If you haven't noticed from my output on this site by now, I am quite invested in Destiny 2. I was there for the doldrums of its launch in 2017 and its bevy of mediocre support. I was there when it slowly shifted into a free-to-play model with an ongoing seasonal story, leading to its second wind. And I've been around long enough to see this very model have its detractors and defenders alike.
Now that Season of the Lost is effectively on hiatus, let's examine the overall benefits and downsides of this free-to-play model.
1. The Shared Communal Experience
Way back when the original Destiny launched in 2014, there was an infamous cutscene where the player's Guardian was talking to a character called The Speaker. Your character asks him a simple question about the history of the world, and The Speaker teases you with hints of a great battle and how many lives were lost, all dressed up with the game's signature flowery dialogue. Yet, within two and a half minutes of screentime, all of the dialogue amounted to “I could explain your place in this world and why we fight, but I'll just keep that to myself to string you along.”
Unless you jumped through a bunch of hoops, put the coffee on, then read up on lore on a completely separate web browser, you were left completely in the dark.
I bring this up because it perfectly encapsulated Destiny's longest running problem: there is a lot of lore and no real plot. There are vast swaths of history full of shifting alliances, tragedy, the destruction of entire solar systems, deals with dark gods, phenomena that have ripped the very fabric of existence to ribbons, the rise and fall of empires, and hundreds of years of shifting alliances, but the player's involvement in the world amounted to fighting something they are told is dangerous. For all of the grandiose statements and heroic framing, the player was barely involved in what pushed the story forward.
Put this in contrast to how more invested the player base is now. Season of the Splicer, despite it being set in Destiny's fantastical world, told a pretty gripping story about diplomacy, hatred, propaganda, and the many different ways peaceful resolution of long-standing conflict can go horribly wrong. There was genuine pathos to be found. Players felt like they were helping push this story forward -- all thanks to some well-placed set-piece missions and voice-over dialogue.
This is the kind of engagement that goes beyond just watching numbers go up or grinding bounties. It's no mistake that Destiny 2's seasons feel similar to prestige television with its overall structure. Considering that the stories are focusing more on characters and the machinations of organizations more than the grand cosmic space opera stuff that the premium expansions cover, it is not a bad comparison to make. People actively log in every single week to see what will happen next, eager to see how characters will progress.
On the development side of things, it is no surprise that making new content for a player base is hard. No matter how your resources are allocated, you're not going to please everyone. As many other games-as-a-service platforms have learned over the years, if you don't have a steady development pipeline, you will hemorrhage players. Worse still, if you start taking advantage of them, you will lose more even faster.
Enter Destiny 2's seasonal structure. Devoid of narrative context or cutscenes, the new activities introduced each season are pretty basic. With all due respect to the audiovisual team, most of the group activities amount to “defend a location, get some keys, carry or throw an item to somewhere or at something, then boss fight.” The single-player missions and content fare much better in this regard, but it's still noticeable.
But this is a feature, not a bug. Using these familiar templates and reward systems, Bungie is able to keep players engaged with the game without investing too much time and resources. It's simple, but it works.
1. Feature Accretion
If you've never played Destiny 2 and booted it up, you would be overwhelmed. Not necessarily by the new player experience, but by the sheer amount of content to keep track of.
Like most MMOs that go on long enough, new activities, questlines, and contextual resources are added over time on top of the more familiar trappings. When Destiny 2 started, it just had campaign story missions, PvE Strikes, PvP Crucible, and endgame Raids. Now at time of writing, it has included multiple PvE activities with Battlegrounds and Override (which have their own unique items to determine rewards), two different co-op defense missions -- the Blind Well and the Altars of Sorrow (both marked with vague symbols on the Destination menu) -- three Dungeons, at least five location-specific currencies and items, two different vendor locations -- the HELM and the Tower -- and a PvPvE activity called Gambit. On top of all of that, various activities now have adjustable difficulty levels with modifiers, some of which are tied to certain weapon mods.
Even for more seasoned players, this kind of bloat can be seen as an issue. Each time you sit down to play, it becomes more a matter of “optimizing” your time. What gives you the best gear? What levels up your Season Pass the quickest? What gets you the most Bright Dust? The list goes on.
While this kind of ongoing design can't really be avoided with games of this kind, it does lead to some problems. Without the narrative context and ongoing nature of Season of the Chosen, the Battlegrounds activity is just this impenetrable activity on the map. There is no explanation to how you unlock rewards, nor is there any real tutorial for how it works.
This is the norm for everything introduced throughout the prior seasons, this underlying sense of FOMO. You're either there for the current season when things are happening, or you're stuck with the leftovers.
While Bungie has confirmed that Destiny 2's activities will get a wide-spead refresh with the launch of its next premium expansion, there needs to be a more elegant solution to giving them more of a shelf life outside of their premiere.
2. Focus and Scale
I had a conversation with someone who dropped out of playing Destiny 2. I talked with him about the ongoing developments throughout 2021's seasons -- like Crow's ongoing character arc with being accepted by the Vanguard while uncovering his past, the attempt at a military coup by Lakshmi against the Tower, Saint-14 coming to terms with his unknowing role of genocide and the hard road to diplomatic reconciliation with Mithrax, or the tenuous alliance formed between the Cabal's Empress Caiatl and the Vanguard's Zavala.
He was quite intrigued by these developments. But when asked if he would return to the game, he shrugged and said he would wait until the The Witch Queen expansion, his reasons being it would be when “the big, important stuff happens.”
While this can be read as backhanded, it does highlight a flaw with these seasonal narratives. As well-written and well developed these smaller scale stories are, they're mostly filler. In some cases, the Seasons can feel little more than setting bases, mere advertisements for the next premium expansion. The most blatant example of this being Season of Arrivals, the same season that debuted the Destiny Content Vault, setting the stage for Beyond Light.
And aside from occasionally new things like a new Strike or Dungeon being added, major changes only come with the paid premium expansions. Forsaken introduced new subclass skill trees alongside the death of Cayde-6. Shadowkeep brought back the Moon and a handful of new activities as well as pushed the narrative forward regarding the presence of The Darkness. Beyond Light brought the Stasis subclasses as well as major story revelations regarding the nature of The Darkness and the Exo Stranger, all while questioning the moral simplicity of the Vanguard.
Finally, there is the fact that the majority of this content has been PvE focused. Aside from the flawless matchmaking experiment that happened with Trials of Osiris this year, there has been no major additions or changes to any PvP in Destiny 2. Similarly, Gambit has received no major updates since the merging of Gambit and Gambit Prime in Beyond Light. It's a problem with no easy answers. While PvP is still a key part of this game, it's not a dedicated sport experience. But that is still an element of the community that deserves a bit more support.
Compared to other live-service platforms available, Destiny 2 has managed to fare a lot better than most. It's managed to keep itself in conversation with its ongoing narratives while providing players with a steady stream of reliable content all while working on major expansions. At the same time, it struggles with other vital elements and keeping those players together while those stories are being told. As for how that model will change from 2022 onward, it can only get better.