We need a cure for Destinyitis

Confession time; I’m not a big fan of Destiny (the game, not the abstract concept of predetermined events). I mean, it’s okay, but the fact that so many people are borderline obsessed with it baffles me. If you love it – and, statistically, you probably do – I’m cool with that. You’ve found a game that gives you pleasure, and that you’re getting value for money from many times over. That’s awesome. The problem I have isn’t with you, nor is it with Bungie. It’s with the many corners of the industry that have looked at the game’s enormous success, and decided that shoehorning in design elements they otherwise might not have considered for their own games is an excellent idea.

I think I was surprised at the disappointment I felt for Destiny. I love FPS games (perhaps my favourite genre), and the alien environments and exacting world-building are exactly the kind of things I like to see in my games. Sure, the storytelling was rubbish; but, although good dialogue and tight scripting is important to me, I can always (mostly) overlook it if the game itself is good. But I had other issues with the experience, and these are the things being shoved down the throats of players in games where they don’t really belong.

Placing such a heavy emphasis on XP and levelling in a big-budget FPS was something of a gamble, but it was certainly one that paid off big time for Bungie and Activision. It also, if I’m going to be cynical (which I usually am), helped mask the fact that the game launched with relatively little content. You had to grind by repeating the same missions over and over again in order to beef your character up for new missions and tougher enemies, not to mention the fact that you’d regularly chop and change weapons and kit to keep up with everything the game threw at you. For losers like me who found this to be more of a chore than a pleasure, The Taken King took most of the pain away by offering a one-time-use consumable which would catapult a character into the higher levels, and throw in some half-decent kit for good measure. By then, however, the real-world damage had been done.

Two of this year’s AAA releases prove to be excellent examples of content gating and monetisation dictating important elements of game design. The latest Tolkien ‘em up, Shadow of War, has a skills tree that it takes an enormously long time to work your way through, as well as levelling for both yourself and your enemies. On top of that, there’s the game’s controversial embracing of loot boxes, and the tiresome classifications of ‘common’, ‘rare’, ‘legendary’, and ‘epic’. The use of these classifications is especially egregious here; it applies not only to weapons and armour, but orcs. Orcs.

SoW offers a huge game world absolutely crammed full of activities, yet nonetheless demands that you constantly change and upgrade your weapons and your clothes in order to slow you down. At a certain point, when you’re deep into the story, it becomes absolutely vital to have strong, and very much commoditised, orcs under your command. To put it bluntly, your choices are a) grind, or b) spend money above and beyond what you’ve paid for the game for digitised cockneys. Talion’s character (and the player’s experience) is diluted immensely by the fact that his success hinges on his equipment and his troops rather than any skills or qualities that he may have.

Elsewhere, Assassin’s Creed Origins (review tomorrow) has in several ways been reinvented for 2017. One of these ways is to, again, go down the Destiny route of character empowerment. There’s a stronger emphasis on levelling than in SoW, with the game making it very clear when a high-level mission will likely lead to your swift death. Enemies more than a few levels above you will cut you down with little effort, and – frustratingly – can not be assassinated. Again, weapons that you can find or buy via loot boxes are classed as rare, legendary, zzz. There’s no armour as such, but the even more time-consuming element of crafting sits in its place, forcing you to hunt down and use materials should you wish to increase things such as health, arrow capacity, and hidden blade damage. Naturally, you can use real-world money to buy in-game money, weapons, materials, and more. You’re never short of things to do in the game; but the options available to you are limited by your character’s level. Particularly frustrating if you’re hoping to concentrate on the main story first.

My fear is that this industry infection will continue to spread, until almost every action franchise – existing and new – holds the player back through level grinding and gear upgrading, and constantly dangles microtransactions in front of the player’s face, promising speedier progression if they relent. It’s actually quite difficult to think of a comparable game released this year that doesn’t include at least one element of this. Wolfenstein II is old-school in many ways, and the franchise’s refusal (so far) to stoop to this sort of exploitation of the player is commendable. Call of Duty began to gleefully sell loot boxes years ago, and this year even encourages players to watch other people open them in a transparent attempt to sell yet more. How long until we see a CoD with loot boxes, “epic” weaponry, and levelling… in the single-player campaign?

Am I saying ‘ban all these things, dumb games down for me’? Of course not. Each of these elements has a place, but that place is not “everywhere”, as an increasing number of publishers seem to believe. We as consumers need to realise that AAA games are more expensive, and higher risk, projects than ever before. Publishers and developers need and deserve successful ways of recouping costs to make comfortable profits. However, warping the core experience in an effort to herd players toward spending more money is a dangerous path to tread. Such efforts could, have, and will lead to critical and consumer backlash. Any publisher determined to follow this road to the very end will quickly find that very few consumers are prepared to join them for the ride.

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Written by Luke K

He plays lots of videogames, now and again stopping to write about them. He’s the editor in chief at Critical Gamer, which fools him into thinking his life has some kind of value.

He doesn’t have a short temper. If you suggest otherwise, he will punch you in the face.

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