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Shifting Incentives, Philosophies, Destiny 2, and the Future of Persistent Online Games

Gamingtodaynews1e - Shifting Incentives, Philosophies, Destiny 2, and the Future of Persistent Online Games
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In his 2015 article, The Messy, True Story Behind the Making of Destiny, Jason Schreier wrote about a core pillar of the Taken King’s design. Schreier told of a group of developers from the Diablo 3: Reaper of Souls team who came to Bungie to give a talk about how Bungie might redeem the original Destiny, and Schreier reported that one of the key takeaways from the meeting was, “The only point you have to deliver on is that when people leave your game—because they will—when they leave your game, they need to be happy.”

When the Taken King shipped, that quote felt like it had tangibly manifested across the various systems in the new Destiny expansion that gave players positive incentives for investing more time into the game, but, crucially, those new, and reworked, loot systems generally proportionally rewarded all players for nearly any amount of time they spent in the game. For example, the strike multiplier was a new system that would increase the chances a player would receive legendary gear drops for every strike that did not reward legendary gear. In effect, this all but guaranteed a player with the time to only run a few strikes would be rewarded with usable gear. Furthermore, in keeping with the strikes example, loot that was only attainable in a specific strike was added to a variety of strikes to add a reward for players who wanted something deeper to chase within the strike activities. Of course, there was a soft level cap that eventually required players to run specific endgame activities like raids, nightfall strike variants (effectively a hard-mode strike), and, on paper, more hardcore pvp modes to name a few, but the key with the Taken King loot systems is that they generally rewarded players for almost any amount of time they spent with the game. Perhaps most critically of all, the Taken King and Rise of Iron eras of Destiny provided nothing but positive incentives for players to invest their time into Destiny. There were minor seasonal events, with the possible exception of Sparrow Racing, that were miss-able, but other than a select few instances, players were free to pick up the game, go as deep with the game as they wanted, and have a reasonable assurance that the game would reward them for whatever amount of time they wanted to spend with the game. For the hardcore players, chasing the best random perk rolls on weapons could last for hundreds of hours if they wanted, and for me, it absolutely did. Critically, the “one expansion per year plus some kind of content update halfway through” gave regular players the ability to leave the game for months at a time when they had their fill of the content. Perpetually walking away and returning to Destiny is still a common joke, but in those days, it was a much more realistic way to play the game.

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Destiny 2’s seasonal model, like most changes, brought with it some good and some bad. The promise of a more consistent stream of new activities gave players like myself, who have over 1,000 hours invested in the franchise, even more reasons to log on daily, weekly, and monthly in seeming perpetuity. However, with the seasonal model came content that had an expiration date on it, and this expiration date warned players who would otherwise jump in and out of Destiny for the major expansions and updates that they needed to more regularly check in with the game unless they wanted to completely miss major seasons of Destiny 2’s content. In the years since Destiny 2 launched, Bungie has often spoken about “you had to be there moments” as moments that define Destiny, and in my view, this represents a fundamental shift from one of the original insights the Diablo 3 team gave Bungie.

Trying to prevent players from leaving your game will, generally, only prolong the inevitable. Instead of giving players positive incentives to stay in the game world, Bungie has, in recent years, taken to capitalizing on the fear of missing out: a strategy that has become pervasive across modern online games. I have closely followed the trajectory of Destiny 2, and I know that Bungie has reworked the longevity of seasonal content (it stays around for an entire year now instead of disappearing at the end of the season) and recently committed to removing weapon sunsetting (which was effectively an expiration date for nearly every weapon in the game). While these are great steps, in my view, the core design philosophy of Destiny 2 has ultimately shifted away from positive incentives designed to substantially reward players for engaging with the game at the most casual and deepest levels with the goal to make most players who leave the game happy to negative incentives built both on the fear of missing content and, subsequently, asking players to choose between “getting behind” in Destiny 2 or playing other games.

Ultimately, this trend of miss-able content in persistent online games is concerning to me, and Destiny 2 is just another in a long line of games that are guilty of shifting to what I have repeatedly called “negative incentives” throughout this post to keep players engaged. As someone who loved Destiny, but as someone both with less and less time and who loves to experience a large variety of different games, these fundamental shifts in incentives and design philosophies have me wondering if Destiny 2 is a game for me anymore. However, perhaps even more worrying is that these shifts across the industry in general have me wondering if the majority of online games will eventually, in the future, not be for me either.

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