Have you noticed that Bungie’s Destiny doesn’t seem quite right? Well, come in to video game design 101, and lets take a look at how Destiny doesn’t make the grade.
Hype is one of the most dangerous and destructive forces in the industry. In many ways, it’s important if a publisher wants to move copies of a game, but there is a dangerous balance involved. Too much hype will lead to a backlash so fierce that a game, series, and even developers themselves will get a massive amount of backlash. This happened to Final Fantasy XIII, it happened to Watch Dogs and it seems to be happening with Bungie’s latest science fiction behemoth, Destiny. But it’s not just hype that damages a game. There must be that other force that pulls gamers out of the experience enough to notice the problems. This, internet, is called shoddy game design. I respect Bungie for their work in the past, but Destiny is a game that is full of shoddy design, baffling choices, and an unbearably faint glimmer of light buried under ten tons of grey, boring crud. That’s the biggest problem with Destiny. It’s not a bad game, not even close. However, it almost seems like Bungie went out of its way to make every bad choice possible in order to make the game as tedious and unfun as possible. So, today, I want to look at the subject of game design and see why Destiny is a train wreck from that regard.
I want to start off with something basic. One of the goals of video games, especially multiplayer games that favour gameplay over narrative, is to make it easy and, I dare say, fun to get to different missions. Sidescrollers did this automatically. Multiplayer shooters have a simple click a mode followed by a wait in a lobby. Destiny gets bogged down with unnecessary menus that make moving between areas a huge chore. The default is your ship on a screen orbiting a planet. Okay. Let’s say you want to play a mission on the moon. First you drag your cursor, which acts like a mouse, meaning it isn’t instant despite this feature having no advantage, only acting to slow down the selection process. Anyway, you select ‘select destination’. This opens up a map of the solar system with different planet names on it.
Once again, you scroll over to the planet you want, in his case the moon, and click on it again. Then you have to select the particular mission on the moon, once again by scrolling over it. After selecting the mission, you are brought back to the orbiting spaceship screen with a countdown in place. Underneath the countdown is a prompt in case you want to cancel out. After the countdown is complete, you go to a lengthy loading screen before the mission finally loads.
Why is the simple process of selecting a mission such a chore? You don’t need that first screen. Trust me, nobody bought Destiny to watch their ship hover. You don’t need that last screen either. When you’ve selected your mission, you shouldn’t have to wait with a countdown asking you whether or not this was really the mission you wanted. That cancel button irks me. After the process of selecting a mission, I really don’t want to cancel, trust me. Things should be quick and easy. Menus are a necessary evil. Nobody wants to be stuck in them, so why make the process of navigating menus more difficult and time consuming? There is no immersion in the mission-selecting process, but the slow scrawl of the cursor seems to think it’s doing something special.
This has severe consequences to gameplay. Destiny is, in many ways, a loot and shoot game. A lot of it focuses on getting new pieces of equipment from missions, chests and multiplayer. However, when you get a powerful piece of equipment, it has to be identified like in Diablo II. Now, in that game you could carry identification scrolls or town portal back to town in a split second in order to unwrap your new gem. In this game, you have to go through the tedious mission selection process because the hub also counts as a mission. After getting to the hub, you have to find the vendor who will identify the item. Then he’ll identify it, but, to check it out you’ll have to go back to your inventory, instead of it being revealed to you on the vendor screen. And each item that you want identified takes a single click versus being able to identify all of them at once.
I get that what Bungie wanted was the raise tension and excitement for rare pieces of equipment. However, it doesn’t work. Items never offer a massive, game-changing boost. They are all minor variations on the same very limited selection of guns. Yes, this scout rifle may have a few tweaks that make it slightly better than that other scout rifle, but, in the end, they handle and work exactly the same, only with bigger numbers attached to it. There’s not much to be excited for. Because of this, I often find myself skipping out on upgrading my gear. The difference is so little, and you get so few new pieces of loot, that it’s not worth heading back to town for each and every piece of rare equipment. If Bungie was trying to make the system enticing, they failed. There’s no reason why the rare item can’t be identifiable on the spot. A trip back to the hub world to identify items may make the hub more important, but it’s a hollow artificial place anyway.
A hub is supposed to be a place in big online games where players can meet and have some fun with each other. The fact that they are invaluable is only part of why they are so important. It’s the social aspect that makes hubs vital. However, Destiny’s massive lack of social features guts this down to the absolute bare minimum. And there’s not really any other good reason for a hub, especially one as lifeless as the one in Destiny. Looking at the hub, less as an MMO town and more as a traditional RPG town, the design fails as well. There are a few shopkeepers with laughably limited inventories of levelled loot, most of which is totally inaccessible until later levels.
