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“Destiny 2” shows us the future of gaming

“Destiny 2” shows us the future of gaming

Its plot may be old-fashioned, but the way it extracts money from players is ultra-modern

Its plot may be old-fashioned, but the way it extracts money from players is ultra-modern

Tim Cross | December 8th 2017

Video games are big business, and fewer games are bigger business than “Destiny 2”. Pushed by a pre-launch advertising blitz, within a month of its release in September it had become the best-selling game so far in 2017. Like a Hollywood summer blockbuster it is a flashy but ultimately conservative spectacle that is designed to give audiences exactly what market research says they want. And like a Hollywood blockbuster, it demonstrates just how much of a refined art – with more than a sprinkling of science – video-game design has become.

The basic premise will be familiar to anyone who has played a video game in the last two decades, for “Destiny 2” is a mix of popular genres. It is mostly a first-person shooter (think of the “Call of Duty” or “Battlefield” games). Specifically, it is a rehash of “Halo”, a series for the Xbox which cemented the reputation of Bungie, the developers behind “Destiny 2”. But it also takes inspiration from games such as “World of Warcraft” or “Diablo”, so-called “massively multiplayer online games” (MMOs) in which one of the goals is to maximise your character’s power through the compulsive collection of ever more powerful equipment.

“Destiny 2” is compelling for several reasons. The first is simply that the core gameplay of running, gunning and occasionally retreating, is taut, well-tuned and fun. It is, in fact, an excellent demonstration of why innovation is often an overrated virtue. Bungie has had a decade and more to refine the basic formula, and it shows. “Just five more minutes”, you think; suddenly hours have disappeared and it is well after midnight. The world is gorgeous, especially on the PC version, which has the best graphics. The only disappointment is the story, which is to do with a benevolent alien fleeing some less benevolent aliens, and granting superpowers to its human protectors. It is intended to be epic, but ends up feeling trite.

Other parts are compelling for more calculated reasons. The way the game delivers kit to the player is taken straight from “World of Warcraft”. Equipment drops from slain enemies, and the ultimate point of all the shooting is to collect more and more weapons and armour, gradually boosting your character’s power in order to be able to defeat tougher opposition.

This is where the science, in the form of psychology, comes in. One way to look at an MMO is as a sort of virtual slot machine, in which killing one’s enemies replaces pulling a lever. That comparison is not lost on such games’ developers, who borrow the sort of psychological tricks long-known to makers of one-armed bandits. “Destiny 2” is no exception. In the same way that a slot machine will ring bells and flash its lights when someone wins big, “Destiny 2” will inform you when a nearby player uncovers a particularly valuable piece of loot. The unspoken message is simple: “it could be you, next time, if you play for just a few minutes more.”

The psychological savvy becomes clearest when it comes to the game’s cosmetic options, such as new colour schemes for a character’s armour or new spaceships to fly around in. Like better gear, these can be earned, albeit slowly, by playing the game. They can also be bought with real cash, by paying for an in-game currency called Silver. It costs £4.79 to buy 500 Silver; 5,000 can be yours for £39.99. If the idea of paying money for cosmetic upgrades sounds improbable, it shouldn’t. Many of the world’s biggest games offer this option, and it is very profitable for their developers.

Most games that offer in-game purchases, though, cost nothing to play (“League of Legends”, the world’s most-played video game, is the canonical example). “Destiny 2” is part of a new trend where such options are offered in games that cost money upfront. The items are entirely optional, and do not affect gameplay in any way. Yet experience suggests at least some users will happily hand over their money nonetheless.

Indeed, in this regard, “Destiny 2” is not just modern but ultra-modern. With a traditional in-game purchase, the player knows exactly what he or she is buying – a new character to play with, say, or a particular sword to swing. A new twist on the idea, embraced by the developers of “Destiny 2”, is the “loot box”, where players buy a virtual box of goodies without knowing its contents, which are generated randomly. Loot boxes are controversial, and players have been vocal in their opposition (complaints recently persuaded the developers of “Star Wars: Battlefront 2” to remove the ability to buy in-game items with real money). They may also be legally tricky: several countries have publicly wondered whether paying real money for a randomised reward should count as gambling.

Yet they are unlikely to go away: since in-game items cost nothing to make, they are extremely profitable, and experience suggests a significant number of players will indulge. If you want to see the cutting-edge of the video-game industry, in terms of both art and accountancy, “Destiny 2” is the game for you.

Destiny 2 is out now