A couple of weeks ago, my regular Destiny crew stopped playing. It wasn't some big announced event, or something we had planned. Our loss of momentum started with a confluence of other, smaller occurrences. We took a few days off, then a few more. Then we weren't playing at all.
Once or twice, I'd be talking to my colleague and Destiny bro Jason Schreier about playing, and we'd both hem and haw and slowly realize that, to be honest, we'd rather do something else. It just wasn't worth our time.
We could both imagine what would happen if we did play: We'd spend an hour or so running through a difficult battle, a battle we'd played through a dozen times before. At the end, we'd be bitterly rewarded with booby prizes and useless junk. Rather than go through all that, we decided to stick a pin in it and go do other things.
And just like that, Destiny lost its hold over us.
We're not the only ones. A tide of discontent has swept the Destiny community, and many of the game's most dedicated players are announcing planned vacations. This isn't some grandiose, "We're fed up and we won't take it anymore!" thing, though that's not an uncommon sentiment. Rather, people who have put hundreds of hours into the game are finding that, for a variety of reasons, they're losing the motivation to play.
This development strikes me as a normal part of the progression for a game like Destiny. I was feeling it even a month ago, when I re-reviewed the game. My group was scraping up against the edges, and it was taking a toll. We were more irritable when we played, less joyful in our victories. Even our team email threads felt sharper, more weary.
Since its release last September, Destiny has performed a hopscotch dance between love and hate—it's the game you love to play, even as you're consciously, vocally angry at it for a number of failings. What's changed is that lately, the game's feet have landed more squarely on anger and irritation. It's harder and harder to keep one's chin up and soldier on.
The current 'exodus,' such as it is, is far from complete. Plenty of people are still playing and enjoying Destiny—heck, I still hop on for the occasional strike. Nor is it permanent—most of the people currently taking breaks won't stay gone for good. But it's a noteworthy development for one of the most talked-about games of the last six months, and represents yet another turning point for a game that's already had several.
As I was partway through writing this article, I saw a thread on the Destiny subbreddit titled "Who else feels like taking a break from Destiny until the next expansion?" I've seen that sentiment shared more and more at the various Destiny hubs I frequent, and this particular thread captured the zeitgeist.
"I broke 800 hours of combined gameplay," the original poster, temporarycreature, wrote, "and I'm just feeling bored and burned out. I'm not complaining. I am not threatening Bungie. I just hit a wall, and I don't feel like doing the same things over, and over, day in, and day out."
The thread has more than a thousand responses, many from other players who feel similarly. The whole thing boils down to carrots, basically.
"The main problem with the dangling of the carrot progression is, once you get the carrot (or enough bites of it), you really don't feel the need to keep chasing it," responds one player, supaloco.
"This whole thread makes me scared that Bungie will make the carrot harder to catch when [the House of Wolves expansion] comes out…" writes another player, banannabelle, in response. "I've minimized my playtime considerably since [Crota's End hard mode] came out, because I'm tired of chasing the carrot."
"Honestly, it doesn't matter where the[y] put the carrot anymore," a third player, Poor_cReddit, replies. "The problem is that everyone is sick of eating the carrot."
The carrots those players are talking about are the rewards Destiny offers players for completing missions, raids, strikes, and crucible matches. Dedicated players have easily put in at least three or four hundred hours with the game, and that's enough time to get almost every gun, upgrade, and piece of armor you could want.
Emphasis on the almost, however. Here's my situation, which I know is far from unique: I have three alt characters, two of which are level 32, and the last one could get there if I cared to farm the shards for it. Between those three, I have almost every single good exotic and legendary weapon in the game, aside from the coveted rocket launcher Gjallarhorn. I have almost every single good exotic armor piece in the game, aside from the coveted titan helmet Helm of Saint-14. There are a few more items that I wouldn't cry about getting, but those two exotic items are the only two I still "want" from the game.
There's no way to earn or work my way toward getting either of those things—I'm entirely at the mercy of the random number generator. My two best chances are to complete weekly Nightfall strikes and hope one of them drops, or hope that Xur turns up selling them one weekend. Both of those things are reliant on chance, meaning that the only way I can hope to get the items I still want is to pray for fortune to smile on me.
Guess what? That's a shitty way to play a game, especially one that rewards players as arbitrarily as Destiny does. It didn't take much mental algebra to figure out that my chances of having a Gjallarhorn drop are low enough that I might as well just stop playing altogether, sit on my hoard of strange coins, and wait for Xur to sell it again. It doesn't help that some exotics appear to be weighted to drop more often than others—I've had No Land Beyond, the worst exotic gun in the game, drop for me not once, not twice, but five times. At this point I just expect the thing to drop at the end of Nightfalls. It feels like Destiny is going out of its way to insult me.