They offer no conversation and do nothing to expand the universe. It’s a sad state when I’d rather do all of this through menus than experience the game world. While the mission levels of Destiny are often beautiful to look at, the hub is a generic, ugly place that is almost completely devoid of any activity. It’s a lobby, not a real location and, even then, the vendors are spaced in a very inconvenient way, forcing you to run long stretches of nothing before you can barter with them.
Let’s get to the missions themselves now. Each mission starts off in the same planetary overworld with a marker pointing you to the specific area that you need to go to in order to complete the mission. As part of this, there are other people around doing their own missions and whatnot. Unfortunately, the communication available between players is so bad, meeting a player is a ‘two ships passing in the nigh’ situation and almost never results in anything special. And the server sizes seem so small that you won’t really meet to many players anyway. The overworlds are big and beautiful, but hollow. There is very little incentive to explore with respawning enemies every which way, and unimpressive loot in fancy chests hidden in certain nooks. You’ll never find anything special. In fact, the game goes out of its way to stop you from slowing down and smelling the roses. With the exception of patrol missions, which just put you in the sandbox, all missions herd you along with a objective marker, never encouraging you to stray too far or explore on your own.
And why is this? Why create interesting overworlds in the first place if every single mission is designed in such a way to grab your hand an lead you through closed objectives without ever giving you a reason to go out and explore? It almost feels like Bungie choked at the last second and put in the rigid mission system because they were afraid that casual gamers would complain about not being able to find out where to go, not realizing that by doing so, they were sabotaging the design of their overworlds entirely. The mission areas themselves are large and sprawling, but you’re always encouraged to turn from the winding road and onto the straight path. For the mavericks out there that don’t follow the objective arrow and like to explore, the few, unimpressive pieces of equipment they find won’t fill their exploration cup to its fullest.
Then there’s where Bungie breaks the cardinal rule of game design. There’s only one really important thing that game developers need to do – keep gamers playing. If a gamer wants to play your game, you’ve succeeded, and you want them to be playing it as much as possible. Every once and awhile in Destiny you’ll unlock something called a grimoire card. I don’t know what they are, because the game doesn’t tell you. Instead, it says to go to Bungie’s website to find out more. In other words, the game told me that it unlocked something cool, but I now have to stop playing and go to Bungie’s website to even find out what it is. And you unlock these grimoire cards frequently. Why on Earth, the Moon, Venus and Mars would Bungie decide to entice players to stop playing their game? Even the most novice of game developers know this is a very bad thing to do.
The big problem is that this game wasn’t designed with a coherent vision of exactly what it was. It wanted to be something that crossed genres, creating a completely new genre itself, but it had no idea how to go about doing that. As such, it ends up being a cobbled together mass of design elements from other genres. Unfortunately, not one person in Bungie seemed to have noticed that these elements don’t go well together. They have the MMO-style town and coop loot and shoot item philosophy, but the mission design isn’t made for many players, in fact, you can’t even have more than three people in your squad normally. The worlds are big, but you’re always set down the most linear, single player shooter path possible. The meagre upgrade loot that you get only works when you are bathed in it. Games like Diablo, or Borderlands throw new equipment, really amazing equipment, at you all the time. Destiny keeps back its new stuff, and what you get is highly unimaginative.
Similarly, the elements taken from single player shooters don’t mesh well with the MMO elements. You see, in single player shooters, you will often have this huge, dynamic set pieces with special challenges built into the design of the areas themselves. Bungie’s Destiny is simply a collection of large areas. There’s no interesting wow moment, just a lot of the same. Speaking of which, the vast majority of story missions end with you fighting off waves of enemies as Peter Dinklage bot does the same scanning procedure he is contractually obligated to do every single level. There’s no fun here, only routine, and routine gets boring very fast. It got so bad that I was actually surprised when a mission didn’t end this way. Of course, those missions still end with zero aplomb, so it wasn’t much better.
Now, we have to discuss the story. Some games like Metal Gear Solid are story heavy, deciding that their narrative is worth breaking up gameplay. Others, like Borderlands try to integrate story seamlessly into the basic gameplay without taking too many breaks. The advantage with the former approach is that you’re able to create a much bigger world and build much more gravitas to the situation. The latter approach means that the gameplay doesn’t ever get interrupted for too long. Both can be done well, providing interesting and powerful stories and memorable characters. Destiny seems to want to do the gameplay integration approach, but it still wants to have a huge, massive mythology. Unfortunately, that mythology is completely useless if players don’t know about it.
