I’m playing a lot less Destiny 2 than I was a week ago. I sense I’m not alone in that. That’s because despite—and occasionally because of—all the ways Destiny 2 has improved upon its predecessor, the game is struggling to balance between people who wish they could play it forever and those who worry they can’t keep up.
Destiny 2 is technically an endless game, which raises the question of how much one is “supposed” to play it. Just a few hours a week? Every evening from sundown until bed? Can this game actually support people who want to play it for dozens of hours each week? And if you have a life, kids, or other obligations, will you forever feel like you’re missing out?
After installing Destiny 2, you can play through the story in a dozen or so hours, and play through all the co-op strikes and the raid in about the same, provided you’re teamed with people who know what they’re doing. You can spend a few more hours seeing most of what the PvP part of the game has to offer. After those 30 or so hours, you enter “endgame,” which is where you begin to repeat activities with the goal of earning extra-rare loot and filling up your stockpile of legendary-tier guns and exotic-tier items.
Counter to what the name suggests, “endgame” does not actually end. You play strikes again and again. You explore the patrol zones looking for hidden areas. You spend some evenings in the competitive Crucible. The hours stack up but there’s always some reason, however faint, to come back.
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Endgame is typically where the wheels start to come off of a loot-centric game like Destiny, as evidenced by similar “D” games like Diablo III, The Division, and the first Destiny. All three of those games initially had problems giving dedicated players something to do after a certain point, and all three improved their endgame significantly with post-release patches and updates. Destiny 2’s endgame troubles are actually an inversion of the problems that plagued the first game at launch: it’s really easy to earn a ton of good loot, and your rewards are much more consistent. The game’s increased generosity means that after a certain point, players are running out of rewards to chase.
It’s understandable that big-budget games like the ones listed above are stronger in their frontgame and fuzzier in the back end. The greatest percentage of players will see all the stuff in the first few hours, but a dwindling number will even see much of the endgame. According to my PS4 trophies, 80.9% of Destiny 2 players have reached level 20, and 92.2% have completed at least one heroic public event. It should be possible to achieve both of those with almost no additional effort just by playing through the story campaign.
Compare those numbers with the hardest-core endgame activities: 11% have completed the raid, and only 4% have completed a “prestige” Nightfall strike. Game developers like Bungie are constantly making trade-offs when deciding what to focus on as they scramble to ship a game, and it makes sense that they’d focus on polishing the stuff that 80% of players will see before focusing on keeping the hardest-core 11% happy.
Three weeks into Destiny 2, I’ve mostly run out of things to do. The newly functional WastedOnDestiny.com tells me I’ve put 84 hours into Destiny 2 since it came out on the 6th, though that number tells an incomplete story. I binged the game for the first couple of weeks as I wrote my review, and since then my playtime has plummeted. I’ve beaten the raid and don’t plan to do it again. I don’t want to make any secondary “alt” characters, though that might change when I switch over to the PC version in a month. I’ve nabbed pretty much every exotic gun I could want, and have a lot of the Trials- and raid-specific gear. My time with Destiny 2 has shrunk to a few hours a week: some yuks with my clanmates, a Nightfall, maybe some evening PvP in the Crucible.
Many of Destiny 2’s most dedicated players share my sense that there isn’t much left to do. All last week, the popular Destiny subreddit was lousy with posts from players venting about the lack of endgame content, the reduced grind from the first game (even while acknowledging how perverse a thing that was to complain about), the unsatisfactory rewards for many in-game activities, and the overall sense that once you’ve reached a certain point in Destiny 2, there’s little reason to keep playing. That vibe has mellowed in recent days thanks largely to the launch of this week’s Faction Rally event, which added a few new incentives for regular activities and opened up a new pool of gear to earn. But Faction Rally is a stopgap, and endgame ennui is likely to continue.
Discontent among the hardcore fanbase reached a peak last weekend as popular Destiny YouTuber (and illustrious Kotaku Splitscreen guest) Stefan “Datto” Jonke released a video sharing his own thoughts on the state of Destiny 2’s endgame. After breaking down some things Bungie has removed from the sequel—gear stats, random gun perks, grimoire score—and noting how little there seemed to be for hardcore players like him to do, he summed up his analysis: “The endgame experience will always be a struggle to the dedicated players of Destiny, as Bungie moves more and more towards a pure FPS game instead of an FPS/RPG hybrid. As long as Bungie’s philosophies on how they make content—and for who—stays the same, the more likely it is that the endgame experience that most hardcore players are looking for will never come to fruition.”
When Datto is talking about who Bungie is making Destiny 2 for, he’s suggesting that the game’s developers are focused on the 80% of people who play up to level 20, not the hardcore 3.5% who keep playing until they finish a prestige Nightfall. When he talks about a shift away from “RPG” and toward “FPS,” he means that Destiny has diminished the role of complicated MMO-style gear and focused more on giving everyone the same stuff. No more random gear perks, no more chasing armor with slightly higher Intellect or Discipline stats. The sequel is more Halo, less World of Warcraft. He’s probably right about both things, though my guess is that the people making Destiny 2 eventually want everyone to be happy with the game, from the most casual weekender to the hardest-core no-lifer.
A lot of the current discussion of Destiny’s endgame revolves around the notion of grind, which itself raises the question of what it means for a video game activity to be “worth” doing. In his video, Datto defines grind as not the story or the sidequests, but “the thing that you do on a day-to-day basis. The thing that pushes a number up higher or moves a bar across a screen. Where you’re just looking to log on and make some progress towards… anything.” I like that definition, because it captures the essence of grind: it’s fundamentally empty, but somehow still satisfying.
