Destiny’s Iron Banner is ringing alarm bells

By Brenna Hillier, Monday, 13 October 2014 08:03 GMT

Destiny’s Iron Banner event shows Bungie still has much to learn about fostering a multiplayer community.

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Destiny developer Bungie is directly responsible for modern online multiplayer.

Okay yes, multiplayer had existed on PC for donkey’s, and it was Microsoft’s vision for Xbox Live that drove console multiplayer into mainstream gamer acceptance. But it was the phenomenal success of Halo that created the appetite and hence the audience for Call of Duty and its various thriving rivals, both in and out of the shooter genre.

This is a pretty enormous feather in Bungie’s cap, and it’s what inspired Activision to set aside the famous, possibly mythical $500 million for the decade long contract.

Halo was and is so huge that it’s madness to call it out, but making a series of games that has nailed down one formula so thoroughly that the franchise now trundles along under its own steam doesn’t necessarily mean you have all the answers.

Halo was and is so huge that it’s madness to call it out (not that it ever stopped the Penny Arcade guys, who used to suffer from pronounced elitism). But making a series of games that has nailed down one formula so thoroughly that the franchise now trundles along under its own steam (though admittedly in the hands of a very talented team) doesn’t necessarily mean you have all the answers.

Bungie has a lot of multiplayer development experience, but that doesn’t mean it can’t fuck up, and I don’t feel uncomfortable describing the Iron Banner event as a fuck up. I’m not saying anything controversial here; Bungie itself has had to acknowledge the complaints have merit.

There are two complaints about the Iron Banner, and the first is that it doesn’t live up to the promise at the heart of the event: that during this one event, your level and the quality of your gear would matter. It turns out this is not the case. A Bungie designer has said that level and gear contributes about 20% to your chances of winning; the other 80% remains pure skill.

Everyone’s very upset about this. The problem, I think, is a matter of perception – a disconnect between how varying groups viewed the Iron Banner.

Players expected the Iron Banner to allow them to trample noobs with little effort, and so they were disappointed. I have to say I find this expectation naive. Bungie would never have allowed it, because it’s absolutely no fun to be on the receiving end of that kind of carnage. On top of that, since anybody can earn high level Destiny gear with minimal effort, the top tier would have flattened out into a skill competition anyway.

That said, players were absolutely justified to have this expectation, because that’s pretty much how Bungie described it, thanks to clumsy messaging. Reading between the lines of Bungie’s most recent news update, it looks like there may have been a communication problem between designers and marketers, which is so, so common in every industry that it’s an absolutely believable explanation.

Bungie can’t afford too many fumbles like this one. The developer has to nurture its community of 3.2 million daily players if it wants to achieve that ten year plan. It will learn, react and adapt; there’s just too much at stake.

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One of 2,649 comments on Bungie’s latest weekly update.

Unfortunately, the second complaint about the Iron Banner shows a much more serious problem: a misunderstanding of the audience. The heart of the problem is that losing Iron Banner matches does nothing to advance you within the event. Sure, losing a match will still earn you Crucible marks and a chance for regular loot, but if you’re online to grind Iron Banner reputation, being on a losing team is a waste of your time. The result? Players quitting out as soon as the match begins to tip one way, even though it might be recoverable.

I don’t know how you like to play multiplayer games, but having most or all of one team quit part way through, leaving you to sit on your hollow victory, is not my idea of a good time. Nor is being left behind to face a steamroll match alone.

Impromptu dance party

Sometimes when an Iron Banner or even vanilla crucible match goes wrong, participants will go idle or start dance parties rather than murder their underpowered opponents repeatedly. This is just one example of the positive player community so often encountered in Destiny. It’s not all rage quitters.

That Bungie, a developer famous for its understanding of multiplayer communities, could fail to account for the effect of the Iron Banner system, is both surprising and remarkable – especially as it is yet to make any effort to resolve the issue. It hasn’t patched in a penalty for quitting, or an advantage or reward given to grim hangers-on.

All Bungie has done in response is emphasise that ordinary Crucible awards are still available to losing Iron Banner teams. This demonstrates an extraordinary naivety as to how people are actually playing Destiny.

There are three kinds of Destiny players. The first group aren’t especially engaged with the endgame systems and play casually or haphazardly, either because they don’t know what’s going on (understandable; see Bungie’s clumsy messaging) or just don’t care. The second understand the endgame systems and are playing the game with an eye to hitting their personal goals, be that the level 30 cap or a full exotic collection or whatever. The third group is only interested in hitting those goals, and plays specifically to achieve them in the most efficient ways possible (even if that’s less fun than just playing mindfully).

The third group in particular is never going to hang around in a losing Iron Banner match because they enjoy playing the game. If you have two hours to play, say, you don’t want to waste precious minutes waiting out a losing match when you could quit out and try again. These are people who make and delete entire new characters every half an hour to take advantage of daily bonuses; they’re not going to hang about for ten minutes to achieve nothing.

The second group is more likely to keep playing, and be punished for it when their third group team mates abandon them; it’s unlikely they’ll be interested in repeat play. That leaves only Destiny’s most casual players, as well as the most skilled and organised, to participate in the Iron Banner – which is also going to result in steamrolling, further diminishing the potential audience.

It’s also alarming; how can Bungie not know how we’re playing its game? How has Bungie not observed the growing disconnect between casual and engaged players?”

This is super disappointing, because the Iron Banner was advertised as an open event catering to those who spent a lot of time in PVP working up their gear, but who normally find the Crucible inaccessible, and it just hasn’t worked out that way. It’s also alarming; how can Bungie not know how we’re playing its game?

Related: how has Bungie not observed the growing disconnect between casual and engaged players, and worked to better message its endgame systems and make the game accessible to everyone? Or if it intends, as I believe, for endgame Destiny content to remain in the realms of the hardcore, then why has it not taken steps to ensure there’s more to do to keep more casual players interested once they hit the soft level cap and finish the story mission?

Bungie has carefully crafted a core game design that encourages community. Players complain about the lack of voice chat and limited emotes, and yet every day I hear new anecdotes of players joining random groups and making friends – not just for the session, but on an ongoing basis – or finding clever ways to communicate. That makes the Iron Banner fumble all the more disappointing, and I ask these questions because I love Destiny, and I do want it to last ten years.

It’s early days yet so a few stumbles are only to be expected, and Bungie has already shown it can hear and react to feedback (as with the patch making Destiny engram’s less disappointing). Let’s hope the Iron Banner, and our reactions to it, inform future events in a similar positive manner.

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