Bungie is getting medieval as it gears up for Destiny’s third year
Bungie is getting medieval l as
Destiny enters its third year r with new expansion Rise Of Ironon
Where else can we start, but Gjallarhorn? Throughout Destiny’s first year this mythical rocket launcher was, for those not blessed by capricious RNG, the game’s whitest whale. To those that had it, it was their best friend, since it was by a distance the game’s greatest weapon. But to Bungie it was
Destiny’s biggest problem. It melted enemy health bars, so Bungie made enemies tougher, and more numerous, in order to give players a decent challenge. The Gjallarhornless were left behind, frustrated, locked out of pickup raid groups by players who deemed it so essential that they refused to play with anyone who didn’t have it. Rumours swirled of Destiny’s troubled development: of a late, desperate rewrite of its story, of problems with Bungie’s toolset, of the studio’s struggles in adjusting from making Halo to Destiny’s living, immeasurably more complex world. But really the biggest problem was a rocket launcher whose payload splintered into heatseeking cluster bombs, and did its job a little too well.
TO THE PLAYER IT MEANS GETTING THEIR HANDS BACK ON A GUN THEY THOUGHT HAD BEEN LOST FOREVER
How, then, do you a solve a problem like Gjallarhorn? Do you make it less powerful, knowing doing so will make it less exciting? Do you buff everything else, with likely the same results? For last year’s The Taken King expansion, Bungie decided the best, most elegant answer to The Gjallarhorn Question was to not answer it at all. It abandoned the gun entirely. Power crept and slunk away from its former king, the most powerful gun in the game’s first year unable to keep the pace in its second.
The game was a good deal better balanced as a result, but perhaps a little less exciting. Now, as
Destiny prepares to enter its third year, Gjallarhorn is back. Complete an early quest and, regardless of whether or not you ever had it – and irrespective of whether you preordered Rise Of Iron for that exclusive weapon skin – Gjallarhorn will be yours.
Rise Of Iron’s overriding theme, we’re told, is nostalgia; in story terms that means travelling far back in Destiny’s lore, but to the player it means getting their hands back on a gun they thought had been lost forever, sealed away beneath the Earth by a development team that wanted to save future generations from the game-breaking problem it had unwittingly created. Coincidence: that is also pretty much the setup for Rise Of Iron’s story missions.
It is also a decent way of explaining the current state of Destiny. Yes, Gjallarhorn is back but, necessarily, it isn’t quite so exciting any more. It still kills things, still has those heatseeking cluster bombs, but now it dents, rather than obliterates, a large enemy’s health bar. While Bungie has never confirmed it, it is an open industry secret that Destiny 2 was originally meant to launch this autumn. Only a few months ago, when the decision was made to push its release back to 2017 – a decision that seemingly did for now-ex-Bungie-president Harold Ryan – did Rise
Of Iron come into existence. The Taken King creative director Luke Smith is now leading development of the full Destiny sequel. Gjallarhorn may not be the gun we fell in love with, but it is still Gjallarhorn. Rise Of
Iron may not be Destiny 2. Nor does it represent quite the same level of transformation for Destiny as a whole as that delivered this time last year by The
Taken King. But it is new Destiny, and if you love Destiny, then that will suffice for now.
Which is not to say that this is the work of a studio going through the motions. Instead, it’s the product of a company that seems, steadily over time, to continue working to understand the complex beast it has created. What works and what doesn’t; what needs attention and what is best left untouched. So, building on the tremendous narrative progress made in The Taken King, story again sits at the core of Rise Of Iron. And just as last year’s expansion turned some of the static, bland NPCs in its social hubs into actual characters, this year’s tells of Saladin, the last surviving Iron Lord. For the past two years his Destiny role has involved standing before a flaming gong every fourth week as host of the Iron Banner multiplayer tournament. For a time, it was the PVP connoisseur’s only route to endgame gear, including weapons named after Saladin’s fellow, fallen Iron Lords. Gheleon’s Demise, Jolder’s Hammer, Timur’s Lash; more excellent names for guns in a game that is full of them, yes, but they hinted at something bigger. Gheleon, Jolder and Timur were once Saladin’s brothers in arms. They were nine in all, and together sealed a devastatingly powerful relic deep beneath the surface of Russia’s Cosmodrome, a mission that spelt the end for all of them but Saladin.