Destiny 1 was full of grind, particularly during its first year. It was happy to blatantly waste our time, asking us to spend hours of our lives leveling up guns, grinding materials to level up guns, re-leveling our exotics, running strikes endlessly in search of strike-specific loot, and chasing “white whale” versions of guns with the best possible perks.
That grind was gradually reduced over the game’s lifespan, and by late 2016, most of the things we wasted hours doing in 2014 were almost entirely optional. The sequel has been further de-grindified, a shift that not only feels designed to appeal to the broadest percentage of gamers, but also one that removes a bunch of exploitative garbage that players arguably never should’ve gotten used to in the first place.
Even among those at whom the sequel has ostensibly been targeted, there are players who find that Destiny 2 is still too much of a hardcore time-sink. About a week ago, Kotaku UK editor Keza MacDonald wrote an article about how, as a new mom, she felt like Destiny 2 was keeping her at arm’s length. “You have to give so much of your life to games like this,” she wrote. Games like Destiny “are not there to fill odd moments, but EVERY moment.” The piece was echoed this week at Waypoint by my former Kotaku colleague Patrick Klepek, also a new parent, who voiced a similar opinion. With all the other games he has to play, he said, there’s no room for Destiny. Both articles echoed a 2014 Wired article by now-Kotaku features editor Chris Kohler, who had the first game pegged early on as something he just wouldn’t be able to fit into his life. “What if Destiny is successful to the point that this is what big triple-A console games become?” he asked, presciently. “Does that just cut me out entirely? You can’t pause life, but this ain’t life.”
For a similar perspective on Destiny 2 from someone who isn’t affiliated with Kotaku, I got in touch with Gareth Weaver, a “dadmin” administrator for Dads of Destiny, an online community of parents (not just dads, Weaver made sure to remind me) who play Destiny together. With tens of thousands of members, they were the subject of a Kotaku UK feature last year and even get namechecked in-game by a character in Destiny 2.
“Generally the changes have been well received amongst our players,” Weaver told me over email. “There are pockets that would like to see more grind returned to the game, sure, but as parents we do understand that, like our kids, not every player is the same. We don’t all have the same amount of free time, and we do have to share that time with friends and family. Everyone should be able to raid if they want to, and the changes [Bungie has made] definitely support us in meeting that challenge.”
For players like Weaver, something like Destiny 2’s refurbished clan system would mean that even if he didn’t have time to raid that week, he would still feel invested in his clanmates’ successes. If they beat the raid, he’d still get loot from it just by virtue of being in the same clan. The higher rank they’re able to collectively reach, the better for everyone. Those sorts of improvements, coupled with the overall increase in the game’s generosity, are a boon to players who don’t always have a ton of time.
“I do think the game has lost something as a result though,” he continued. “I remember watching the YouTube videos of players losing their minds when certain items dropped, or pure joy in your headset as that one thing your fireteam mate has played hours for finally drops.” But while Weaver said he hoped some grind would be put back in the game, “it’s difficult to know what exactly that could look like.” He pointed to the dead ghosts you could collect in the first game as a fun diversion that could probably return in some fashion.
I get where everyone’s coming from on this one. Part of me does perversely miss the endless grind of the first game, even while I mostly recognize Bungie’s streamlining as an improvement. I wish there were better rewards waiting at the end of my fifth time through a familiar strike, but even without kids, I have enough real-life obligations tugging at my attention that I’m perfectly fine with letting go of Destiny for a while. As someone who occasionally lapsed into playing the first game with an unhealthy compulsion, it’s actually a relief.
Most of the time-wasting grind Bungie cut from the first game made the second one better. I certainly wouldn’t put it past them to add other, better systems to the game in the future. Leaderboards and ranked multiplayer are time-honored ways of giving dedicated players new goals to achieve, and seem like they’d work well in Destiny. Diablo III’s paragon levels and huge variety of difficulty options are another good couple of options. Given that the first Destiny already had optional “Heroic” difficulty modifiers for a lot of events, I’d be surprised if the sequel didn’t eventually get something similar.
For the most hardcore players, there’s hope that there’ll be more interesting stuff to do. Game director Luke Smith already hinted at one improvement for the endgame in an interview with Mashable at E3 earlier this year. “How can my second, third, and tenth Better Devils hand cannon be interesting?” he asked, rhetorically. “That’s a question we should be asking and answering as quickly as we can.” Smith explained that the solutions they’d come up with may not make it into the game at launch, but that “we have some ideas that we’re pretty excited about.”
For busier players who might not have time to see the endgame in the first place, well, there’s many months for them to just relax and play. As Bungie adds more for dedicated endgame-grinders to pursue, they will doubtless also smooth out the experience for newcomers. As everyone’s power level rises and their familiarity with the game increases, activities that currently require hours of hard work to complete will become routine. The threshold for entry on today’s toughest activities will eventually lower to allow more people in.
Any massive mainstream game like Destiny 2 will have trouble pleasing such a wide range of players, and no game can please everyone. Whatever its failings at the extreme ends of the spectrum, Destiny 2 still feels like a fresh start, designed to be built upon with the benefits of the lessons learned from the first game. I’m optimistic about where things will go from here. If the last three years with Destiny taught us anything, it’s that it’s better to build on a sturdy foundation than to try to fix a busted one.