This story is about how Destiny 2 did the exact opposite of what it needed to do to keep me playing, but it does not begin with Destiny.
WHAT KEEPS YOU COMING BACK?
Out of everything around the recent kerfuffle over EA closing Visceral Games and the role that linear, single-player, narrative games have to play in today’s industry, the quote that keeps circling in my head is about creating a ‘broader experience’, specifically, pivoting Visceral’s Star Wars game into “an experience that players will want to come back to and enjoy for a long time to come …” (c/o EA’s website).
As is probably completely justified given the prevailing winds in AAA games, this statement was taken by press and gamers around the Internet to mean that the remnants of Visceral’s Star Wars would become a ‘Destiny-like’ experience. This shift would result in a shared-world, multiplayer adventure structured more after Diablo 3 or Warcraft-adjacent MMOs than after Uncharted, as was originally mooted with the involvement of industry legend Amy Hennig.
At the very least, the closure and pivot indicate a trend away from the linear, story-based games that made Visceral what it was. In 2017 particularly, but for the modern consoles in general, this idea of creating broader worlds (so that players hang onto their discs for longer before selling them back to Gamestop or EB Games) has become so prevalent that forgetting how hostile to single players the bloated, open-world structure has become is easy.
This platform is no place to debate the ballooning budgets of mainstream games, but the fact must be laid bare that the vast majority of OnlySP’s readership—the single players—is more interested in quality than quantity and expense. To name one of many examples, Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice released earlier in the year to rave reviews, and was developed by a little over a dozen people for a fraction of the cost of the most recent Tomb Raider title.
This forceful expansion into bigger open-worlds, into online-only games (which are hostile to single players in a different way, also—just ask anyone living in regional Australia), and into more expensive DLC, all contributes to an anti-single-player spirit, whether the game is multiplayer-only or not. A huge part of single-player gaming is about enjoying an experience with a beginning, middle, and end, then moving on—not coming back day-in and day-out like a professional League of Legends or Overwatch player.
The first Destiny suffered from this spirit. Critics were quick to blame the poorly-constructed narrative and aspects of design that were clearly cobbled together in the wake of whatever happened in 2013, but a story mode does not need a rock-solid plot to deliver fun play (just look at Halo: Combat Evolved). The game needed better levels, more interesting objectives, and relatable characters. Incidentally, take a look at the link above and wonder at the similarities between the death of Visceral Games and the near-death experience that befell the original Destiny. However, the behind-the-scenes is neither here nor there in this story. The reason Destiny 2 left me behind can be traced to how the new game was marketed.
LURED INTO A WORLD WE NEVER MADE
Yes, the original Destiny (borrowing the words of Activision’s main competitor EA) was designed to be “an experience that players will want to come back to.”
Let those words sink in. Online-only or not, this philosophy is about design by quantity, not quality—a type of game that delivers just enough, season after season, to ensure players will not want to sell back their disc and prop up the used-games market after finishing the story. Additionally, the longer the disc stays inside the console, the more time a player has to consider joining the microtransaction economy.
For many gamers, the option to keep playing in the Destiny universe was a new and exciting opportunity, and I begrudge no one for enjoying Destiny. The game, unfortunately, only succeeded at these persistent-world/MMO-style plans in the medium term, thanks to more behind-the-scenes troubles that led to the rebuild and reinvention of the ideas in Destiny 2.
This difficulty is where I and, presumably, other single-player gamers like me, enter into the picture. We may have bounced off Destiny at one point or another, discovering that the campaign was nothing like Halo in scope or execution. However, the sequel was to be different! A greater focus on story, they said, with a more involved and varied campaign!
Shooter fans who were maybe not interested in the MMORPG leanings of Destiny could not simply ignore Bungie’s promises of a better campaign. Like it or not, through the Halo games, Bungie delivered some of the most compelling FPS level designs, vehicle designs, and complex enemy AI ever seen on consoles. That is not even to deny the craftsmanship that was present in the first Destiny—just that single players who were scared off by talk of Raids, Adds, Ults, and Alts were now willing to jump in again with the fresh start suggested by Destiny 2.
