Opinion: How Destiny can fix its end-game

Bungie has started to take steps in the right direction by listening to fan feedback on Destiny, but the core gameplay loop at the endgame is still fundamentally broken. Here's how they can fix it.

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Bungie has cast its lot in with Destiny for the long haul. Not only will it be iterating in some fashion for years to come, as per its long-term agreement with Activision, the initial offering is sure to receive regular updates and downloadable content. Bungie has already detailed a patch aimed squarely at addressing a widespread complaint about item randomization, but that raises the question of whether the core problems are too endemic for Bungie to fix with such minor changes.

First, let me define the terms. When I talk of fixing or saving Destiny, I'm not saying that Destiny is a bad game at its core. My review called it an ambitious idea that falls short of its goals, and I stand by that. It's fundamentally solid, and the moment-to-moment combat is fun and engaging. It's the end-game that's severely lacking, in ways that will be difficult to address without seriously rethinking its approach. And as luck would have it, that's the part of the game Bungie intended to last the longest for players.

Bungie assured both professional reviewers and casual fans alike that Destiny really comes to life after you've reached the level cap. Despite this being the kind of pat assurance that follows a lot of MMOs, it seemed reasonable enough. Weeks after its release, many players have reached the level cap, and they aren't seeing a game that's coming to life. They see it grinding to a halt.

Progression is simply too slow once you reach level 20, and this is likely by design. Far from being the point at which the game comes into its own, this is where it stops being fun. Playing the same strike zones to ultimately shoot at bullet-sponge bosses, all in hopes of maybe-hopefully gaining a Legendary engram, feels like work. 

It's no wonder that Bungie and Destiny players are locked in a battle of wills, the former group patching and removing easy loot spots as the latter finds new ones to farm. Shooting at a cave for five hours may not be how Bungie intended us to play Destiny, but it was far and away more enjoyable, and yields greater rewards than double that time in strike zones. If the studio wants this game to last, forcing slow and repetitive progression is the wrong way to go about it.

Bungie has signaled a willingness to make significant changes based on fan feedback. The recent 1.0.2 patch alters the random element of decoding engrams. Previously, players could take a Legendary (purple) engram to the Cryptarch and it would almost certainly be decoded into a Rare (blue). Given that Legendary equipment is the best way to boost your soft level past the hard cap of 20, players felt frustrated to find the promise of such equipment was taken away by random chance.

After the update, purple now always yields purple or better, and blue always yields blue or better. The random element, Bungie says, was inserted to add an element of fun and mystery, but there's nothing fun about disappointment. The random element remains in place, but the promise that engrams will be decoded at their level or better means any surprises will be positive ones. 

The studio was even self-effacing about the change. "Cayde-6 took the Cryptarch aside and showed him a sack of doorknobs," read the update notes. "He decoded that mystery pretty quickly."

    This is a step in the right direction, albeit baffling that the original implementation ever passed muster during internal tests. The update is also said to increase the drops of rare and legendary engrams during Daily, Weekly, and Tiger Playlist activities. All of this is clearly meant to entice players more toward the intended gameplay aspects, and away from farming habits. We can't say yet whether the rewards those yield will be consistent enough to make the time investment worthwhile.

    However, this speaks to a more endemic problem that may not be within the scope of updates. In the late game, players are grinding for loot because they want higher levels, not because the game itself changes in any particularly significant way at that point. Access to Raids is nice, but what then? The circular nature of a loot grind is present in plenty of games, but it's especially apparent in one like Destiny. Better loot can only go towards beating harder versions of the same handful of bullet-sponge bosses you've already taken down. This is a common trope for RPGs, but a more active first-person shooter style, the lack of variety is much more pronounced. 

    The nature of Destiny's combat system is very similar to Halo's, which is no surprise. It's built for numbers, not mass. Relying on your arsenal to take down swarms of enemies is fun. Emptying your clip into a huge beast in the center of the room 20 or so times isn't. That's why the initial campaign is so much more satisfying than the end-game. While the campaign has you plow through stages of foot soldiers and occasionally caps the festivities with a boss, the content after level 20 makes the grunts incidental and the bosses themselves the center of attention.

    Those factors together mean that players are forced to grind for loot by taking on dull bosses, all so they can hope to gain better gear to use against dull bosses. Without a more compelling way to gain loot, and more interesting encounters to use it against once we have it, the gameplay loop that Bungie attempted to design is broken at its core.