Once more, this whole thing comes down to what I've already identified as Destiny's biggest flaw: There simply isn't enough stuff in the game. When every hardcore player has a near-identical loadout, and every player is still grinding away in hopes of getting the same rocket launcher, that's a sign that players have all hit the same wall. We've run out of things to do and rewards to earn because there simply weren't enough there in the first place.
And suddenly, I realize…
Oh, shit, I've started playing Destiny for the wrong reasons. In the past, I used to hassle Jason when he'd say there was "no reason" to do some mission or other. What he meant was, there's no useful loot we can get out of it. He was working under the assumption that we only play Destiny for the loot.
"But it'll be fun!" I'd counter. This game is, after all, fundamentally very fun to play. Surely that's enough?
Lately, my mentality has changed. I find myself performing cold mental calculations to determine the worth-itness of a given undertaking. I always did that, mind you, but nowadays, it's my primary calculation, rather than a secondary one.
When I try to step back and understand why my feelings have shifted, I can only come back to that old Destiny problem: There's not enough to do. I've played all of these levels so many times that they really just don't feel like rewards unto themselves anymore.
Each of my three characters is sitting on a nearly-full passel of completed bounties. I have no reason to turn them in. I haven't gotten a new weapon I wanted to level up in weeks, and all three of my characters have maxed out their armor.
Destiny's relentless focus on its own economy works right up until the game runs out of reasons for you to buy things. This game has many types of currency, from glimmer to strange coins to experience points themselves. But if there's nothing worthwhile to spend it on, currency becomes meaningless.
Many of us were optimistic about the high-level "hard mode" for the Crota's End raid. It launched almost a month ago, and it only took one or two attempts for us to realize that something was off.
There were few new ideas happening; in most ways, it was the same raid. The one major difference was that the enemies had all been kicked up to level 33, one level above players' level 32 cap, which artificially inflated the difficulty in a cheap and unenjoyable way.
Even the highest-level, most kitted-out team will have an exceptionally difficult time playing the first two sections of the raid legit (i.e. without using some sort of crafty strategy or cheese). That's not because the challenge has been enhanced in an interesting or fun way—there aren't, say, twice as many thralls in the abyss, or a more complicated routine at the sword bridge—it's simply because the enemies will now one- or two-shot you, because they're all at least one level higher than you are. Ugh.
I've already gone on at length about why the Vault of Glass is a better raid than Crota's End, so instead of doing that all over again, I'll share a story: A few weeks ago, some of my regular raid buddies and I wound up trying to beat Crota on hard. We got a pretty good group together, and had our strategy worked out.
We tried, and failed, tried and failed, tried and failed again. Often, we were defeated by bugs, inconsistent behavior from Crota, or the old vanishing sword problem.
Other times the Swordbearer AI would act up and momentarily throw us off our game, which in Hard Mode is as good as having your whole team die.
I was running late to meet some friends for dinner, but I decided to try one more time, and we failed. So I tried again; we failed again. I finally tore myself away—I was late to dinner, and I had to let go of the notion that we were on the verge of beating Crota. I left the fireteam, and they replaced me with someone from an LFG site.
A short while later, I was away from my PS4, having a drink with my friends. I had sheepishly arrived about 20 minutes late, and we had immediately begun talking about things that were not Destiny. The game was still buzzing in my head, but the buzz was fading. I texted Jason: "Hey, if you guys beat him, let me know!" Then, a couple of hours after that: "Did you beat him?"
"Nope," he finally responded. "The others might have. I eventually dropped out."
I had been certain we were mere minutes from defeating Crota. I had been wrong. It turns out the group did defeat him, but only after several more hours beating their heads against it. I've never been so glad I left a raid early.
I found myself mildly mortified that I had been rudely late to meet my friends, all because I'd decided to stick it out in a futile attempt to defeat a buggy boss who had been specifically designed to be unfairly difficult. Maybe, I reflected, it really was time to stop playing so much Destiny.
Weekends are an exciting time in the world of Destiny, because that's when Xur comes. Like a sad Santa with a mostly empty sack on his shoulder, the Tentacle-Faced One arrives and, inevitably, disappoints the shit out of everyone.
I've talked in the past about why Xur is generally so disappointing—most players already have most of the exotic items they need, so it's much more likely that Xur will turn up selling stuff they already have or don't want. And of course, some of the bitterness around Xur will dissipate if he turns up next week selling Gjallarhorn, or the Heart of Praxic Fire, or the Helm of Saint-14. The Ice Breaker honeymoon lasted at least a week.
