Destiny is two years old today.
Normally I wouldn't care about this sort of thing, but Destiny is a prime example of "Games as a Service" (GaaS) - a game that's run as an ongoing live service, rather than simply sold as a product and handed over to players to do what they want with. It's a significant distinction in the sense that GaaS don't just sit inert on their discs and age indefinitely, but grow and evolve and transform... until their servers are shut down, at which point they usually cease to exist. The transience of these popular, multi-million dollar games is something I've been thinking about a lot in recent years.
As a design concept, GaaS traces its roots back through MMOs like World of Warcraft, Everquest, and even old BBS games. As a business model - which is probably a bigger influencing factor in their popularity - I'd say it's really inspired by the growth of the Free To Play market over the last decade or so. Destiny is very much a big-budget, triple-A video game that will cost you a good chunk of money to get into, but it also features lots of little microtransactions and fresh seasonal content that Bungie hope will whittle more money out of you over time.
So, when I say Destiny is two years old, I'm not just making a historical point about it being released two years ago, but observing a unique milestone: Destiny has burned through two years of its very finite lifespan. Like Roy Batty, Destiny is rumbling inexorably towards oblivion. I'm sure it'll still be around to see its third birthday, but Destiny 2 is due out sometime next year, and that's when the death clock will really start ticking. Once the sequel is out, Destiny's survival will likely rest on a monthly analysis of income vs. server costs.
The next big expansion pack - Rise of Iron - is due out in about a week and a half. Your heroic Guardian will visit some new locations, shoot some new enemies who look a lot like the old enemies, collect new equipment with slightly higher stats than their old equipment, fight new bosses who are essentially big versions of the new enemies, and so on. As you contemplate the impermanence of this new content, the futility of each incremental stat increase, you will feel a haunting awareness of your own mortality - a preoccupying thought that you too will one day suffer a metaphysical server shutdown and become a footnote in history
I have preordered my copy.
According to destinystats.com I've put almost 480 hours into Destiny over the last two years (killing over 60,000 aliens in the process, stat-fans). It's never come close to entering my list of favourite games, but it is still my go-to game when I'm looking to unwind after a day at work. It fulfils a role in my life that you might associate with a game like Candy Crush Saga - I know that at any given moment I can drop in, blow some aliens' heads off, and watch my stats go up a little - the same basic stuff every time, but with a constant sense of progressing toward the next little milestone. Right now I can list the following short-term objectives off the top of my head:
- I'm 3 PvP match victories away from unlocking a super-rare Exotic Cloak (which I have no intention of actually wearing - it doesn't match my outfit and provides no practical benefits over my existing cloaks, but it's rare and I want it)
- I need to complete a particular boss battle with one slightly awkward added restriction (which I'll probably need two friends to help with) to unlock a moderately-rare Exotic Sword (which, again, I probably won't actually use very often because I'd rather be wielding one of my beautiful baby Exotic Shotguns instead, but it's rare and I want it)
- Back to PvP, I'm 3-8 Elimination mode matches (the precise number varies depending on whether I win or lose) away from unlocking another quest where I'll have to win a load more PvP matches, but once I finish that I'll be ticking off another objective in my Year 2 log book and, if I've also done the sword thing described in point (2), I'll unlock a new-but-plain-looking emblem I could put on my user profile (although obviously I won't because the best emblem was, is, and will always be the Future War Cult graffiti logo I've been using since week two, but it's rare and... urgh, I'm not gonna lie, I don't even want it particularly, but... it's there)
In these terms, Destiny might sound like a pointless treadmill - we often joke that it's a game about making numbers go up - so it's worth emphasising that there is a high quality manshoot game in there as well (albeit one with terrible writing). The high-level activities (like Raids and the Trials of Osiris - a sort of ad-hoc PvP knockout tournament) are particularly good, although they require you to round up a few friends with high-level equipment to join you; it's really only when you focus on the long-term solo experience that all these tedious retention features become prominent.
It's the tedious retention features that have really defined my experience of the game, however.
I'm not saying that Destiny's seemingly-endless list of objectives makes for a truly great game experience, but it hits a nice sweet spot when you just want to shoot things for an hour and make numbers go up. And it's not like I don't have other options - I maintain a small pile of old, unplayed games near my TV, ready to be dug into when the mood takes me. But, as anyone who followed my progress through Metroid Prime on Twitter recently may have noticed, I think I've become less tolerant of "old school" game design tropes in recent years. I no longer have the time to search for hidden items, backtrack across half the map to find a save point, or lose an hour of progress by being killed.
I think this kind of low-friction, drop-in/drop-out experience is exactly what players of a certain age need in all their games, and I think we games people tend to underappreciate the impact casual games like Candy Crush Saga and Farmville have had through concepts like this. I think the triple-A games industry - inasmuch as it'll still exist by then - is going to adopt a lot more of these casual influences over the next ten years, and that's great news for players who have grown-up stuff to do in their lives.
Indie games aside, my PS4 game collection looks something like this:
- Metal Gear Solid V
- Street Fighter V
- GTA V
- Dragon Age: Inquisition (3rd in the series)
- Battlefield 4
- Yakuza: Ishin! (~7th in the series)
- Hitman (6th in the series)
With the exception of Destiny, these are all sequels in long-running franchises dating back to the PS2 era or beyond; for what it's worth, you could even argue that Destiny is a spiritual descendant of Halo 2. What's more, many of these games seemed to have ambitions larger than their budgets. I'm Johnny Metal Gear, but by the time I reached the final act of The Phantom Pain I was starting to feel like I really had spent six months trapped on an oil rig, traumatised by my inability to move on from an old, unhealthy lifestyle.
As mainstream game design becomes more convergent and conservative, it becomes harder to differentiate between different game experiences. You can look at that finely curated list of largely shooting-based action games up there and note that even Dragon Age - a distant descendant of Baldur's Gate - maps your melee attack onto R2, the PlayStation's traditional "shoot" button.
I periodically complain about the high cost of keeping up with Destiny's regular expansion packs, but in a sense it's saved me a lot of money. I've come to think of Destiny as the most primo, reliable, finely-crafted Generic Videogame Experience in a field awash with Generic Videogame Experiences. I've saved a small fortune by not bothering with The Division, or No Man's Sky, or Battlefront - I already have one perfectly good game about a heroic space marine who zips around from planet to planet on exciting co-op quests to make numbers go up, and I don't really need another.
It's reached the point where, whenever I watch a trailer for an upcoming game, I first ask myself whether it's doing anything to set itself apart from Destiny. What does a game like Days Gone have to offer that I can't already get from the Prison of Elders? I think these are the kind of questions people should be asking about games - not which game has the best gunfeel, but what kind of experiences they evoke. What do you really get out of playing games? How many games do you see being made that address that thing you're looking for?
Destiny's design begs you to reconsider your life choices whenever you play it. Why pour five hours of your life into harvesting rare minerals on Mars to complete one stage in a much longer quest chain that will eventually reward you with a virtual sword you neither want nor need, and which will one day be annihilated when some analyst decides the LTV of the remaining DAU has crossed a red line?
I don't really have an answer to that question.
My point is, similar to Rhythm Tengoku, I think Destiny distils one of the wider issues surrounding all games - in this case, the sheer pointlessness of "progress" within a linear game, in the context of all the other things you could be doing with your life instead. For that reason, I sort of love it?! The Bungie marketing team's booming command to BECOME LEGEND is a sort of surreal doublespeak for SIT ON YOUR SOFA AND PUSH BUTTONS FOR A BIT - an absurdist joke about the futility of life, the pointlessness of all things, the inanity of existence.