Instead of building a tightly woven universe, Bungie decided to just dump meaningless sequiturs on the player. You get a bunch of factions with no sense or explanation between the vast majority of them, no less how they work in conjunction with each other. Then there’s all sorts of ruined temples, artifacts, AIs, and the like that you, the player, is never brought into the loop for. Peter Dinklage bot simply shouts out a bunch of words that are gibberish to the player, thinking that if he says enough technobabble players will be fooled into thinking that there’s an actual universe behind it.
That’s a problem with the game, but the real design flaw is the player character. You play as a Guardian (think completely lame Jedi) who was woken up on Earth after having died a hundred years ago. This is plot writing 101. You use a stranger in your writing so all of the other characters have a reason to explain the world to them. After all, they don’t know anything. Games like Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic use amnesiacs to accomplish the same role. Final Fantasy Tactics Advance used being transported into another world. Whatever the mechanism, the result is the same: the main character acts as the players eyes as both are being introduced to the world for the first time. It’s cliche, but devastatingly effective, which is why it’s so often implemented.
In Destiny, however, nobody every explains things to you other than the barest bones setup. A primary character says at the beginning that ‘you must have lots of questions’. I did. He never answered a single one. Nobody does. It’s just Peter Dinklage bot exposition spew over and over again without any relation to the player. I can only assume that the player character has serious brain damage, otherwise they’d be as bafflingly confused as the players are. I am someone who is utterly against mute protagonists in every form, but the Destiny protagonist isn’t mute.
This surprised me every time my character opened her mouth. If your character can talk, why would you stop her from doing so at every opportunity. There is no banter, no interesting development, only long stretches of silence. A mute character is supposed to be a player avatar, letting the player graft their own persona onto the husk. A non-mute character has to, you know, actually be a character. The player character fails miserably as a character. You have no motivations, no back story, no life, no friends. At least you have Peter Dinklage bot, but that’s not enough, dammit! The game is called Destiny, but who’s destiny are they talking about? Is it the ugly polygons of my generic, boring character? Or is it the player’s destiny to play and be utterly disappointed with this game?
And then there’s the class balance, the RPG element of the game. You pick a race (doesn’t matter) and a class (doesn’t matter) and level up (doesn’t matter). The reasons for the brackets is that none of these things really matter, especially since none of them add to the experience. All classes have different abilities, but they are all essentially equivalent. This isn’t like Borderlands where playing a new class is a new experience. I picked Hunter at first. Later on, I decided to try a Warlock and I found little difference between them other than the graphical paint. Then there’s the levelling process. You level up, but instead of giving you a new ability, the game forces you to open your inventory and select your ability. The kicker? There’s only one ability to select.
It isn’t like you’re making choices; each level will bring a new ability. The only choice happens when you later on get conflicting abilities, like different grenades. Then you get to choose which one you want. However, the game is really too much of a regular shooter for any of these abilities to matter. None of them are interesting and gunplay is hardly modified by them at all. In fact, multiplayer is made worse by the class-specific abilities, which are essentially kill switches as they don’t really rely on skill. I know you need balance in multiplayer, but why even have new abilities at all if you aren’t going to make them worth earning?
Now, I realize that Bungie was trying something different with Destiny. I respect flawed but ambitious games. Games like Parasite Eve 2 number among my favourite games ever. I even respect Resident Evil 6, even though it was horrible, for trying something utterly new with the franchise. I don’t respect Destiny. There is a difference between doing and saying. Bungie said they were trying something unique and new. I see no evidence of that in the game. There isn’t some really interesting new component that just didn’t work right. Instead, what we have with Destiny is a frankenstein’s monster. Bungie cobbled together elements from a host of games, creating a hulking behemoth which is completely inferior to all its father parts. And, even so, all this could have been all right, but Bungie seemed to have not studied anatomy. The same way the leg bone doesn’t connect to the neck bone, poor weapon variety doesn’t work well with shoot and loot style games.
There’s more to say, but I think I’ve made may point. Destiny is not, I repeat, is NOT a bad game. But it isn’t a great game either. This is the tragic part. There will be many people who have lots of fun with the game, which is great, but that doesn’t mean the game isn’t full of really awful design flaws, ones you wouldn’t expect from a veteran developer. I’m still enjoying Destiny for what it is, but I can’t help but feel that the entire development lacked a cohesive vision. None of the parts fit, and nothing complements one another. More troubling, the world is devoid of things to do. Why make an MMO-style end game, and make it so easy to get to, when there is so little end-game content? Destiny may indeed be salvaged after multiple expansions and patches. Many have said this fact. What I say in return is that no developer, especially one of Bungie’s stature, should have let the game go out in its current state. It is unacceptable to say that it can all be fixed later down the road by charging people for the content that should have been in the game in the first place. Am I being harsh? Yes. That’s the point of being critical. And Destiny wouldn’t inspire such criticism if it weren’t so hyped. As I said at the beginning – hype is a destructive force.