Therefore, I did as well and, for starters, I was pleasantly surprised. The world clearly contains MMORPG aspects, but, scattered throughout, were also enticing hints of Dark Souls and the early Far Cry games. The loudest influence, though, was still the spectre of Diablo 3, a game that “can” be played single player, but the enjoyment mileage may vary.
Destiny 2 and Diablo belong to a different world of games, one where even the single-player experience seems to be made for a different kind of fan. Again, in terms of grinding games—these long treks of random loot and slowly growing numbers—plenty of single-player gamers love it and I would never want to take it from them. Nevertheless, grinding for loot is also tied directly to the idea of extending gameplay hours, tied to the idea of a game that “players will want to come back to.”
The spirit of playing many different single-player games, on the other hand, is entirely at odds with the loot grind. Halo: Combat Evolved never needed to keep players coming back; the game was so intrinsically interesting, so compellingly designed, that people would come back anyway.
Take Nintendo’s recent successes with The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild and Super Mario Odyssey as another pair of examples. These games contain as much or more content as Destiny, yet do not need a loot grind so that “players will want to come back.” Mario and Zelda players come back of their own accord, because the game is fun to play. Destiny 2 is also fun to play, because the designers at Bungie know what they are doing, but the real problem is…
DESTINY 2 WOULD RATHER BE CLINGY THAN COMPELLING
To repeat ad nauseum, when a game is fun and we want to play more, gamers will “come back” of their own accord. Halo, Super Mario, Doom, The Legend of Zelda… the list of games with middling-to-mediocre plots is almost as long as the list of classic games. Clearly, cogent plotting is not necessary for gamers to want to keep playing.
Rather, the ‘narrative’ of a classic game is told through a combination of the mechanics, level design, art and, if it really matters, the story. By that measure, the narrative of Destiny 2‘s campaign is pretty good, with plenty of intriguing locations, varied enemy encounters, and creepy background lore. None of it is perfect—particularly the characters, who are all at a sub-Joss Whedon level of alternating obliviousness and snark—but the various elements can serve as a sufficient clothesline on which to hang the incredible shooting mechanics.
This is where my story comes to a head.
I am a single-player gamer.
Willing to give an online-only game a shot for its well-received campaign mode.
Even more willing to stick with it several hours in, because the shooting is just so darn great.
“You must faff around *this much more* before you can play the next mission.”
That is right. Rather than continuing the story in a different direction, or putting the brakes on the pace, my Guardian could not progress to his next (Solar System saving) mission without progressing past an apparently arbitrary rank.
Destiny 2, for all the talk of an improved campaign and its developer’s history of propulsive single-player narratives, grinds to a halt and reveals, irrevocably, a numbers game. A game of grinding, of levels and loot, of co-operative incentives and multiplayer sidequests. I signed up for a ‘story campaign’, and before unlocking the final of the four main planets, the game threw up a number saying I could not continue until I engaged with the MMORPG elements.
My story could not just start with Destiny 2 because it is tied up in the evolution of single-player content and the market trend of shared-world and open-world games. I was happily on board, a willing single-player mark for Bungie and Activision’s shared-world shooter. However, rather than continue to engage the imagination, Destiny 2 straight up told me that I was not playing enough of the game that I was playing at that very moment.
Bungie and Activision had my money, but what they really wanted was my time. This twist of the arm, this friendly headlock, was enough to make me drop the game entirely. I do not feel resentful toward players of MMOs, or of Destiny in particular, for the loot-grinding fun that they get out of such games—but if I personally am to spend dozens of hours in a videogame, it must be fun.
You might be left wondering, ‘what makes the open-world of Destiny 2 so different from the open-world of a modern JRPG or even the world map of a 1990s RPG that requires level-grinding to cross without getting pummeled by mountain trolls?’
Dear reader, grinding is by no means unfashionable, but it comes from a time when file sizes and development teams were so small that forcing replay of content was a means of padding out a story to make it seem bigger and more developed. Some of the truly great RPGs that stand the test of time are those that have limited grinding to a minimum, such as Chrono Trigger or much of Bioware’s pre-Dragon Age 2 output.
A developer like Bungie, backed by a publisher such as Activision, and on systems as relatively mighty as the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One, does not need to encourage or enforce grinding as a mechanic. Even if they do, grinding is the last thing we want to do in our first-person shooter campaigns.