It was always going to be difficult to deliver with Season of the Wish. Destiny 2’s playerbase already knows the end result: they will enter the Traveler and face the Witness. Guardians have also experienced some great seasonal activities with Deep Dives and Altars of Summoning. And yet Bungie has managed to weave together narrative threads several years in the making, while delivering a pinnacle seasonal activity in the form of The Coil. But this didn’t spring up from nowhere, and it certainly wasn’t wished into existence, it required a labor of love from the team at Bungie. A recent roundtable Q&A with the developers afforded me an insight into this development process, with the developers offering their thoughts on the entire season and giving us a hint at what players might expect moving forward.
One of the difficulties of a season like Season of the Wish is that players know how the story will ultimately end. The challenge then comes in the form of creating a story that still surprises the player so that while the outcome is known, the steps that you must take to get there become as interesting as possible.
Nikko Stevens, Senior Narrative Designer, had a bit to say about this, given that he has worked on all of the season that had the ending of the DLC revealed. “It is difficult to not have that climactic moment at your disposal. But you kind of have to change your perspective a little bit on how you're telling that story.” Stevens goes on to say that it’s important not to think of it as a conclusion, but as a ramp up to the new expansion.
“Yeah, we know we’re going through the portal and we’re going to confront the Witness at some point,” Stevens said. “But we didn’t know about Taranis and we didn’t know that Mara was going to change her mind about keeping her hands wrapped as tightly around Crow as possible.”
Instead of some major revelation at the end of the season, it’s seems as though Bungie is taking the opportunity to provide smaller, more frequent reveals, while planting seeds for potential story threads to come. This harkens back to the narrative decisions of introducing elements that aren’t exhaustively explored and are instead left with some horizons not travelled or some doors left locked for future use.
This is where the clutch of Ahamkara eggs comes into play. While this was the end for Riven, the team explored the idea of what if it wasn’t the end for the Ahamkara. Now players have this situation whereby the Ahamakara will likely come back and bring with them all the chaos that comes with these reality- and logic-defying beasts.
There’s another aspect of the narrative creation that must be considered when dealing with characters, and that’s taking how they appear in the lore and transforming it into something that matches the player fantasy.
“Once a character leaves the infinite possibility space of prose lore, you have to start collaborating hard with design, art, and engineering to present lore characters in a way that fits the player fantasy,” Jonathan To, Narrative Lead said. For a character like Riven, who is capable of granting reality-bending wishes, the trick was melding this concept together with another players might be used to: cheat codes.
“Riven’s wishing wall kind of works as a gameplay conceit for the player to interact with,” To continued, noting that players literally put in a code. “Cheat codes can kind of be seen as a gaming metaphor for wishing for what you want.”
There’s this idea at Bungie about creating characters that are enduring, lasting longer than the time that they were introduced. The likes of Riven, Oryx, and even Calus are some that were created with the understanding that they are bigger than the first time you meet them, that they will return to continue or expand the Destiny story.
Other than the content of the story, the discussion touched on the overall structure. While players can still expect the story quality to remain high, Bungie has heard the audience loud and clear that the format has become predictable. “We're working on a number of things right now that we can't explicitly share, but that involve changing up the structure so that we can pleasantly surprise you guys more frequently in the future,” To said.
The problem of predictability comes from Bungie creating formats that allow developers to move quickly. It’s a multifaceted issue where a lot of competing desires collide. Players want more content, faster, and in order to do that Bungie needs to have consistency in its design process. When the team creates a framework for how content should be made, it makes it easier to produce said content quickly, because everyone is on the same page. However, this inevitably creates predictability. The developers recognize this and it sounds like they’re working to surprise and delight players. “Injecting more variability into those frameworks is something that we’ve been talking about and learning about,” Stevens concluded.
Over the past few seasons, it’s become obvious that Bungie is perfecting its rogue-lite modes in the game. The Coil is quite clearly an evolution of the mode that started back with Deep Dives (or even potentially The Menagerie). The developers offered some valuable insight into how the team approached designing The Coil and what lessons it took from Deep Dives.
It’s not typically a good idea to take decisions away from players, giving them less agency, but it definitely worked in The Coil. Back in Deep Dives, players would have to manually increase the difficulty of the activity in-game. If it wasn’t a unanimous agreement, the challenge did not increase. This led to a lot of player friction where some wanted the challenge for greater rewards while others were just there to get the job done. Bungie purposefully removed this decision making process, opting to weave it into the core gameplay: complete a layer and the experience gets harder. “The difficulty is directly related to how well you're doing and has nothing to do with players wanting to do it or not wanting to do it,” Stevens said. “Can you [succeed]? Then there you go. You’re rewarded for it.”
It’s impressive that each new season introduces a brand new activity for players to experience, despite the intense deadlines. For Clayton Kisko, Staff Designer, he thinks the team has proven that they’re up to the task of iterating on a concept and delivering it within the tight turnaround. “We've learned that we can experiment and we can take educated risks within our seasonal production timeline, which is a lot smaller and we have to be a lot quicker,” Kisko said. “It shows that we can create the best version of an activity, get feedback, iterate, and then build on that success and we plan to continue to do stuff like that.”
