I remember it like it was yesterday. My Guardian, hobbled by his low power level and horrendously subpar weapons, felt at first so weak and incapable. He was struggling to reclaim the light that would restore him to glory, and by extension let me once again feel the rush of superpowers and the thrill of endless firefights.
Now, one month into Destiny 2, my Hunter is an all-powerful, emperor-slaying, magic-wielding warrior who fears nothing. In fact, I’m in control of two of those resolute superheroes; I’ve created my second character in the game, a Titan, and leveled up that Guardian to nearly as high as she can go. I still have a third character to start, a Warlock in the waiting, with a new gear set to collect and powers to unlock.
It’s been approximately 30 days since the release of Destiny 2, Bungie’s much anticipated sequel to its online-only shooter-MMO hybrid. There’s been a fair number of controversies along the way, as to be expected with the tumultuous Destiny fanbase. Players have mourned the loss of infinite-use shaders, items that can change the color of our armor and weapons. They’ve complained about specific design changes, like the loss of gun “rolls” that now makes every weapon drop exactly the same. (A blessing, if you ask me.) Diehard fans are now complaining about not having enough stuff to do, at a time when it feels like every player is racing some imaginary clock to vacuum up everything the game has to offer.
But, a month into Destiny 2, I still feel infinitely more satisfied than I expected I would. The game’s core promise of a more respectful, thoughtful, and less all-consuming experience has held up. I feel more fulfilled and less exhausted than I think I’ve ever felt with Destiny in the past — and that’s coming from a player who spent a mind-boggling 1,350 hours on the first game and about 80 hours on its sequel. It’s never been easier to be a “hardcore” Destiny player, because Bungie has greased the game’s wheels and removed the friction points that made its first iteration so frustrating.
A lot of this has to do with how the developer shifted its focus, realigned where it put resources, and altered which metrics it decided were valuable. The first Destiny felt like a treadmill, in which Bungie didn’t try all that hard to dress up its elaborate Skinner boxes. Players spent hours roaming around near-lifeless environments collecting materials the game required them to have, and running the same activities countless times in hopes for one specific item to drop. All of this seemed to be in service to Bungie’s specific targets: pumping up concurrent player counts, increasing time played per day and per week, and creating addictive hooks for people to treat Destiny as if it were the only game they could ever play at any given time.
In Destiny 2, hardcore players still perform activities in these aggressive, painful loops and play with the same fervor. Bungie’s social lead, M.E. Chung, told me way back in May that they know they can never keep pace with that type of player. But the people playing Destiny that way aren’t really getting as much out of it as they used to. The delta between someone who plays 30 hours a week and someone who plays five has never been smaller, largely because Bungie decided to stop wasting our time quite as much. Weapons no longer need to be upgraded using arcane materials, while clear-cut questlines make earning the best stuff more accessible.
Most important are the milestones. Every week the game provides you with a list, where you can see how to earn guaranteed loot drops in a way that makes it easier to understand how you should be spending your time, if your goal is to get more powerful and flesh out your collection of gear. These milestones are fixed — complete the variable nightfall strike, run a number of collaborative public events, play a handful of Crucible multiplayer matches — and they create a sensible flow for players to hop on, work toward something concrete, and sign off when they need to.
If you feel like playing Destiny 2 for six hours on a Tuesday night, after the milestones reset, you can do that and then not play again for a week and feel like you’re not falling behind. You can also stretch it out over four or five days. Of course, you can always play more than that. Bungie gives players plenty of activities that go behind a single night’s session, like the multi-hour raid and the repeat milestones that appear for each of your two other characters — if you choose to have them. The social aspect also remains fully intact, in which you help your friends complete tasks because you want to help them out. But gone is the feeling of never being able to keep pace with the hardest of the hardcore. (It’s important to note that the game is still largely incompatible with a lot of players’ lifestyles, including those who travel frequently for work or have small children.)
This all is may have the effect of keeping players from sinking too much time into Destiny 2, at least compared with the level the fan base engaged with the first game. This is the core complaint of the hardcore Destiny community right now. The game’s subreddit is rife with complaints that the game doesn’t respect its most dedicated players and doesn’t have as much of a “grind,” or a series of activities, goals, and progression systems defined by how much time they take. They miss doing activities other players hated, and are upset with Bungie for failing to balance its mainstream ambitions with what they felt made the first game great for them personally.
Some players think it’s a bad business decision, but that logic doesn’t hold up. Bungie, the creator of perhaps the most mainstream first-person shooter franchise besides Call of Duty, wants as many people playing Destiny as possible. That’s especially true when you consider that, unlike subscription-based online games, the developer and publisher Activision make money on game and expansions sales. Bungie has our money, and now it wants to make sure the largest contingent of players stick around for future expansions and convince their friends to join in, instead of catering to only the hardest of hardcore who bought in day one and have playing incessantly since.
Beyond the numbers, Bungie has made clear that this was the direction it was headed. As I reported back in May, when Bungie first unveiled Destiny 2, it was always the plan to turn the sequel into more of a social hobby instead of a second job. It inspired ridicule among the most cynical players in the community when Bungie community manager David “Deej” Dague wrote last week that “the ultimate loot is the friendships that can grow out of a game like this.” Yet he was making as much a philosophical argument for the game’s purpose as he was defending his employer’s decisions, which have come under constant fire from the vocal minority on Reddit and elsewhere.
Why would Bungie want to create a game that inspires dysfunctional relationships and appeals only to a small niche of intensely committed players? I wouldn’t, and it’s silly to expect the makers of Halo to want to either. You can get all-consuming escapism in many ways, but not Destiny 2 it seems like.
It took me what felt like a full year and a half of sinking deep into the first Destiny to have the realization that I can and should break away and play other things. Now, just a month into Destiny 2, I’m taking hiatuses to play Epic’s PUBG clone Fortnite and the indie platformer Cuphead. I even made time to play through all of Sonic Mania last week. It’s refreshing to think of Destiny as something productive and fun that fits into my life, instead of a title that consumes it in full.
Perhaps Bungie’s biggest achievement here isn’t in all these subtle quality-of-life changes, but in turning an otherwise addictive video game into something that doesn’t take over your life. Destiny still isn’t, and won’t ever, be as meaty as World of Warcraft, but it’s also so much more than your standard Call of Duty or Halo. It feels like the series has settled into its role, even if some fans vehemently disagree with where it’s landed and want it to be something else or something more. Destiny is a game mostly about hanging out with friends in a virtual space. That you can do so without feeling like you and your friends have a grueling double life is a resounding success in my book.
I still plan on playing a lot of the game — but it’s good to know I can now do it on my terms.