The never-ending Destiny 2 controversy is a teachable moment for the game industry

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Bungie’s latest and most significant attempt to address vocal player complaints surrounding Destiny 2 landed on Tuesday, a little more than six months after the game’s initial launch. And yet inevitably, the vociferous community has regressed in a mere few days to its previous state of near-perpetual outrage. The update, nicknamed the “Go Fast” update for how it was designed to address complaints about speed and competitive intensity, made a number of big changes to how powerful certain firearms were and how effectively and frequently the game’s signature brand of sci-fi superpowers could be wielded, among other crucial gameplay changes.
But the end result is a similar level of frustration from players who feel Bungie isn’t going far enough and, more importantly, that it continues to misread player expectations. At this point, Destiny 2 feels chained down by its own fundamental design decisions, ones that are all but impossible to uproot and alter without a full-scale reboot of the title in the style of Square Enix’s infamous overhaul of Final Fantasy XIV. Players want Bungie to effectively roll the game back to the state it was in during the peak of the original Destiny, an unlikely course of events for a studio that has only just begun examining its most critical missteps. Those range from a lack of meaningful in-game activities and bland rewards, to a sluggish and uninspired weapons system.
Bungie’s Destiny 2 troubles are instructive for the rest of the games industry
Of course, “video game players are mad at video game” isn’t exactly a novel narrative, and it’s certainly not specific to games like Destiny 2. But what makes Bungie’s efforts with the sequel to its shooter / MMO hybrid so interesting is how instructive it is for the rest of the game industry. So many video games today are created as persistent, ever-evolving products that can be altered in subtle and drastic ways through post-launch expansions, updates, and patches. Look at Epic Games’ Fortnite, a game that responded to an industry trend last year and has since blown up into a worldwide phenomenon thanks in part to a breakneck and radically creative update cycle.
But what if the game maker, at the highest possible level, misunderstands what players actually want, and doesn’t listen to or trust those players when they verbalize those demands? No amount of nimble iteration or cool new features can bridge a gap of trust. And that’s what Bungie appears to suffer from today, with a player base that almost refuses to believe the company has the best interests of the game at heart and wants accordingly to act in good faith.
We don’t know how much money Destiny 2 is making, or how many people play it every day or month. Bungie won’t say, and it could be that the game is healthy and revenue is flowing in from its in-game Eververse store. But from even just a cursory community snapshot, players are unhappy and the game feels as if it’s on a path toward an unsalvageable state. Bungie recognizes this, and members of the development team have become increasingly candid, almost sardonic, in on-camera interviews. Sandbox design lead Josh Hamrick described the team’s philosophy these days with the phrase, “What’s the worst that can happen?” in a YouTube breakdown of the “Go Fast” update earlier this week.
So how did we get here, and how did we miss the warning signs?

