Three things you hate about Destiny (are psychological tricks that keep you playing)
Destiny is the most expensive game ever made, and one of the most successful games of all time. It’s also controversial. No one hates Destiny as much as a Destiny fan. And I am one of them.
Glancing around at the other Hunters in The Tower, I am often left wondering “how did I end up back here again?”. I ask them and they just shrug. Or point at me, like Donald Sutherland at the end of Invasion of the Body Snatchers. They needn’t bother though. I’m one of them again.
Every time I finish another game I end up back in Destiny. Like everyone else playing still playing, I don’t know if I’m having fun anymore. I don’t know if I choose to come back or if it sucked me back in against my will. A spiralling whirlpool made of Engrams and those little green things you always need to collect on Venus.
Before I know it, I wake up two days later, my inventory full of ascendant shards that I use to upgrade my armour to take on higher missions and… oh shit! It’s not two days, its sixty years and all my friends and family are long gone. I’m sitting in my pants in a dilapidated flat with nothing but a television, Destiny, a mountain of junk food wrappers and a highly suspicious odour. It’s the smell of failure and forgotten dreams. And maybe urine.
So why is Destiny so horribly, wonderfully compulsive? Why is a game with such modest reviews scores still played so widely?
There are three main reasons that Destiny is massively successful at retaining its fanbase. Though the fans complain and loudly proclaim they are “done with this shit”, they never really are. And when Bungie looks at changes they will make to the game in the future, they don’t look at what people say with “internet-words”. They look at what they say with money. When a developer says they are listening to the community, they mean they are looking at their sales and their player retention. As long as people keep playing Destiny and keep buying DLC, Bungie will keep making changes to Destiny to maximise those sales and keep those players. And the changes they make might not make much sense to you, until you understand why you keep playing Destiny. The reasons for that might be different than you think.
You see in Destiny, the things you think you hate are the things your brain actually loves.
1. Item Scarcity: Greed and FoMo
Item scarcity. It’s not a common problem in other “loot” games. Diablo 3 for example is a very generous game, and recent changes made the loot drops even kinder. Blizzard have a more-is-more philosophy, and as a developer that enjoys a positive interaction with its community, there’s an attitude of benevolence they exhibit which their fans love. Extra items today! More stuff next week! Better stuff forever! That’s their approach.
Destiny meanwhile is famously mean. Getting decent drops in Destiny is harder than getting my great uncle to pay for a round of drinks in a posh wine bar (we’re Scottish). Bungie’s short arms don’t delve far into their deep pockets, and as a result the loot they offer is paltry. While Borderlands has more guns than an NRA meeting on the eve of a zombie apocalypse, Destiny will reward you for hundreds of hours of hardcore play with two decent guns and two hundred shit ones. And maybe one good one. But probably not.
So if you check Destiny forums you’ll see a massive demand for those good weapons. They achieve legendary status. A cursory Google image search for Gjallarhorn will show the high regard Destiny players hold this one legendary weapon in.
Why is that one weapon held in such high esteem? Sure, it looks cool. It’s effective. But that’s not the reason. Scarcity is the reason.
Every single week, the Destiny community hopes and prays that the weekly vendor Xur will sell it. Every week they are disappointed. Saddened. Some even say they will quit the game. With dejection, they proclaim, “I’ll never get Gjalla.” And they might be right.
But every week they will come back and check. Every week they will log in again, and as long as Bungie can get that disk back in your console, you’re going to play more Destiny. Drunks don’t spend a lot of times in pubs, and recovering Destiny addicts shouldn’t log in to Destiny. But they will. And though Xur doesn’t sell Gjalla, they might as well play the daily. And they could buy Suros Regime? It’s still pretty good. But now they’ve bought it, they need more coins for next week in case Gjalla is available. And they need to level up Suros. After all, you can’t be seen with an un-levelled Exotic.
And just like that, you’re back in. You’re hooked by a combination of two innate human characteristics: greed and FoMo (fear of missing out). And though you think you would love the game if you had all that loot, the reason you keep playing is precisely because you don’t
2. The Loop: Compulsion and MMO Hooks
What I’ve described above is the beginnings of the “Destiny Loop”. Essentially a way of keeping you playing forever, the Destiny Loop is a feedback mechanism for retaining your interest. The entry point of the loop can vary, but for most people it will be the daily. You can think of a daily as being like a single slice of pizza left over from the night before. A perfect breakfast morsel, it can’t be turned down. Only this particular morsel rematerializes at midnight every single day.
A term borrowed from MMO’s, a daily is a small, self-contained activity that offers generous rewards. With a different, one-off daily available each day, it incentivizes players to come back to a game. Even if it’s just for a little while, the daily is a powerful tool in the designer’s arsenal. If you can make a player come back each day – even just for a short play session – you have them forever.
And they’re good for the players too. A self-contained challenge with particular modifiers, they offer a moderate challenge for a decent reward. And in Destiny’s case, they build upon Bungie’s heritage in Halo, where fans would replay missions with particular “skulls” active. You might have played The Black Garden mission a million times before, but have you played with Heroic enemies and Lightswitch (increased melee damage)? The slight modifications to the base rules make these missions just fresh enough that players don’t mind completing them again. Especially if they get some ascendant shards to upgrade their armour.
That daily becomes your entry point into the Destiny Loop. You complete a daily. Maybe, if you’re organised, you go to The Tower first and choose some suitable bounties to speed up your XP advancement. Upon completion of the daily, you’ll have a number of items. A few junk loot drops that you’ll instantly break down and some engrams and maybe a completed bounty. So now you can log out, job done for the day. Right?
