Destiny 2 hits the sweet spot between casual and grind, but shoots itself in the foot with opaque systems

By Brenna Hillier, Friday, 29 September 2017 08:13 GMT

Destiny 2 balances habitual play with respect for your time, but really does not do a good job of showing off its virtues to punters.

I am fascinated by one of the many debates in the Destiny community, which boils down to whether Destiny 2 is too casual or too grindy.

On the “too casual” side, the rallying cry is something like “this game wouldn’t exist without us, but it wasn’t made for us”. I think this is true, and also that it is a perfectly reasonable state of affairs. I don’t think Bungie could feasibly make a game just for the relatively tiny number of 2,000 hour D1 veterans who are so outspoken in fan communities, and whose high activity level in those communities gives them and others the impression that whatever they think is the prevailing opinion of everyone who plays Destiny 2.

No doubt Bungie did have those über fans in mind with Destiny 2, and also the slightly less devoted playerbase who nevertheless chew through content like locusts and consider Destiny a lifestyle. We’re already seeing the results as new Destiny 2 features or events like Faction Rally roll out week by week, so that every reset brings something new to try – even if it’s exhausted by hardcore players by the end of that same week.

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But the developer has to cater to a much, much larger potential playerbase – those who just want to play Destiny 2 rather than live it. That doesn’t mean these players will disappear at the end of launch month, and of course Bungie will do its best to retain them by drawing on lessons learned from D1. But they don’t have 2,000 hours to spend on a single video game, and nor should they be expected to in order to have a good time. Let’s call them casual players for the sake of convenience, though “normal” or “average” would be more accurate and avoid the stigma we tend to attach to the term.

D1 lost many casual players by not having enough to do right out the gate, and making it too hard to get to much of what there was. Bungie spent the next three years working out how to correct that, and Destiny 2 is the result: a game that intends to live up to the original promise of always giving you something to do and letting you get a little bit stronger every time you log in. You can see this intention clearly in the levelling system, which has been carefully designed to permit continual growth with minimal effort, and in Guided Games, which helps solo players get into Nightfalls and Raids.

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That was the intention, but has Bungie actually pulled it off? I don’t believe it has. If it had, we would not be seeing complaints about the grind, my SMS inbox would not be full of texts from friends saying they can’t get to 260 Power, and we would not be serving so much traffic on our Destiny 2 guide (not that I’m complaining).

The problem is that Bungie has not clearly communicated how its game systems work (again). A vague description of “powerful gear” rewards, a tooltip suggesting “high chance for an Exotic” and a Milestones menu many players honestly don’t even realise exists are not enough to communicate the bones of the levelling system to the average player.

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We’ve got a page on levelling up and getting more Power in Destiny 2, but in brief, here are the bones: Luminous Engrams act as gates, pushing you to new heights but doled out on a strict dosage plan so you don’t level up super fast. Essentially, you do whatever you want until your loot drops and engrams level out and you stop growing – a “soft cap”. Then you complete a Weekly Milestone to receive a Luminous engram, which pushes your maximum possible drop Power just a little higher (as long as you don’t just instantly shard it). This allows you to return to normal play until your loot drops level out again at a new soft cap, and you need to chase another Luminous engram. Rinse and repeat until you hit 300 or even beyond.

Luminous engrams are not hard to get; you can earn three each week just by showing up. The Call to Arms Milestone is completed by participating in Crucible matches, and was recently adjusted so that you can earn it in about four Quickplay matches. The Flashpoint Milestone only requires you to turn up to half a dozen public events and put a single shot in any of the targets, then open the chest when it’s all over. If you’re in a Clan, you’ll score a Luminous engram for earning a set amount of Clan XP, which is awarded for practically everything you might possibly do (and you’ll score other levelled rewards if your clan is reasonably populated and participates in the Crucible and Nightfall, though Raid and Trials rewards appear to be unlevelled).