The Fallen have been digging up the Cosmodrome looking for this relic and, inevitably, have finally found it. Using its power, Siva, they have augmented themselves to form a new faction – part Fallen, part machine – called the Devil Splicers. Just as last year’s Taken riffed on existing enemy designs, Devil Splicers look familiar – red and black compared to the regular Fallen’s blue and white – but may act in alien ways (on death, Vandals release a heat-seeking orb of purple energy, similar to the Hive’s Shriekers). You’ll fight them across the Cosmodrome, the first area you visited in vanilla
Destiny, but which has now been expanded and covered in a thick carpet of snow. It is by-the-book
Destiny expansion-making: having you venture through an area you know and fight enemies you recognise, but in a subtly, sufficiently different way for the whole thing to feel fresh. That, according to lead world designer Steve Cotton, chimes well with
Rise Of Iron’s narrative themes.
“THIS IS ABOUT THE IRON LORDS AND NOSTALGIA. IT’S NOT ABOUT BURYING THE PAST, BUT APPRECIATING IT”
“We built Destiny to be able to tell a lot of stories,” he tells us, “and we chose this because we felt it was a different type of story than the player had been through before. The Taken King was about revenge; [year-one DLC] House Of Wolves was an outlaw story. This is about the Iron Lords, and it’s about nostalgia. It’s not about burying the past, but appreciating it, respecting what Saladin did with the rest of the Iron Lords. Even though you know Saladin already – he’s a character that already existed – we felt like he had a really rich, interesting story to tell.”
It also allows for further gentle iteration on the structure of Destiny as a whole. Felwinter’s Peak is the game’s third social space, but is unlike the others, which simply appeared as blobs on the Director galaxy map for you to load into. Instead you will first travel to it through a familiar part of the Cosmodrome, then reclaim it from the Fallen. And once you have it, it will change over time, in stark contrast to the Tower and Reef which, aside from the odd themed event, have lain unchanged since the day we first visited them. Felwinter’s Peak is home to a mausoleum, with a statue for each of the fallen Iron Lords; at the outset you’ll see the fires beneath them go out one by one. Each week you’ll undertake a quest to relight one of those fires. It’s impossible not to think of Dark Souls III here, and the way FromSoftware’s world hubs evolve over time. For
Destiny, it shows how Bungie is working, in increments, to improve its world; joining up previously disparate elements, giving life to spaces that felt like static scenes.
“There’s nothing more important,” says executive producer Scott Taylor. “You establish your high creative goal, and then every time you build something you think, ‘How does this tie into that? And how do we do that in a way that feels exciting?’ It just makes it feel bigger, elevates it, if you feel like there’s been a lot of thought put into how the individual thing you’re doing ties into other things. It just feels more intentional, and that’s exciting to us.”
And exciting to the player too, since relighting an Iron Lord’s fire rewards you with one of eight new artifacts. This gear piece, when introduced in The Taken King, was just another blockade on your route to the level cap. The varieties offered intrinsic benefits, but they were marginal in nature. Well, no longer. Memory Of Gheleon makes the screen-corner radar, which normally disappears when you aim down sights, a permanent fixture. Memory Of Timur may turn an enemy against their allies when struck with a melee attack. Memory Of Felwinter strips you of your Super, but grants you an extra grenade and melee charge. Some are of more use in the Crucible, others in the PVE component. But you’ll be able to choose one of three every week, completing a quest and securing an artifact that will fundamentally change the way you play the game and build your loadout. PVP players, for example, prefer guns with the Third Eye perk, which grants permanent radar; with the Memory Of Gheleon, they can use any gun they want to.
In the build we play – which Bungie is preparing to take to Gamescom when we visit – the artifacts are the major point of differentiation between Rise Of Iron and Destiny as we already know it. Guns and armour offer familiar perks, with only the reborn (but underpowered) Gjallarhorn offering any novelty. However, the final game will offer a suite of new legendary and exotic weapons – and, as in The Taken King, many will be acquired through fixed, properly advertised means, without forcing players to rely on dice rolls. A new inventory item, the Record Book, shows your progress towards a number of different goals, and the rewards that will be given to you when you reach them. It’s an idea introduced in The Taken King era – first with the Sparrow Racing League, then the Moments Of Triumph quest, which offers rewards for completing the year’s toughest challenges. Rise Of Iron’s is there from the start.
