Destiny: The Taken King may finally live up to its promise as of next month.
Although it has been enjoyed by millions and indisputably successful, Destiny has arguably failed to live up to its own hype - so far.
Proper content, not just remixes and recycling, new story material and new goals to aspire to. Delivered for free, outside of the paid content cycle. Bungie may be edging towards a working system.
To be fair, a lot of our expectations for the first big new-gen shared-worlds shooter was shaped by speculation rather than solid information, but the dream we cherished - of a constantly updating, constantly interesting MMO-like world with action gameplay - just didn't pan out. Guardians chew through content like locusts then abandon the Tower in droves, leaving Destiny a ghost town between add-ons, inhabited only by the über-hardcore and those still chasing a Gjallarhorn.
In the year and a half since Destiny's September 2014 launch, Bungie has learned as much as we have about what works - and what doesn't - in this brave new world. You can chart the developer's progress through the school of hard knocks just by looking at content drops to date: The Dark Below was a very traditional add-on with barely a nod to the platform's possibilities via the inclusion of the Blades of Crota incursions - but an increased emphasis on character-driven story, responding to criticism of vanilla Destiny.
By the time we got to House of Wolves Bungie was clearly aware that it needed to give players a reason to stick around after spanking the raids and story missions - and elusive, RNG-governed loot wasn't a good enough lure. Thus the Prison of Elders and a thorough polishing of PvP, providing regular challenges and alternate paths to the progression cap.
The Taken King further built on lessons learned and feedback received. Destiny 2.0 is clearly a more mature product, built around ongoing engagement - the emphasis on secrets and exploration, quests that unwind over time and tie into dailies, the slow roll out of Raid challenge mode, and perhaps most obviously a shift from paid DLC to free events sometimes supported by optional microtransactions. These events still need some work, but they're improving all the time; look at how Iron Banner has evolved from frustrating to essential, and how something like Crimson Days, while perhaps inessential and not especially rewarding, has evolved (remember the original Queen's Wrath?) from Bungie's clumsy early attempts.
Destiny is good, and getting better; you can see it getting better - but it still hasn't been able to hold onto players. They hit the cap and vanish, or they arrive at endgame after everyone else has already left, and can't be bothered trying to get onto the raid carousel with the 12% of their clan still grimly hanging on, or pillar releases like The Division suck the air out of the room. Whatever the reason, the Destiny habit is broken and your roster column drains into a sad grey field of "online" (and doing something else).
This state of affairs isn't unique to Destiny; it's something MMORPGs have battled for years. Player retention is one of the Hard Problems. Nobody - armchair general designers aside - has a definite, universal solution.
But with Destiny's April update, Bungie may be edging towards a working system. It's not just that it's re-applying already proven lessons (get players off the Raid grind treadmill by providing alternate loot paths, keep adding fresh challenges so players have a reason to check in at least once a week), it's that the whole thing is free.
Bungie has thrown some huge patches at us before, but even as they shook the meta, they've rarely given lapsed players a motivation to check back in. The April update, a free patch, adds new Strikes, introduces more Raid challenges and overhauls Prison of Elders with a whole new play mode (wrapped up in a very canny weekly reward system, of course). Let me underline it again: this is free. It's a patch.
Free content like all-new strikes is something we could not have expected way back in late 2014, when Destiny was still very much a game-and-premium-DLC proposition. Moreover, an interview with Game Informer reveals Bungie isn't just chucking new gunplay at us; the new content is wrapped up in a questline that will actually advance Destiny's story, both with the usual in-game chatter and via the controversial grimoire card system.
Destiny still gets so much shit for its story (or lack of story, or impenetrable story) that this is being underplayed, but as a bit of a tragic I'm pretty excited to get a new episode. It doesn't sound like we'll see any universe-changing events as we did in The Taken King and the two DLC packs, but what we will get is an update on the Reef, which is somewhat disorganised now that the Queen of the Awoken is dead (or is she?), and more detail on what the Hive and Taken are up to now that their King has Fallen (once a week every week since the raid launched).
New content - proper content, not just remixes and recycling - new story material and new goals to aspire to. Delivered for free, outside of the inevitably slow paid content cycle. That's the world I naively and optimistically imagined when I first fell in love with planet-hopping undead sharpshooters back in the alpha days. I'm absolutely delighted to see it starting to take shape.