No. This, again, is where Destiny is insidiously clever. You need to check out those engrams. They’re blue, so probably worthless. But you never know.
I don’t think I could trust someone who didn’t check what their engrams were. It would be like having a friend eat a Kinder egg without opening the toy. In other words, a monster.
So you go back to The Tower. You hand in your engrams. Check them. Probably junk. So you break them down.
And you turn in your bounties. To do that, you have to go and talk to the bounty keeper. So you might as well check what other bounties are available while there. Oh, that one looks easy enough? Maybe you could do that one too?
And this whole time, your weapons, armour and character are leveling up too. Not to mention your Vanguard marks, which have been slowly building. Three more Strikes and you could buy a helmet. Two more bounties and your Exotic weapon will be at max. And you have a special bounty from Morn that will reward you if you can complete five bounties in a day. Well one down already so…
This is why Destiny has more currencies than my local post office (what do you mean Euros aren’t available on short notice?) and so many form of progression. When you level up in any game, there’s a sense of accomplishment, but also resolution. It’s a natural break point. You’re at a moment where the next rung on the ladder is at its furthest distance. It can be off-putting. “Maybe I should take a break? It took forever to get to this level, I’m not sure I need to get to the next. I should call my parents and tell them to cancel that missing person report they filled on me,”
But Destiny assiduously avoids these natural breaks. Sure, your character’s leveled up, but one of your guns is 4/5’s of the way there too. Why not keep playing? And when that gun is maxed out, another, better gun will have dropped.
Of course none of this is new. In casual games in particular, “The Loop” is a crucial component in retaining players. Similarly, MMO’s rely on such hooks to retain subscribers. But few FPS games are as canny as Destiny. It takes some of the most advanced gameplay hooks from casual and MMO’s and combines them with a bunch of other tricks to keep your interest.
So while you’re complaining about the trip back to The Tower to pick up bounties and decode engrams, realise that Bungie are making you do that on purpose. You might think it’s a hassle, but it actually forms a crucial role in why you keep playing so much.
3. The Load Times: Situational Breaks and Purchase Bias
While the other two points represent very specific, intentional design choices by Bungie, this third point does not. However, the load times of Destiny are inherent aspects of its success. Ok, ok. I know! But hear me out.
Let’s start with the space ships. They serve no purpose in game, but people spend lots and lots of their in-game currency (and therefore time) on these placeholders. Floating in space uselessly, these (admittedly lovely) polygon models are glorified loading screens. And they’re a great idea.
The genius of these ships is that your friends see them. While waiting to get into a game, you don’t feel like you’re in a lobby. You feel like you’re floating in space above a planet, planning a desperate mission. And that’s a great feeling! Certainly it’s a more exciting pre-game metaphor than looking at a chat log underneath a server browser.
And while you’re (metaphorically) floating in space, because you are a primate with inbuilt brain chemistry set up to process status and dominance, you’ll compare your ship to everyone else’s. And if you’re flying the starter ship, you’re pretty far from being the alpha of the group. In other words, we are all apes pretending to be space travellers, looking at TV screens and trying to gauge who is the boss ape based on which useless digital shape is the best. Humans!
Of course we all intellectually know these pointless virtual vanity items are meaningless. But we are nonetheless hardwired to want them and we have an instinctual drive to compete with our peers. We cannot think our way out of wanting the badass red ship with the spikey gun things on the front, because fuck Dave and his “Glass Minuet”.
But while these loading screens offer an opportunity to compete with 10 year old American boys who scream gendered insults at us when we don’t revive them, they benefit Destiny in another way. They make the time we actually play the game feel more meaningful.
This is a form of a psychological effect we call “Post Purchase Rationalization” or “Purchase Bias”. In its simplest form, it’s the logical fallacy that says “I paid for this, and it must be good because I don’t pay for things that are bad.” It affects us all, and it’s the reason we have console fanboys who argue that their choice of platform is better than their friends.
It’s important to remember that money isn’t the only currency we apply this to. Another is “time”, and if we spend a lot of time on something then the same logical bias applies to us. “If I spent two minutes waiting for this game to load, this game must be good enough to be worth the two minute wait.”
And of course that fallacy extends to all our time with any game. “If I’ve spent two years playing Destiny non-stop, Destiny must be a game so good that it’s worth playing non-stop for two years.” This is in fact also a logical truism, but it’s a psychological effect that deepens our addiction to something we are already doing compulsively.
And I would even argue that the loading times in Destiny serve as great little situational breaks between play. Long enough to go and grab a drink or go to the bathroom, they break up play sessions. Crucially, you’ll notice that when you start a mission there are never any immediate threats that will kill you. I believe that’s another intentional design decision from Bungie who know you will probably go away during the load screens and come back after a short break.
So those are my three reasons that Destiny is so compulsive. There is of course a really important fourth reason. Destiny is a really good game.
Setting aside the poor storytelling and pacing, the actual shooting in Destiny is verging on perfect. There’s never been another console shooter that’s felt so natural and satisfying. The gameplay is as polished and finely crafted as a well-made piece of wooden furniture that you can run your hands over and never feel a snag or splinter. The feedback from the weapons, the punchiness of the shooting, the subtlety of the aim assist and the feel of the character movement are all so refined that playing anything else afterwards feels unwieldy. For example I loved the ideas in Evolve, but there was something about the movement and aiming that felt “off”.
The problem was Evolve wasn’t made by Bungie.
There’s only one Destiny, and whether you love playing it or hate playing it, only one thing is certain: You won’t stop playing.
As well as playing too much Destiny, Tom writes for a number of sites. You can find his collected work at CalmDownTom.com.