    The circle can be repaired to some extent. If Bungie makes more interesting strike zone missions, ones that aren't simply more time-consuming versions of ones we've already played, it will go a long way towards enticing players to take part. It could give us random assortments of enemies in randomized areas. It could let the grunts drop the epic loot more often, so that a single run through one of these enemy-heavy strike zones actually yields rewards. It could even take better account of the frequency of your drops for pacing purposes. Fixes exist, if Bungie does them right.

    Most importantly, these changes can't be relegated to the paid downloadable content. That content has to be additive for players who want to pay extra, not required for anyone who bought the game to continue enjoying it. Repairing the gameplay loop needs to be targeted at everyone, while the DLC serves to add extras like areas and subclasses.

    We know Bungie is listening, and we have a fairly clear image of how the studio could make Destiny's end-game a more compelling package. Some damage has already been done from word-of-mouth, but given its contrition over the Cryptarch, it's willing to admit mistakes and move on. If it does that soon related to these more fundamental game elements, Destiny could live on for quite a while.

    Editor-In-Chief
    From The Chatty
    • reply
      October 1, 2014 11:25 AM

      Steve Watts posted a new article, Opinion: How Destiny can fix its end-game.

      Bungie has started to take steps in the right direction by listening to fan feedback on Destiny, but the core gameplay loop at the endgame is still fundamentally broken. Here's how they can fix it.

      • reply
        October 1, 2014 11:51 AM

        Everything you said. I said the minute I reached level 20 and realized what I needed to do next. I told everyone about what needed to be fixed and MOST importantly that it needed to be fixed for EVERYONE and NOT through paid expansions nor paid DLC if they have any hopes or redeeming themselves. Competition is fierce this holiday season and already Shadows of Mordor has taken away some Destiny players. COD, The Evil Within all will keep chewing away at them. SSB is also coming down the pike.

        Destiny's core mechanics keep it afloat, but for how long?
        This broken end game smells of Activision. I have flashbacks of StarCraft II all over again.

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          October 1, 2014 7:01 PM

          Wow, you said it first? Like, before the entire internet? You should be a game designer and create the next Skyrim with guns or something.

      • reply
        October 1, 2014 11:56 AM

        nothing fun about disappointment Sure, there is, as long as it's not your disappointment.

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        October 1, 2014 1:55 PM

        no idea why they didn't add random "named" mobs ala Diablo2, Diablo3, Path of Exile or any other sort of gear based grinding game..

        So far this is a pretty sub par game...

        Bungie looks like they're out of gas...

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          October 1, 2014 2:11 PM

          I guess they lost their halo.

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          October 1, 2014 7:04 PM

          I don't get why they didn't add in more bounty missions. Or even mix them up a bit so they are actually interesting.

          Even more random level events would be cool. Some of the best moments for me in the game are when some random event occurs and everyone teams up to help out.

          There is just such a lack of interesting content in this game. It's like they spent the last 5 or so years making the levels look cool, without creating some meaty gameplay content.

          A year or so from now the game should hopefully have a bit more bulk to it, but right now it is just so incredibly lacking.

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        October 1, 2014 6:59 PM

        Well written and I agree with a lot of it.

        I guess my frustration with the game isn't with any one thing. It's lots of little annoyances that made me not enjoy playing it. I finished the story, but had no desire whatsoever to grind for gear. I didn't see a lot of variation in the main story. It was the same thing over and over again.

        I am not sure how they keep it going for very long if the content doesn't come quickly. I bore easily, but I would imagine even many of the more loot driven gamers will get tired of doing the same thing over and over again.

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        October 1, 2014 11:25 PM

        Enjoying the multiplayer but gradually losing interest in the game overall.

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        October 2, 2014 9:14 AM

        I don't understand why people say that the game grinds to a halt after 20. Are people just not thinking ahead about what they want to do? The second I hit 20 I hit up the Dead Orbit rep for a Titan mark and starting grinding my way towards the Dead Orbit armor set. People need to realize that they can actually get shit to level them past 20 very easily, instead of whining about loot drops and Rahool dicking them over.

      • reply
        October 2, 2014 12:15 PM

        So what is the incentive to play it now? It seems like I should just put Destiny of the shelf for a few months and let this all get sorted out. If Bungie really is listening to everybody then I'm guessing a lot of things will be fixed as time goes on. I'm betting somebody playing this six months from now can get all the gear that people are grinding for now in a fraction of the time.