Starting Over for Destiny 2 Is the Best Thing That Could Happen to the Series
Earlier this week, Jason Schreier with Kotaku reported on some rumors regarding Destiny 2. It’s worth reading the entire post—it’s not too long—but some of the highlights are that, one, the franchise will finally be coming to PC; and, two, Bungie’s approaching Destiny 2 as a completely new game rather than an enormous expansion pack as some fans were hoping, which means leaving old player characters, gear, and collectibles behind. While the former of these should come as welcome news to virtually everyone, the latter is naturally far more divisive among the Destiny community, with some fans over at the Destiny subreddit already pledging not to pick up the game if the rumors prove true. Others have already started a petition asking that Bungie reconsider their stance on the matter.
While it's probably a safe bet to assume that Schreier's lead is reliable, there's next to no official word on Destiny 2. We know only that the game is currently slated for sometime next fall, which means that a lot can change between now and then, and even the most likely rumors should be taken with a grain of salt. Historically, Bungie has stated that their plans for the franchise span ten years, and it’s often been inferred by the community that character carryover would be a part of this plan. I can’t say I was particularly surprised, however, when I read Kotaku’s article, and while I empathize with my fellow guardians who aren’t keen on leaving their progress behind when Destiny 2 finally does hit shelves, I can’t help but imagine that it’s the best possible thing that could happen to the series. Starting fresh in Destiny 2 gives Bungie the opportunity to deliver a better experience, one in which they don’t have to worry about working around existing technical limitations or balance concerns. It allows for a sequel that’s both novel and familiar, and I think that’s what most Destiny fans, whether we realize it consciously or not, are really clamoring for.
I don’t mean to suggest that there isn’t a middle ground somewhere. Suggestions have been made that Bungie allow players to carry over their avatars—at least cosmetically—while leaving their stats, abilities, and items behind in an approach that would mimic BioWare’s with Mass Effect 2 in which players were able to import their characters’ appearances (along with certain diverging choices made throughout the first game) without carrying over any stats. But it’s worth noting that Mass Effect 2 popularly ditched the somewhat clunkier roleplaying system of the first game in favor of a more straightforward shooter, a move that was motivated at least in part to enable a more cohesive and well-balanced experience in the second game. That’s exactly what I’m hoping for with the next Destiny.
Schreier has a good track record with these types of leaks, which has sometimes made him the target of scapegoating by some overeager and anxious fans all-too-willing to shoot the messenger when the news is bad. He popped into at least one popular post over at Reddit where one commenter noted that Schreier’s name lent credibility to the rumors. Almost immediately afterward, another asked the journalist to plead to his source that any decisions regarding character carryover be reconsidered. Jason responded that his source assured him Bungie knew just how sensitive the decision would be for fans and that they were doing their best to approach it delicately.
It remains to be seen just how delicately the issue can be handled (here’s to hoping it goes over better than that debacle with paid emotes leading up to The Taken King last year), and I doubt there’s anything Bungie could do to appease everyone. There simply isn’t a weapon exotic enough, a Sparrow fast enough, or emote silly enough to dull the blow some hardcore players are bound to feel. But the apprehension fans are expressing about starting fresh in Destiny 2 is misplaced.
One of the primary driving forces behind player action in a game like Destiny is the sense of progress you feel when you find that next, better weapon or piece of armor, particularly so in this case because Destiny's character progression (i.e., light levels) is tied directly to your equipment. Sometimes that gear is a means to an end—finally being able to take on the raid or improving your odds in Iron Banner, for example—but often it’s an end unto itself. After three years of collecting gear, grinding up light levels, and ticking away at countless quests and bounties, it’s natural to start thinking of these characters as investments of a sort, and within that context, starting fresh for the sequel effectively promises zero return on those investments.
It’s a problem that isn’t necessarily unique to Destiny, but it is atypical for the bulk of popular game franchises. There likely isn’t a player out there expecting to see his or her progress from the past games carry over to Gears of War 4, for instance, and Call of Duty players are all too familiar with the annual recycling of their unlocked weapons and feats as each new game in the series is released. The new iterations of these series feel familiar to their respective fans, they feature similar mechanics and the same skills required for player success will typically carry over, but they’re not seamless, contiguous expansions of their predecessors.
It’s far more typical that when one of these games doesn’t differentiate itself heavily enough from the rest of the series, the reaction from fans and critics alike is negative. Franchises like Call of Duty, Assassin’s Creed, and virtually every sports game series imaginable frequently take flack for IP milking, and it’s normally not enough to just slap on some half-baked new gimmick in a game (I’m looking at you Assassin’s Creed: Revelations and your tower defense minigame). Without showing some evolution in the underlying formula for these series’ successes, they start to feel stale. Those that are story-driven may get by simply as continuations of narratives that fans are already engrossed in, but eventually developers need to find some new means of differentiation. Battlefield One’s breaking from the modern shooter mold this year and going back to before basics by setting the game during World War I. Assassin’s Creed is taking a year off from its annual release cycle in an attempt by Ubisoft to ensure the next game is up to snuff after several recent near hits and misses. And it seams like every new sports game has some unique take on franchise or career modes to appeal to players who are interested in more than a mere roster update.
