On Saturday, I started a brand new character in Destiny, a video game in which players travel through space fighting against impenetrable dialogue.
By Sunday night, my newly-birthed Titan was already level 26—a milestone that might have taken her weeks had I not had the right equipment. This is because Destiny, unlike many other games, ties your level progress to armor. Progressing past level 20 requires Light, a stat that you'll start seeing on blue and purple gear once you get to the game's upper echelons. The more Light you acquire, the higher level you'll achieve.
In this case, I had earned a couple of powerful Titan armor pieces while screwing around with my main character, so as soon as I equipped it on this new alt, she leaped to level 26. It was kind of surreal and felt undeserved, like I had entered a cheat code or hacked into Bungie's servers. Level 26 in 24 hours? Insane.
When Destiny first launched in September, this Light system felt novel and innovative, if untested. Here was a new way to approach leveling, the type of progression method we'd never seen in a big MMORPG before. Equipment was suddenly valuable not just because it could boost your armor and give you new abilities, but because it was the only way to make tangible progress in the game. Once you hit level 20, all those blue and purple engrams got a lot more exciting.
But with the release of Destiny's new expansion pack, The Dark Below, it's become clear that this Light progression system has crippled the game. And although Bungie's much-discussed shooter has a lot of big flaws—the lack of content; the joke of a story; the way it screws people who can't play on weekends—this may be the most frustrating aspect of the game.
Let's break it down.
While plotting out The Dark Below, which raises the game's level cap from 30 to 32, Bungie's designers had a problem. Before the expansion pack, players could only hit level 30 by traversing Destiny's first raid, The Vault of Glass, where they could snag rare gear that would boost them up to the cap. But Bungie undoubtedly didn't want to force everyone to fight through the Vault—which can be excruciating if you don't have a good team of six—just to access the new level-30 raid and high-level story missions. They didn't want to gate off their new content. So with The Dark Below, Bungie added new gear to standard shops in the game's main city. With that armor, you can get all the way up to level 31.
In other words, all that old raid gear that players had been collecting and leveling was suddenly rendered obsolete. This was a painful realization for many Destiny addicts, myself included. I had spent the past few months grinding through the Vault of Glass every week in an attempt to hit 30, yet suddenly, that gear was totally useless compared to the stuff I could buy at the goddamned store. As soon as The Dark Below launched, I felt cheated. Screwed over. I had devoted dozens and dozens of hours to Destiny and this was how it repaid me? I had completed the game's most challenging trials, yet now, in order to make progress, I'd have to go grind marks until I could afford the store's new gear? Come on.
So what's to stop that from happening again? In a few months, Bungie will release Destiny's second expansion pack, The House of Wolves. Assuming they raise the level cap again, will all of that new Crota's End gear become immediately worthless? Why are we wasting our time leveling up new armor if it's just going to be "refreshed" every few months?
Granted, all of the biggest MMORPGs are regularly updated with new expansion packs and DLC that renders older gear obsolete. The key difference: in those MMORPGs, your level is independent of your gear. You can go do high-level raids and compete for elite equipment knowing that your character's level won't be affected by the drops you get. You can feel like you're making progress in the game through multiple paths, not just based on what type of gear you have. And you can get new levels without replacing that one helmet you really love from Molten Core. You don't need new gear to progress.
Perhaps most importantly, most MMORPGS don't get paradigm-shifting expansions every three months.
With Bungie frequently moving these goal posts, it feels like Destiny is constantly taking things away from you, and that's all tied to one systemic problem: the Light system.
Leveling up is the most important thing you can do in Destiny, especially if you want to be competitive in the high-end raids. Enemies that are higher level than you will get bonus damage multipliers based on your level difference, so if you want to stand a chance against, say, the level-32 mobs in Crota's End, you'll have to be at least 30 or 31.
Because of that, the value of Destiny's armor is inextricably tied to its Light. No matter how much you love the ammo boost on your sweet purple chestpiece, you'll need to swap it out as soon as you find something with higher Light, or else you won't be able to contribute much to your raid fireteam.
This has led to three major problems. One is that every character feels exactly the same. Instead of making difficult, interesting choices about how to build your Guardian and what sort of gear to deck her out in, you get to wear whatever you're lucky enough to find in the newest raid. The only way to differentiate characters, other than their classes, is by the guns they use, and given that Xur the weekend vendor likes to pop up and sell the same powerful weapons to everyone—hello, Ice Breaker!—there's a lot of monotony. You only get four slots of armor, and you can only really use them for whatever gear has the highest Light.
The second problem is that it often feels pointless to put time and expensive upgrade materials into gear that you know you'll have to replace in the near future. Say you buy a pair of gloves with 33 Light in hopes of taking it through the newest raid, Crota's End. You could very well spend a few hours maxing out and pumping rare materials into those gloves, only to find a new 36-Light pair of gloves in just a few days. Demoralizing.
The final problem? When you find a new piece of armor, you'll have to upgrade it before it hits maximum Light, so high-level players will often find themselves losing levels when they equip more powerful gear. If I'm level 30 and I buy a bunch of 33-Light armor in hopes of hitting level 31, I'll likely get sent back to level 28 or 29 until I level up that new high-end gear. There are few things more damaging to morale than getting a sick new piece of armor and then watching it make your character less powerful, even if it's temporary.
When they launched The Dark Below, Bungie likely didn't want players to hit the level cap in just a few days—after all, once you hit level 32, there's not a whole lot left to do. So the developers implemented all sorts of arbitrary obstacles to ensure that players will keep grinding over the coming months.
First, they changed up raid gear, creating a new system for Crota's End in which the equipment you get from the new raid can only be upgraded by materials you get there. Since you can only snag a limited amount of loot from Crota's End on any given week before it resets—and since it takes a ton of these new "radiant" shards and energy to upgrade gear—it'll take quite some time for most players to grind their way to level 32.
Bungie also introduced a messy Exotic-upgrading system that is tied to the weekend vendor, forcing players to cross their fingers every Friday in hopes that he'll have the upgrades they need. Like with the raid, players just have to hope they get lucky every week. (You can read more about this bummer of a new system here.)
On top of that, the folks behind Destiny added yet another currency to a game that already has too many of them—this time it's "Commendation" packages, which arrive every time you hit a new rank in Vanguard (PvE) or Crucible (PvP). To buy the newest helmets or chestpieces from the vendor, you'll need these Commendations, and you'll need to grind a lot to get them.
Of course, these changes all arrive on top of the arbitrary obstacles that we're already used to, like the weekly 100-mark cap that will force most people to wait at least a couple of weeks before getting enough vendor gear to hit level 31. (See the pattern here?)
Ultimately, we wouldn't be running into any of these issues if the loot system and leveling system were two separate entities. If gear was independent from levels, we'd have more incentives to keep playing once we hit the level cap. And if we had more incentives to keep playing, Bungie wouldn't need to make us jump through thousands of hoops to hit the level cap in the first place. It'd all feel like way less of a grind.
Plus, armor could be more varied and way more interesting if we could evaluate it based on more than just its Light number—sort of like how we can with Destiny's top-tier weapons, which are great. Imagine if armor had that kind of variety? The designers could get more creative with stats and bonuses on gear, and hey, maybe they'd give us reasons to go back through the Vault of Glass again.
Weird thought: right now, no matter how much time you've pumped into Destiny, your character is still really just level 20. It says it right there in the menu screen. No matter how many hours you've spent upgrading gear and farming for materials, your character's top level is still just tied to what he or she is wearing. All it takes is a couple of dismantles for any character to zoom right back to 20. Because of this strange, innovative, ultimately crippling Light system, our characters are only as good as the gear they're wearing.