“We’ve fleshed it out much further,” game director Chris Barratt tells us. “We want to have more guaranteed rewards for players, which they can see how to acquire. Right off the bat we have a full list of some of the major rewards you can get from Rise Of Iron. There’s a page for the raid; there’s a page for the Crucible. The more we can get that stuff in front of the player, and tie it into the story and theme, it all feels coherent and tied together. It’s great that we have such a big Reddit community, but one of our goals has been to make it so the game doesn’t require Reddit to play, or enjoy it.”
“HOW DO WE MAKE PLAYERS FEEL BETTER ABOUT AN EXPERIENCE WHERE THEY’RE WINNING HALF THEIR GAMES?”
If Rise Of Iron feels a little safe in concept compared to The Taken King, it’s more a commentary on the fact that there’s a good deal less wrong with Destiny than there was this time last year. TTK’s many structural changes and quality-of-life tweaks were a solid foundation, to the point that the only real problem with Destiny’s PVE component over the past 12 months has been a lack of content – a problem Rise Of Iron fixes by simple virtue of its existence. Yet in the Crucible, things have been rather different.
Destiny’s PVP component has had a torrid year of it. Glitches – one that gave the Hunter’s Nightstalker subclass an endless supply of arrows during its Super, another that gave players of every class unlimited rocket-launcher ammo – have had Bungie’s hotfixers playing catchup to the darker corners of its community. One patch introduced widespread connectivity issues; another left some players able to dish out only a single point of damage to opponents. The Crucible beats to a very different rhythm to the PVE side of the game, which updates and resets every Tuesday. Iron Banner runs one week out of every four; weekends play host to the Trials Of Osiris, a punishing, yet intoxicating 3v3 tournament. However, at times, the problems were so bad that Bungie had to delay, or outright cancel, these pillar events. “Well, it’s a live game, right?” lead Crucible designer Lars Bakken says. “The nice thing is, we get to react and update. But the terrible thing is, we get to react and update! Sometimes you make a change to some system not realising it’s going to hit this other system, or this other thing on the other side of the game, in a different part of the codebase. We test constantly – we have an amazing test team, and this is not on them at all. But sometimes, something you can test with 20, 30 or 100 people doesn’t become apparent until you have a couple of hundred thousand people playing. Almost all the time, that’s what the culprit is. The game’s being played at scale and now we’re seeing something we could never have tested internally anyway.”
Yet while those problems come, get fixed and go, Bungie’s matchmaking algorithm has been a more persistent cause of concern. At the core of the problem is a phrase that, in theory, is the multiplayer game designer’s wet dream: Skill-Based Matchmaking. Isn’t that what we all want? To be put into games with people of equivalent skill to ourselves, so the novices don’t get stomped, and the hardcore get a challenge deserving of their talents? Surely that’s perfect?
Seemingly not. Players at the top end of the skill curve were the most upset, since their post-work winddown sessions were what multiplayer communities call ‘sweaty’ – every match was a real workout against the best in the business. Worse still, skill level was prioritised over connection quality, so latency reared its head. On paper, skill-based matchmaking is the dream. In practice it has been a bit of a nightmare.
“Look at the skill graph of the Destiny population,” Bakken says. “There are people who are not very good and people that are so good we don’t even understand how. How do you make it so that everyone has an OK time when they’re playing? People tell us they just want to be able to make the choice, and we understand that. Sometimes you just want to kick back and have fun. But what does that mean? Maybe to the group at the top of the skill curve that means, ‘I want to win the majority of my games’. But that’s tough, because you’re playing against other human players. If your win percentage is 65, 70 per cent – and there are people out there who are like that – then someone out there is on a 30 per cent win ratio. And we don’t want that, because they’re just going to stop playing. How do we balance that?”
“It’s a moving target,” Cotton offers. “We keep trying one thing, seeing how the community responds, then trying something else. The thing we’re trying to understand, and build systems for, is how do we make players feel better about an experience where they’re winning half their games? Because we’re not doing a good job with that right now.”
Our time with Rise Of Iron’s Crucible component is played over LAN, so it’s hardly a good testing ground for its matchmaking algorithm. And there’s little worth saying about new mode Supremacy, which is essentially Call Of Duty’s Kill Confirmed mode, where a felled opponent drops an engram which must be collected for the kill to count towards your team’s score. Yet Bakken and co’s other innovation will be rapturously received by the Crucible community, since it’s been asking for it for a while – and means players can sidestep any future problems with the matchmaking algorithm. Private matches let you set team size, map, mode, time and score limit, and play with people on your friends list.