Image: Bungie

Since Destiny 2’s launch last September, the narrative around the title has shifted dramatically and so frequently that Bungie has often failed to keep up. But from the start, it’s centered on players wanting a hardcore experience similar to Destiny 1, and yet Bungie delivering a watered down, simplified version of that experience. Every time the company has found itself mired in controversy, the developer — via a purposefully rotating cast of public-facing voices — pledges to listen more to feedback. Yet Bungie has taken months to address player demands and to try to remedy the game’s lack of fun factor — the central problem at its core.
For as many of these undelivered changes that you can chalk up to players not understanding the nuts and bolts of game development, there remains an equal number of seemingly simple, crowd-pleasing home runs Bungie could have made far earlier and yet inexplicably did not. Why, for instance, did it take Bungie six months to deliver a free-for-all “Rumble” playlist for its competitive Crucible multiplayer mode? Why did it take an equal amount of time to make the necessary “sandbox” changes, which determine the speed and variety of play styles the game incentivizes, to address the fact that almost everyone was using the same minuscule set of guns, armor, and abilities?
Bungie misunderstood from the onset what it thought players wanted
There remains a laundry list of requests players continue to ask for, and yet it may take Bungie months to deliver them alongside its next big content drop in May and an even larger one planned for September. Demanding the studio overhaul the game’s entire design and mechanical framework while also providing new activities to enjoy is a big ask. But players want nothing short of a miracle to save what many considered their primary post-work pastime.
But again, what we’re really discussing here is not the specific changes it would take for Bungie to “fix” the game, whatever that means, or even really where it went wrong and how. (The two-primary weapon system is a likely culprit for the latter investigation, alongside a game design philosophy stubbornly rooted in simplicity at all costs.) We’re talking about a game developer that misunderstood from the onset what it thought players wanted, only to find out later on that it had made near-fatal mistakes. Many of the changes Bungie outlined in a development roadmap earlier this year involve implementing features the original game enjoyed and yet were taken out of the sequel.
In an almost Gladwellian twist, what critics, players, and even the game makers themselves thought was a step in the right direction was in fact multiple steps backward. We just couldn’t see it in the lead up to or even during the launch. When I reviewed Destiny 2 in September, I said it was everything fans had been asking for. I sincerely believed that: it had planetary fast-travel, a milestone system for simplified progression, and a more balanced and team-based competitive multiplayer mode. Everything we thought Destiny 2 needed — less one-hit-kill combat in multiplayer, less frustrating systems for managing resources and powering up your character, less randomized loot drops — it turns out was the original game’s lifeblood.

Photo: Bungie

Destiny 2 has been a counterintuitive failure unfolding for over half a year now, with the reality of the situation taking many thousands of in-game player hours to gel into a cohesive picture of dissatisfaction and unmet expectations. Sure, some players called it earlier than others, with frustrations bubbling up just weeks after launch. But not until the December expansion, Curse of Osiris, did it feel like the game had entered into an irreversible downward spiral.
As one rather prescient fan wrote on Reddit back in December, Bungie was simply responding in the wrong way to the right issues, going too far in some respects and not far enough in others. “As I read many of the threads in this sub that discuss people’s issues with Destiny 2 I have realized that many of the drastic changes Bungie have made are the direct result of complaints that were made throughout the life of Destiny 1,” wrote the user. “A lot of which I contributed to. I participated in conversations and made posts complaining about many of the things that Bungie tried to address in D2 to strike that balance between the casual and hardcore player.” While players can shoulder some of the blame here for vocally telling Bungie to move in every direction at once, the developer carries the more severe responsibility to figure out what it is that makes their game successful and fun, and then figuring out how to improve those aspects of the game for everyone.
Destiny 2 has been a counterintuitive failure unfolding for over a half a year now
Destiny 2 has become a telling example of how a game maker can overestimate its ability to deliver something millions of people will enjoy without deeply engaging with those players, and without listening to or trusting the community when its members say they’re unhappy. The biggest pitfall of the games-as-services shift in the industry over the past half-decade or so is that a developer can create a game with problems that minor and even major updates can’t fix — a product so at odds with what players want that no amount of tweaking will repair its image in their eyes. And that because of the very nature of the product, this situation might not become readily apparent to all parties involved until months after launch.
The most successful games-as-platforms today, like Fortnite and Blizzard’s Overwatch, don’t just iterate quickly, take risks, and do so while providing extensive communication with players. The developers of those games at a fundamental level also understand what the players want and how to give it to them. You can’t adequately respond to player feedback if you’re not even on the same page.
Bungie has the resources and time to fix Destiny 2, though it will most likely happen when the more pricey September expansion that mirrors 2015’s The Taken King drops later this year. Weathering the storm until then won’t be pleasant, but the beauty of games like Destiny is that they are never static. They can always change into something else. The team at Bungie just has to be willing to let go of what they thought they wanted to make, and turn their focus toward what made the original game work so well. Finding the answer the is just a matter of tuning into the community, and listening to what they have to say.

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