Rare good days notwithstanding, Xur's stock has been so consistently lackluster that it's hard to fully wash away the sour odor he's left in his various corners of the Tower. Bungie has been notoriously vague about the algorithm that determines what he sells each week, but while I believe them that it's randomly generated, it would appear that some items are weighted much more heavily than others. Oh look, he's selling No Land Beyond again. Oh hey, it's Plan C. Oh neat, Sunbreakers.
At the cusp of every Friday, 1AM Pacific, I visit the Tower to witness an event I like to think of as "The Running of the Xur." A bunch of guardians all arrive at once and begin tearing around the Tower like kids playing hide-and-seek, looking for Xur in his new weekly hiding spot. It's a great deal of fun, and one of my favorite activities in Destiny. But Xur's stock has been so roundly disappointing, so many times in a row, that I'm probably going to stop. I'd rather sleep than stay up late just to be let down.
One of the biggest problems with Xur's inventory hasn't been his weapons or his armor, it's been the fact that he hasn't been consistently selling heavy weapon ammo. That's because…
Of all the bugs in Destiny—and there are a lot of bugs in Destiny—one stands apart in the minds of players: The heavy ammo bug. In the game, if you die while wearing a piece of armor that increases your heavy ammo capacity, you actually lose some ammo. Maybe one or two rockets, or some heavy machine-gun rounds. Die multiple times, and your stock of seven rockets will be reduced to one or two.
This wouldn't ordinarily be all that big a deal, but several factors stack on top of one another and make it into a much bigger problem than it first seems.
- Heavy ammo is crucial for Crota's End. Defeating Crota requires everyone to use a lot of heavy ammo with precision timing, and if someone on your team runs out of rockets, it can blow the run for everyone.
- Fighting Crota also requires a lot of trial and error, meaning that teams will frequently need to "wipe," or all die so that they can restart.
- The raid armor that lets you get to level 32 has a perk that raises your heavy ammo, meaning that the raid armor—specifically, the leg armor—triggers the heavy ammo bug. Every time you wipe while wearing raid armor (which almost everyone wears during a hard mode raid), every person on your team will lose some of their heavy ammo.
- Heavy ammo is relatively difficult to find in the field, meaning that the most sure-fire way to get it is to use heavy ammo "synths," or single-use packs you can buy that replenish all of your heavy ammo in the field.
- It's possible to pop a heavy ammo pack, then have your team wipe several times and lose all of the ammo you just got, not because you used it, but because the bug drained it away.
- A heavy ammo pack costs nearly 1,000 glimmer at the gunsmith, so if you run out of heavy ammo packs and want to go raiding, first you'll have to spend a big chunk of time mindlessly grinding glimmer at the exclusion zone.
- Xur sells heavy ammo packs for relatively cheap, so when he has them in stock, it's a great way for hardcore raiders to stock up. The problem is that he hasn't sold heavy ammo packs for several weeks now, meaning that anyone who's been farming Crota's End Hard Mode has probably run out of heavy ammo packs and has been forced to farm the Exclusion Zone multiple times when they'd rather be off playing the raid.
In other words, players need heavy ammo to beat Crota, but Crota frequently kills the entire team, and the bug drains them of their heavy ammo as they die. Xur hasn't sold heavy ammo in a while, so players need to go and perform thankless grinding in order to get more heavy ammo so they can go fight Crota again. And on, and on, and on.
The whole thing creates a nasty circle of blame between players, Bungie, and Bungie's proxy, Xur. How frustrating, then, that Bungie would abdicate responsibility for a legitimate player grievance, throwing up their hands and saying, "Hey, we don't control Xur! Be mad at him, not us!" Give me a break.
At the heart of the problem, of course, is the fact that the heavy ammo bug exists in the first place, and that it's been allowed to persist for so long. Bungie says they're going to patch the bug sometime this month—they've said it's difficult to fix, and I'll have to take their word for it. But in the meantime, players (justly) feel that the least the game's creators could do would be to ensure that Xur carries heavy ammo until the bug is fixed.
It's an understandable request, and so it's all the more irritating when Xur turns up for yet another weekend with no heavy ammo packs. The cycle repeats, and players who are already feeling the gnaw of the time-sink must spend many more hours mindlessly grinding for glimmer. It's enough to make even the most dedicated player consider throwing in the towel.
Meanwhile, Bungie continues to tweak and fine-tune their game, but they're changing things players don't want changed while leaving in things players hate. To put it another way: They're addressing and correcting bugs that favor players, while leaving in bugs that work against players. That approach is certainly not helped by the smarmy, "wink-wink, you know you love us" tone of the Bungie Weekly Update, which frequently shares a bushel of bad news while playfully punching us in the arm about it.