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That’s three significant potential Power increases each week for doing very little; you don’t even need to chase the Nightfall, Raid and other endgame activities to get them, although Guided Games offers you a pathway if you decide to devote more time. The whole system is so casual friendly that it’s put some hardcore players’ noses out of joint (good old Gamer Logic™)– and yet a significant number of players have completely failed to grok the Luminous system and use it to their advantage. Instead, they earn all their Luminous engrams at once without building up their other gear to match in the interim, and won’t receive any in-game prompts leading to significant growth for the rest of the week.

If this happens to you, there is recourse for forced growth by farming Heroic Public Events for Exotic drops, which is indeed a grind – but even so, it’s not a very onerous one. Heroic Public Events can be done and dusted in a few minutes and are absolutely non-stop on the larger Destinations of Nessus and the European Dead Zone. If you really must do it, it is, again, very accessible to casual players – as long as they know it’s a possibility. Most don’t, unless they Google for a guide to levelling up.

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This is where I think Bungie’s plans have gone awry. On the one hand, it’s designed a really nice levelling system whereby players grow steadily with minimal effort (and hardcore players can game it to hit 300+ in the first week, since they really want to) across a variety of casual-friendly activities. The system gently motivates players to pursue the excellent but significantly tougher group-oriented content if they get a taste for the loot cycle, and there’s even a helpful pathway in via Guided Games if they decide to take the plunge.

On the other hand, none of this is obvious to players who aren’t already pretty invested in Destiny 2. If you don’t already understand the systems, read forums or look at guides, you need to spend a significant amount of time puzzling out how everything works by reading menus closely, fiddling about and making mistakes.

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It’s a lot to ask of new players with no emotional attachment to the Destiny setting, which I’m not convinced the campaign manages to inspire in either newcomers or those who dropped D1 like a hot rock. (I’d be happy to be wrong.) Locking it all away at the end of the story campaign doesn’t help, either; it’s like the game you’ve been playing for however many hours vanishes, and a new, incomprehensible one replaces it.

I cannot be the only one to have spotted this communication problem, because if I had, the Bungie Help Twitter would not spend so much time issuing PSAs explaining the details of Destiny 2’s systems (like this or this or this). This information should be in the game. Ideally, it should be in the game in a way that can be easily and immediately comprehended by people who close text screens without even glancing at them, ignore tool tips, and prefer to spend five minutes writing an angry forum post rather than exploring menus.

Getting your players to pay even the slightest attention to in-game information without tying them to chairs and hitting them over the head with the manual is one of the hard problems of modern mainstream video game design. I’m not surprised Bungie is having trouble with this, and it’s doing a better job than, say, Omega Force, with its pages and pages of dense text nobody ever wants to look at.

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My own relationship with Destiny 2 vacillates between having too much to do, and not necessarily feeling I have or want to do any of it. Early in the week the checklist of things I feel I should do (Milestones, Meditations, whatever Activities have featured Challenges) seems enormous, and when I get my boots on the ground I frequently get so distracted by the plethora of Public Events, Patrols, Challenges and open world content that I spend more time playing than I meant to.

Once I’ve ticked off my easy Milestones and jogged upwards half a dozen points of Power, though, I don’t feel I have to keep playing; I can spend time with other games, or work on my creative projects, or go out with pals – and not have the nagging feeling that I’m not keeping up with the Joneses, which, as a mostly solo player, partially ruined D1 for me. The scaling is quite good, too, so that I can play with others of much higher or lower Power if a pal wanders online, without it being awkward and unsatisfying for any of us – and Destiny 2 really is the most fun with friends.

It really seems ideal: you can spend as much or as little time as you want or have, and still enjoy yourself. To my mind, the biggest problem Destiny 2 has is a communication problem. It’s really fallen in a sweet spot of offering ongoing fun and good times to those who rock up semi-regularly to see what’s up, without demanding you spend all your free time feverishly chasing random loot drops. But it is absolutely ballsing up showing that off to the people who’d most appreciate it.

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