How Several Subtle Features Pulled Me Back to Destiny 2
I was a lapsed Destiny 2 player...until now
For a long while, I've been what's considered a 'lapsed' player of Destiny 2. When the game originally shipped, I bought into it with enthusiasm for Bungie's sequel. But it wasn't long until I felt worn out and found myself playing other games.
From then out, I was on the sidelines, really. Once you're off Destiny 2's train, it's difficult to get back on. There's an abundance of seasonal updates and expansions, and it tends to feel like you're behind. Not only that, but many activities are quite tightly level-gated, so it's difficult to get back to participate with the rest of the community right away.
I would usually check in every now and then, usually dropping out soon after an honestly mixed or bad experience. Despite this, the current season is one of the first that I might actually see through to completion. A combination of long-awaited changes and quality-of-life adjustments have removed a lot of my common pain points and helped me engage with the game for a longer time.
I find it interesting that such a large and complex game can meaningfully change the player experience with what are relatively small changes. As a case study, it's worth looking at Destiny's style of live service design and how Bungie has addressed some long-term player frustrations to create a better experience.
Iron Banner for everyone
Historically the Iron Banner activity is a PvP activity that rewards you with valuable armour and weapons, helping you progress your light level forward. The problem is that in the past the Iron Banner has been a PvP mode where player efficacy scales with their light level. Higher-level players deal more damage and take less damage.
As a lapsed player, you might be tempted to participate in the Iron Banner, only to find yourself stuck in lobbies where you deal very little damage to your opponent. It's truthfully, a miserable experience and it's easy to see why any new or returning players might be frustrated while participating.
Destiny veterans would simply say that you shouldn't play Iron Banner if you're not at the right light level. And that certainly appears to be the design intention, but given that the activity is only around for a limited period, it ends up being the central activity for that period, thus attracting a huge proportion of the community. This leaves new players left out of the activity, and left out of the surrounding discourse.
Not only that but even if you're not at the right light level, there's nothing to prevent you from participating and taking the Pinnacle rewards with you. Even if you're having a miserable time, Iron Banner was a great way to level up. It's just whether your interest in Destiny 2 will survive the experience.
Even when I recognised this fact and decided I didn't want to participate in the Iron Banner activity, it was hard to hold back. Due to the fact that it's a limited-time event that only comes by once in a while, most of my Destiny friends wanted to participate, and they wanted me to join them. Even when pushing back, they'd remind me of all the rewards I could attain by sucking it up and taking part.
In my case, I felt that Iron Banner created a harmful loop that pushed me away from the game. As a lapsed player I would come back under-levelled, play Iron Banner, and level up a bit while having a terrible time, then leave having no desire to continue playing Destiny 2.
The change here in Destiny's Witch Queen expansion is a simple one. Bungie has removed the light-level advantages for the Iron Banner activity. Instead of having a miserable time either participating at a disadvantage or avoiding the mode and feeling left out, everyone can participate and gain rewards in the activity on a level playing field. Instead of an activity that encourages churn, Iron Banner became an activity that helps lapsed players catch up.
Reliable incentives through a new weapon crafting system
Weapon crafting is a new feature that was introduced with the Witch Queen expansion, but it wasn't until its second season, Season of the Haunted that I really came to appreciate the impact that weapon crafting is having on the game.
To contextualise things a bit, I should highlight that I do enjoy Destiny 2's PvP, at least in short bursts. While I engage in all of the PvE activities in my own time, I have good bursts of fun taking the equipment and builds to face off against other players.
The difficulty is that all of the interactions between gear, and the random nature of the loot rewards, creates some balance issues. For instance, having a legendary weapon with a great range roll can make the difference between killing in three shots or four, and that can be a deal-breaker. The design isn't the problem in itself, but if players feel they can't attain the same items as the players who are killing them, it's easy to see how that sparks a sense of unfairness leading to frustration.
So it's easy to get stuck, on an eternal grind for a theoretical perfect roll with an idea that you'll get to play PvP later. I just need to sort my build out, get the best guns, the best armour, and then I'll play what I want to play. But as is the nature of the random number generator, those rolls don't always drop, and you can burn out grinding for something with no end in sight.
The weapon crafting system, for the most part, puts an end to that. You can't craft a weapon out of the gate, it requires you to play the game for a while and collect special deep-sighted weapons and then complete their attunement, but with enough time everyone is able to craft the weapon that they want to use.
For PvP, it means it's just that much easier and more consistent to get a weapon set that you're happy with. It still rewards the time that players put into their PvE activities, while ultimately leveling the playing field so that everyone can participate with a relatively fair playing field.
But it's not just PvP that this change affects, it's also the game's reward loop broadly. Previously it was easy to burn out on Destiny, pursuing a drop that could take you either 10 minutes to attain, or over a thousand hours. While Bungie had made an effort to tie exotics to questing, attaining legendary weapons and armour has always been subject to a great deal of chance.