The next announced change will introduce a bevy of minor tweaks to the game's arsenal, many of which will lower the range and utility of the most popular weapons in the game. (The chart above is via Bungie and tracks gun usage.) The loudest grumbles from players aren't necessarily from people who don't think Bungie should address balance issues in the game's weapons—particularly for PvP play, where balance is crucial—they come from people who would like to feel that Bungie is more actively addressing players' complaints, rather than fixating on some internal concept of how the game "should" play.
A couple weeks ago, Bungie designer Luke Smith sounded off on NeoGAF in the middle of the night with a clear, no-bullshit post about the lessons learned from The Dark Below, the new approaches they'll be taking with the next expansion, and all the mistakes they won't repeat.
Smith's post was precisely the sort of thing Destiny players want to see, not only because it promised actual improvements, but because it was respectful of players and addressed their concerns with relative clarity. Why Bungie won't include that sort of information in their own official updates is beyond me.
If Destiny is going to succeed in the long term, Bungie is going to have to significantly improve their communication skills. Hopefully the community's response to Bungie's many lousy official updates—and their single, seemingly unauthorized, good one—has been instructive.
The Destiny of today has lost some sparkle for a lot of hardcore players, so the natural inclination has been to look forward. That means talking about House of Wolves, the second of two planned expansions for 2015, before the rumored, larger "comet" expansion hits this coming fall.
Hopes for House of Wolves are high—too high, most likely. To hear Smith tell it, it does sound as though the second expansion won't repeat the most egregious mistakes of the first one: Vendor armor won't immediately beat your Crota's End armor, and exotic weapons won't have to be re-leveled from zero. But those are two mistakes Bungie shouldn't have made in the first place, and not repeating them should be the least we expect.
Will House of Wolves add a complex and challenging raid with a rewarding and well-designed hard mode? Will it give us more modes with which to play story missions, and some new challenges that actually feel different from the existing ones? Will it include new weapons and armor that actually, substantially change the way we play and enjoy the game? Will it add more new modes and functionality to crucible, and finally manage to coax PvE-centric players like me into playing more?
Maybe, maybe not. But no matter how good or disappointing it turns out to be, House of Wolves isn't coming out for a good long while. Bungie said in their latest update that it'll be out sometime between April and June. So, let's say it comes out in May. There's a long, cold couple of months between then and now, especially for anyone who already feels like they're going through the motions. It's only natural that some people would stop playing, at least for the time being.
If all of this sounds a bit apocalyptic, rest assured, it isn't. With every Destiny article I write, there are several people who respond by saying something like, "I never got the hype," or, "I played for a week, then traded it in. Whatever." I'm certain the comments below this article will be filled with many more of those folks, smilingly sharing the fact that they stopped playing long ago.
I'm not speaking for those people. I'm also not talking about newer, more relaxed players, some of whom have only recently gotten into Destiny, and who seem content to slowly chew through levels and earn new gear. Those players have probably got it best right now, partly because their restraint has led them to the least thankless way to play Destiny, and partly because grizzled veterans like me find a surprising amount of joy in taking new players through the raids and strikes and experiencing the game fresh through their uninitiated eyes.
When I talk about dedicated Destiny players leaving, I'm talking about people who, like me, fundamentally dig the heck out of Destiny. I'm talking about people who have sunk hundreds of hours into the game and are planning to be playing it off and on for the next several years at least.
For those people, this sort of ebb and flow is normal. It's understandable that someone could put 400 hours into a game, burn out, take a break, and come back with the next expansion. That's been the way of MMOs for years. Unlike almost every other game I play, Destiny makes me feel like my progress is "safe," like it'll be around for years to come. I can afford to take a few months off, because my three characters will be right there waiting for me when I return. We're in this for the long haul.
But our likely return doesn't mean that Bungie can just sit back, relax, and enjoy the downtime. They've screwed up enough things recently that we're going to need some specific reassurance that speaks directly to our concerns and doesn't waste our time. To that end, Bungie would be well-served by more Luke Smith-type updates, and fewer bullshitty jokes about the Cryptarch. Maybe they could even put those updates on the company blog, instead of posting to gaming forums in the dead of night. Crazy idea, I know.
With that said, it is still possible that Bungie could blow this whole thing. If they don't eventually scrape together the game that so many of us can sense is inside of Destiny, some other studio will, and we'll all go play that. One of Destiny's greatest assets has been that there isn't anything else quite like it, and as long as that's the case, Bungie will find it pretty easy to coax lapsed players back to the fold. But that won't always be the case, and you can bet that there are some future competitors out there right now, testing their own prototypes and taking notes.
For my part, I'll be back for House of Wolves. Heck, if Bungie brings back the Queen's Wrath, or releases a significant upgrade for the Vault of Glass, I'll go back even earlier. Failing that sort of an update, it's likely that my Destiny playing will remain on the wane. I'd love a good reason to come back, but that's what it'll take: A good reason.