure that your player's actions have a role in dictating the outcomes of your gameplay systems.

3. Temporary Content Needs to Have a Reason to be Temporary

Timed content is a big part of the design plan for games that hope to harbour active online communities. Having temporary unique activities for players to participate in is fun for active players, and encourages others who may have lost interest to return to your game. Destiny absolutely loves timed content: there is a constant rotation of weekly and daily missions, as well as timed shopkeepers and weekend-only multiplayer modes. Unfortunately, Destiny once again struggles to get this tried-and-true concept right.

The issue lies primarily in the game's inability to convince players that there is a reason for its content to be time-restricted. Timed content in most games is typically restricted to thematic events, like lore-based or seasonal activities, or to content that differs mechanically or stylistically from the game's core experience. They act as fun diversions to regular content streams, and this is usually well communicated to players.

Oh Xur, where do you go on weekdays?

Destiny's timed content fails because much of it doesn't feel like it should be temporary. A shopkeeper integral to character progression shows up only on weekends, and three of the seven PvP modes advertised before release are only available at select times. Rather than excite players with bonus content, these timed offerings only bring about annoyance when they aren't there. It becomes irritating when you can't play your favorite PvP mode on a Thursday, or you can't buy the new helmet you've been saving up for until the weekend rolls around.

It's also worth noting that announcing modes before release and then having them be limited to timed content is really not a good idea. It leaves players feeling disappointed when they first boot up the game and find that they can't participate in something they were expecting to have access to. Even worse, it gives them the impression, accurate or not, that the content has already been created and is being withheld from them in order to extend their interest in the product. Players' impressions are important, and it's never advisable to present things in a way that leaves them feeling deceived.

There isn't an innate problem with games having temporary content, but the content needs to be of an appropriate nature so that players can understand why access to it is limited. Not all of Destiny's timed content has failed in this way—there was an interesting lore-based event not long after release—but the majority of what they have done has missed the mark. The key lesson to learn from this is that temporary content is a game design tool just like any other; its value needs to be well articulated to the player in order for it to have a positive effect on their experience.

4. Don't Imitate Systems Without Including the Core Functionality Players Expect

Destiny plays like the video game equivalent of a top 40 compilation CD. It borrows relentlessly from other games for almost every aspect of its design. It feels like the kind of product people have daydreams about, where they imagine the best parts of their favorite games all wrapped into one package. There's nothing wrong with this; as I've said before, game design is an iterative process, and imitating others is a great way to strengthen your own creation.

As much an MMO as it is an open world shooter and a competitive shooter, Destiny has a lot of different facets that make up its core experience. Each of these three gameplay styles is heavily inspired by games that came before it, and the core gameplay loops typical of these genres are well executed and emulated in Destiny. Unfortunately, the game fails to implement most of the conveniences that are common for games in these genres, and this hurts the quality of the final product.

It really does look very pretty, though.

Destiny is an MMO with almost no player interaction: voice chat is disabled by default in most scenarios, and it's very difficult to partner up and communicate with other players. It's also an open world shooter with an almost completely static world: enemies always spawn at the same places in the same numbers, and getting from any one point to another plays out exactly the same way every single time. Finally, it's a competitive shooter without voice chat, skill-based matchmaking or any kind of map voting or veto system.

Without these mechanics in place, each individual element of the experience feels lacking and somehow incomplete. There's no specific rule that a multiplayer shooter needs map voting, but it's something players have come to expect from the genre, and its absence is obvious. The lesson here is that it's important to be careful when imitating others. We must take the time to understand what parts of other games players simply like, and what parts they deem mandatory to their enjoyment of the experience. Missing out on key conveniences and mechanics is often distracting to players, and can even sometimes impair their ability to enjoy a title at all.

Conclusion

Destiny isn't a game that fails in every respect. It has superb shooting mechanics, with great feeling moment-to-moment action. It also looks beautiful and consistently runs smoothly, and the action is complemented by a beautiful score. The game oozes craftsmanship out of nearly every pore, but it fails to impress due to its crippling design weaknesses.

In the end, it goes to show that even a perfectly polished game can fail if its core design philosophies are misplaced.

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