From a psychology perspective, the crafting system moves the experience away from a variable reward reinforcement schedule and ends up as a hybrid between a fixed and variable reward schedule. Yes, you can still get lucky and drop the gun you want very early, but the crafting system also rewards long-term investment quite consistently. I really think this cuts down on player burnout, and in turn helps Bungie with retention, as players are less likely to get fatigued grinding towards a goal with no clear endpoint.
Letting PvE builds run wild
For the longest time, a common complaint in Destiny's discourse has been that it's difficult to balance a game for both PvP and PvE. Don't get me wrong, things aren't perfect now, but the more complex build crafting and seasonal mod system allows Bungie to introduce short-term effects that only impact one aspect of the game.
For instance, just before Witch Queen, we had Season of the Lost which introduced a mod called Particle Deconstruction. This mod significantly buffed the damage from Fusion rifles, but it only worked in PvE. This might not sound all that remarkable but in Destiny's loot sandbox, it's a big deal.
Weapons and armour have perks and special attributes, and almost universally, those work across both PvE and PvP. There are occasional variations in how they function, but by and large, there is considerable consistency between the two, and this makes it quite difficult to balance the two. Adding a very strong perk for PvE can inadvertently become a nightmare to deal with in PvE, while adding strong perks for PvP can make weapons useless in PvE.
So it's quite a game-changer to have mods that are only applicable to one mode, but not the other. Season of the Lost saw Fusion rifles dominate the PvE space, but the mod didn't affect the balance against other players. This allows Bungie to create seasonal mods that make players feel powerful and allow for creative interactions in PvE, without completely ruining the experience for everyone in PvP.
Plus, the seasonal nature of these mods (they are only available to use for 3 months) helps ensure that even if Bungie does make something completely overpowered in PvE, it doesn't overstay its welcome and stagnate the meta. Next season there's a new set of mods that will change player priorities once again.
In terms of the player experience, this means that Destiny can allow everyone to feel powerful and that their build decisions are more impactful. At the same time, the system allows Bungie the freedom to do so without adversely affecting the player's sense of fairness in the game's PvP modes.
With so many options, Destiny is never going to be a balanced game for players wanting to get competitive. However, the seasonal mods that only affect one side of the game do help Bungie inject diverse ways to play without continuously and potentially adversely affecting the competitive balance.
This system does have its downsides. It can feel like players are on an endless grind with many of their rewards taken away from them at the end of a season. But with sunsetting removed, players do get to keep all their weapons and armour, and I think the benefits to diverse build crafting that this system affords makes it worthwhile on the whole.
Opportunities to Disengage
This isn't a new feature of Destiny, but I think it's one that's become more prominent as the game's activities and locations have become more diverse. To explain this, I should contextualise my gaming experience and disclose that I am quite prone to playing games excessively, and potentially unhealthily at times.
I think that many players are, and I think that one of the key factors that helps me disengage relates to how the game presents its decision points. Consider games like Apex Legends or Rocket League, games that really thrive on the 'one more game' style of encouragement. These games aim to reduce the number of decisions the player is making between each activity so that players do not think before rolling into another game.
It's one of the key mechanisms that make things like social media so addictive. It's so easy to continuously scroll on Twitter or TikTok when you're in the loop and there's never a moment to breathe, it's just more and more content until you realise you've spent far more time than you perhaps originally wanted to spend.
For someone that has this difficulty managing their time and attention, something I've come to appreciate is how Destiny gives me a moment to think. Specifically, Destiny's bounty system encourages players to go back to the tower or pick up more bounties before they engage in another activity. Additionally, the emphasis on diminished returns per activity helps encourage players to shift what they're doing as they play. Yes, you can keep grinding the Seasonal Activity over and over, but it might be more productive to get your weekly Pinnacle from the Crucible, Dungeon, or Raid.
I'm skeptical as to whether this style of design is in fact, intentional. It seems unlikely and is instead just a byproduct of Bungie designing the game that they want to make. But it's something that I wanted to spotlight because, for me, this is something that helps me disengage.
People always describe Destiny as a grind, as a tremendous time sink, and I agree that it can be that, but for me, it's one that's a little easier to disengage from when I want to. The time doesn't fly by quite so easily, or at least not so easily without my awareness. That's not to say that the game doesn't encourage players to spend a lot of their time overall; it does, but I appreciate the natural breaks in its gameplay loop that give me a moment to consider whether I want to continue playing for the day or check in again tomorrow.
In the grand scheme of things, none of these features are really that dramatic. Destiny 2 is still fundamentally the same game that it used to be, and the same game that I've virtually ignored for the past 3 years. This makes it all the more interesting to me, that these small changes can have such a significant impact on my overall player experience. Whether I'll stick with Destiny 2 for the long haul remains to be seen, but I've already given it more than I expected.
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