“Lars and I have worked on the Crucible for a long time,” Cotton says, “and we’ve wanted to do private
“THIS IS OUR WAY OF SAYING ,‘ YES, WE UNDERSTAND: YOU WANT TO PLAY IT THIS WAY. WE WANT TO, TOO ’”
matches for a long time. But there have been lots of other things we’ve wanted to do, too: new experiences, new places to go, new game modes. We had to prioritise. This just seemed like the right time.”
“The community has already found ways to play with each other without private matches,” Bakken says. “It’s a really bad experience for them, we know that. We didn’t want them to have to keep doing it. It showed they were so invested in the game that they were willing to effectively break matchmaking to try to play together. This is our way of saying, ‘Yes, we understand: you want to play it this way. We want to, too’.”
What Bakken offers backs up what we were told at Bungie’s offices this time last year – that this is a studio which understands that Destiny can only reach its true potential if it’s developed with the wants and needs of its community, not just its design teams, uppermost in its thoughts. That Destiny is, and perhaps always will be, a work in progress. The same applies to Bungie itself: while this has been a quiet year for Destiny, with no substantial, paid-for content release since The Taken King, behind the scenes the studio has changed substantially – in a way that will benefit not just the company but, in the long run, the game to which it has committed a substantial chunk of its 25 years in business and on which it has wagered its future.
Reports last year claimed that Bungie’s tools were a major factor in the way that the launch version of Destiny failed, to put it mildly, to meet expectations. Sources told Kotaku that lengthy compile times made content creation, or even the slightest of edits to the front end, a nightmare for Bungie’s teams. Jonty Barnes, the studio’s VP of game development, won’t say whether that was actually the case. But he does admit that the studio had structural, and technical, problems that held Destiny back, that were rooted in the studio’s growth from 150 staff on Halo: Reach to over 600 now, and a failure to change as numbers grew. Those problems, he says, have been fixed.
“We had one team doing everything, so if we wanted to make disruptive changes to our toolset, we still had to keep the game running. When Destiny was growing, we were still one team for too long. There were people who were frustrated because they didn’t know what to focus on. Now, we have a studio that’s divided into three initiatives. Our first is Destiny Main, a large team of people that’s focused on the next major update – I’m sure it’s not unknown to you that Destiny 2 is releasing next year. We’ve also built a live team that’s responsible for reacting to players and the persistent world; Rise Of
Iron is [the work of] part of the live team group. “Then we have the engine team. Their priority – equivalent to a game release – is disruptive technology to improve our development. There’s significant opportunity for us to get more efficient in the way we make our games. There are initiatives that will really change the way you experience Destiny. And we have a bunch of ideas. We take tools incredibly seriously. But we had to make that separation [of our teams], because when you’re in a live environment, you can’t make disruptive changes. You’re breaking the game.”
The engine team’s life has been made a little easier, at least, by Rise Of Iron’s abandonment of PS3 and Xbox 360 – a well-publicised millstone in Destiny’s evolution, since memory limitations on the previous generation of consoles made it hard for Bungie to offer PS4 and Xbox One players increased inventory space as new expansions expanded the gear pool. Our suggestion that it must have been a difficult decision falls a little flat – while it wasn’t the case at Destiny’s launch in 2014, currently fewer than ten per cent of players are on what Bungie calls ‘legacy consoles’. Those on 360 or PS3 who are up to date with the game and its expansions will be able to make the switch to newer consoles for a knockdown fee; beginners, meanwhile, can get up to speed with The Destiny Collection, a retail bundle of all content up to and including Rise Of Iron, for the equivalent price of a new game.
Yet compelling as that offer may be, this is not the $60 Bungie product we expected to be on shelves this year. Our visit to Bungie merely reinforces the sense that Rise Of Iron is a hand on the iron tiller; while last year we had virtually free reign at the studio, here we are confined to the ground floor, a carefully planned studio tour ensuring we see no more than we are supposed to. Still, there’s plenty to be excited about in Rise Of Iron: new things to see, new things to shoot and toys to shoot them with, a new raid, a long-requested PVP mode. A greater sense of coherence to the way it is all knotted together. And, of course, Gjallarhorn. But throughout there will be the lingering sense that something else – something bigger – is on the way. Winter is coming, then, but perhaps not this year.