Destiny 2’s Struggle To Please Both Casual And Hardcore Players
I’m playing a lot less Destiny 2 than I was a week ago. I sense I’m not alone in that. That’s because despite—and occasionally because of—all the ways Destiny 2 has improved upon its predecessor, the game is struggling to balance between people who wish they could play it forever and those who worry they can’t keep up.
Destiny 2 is technically an endless game, which raises the question of how much one is “supposed” to play it. Just a few hours a week? Every evening from sundown until bed? Can this game actually support people who want to play it for dozens of hours each week? And if you have a life, kids, or other obligations, will you forever feel like you’re missing out?
After installing Destiny 2, you can play through the story in a dozen or so hours, and play through all the co-op strikes and the raid in about the same, provided you’re teamed with people who know what they’re doing. You can spend a few more hours seeing most of what the PvP part of the game has to offer. After those 30 or so hours, you enter “endgame,” which is where you begin to repeat activities with the goal of earning extra-rare loot and filling up your stockpile of legendary-tier guns and exotic-tier items.
Counter to what the name suggests, “endgame” does not actually end. You play strikes again and again. You explore the patrol zones looking for hidden areas. You spend some evenings in the competitive Crucible. The hours stack up but there’s always some reason, however faint, to come back.
Endgame is typically where the wheels start to come off of a loot-centric game like Destiny, as evidenced by similar “D” games like Diablo III, The Division, and the first Destiny. All three of those games initially had problems giving dedicated players something to do after a certain point, and all three improved their endgame significantly with post-release patches and updates. Destiny 2’s endgame troubles are actually an inversion of the problems that plagued the first game at launch: it’s really easy to earn a ton of good loot, and your rewards are much more consistent. The game’s increased generosity means that after a certain point, players are running out of rewards to chase.
It’s understandable that big-budget games like the ones listed above are stronger in their frontgame and fuzzier in the back end. The greatest percentage of players will see all the stuff in the first few hours, but a dwindling number will even see much of the endgame. According to my PS4 trophies, 80.9% of Destiny 2 players have reached level 20, and 92.2% have completed at least one heroic public event. It should be possible to achieve both of those with almost no additional effort just by playing through the story campaign.
Compare those numbers with the hardest-core endgame activities: 11% have completed the raid, and only 4% have completed a “prestige” Nightfall strike. Game developers like Bungie are constantly making trade-offs when deciding what to focus on as they scramble to ship a game, and it makes sense that they’d focus on polishing the stuff that 80% of players will see before focusing on keeping the hardest-core 11% happy.
Three weeks into Destiny 2, I’ve mostly run out of things to do. The newly functional WastedOnDestiny.com tells me I’ve put 84 hours into Destiny 2 since it came out on the 6th, though that number tells an incomplete story. I binged the game for the first couple of weeks as I wrote my review, and since then my playtime has plummeted. I’ve beaten the raid and don’t plan to do it again. I don’t want to make any secondary “alt” characters, though that might change when I switch over to the PC version in a month. I’ve nabbed pretty much every exotic gun I could want, and have a lot of the Trials- and raid-specific gear. My time with Destiny 2 has shrunk to a few hours a week: some yuks with my clanmates, a Nightfall, maybe some evening PvP in the Crucible.
Many of Destiny 2’s most dedicated players share my sense that there isn’t much left to do. All last week, the popular Destiny subreddit was lousy with posts from players venting about the lack of endgame content, the reduced grind from the first game (even while acknowledging how perverse a thing that was to complain about), the unsatisfactory rewards for many in-game activities, and the overall sense that once you’ve reached a certain point in Destiny 2, there’s little reason to keep playing. That vibe has mellowed in recent days thanks largely to the launch of this week’s Faction Rally event, which added a few new incentives for regular activities and opened up a new pool of gear to earn. But Faction Rally is a stopgap, and endgame ennui is likely to continue.
Discontent among the hardcore fanbase reached a peak last weekend as popular Destiny YouTuber (and illustrious Kotaku Splitscreen guest) Stefan “Datto” Jonke released a video sharing his own thoughts on the state of Destiny 2’s endgame. After breaking down some things Bungie has removed from the sequel—gear stats, random gun perks, grimoire score—and noting how little there seemed to be for hardcore players like him to do, he summed up his analysis: “The endgame experience will always be a struggle to the dedicated players of Destiny, as Bungie moves more and more towards a pure FPS game instead of an FPS/RPG hybrid. As long as Bungie’s philosophies on how they make content—and for who—stays the same, the more likely it is that the endgame experience that most hardcore players are looking for will never come to fruition.”
When Datto is talking about who Bungie is making Destiny 2 for, he’s suggesting that the game’s developers are focused on the 80% of people who play up to level 20, not the hardcore 3.5% who keep playing until they finish a prestige Nightfall. When he talks about a shift away from “RPG” and toward “FPS,” he means that Destiny has diminished the role of complicated MMO-style gear and focused more on giving everyone the same stuff. No more random gear perks, no more chasing armor with slightly higher Intellect or Discipline stats. The sequel is more Halo, less World of Warcraft. He’s probably right about both things, though my guess is that the people making Destiny 2 eventually want everyone to be happy with the game, from the most casual weekender to the hardest-core no-lifer.
A lot of the current discussion of Destiny’s endgame revolves around the notion of grind, which itself raises the question of what it means for a video game activity to be “worth” doing. In his video, Datto defines grind as not the story or the sidequests, but “the thing that you do on a day-to-day basis. The thing that pushes a number up higher or moves a bar across a screen. Where you’re just looking to log on and make some progress towards… anything.” I like that definition, because it captures the essence of grind: it’s fundamentally empty, but somehow still satisfying.
Destiny 1 was full of grind, particularly during its first year. It was happy to blatantly waste our time, asking us to spend hours of our lives leveling up guns, grinding materials to level up guns, re-leveling our exotics, running strikes endlessly in search of strike-specific loot, and chasing “white whale” versions of guns with the best possible perks.