The proof is in the pudding with The Coil. It’s evident that the team has pushed the concept of a rogue-lite forward since its inception in Destiny 2 a few seasons ago. The game went from not clearly showing players the available buffs, to having an actual vendor with a rotating stock of buffs with various price points.
Then there’s the added difficulty of revive tokens. These were originally planned to be in Deep Dives, but Bungie pulled back because the team didn’t feel it was the right time. For Kisko, he sees the revive tokens as something that maybe some players haven’t experienced before, unless they’ve ran Grandmaster Nightfalls. It’s almost like an introduction for newer players into the idea of managing a finite resource whilst under pressure from overwhelming odds. It seems as though this ties into the idea of adding difficulty back into Destiny 2.
Probably one of the biggest conversation pieces of this roundtable Q&A was that of the new dungeon, Warlord’s Ruin. As far as new dungeon experiences go, this one has been received extremely well. The activity manages to take players to a place not often explored, offers insight into events that happened long ago, and even sets up some story beats for the future.
For Warlord’s Ruin, Bungie wanted to take this to an extreme dark fantasy place while still making the setting feel really grounded. “We brainstormed a lot of amazing ideas,” Ryan Baker, Environmental Artist, said. “Part of the art direction process was taking all of those ideas, the setting and really focusing it into clear themes we could communicate to the players.” Sieging a castle, climbing a mountain, and finding secrets were the overarching themes that the designers wanted to hit.
Continuing on from this, it’s also important for the narrative team to consider how it fits within the reality of Destiny 2. For Warlord’s Ruin, the team had to consider various implications. “What are the narrative constraints of what does it mean to build a castle and how does that fit into Destiny's timeline?” Brian Frank, Design Team Lead, asks. “What characters would or wouldn't be there and so forth.”
But it’s not just why or how a piece of environment exists, it’s also important for Bungie to consider how it relates to the overarching narrative. The trick, though, is to ensure it’s not “essential viewing”. Players shouldn’t have to play a dungeon to understand the core concepts and story beats of the main campaign, instead, it should reward players that like to dig deeper and search for clues.
To that end, the dungeons are often a chance for the narrative team to plant some seeds. “The narrative does in some way kind of tip its hat forward to something that is coming,” Stevens said. “I think if you look back at most of the dungeon narratives, you'll see that many of them had kind of heralded things that came after.” The same can be said for Warlord’s Ruin. As for what these nods and seeds are, perhaps Myelin has some thoughts.
It’s not just the narrative that has a lot of thought go into it, the mechanics and how they tie to the theme of the season is also critical. By having the dungeon take place during Season of the Wish, it allowed the team to use things like wishes for the mechanics. Sometimes, though, even the designers surprise each other when it comes to creating new mechanics.
“There was a room one of our designers set aside where she had just thrown a bunch of [Scorn] in there and didn't tell us what they did,” Amanda Baker, Test Engineer, said. “It turned into us playing a game of tag with [the Scorn] and having like a wild time because we were trying to figure out what they were doing.” The challenge was then to learn how to communicate this mechanic with the player while still fitting it within the theme of the dungeon.
All the pieces continued to fall together neatly. Baker said that the blizzard from the second encounter was ripped straight out of Europa, but that it makes sense to have that at the top of a mountain. Meanwhile, the fires used to warm and protect the player make logical sense not just because the Scorn use fire but because torches and bonfires fit snuggly within the fantasy theme.
Another interesting element from the Warlord’s Ruin dungeon is the iconic experience of taking a boss and turning it into a rank and file enemy. For Frank, there was a goal of creating a corrupted knight character as a boss and then surprising the player by having it be just a regular combatant they now need to deal with in each encounter.
To wrap it up, I wanted to know how the developers respond to a delay like The Final Shape received. While they couldn’t provide too much detail, Jonathan To did chime in that the team “started to scramble” and add to the season. The good news is that there’s more to come with Riven’s Wishes and Moments of Triumph and then Guardian Games as well as “other stuff” coming before The Final Shape launches.
But beyond Season of the Wish, To reiterated that the team will be striving to change the structure as he “understands that the format has become a bit predictable” but that the team will continue to maintain its writing quality while working on delivering the story in “new and more subtle ways”.
From an activity perspective, Kisko notes that the team will be continuing to experiment, iterate, and build on the stuff they’ve learned. This also applies to the investment systems. So far, the experimentation has paid off with the ways in which Bungie has let players interact with the game through Deep Dives, Deck of Whispers, and now the true rogue-lite, The Coil.
While the year that was Lightfall had its ups and downs, the team has managed to receive feedback, apply changes, and iterate on core concepts and ideas to deliver some great experiences. With The Final Shape set to arrive on June 4, 2024, Bungie still has several months before players experience the conclusion of the Light and Darkness saga and see what lies ahead in the new Episodes format. The team very clearly understand the need for fresh experiences, to delight and surprise players, and to deliver high quality writing and activities. Only they know what lies ahead for Destiny 2, and they all seemed super excited, so that’s good news in my books.