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Destiny 2: how Bungie wants to keep it casual with its massive sequel

Bungie, the Seattle-based games developer, has a strange problem with its multimillion-selling space shooter, Destiny: the fans play it too much. They have ploughed thousands of hours into the game, the studio’s first since it split from Microsoft and stopped working on the Halo series. I’ve put more than 10 full days into it over the past three years, and I consider myself a casual player.

But it can be hard to convince people to try out a game if they think they’re buying a whole new life. “We’ve joked internally about Destiny 1 being this game where you open it up and inside there’s a DVD, and right next to it is a wedding ring,” says Mark Noseworthy, the project lead on the game’s sequel, Destiny 2, which is released on Wednesday. “You felt: ‘Wow, I’ve really got to commit to this thing, and I can’t play anything else.’”

With the sequel, Bungie faces a difficult task: how do you entice a player who just wants to dip into a game for a week or a month before moving on to the next big thing, while still producing a game that gives the diehards another thousand hours of fun? The answer the designers have come up with is to lean on something that the series hasn’t exactly excelled in to date: the story.

The opening of the first Destiny involved … wandering around a big field then finding a ship. Then wandering around the field a bit more until Tyrion Lannister told you a Wizard came from the moon. It wasn’t a strong start. Peter Dinklage’s controversial role in the game was rerecorded, but still, most people got to the end of the 20-hour campaign mode thinking: “What did I just see?”

If you’ve played the beta of Destiny 2, you’ll know that it begins with a punch. A Cabal faction attacks the Tower, the last safe place for humans on Earth. The Traveller, a mysterious planet-sized entity that came to aid humanity, is put in chains. Your Guardian is stripped of their powers and pushed off a spaceship. Even if you’ve not played Destiny before – and so a substantial portion of those words are essentially meaningless to you – it’s clear what the stakes are. It’s clear, simply, that there are stakes.

But it’s the portion of Destiny 2 that immediately follows the beta segment that is most interesting (and spoilers for the second 30 minutes of the game will now follow). Your powerless Guardian stumbles through the ruins of the City, and then out into the snowcapped mountains that surround it. Strings swell, time passes, and still you simply fight to survive, the smallest enemies posing an existential threat.

The opening of Destiny 2 has a “story”, but this section goes further: it has actual narrative design.

A smouldering fortress in the European Dead Zone sits in the middle of a Crucible map.
 A smouldering fortress in the European Dead Zone sits in the middle of a Crucible map. Photograph: Bungie

I should check myself, slightly. Barring a radical departure in the last couple of missions – in the preview version of the game they provided access to, Bungie kept the ending under lock and key – the plot of Destiny 2 is still, ultimately, all so much Space Nonsense. The writing shows verve, decisions make sense, and the characters have, well, character – but it’s not like Destiny has suddenly become Bioshock, Half-Life or even Halo.

Nonetheless, if Bungie succeeds, it could become a game that people will pick up to play through the story mode, not simply to secure a new hobby. “We’re building Destiny 2 to really have a great campaign, where you can sit down and play through the story and have a really great time,” says Noseworthy. “If you’re finished, and you’re like, ‘look, this is the amount of time I can spend on a video game,’ then you can put it down and feel satisfied. ‘I did it. I saved the world.’”

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Of course, that’s when the next stage of Bungie’s plan comes into play.

The loop

The hope is that as you play through the campaign, two things will happen to you: first, you’ll find what Noseworthy calls “that classic Bungie 30 seconds of fun”: the expertise that it has shown for designing compact action that succeeds on a deeply primal and emotional level. Destiny 2 game director, Luke Smith, put it in a more T-for-Teen manner in an interview with Edge magazine when he told them that “shooting aliens is fucking relaxing”.

It’s a skill that the developer honed through its years creating Halo, but one which really came to matter in the first era of Destiny. Shorn of story, the game became about pure experiences. Some, like the epic raids which cap each year of Destiny, are hours long, but others, like the experience of dropping into a gaggle of Fallen dregs and taking them out with a few swift headshots and a throwing knife, are snappy.

Both, though, rely on the slickness of the mechanics and the combat design: one naff-sounding gun, or delayed enemy response, and the magic is gone. So it’s a good thing that by the end of the story mode, those moments still stick as strongly as they did at the start. Even more, in fact, since as well as your character slowly gaining powers throughout the game, it’s also more generous with exotic equipment than Destiny 1 – those weapons and armour with game-changing perks and suitably elaborate appearances to match.

The thirty seconds of fun is what most Destiny players eventually come back to if you ask them (us) why they (we) play. Noseworthy describes it as analogous to golf: “Some people play golf every single day, and others play it once a month, but it’s still a hobby for both those players.” The important thing about playing golf is that no matter how seriously you take it, if the hole-to-hole rigmarole of making shots stops being fun, you’ll probably stop playing.

But the second reason the team hopes you’ll carry on playing is the dark art of Destiny: it’s the loot loop that gels those experiences together into a coherent game and ultimately keeps you coming back for more.

The European Dead Zone, as seen from the in-game map.
 The European Dead Zone, as seen from the in-game map. Photograph: Bungie

In Destiny 2, about three-quarters of the way through the game, just before you head into the last act, the game puts you on a time-out, requiring you to reach level 15 before you continue. It’s a welcome change of pace for those who’ve been powering through the story missions, pointing you in the direction of some of the side-quests, adventures, and PvP multiplayer.

It’s also a far better introduction to the end-game activities than was ever found in the first game, which unceremoniously dropped players out of the story with just a rare rifle and a nonsensical cliffhanger. By the time you finish Destiny 2, you already understand the concept of running strikes through the Vanguard Playlist, completing daily patrol challenges for loot, and jetting around the four zones seeking out public events.

You may find that loop does nothing for you, and put the game down satisfied after you finish the last story mission. Or you may find yourself falling headfirst down the Destiny hole, constantly being on the edge of getting the next good drop, and always feeling that success is just around the corner.

That progression is the last big unanswered question about Destiny 2. With a day-one patch changing some of the mechanics, according to Bungie, it’s not something I can elaborate on that much. But the team has clearly learned its lesson from the bad old days of the first Destiny, when a miserly reward resulted in players standing outside a bugged spawn point shooting infinite waves of enemies for hours on end. The new game feels more generous, with meaningful rewards arriving at a much more predictable rate.

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That’s what Noseworthy hopes you’ll think. “Hopefully,” he says, “you like the game enough, you like the mechanics, that you want to keep playing. You’re like, ‘well I may have saved the universe, but I still don’t have that gun I really want.’ Or there’s a part of the universe you haven’t explored. Or there’s an activity, like a nightfall, that you really want to do.

“And then suddenly, slippery slope, you’re playing with people on Tuesday night for fun.”

There may not be a wedding ring in the box any more, but don’t let you think that means Bungie is only looking for a casual relationship.

Read more at theguardian.com

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