Destiny, however, isn’t a traditional game. Before it was ever announced, rumors were floating around that Bungie was working on a Halo-like MMO, and in some ways that description still holds up. It’s foundational tech feels like a natural evolution of the mechanics and gunplay that made the Halo series so memorable fifteen years ago, but it borrows the social and character customization elements of action RPGs and MMOs to make for an experience that falls into a far less crowded niche.
It’s drawn a fair share of comparisons to the Diablo series, and, as the Kotaku article linked above mentions, the game’s devs have been rather transparent about the inspiration they’ve drawn from Blizzard's flagship aRPG. While they play very differently from one another, Destiny and Diablo take similar approaches to limited online multiplayer, pseudo-randomized loot, and character development. In both games, players essentially re-run existing missions on a regular basis, driven not by a new experience, per se, but by the potential for new or better gear and skill or talent progression.
When Blizzard rolled out their sequel to Diablo in 2000, their fans voiced similar concerns as those of the Destiny community today. We didn’t want to leave our warriors, sorcerers, and rogues behind. We didn’t want to lose our top-tier weapons and armor. In effect, we didn’t want to feel like all the time we had spent playing the first game had been worthless, and, somehow, Diablo 2’s reboot felt like just that.
At the heart of our apprehension both then and now, I think, is player motivation. The challenge and reward cycles of these games are at least potentially cyclical and addictive. At times—and vanilla Destiny suffered from this more frequently than it does currently—running the same strike or raid or story mission for the umpteenth time can feel a bit like dropping a coin in a slot machine. There’s no real joy to be derived from the play of the game when this happens; all that matters is the payoff in the end. It’s streamlined and efficient gambling, and when that’s the case, these games suffer.
When Diablo 2 finally did launch, the vast majority of us forgot almost immediately about why we had been so worried to start over. We were too busy figuring out our kits, finding all new gear, and exploring unfamiliar maps to care anymore. For a time at least, we were able to enjoy playing the game again without fretting about the micro-gaming that many of us had devolved to in the first game. Like Diablo, Destiny is at its best when it allows and encourages players to enjoy actually playing, when the loot drops at the end of a challenge compliment it rather than define it. I don’t mean to argue that players shouldn’t continue to quest for specific items or goals, but I do believe that Destiny’s fans love the game not because of the light levels they’re able to achieve but because of the experiences it offers them along the way.
By ditching our characters and progress for the sequel, we enable Destiny 2 to offer us entirely new experiences, and I believe that’s what every player really wants from the continuation of the series. We eat up new content in the game as quickly as Bungie can get it to us, and then we suck on the bones until every morsel is gone. The last two major expansions each provided healthy portions of new game, but inevitably the complaints will resurface that there just isn’t enough content in the it because how could there be? What’s there is just too good, and we don’t really want the ride to stop.
At the same time, Bungie has been restrained by the groundwork they laid with Destiny 1. The Taken King showed just how dramatically Bungie could re-write the rules of the game for the better, but the systems originally put in place by the vanilla release haven’t been gutted so much as tweaked and enhanced. Light levels, for example, work entirely differently than they did in vanilla Destiny, and the change has empowered players to customize their guardians with the gear and abilities that best appeal to them rather than shoehorning everyone into the same few weapons and armor that feature enough of an arbitrary stat to max their level. Even still, the stats and mechanics at the foundation of the game are fundamentally the same.
In order for Bungie to really make something better, they need to feel free to rebuild Destiny from the ground up. They need to change the foundation. It’s an uncomfortable thought, maybe, because Destiny is already an excellent game, but its sequel has the potential to be something so much greater.
The earliest footage I can remember seeing of Destiny made some ambitious claims that never really came to fruition. Bungie had plans for open worlds and space exploration that dwarf what we see in the current game. I remember feeling disappointed when I finally got my hands on it because of just how restricted the game world felt when compared to my expectations. The Tower, which had looked so alive and spectacular at first glance, proved shallow and cheap once you scratched the looping animated paint away from its surface. The people and robots sitting around fires, sweeping leaves, and talking with one another weren’t NPCs. They were furniture, just part of the environment. I wanted to interact with them, and I wanted desperately to explore the city below me.
Like the rest of the game, I came to love The Tower for what it was, and I’ve since spent more than my fair share of time sitting down at the very edge of the place staring up at the Traveler illuminated by a pinkish sunset, listening to the chatter over the intercom and the sounds of ships coming and going. I expect Destiny 2 will bring us more of these kinds of experiences, but I’m hoping for something much deeper. By shedding the baggage—the good and the bad—of the first game, Bungie has a chance to offer us just that.