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Destiny's for-pay leveling buff is terrible news for the future of the game

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Paying to remove grind is the opposite of good design

On Tuesday, Bungie released a new paid service for Destiny, which allows players to pay $29.99 to raise a new character’s level to 25 and max out a subclass. Since the launch of the Taken King expansion, Bungie has been pushing microtransactions aggressively for cosmetic items in Destiny, but this is the first time it has tried to extract cash payment for a gameplay benefit.

This new product extends a trend toward paid gameplay services which allow players to skip over grind-y or inconvenient aspects of gameplay by paying cash. And that’s a bad thing.

It’s not about paying to win

Whenever a game publisher tries to sell a product like the Destiny character boost, many players get concerned that the game is sliding down a slippery slope towards an environment where players can "pay to win" — one where players can simply buy endgame items previously earned by defeating elite content, or where people who paid for certain microtransactions have material advantages over players who didn’t in competitive modes.

Destiny leveling

A pay-to-win game is not an attractive prospect for gamers, as this kind of environment trivializes in-game achievements and discourages those who expect that progress to come from proficiency. The thing that makes something a game has been fundamentally compromised. When this happens, the game is dead to us.

But monetization doesn’t have to create an apocalyptic pay-to-win scenario to be destructive.

Destiny’s paid boosts get a new character to level 25 (out of the game’s level cap of 40) and unlocks a subclass, which otherwise must be unlocked through hours of grinding. Reaching level 25 and unlocking one of your subclasses is by no means akin to "winning" Destiny; this $30 spend merely gets your character up to the starting point of the Taken King expansion.

Most experienced players reached the level cap and unlocked all their subclasses months ago and, from there, began the endgame process of gearing up through strikes, and then through raids and other high-end content.

Removing "friction"

What Destiny’s character boost represents is not the encroachment of pay-to-win gaming, but the introduction to console games of an insidious cancer from mobile: monetizing the removal of "friction" from gameplay.

Friction occurs in a game at any point in which you have to grind a task or face some other impediment in order to progress. In SNES-era Final Fantasy games, when you ran into a boss that was too hard to kill and spent some time grinding random encounters in a field to level your party up, that was a point of friction. Similarly, when you reach a river on the Candy Crush map and the game tells you to wait 12 hours before you can cross unless you pay a dollar, that’s also friction.

Some kinds of friction are useful; part of what draws us to these games are the challenges. If things like Destiny’s raids weren’t difficult, they probably wouldn’t be worth doing. But other kinds of friction are less beneficial, like repetitive grinding that pads out short campaigns.

Developers of the best and most successful retail games tend to try to strip away everything that isn’t fun about their games, and many even regard the friction that most players view as essential as potential impediments to audience engagement. If you find a game frustrating or monotonous, you’re unlikely to finish it and, therefore, unlikely to buy expansion DLC or a sequel.

This is why modern games rarely have the crazy difficulty spikes that were common in old-school games, and also why many modern console and PC games have extremely easy difficulty settings for their single-player campaigns: Developers don’t want any player to ever hit a wall that makes it impossible to progress.

Mobile games, by contrast, love those walls. These games are usually free-to-play, and the developers build in points of friction intentionally so that they can charge players real money to circumvent these artificial barriers.

Destiny is a sprawling, ambitious game that mashes up the first-person shooter and MMORPG genres. Its developer, Bungie, has strong FPS credentials, but its RPG experience was limited prior to this game. Players have endured many different points of friction as Bungie experimented with loot systems, progression mechanisms and in-game economies. Some of this friction was intended, but a lot of it resulted from mistakes and miscalculations the studio made as it experimented with managing a persistent multiplayer world.

In the past, Bungie has treated excessively grind-y mechanics as design problems to be rectified in patches and revisions to game systems. For example, unlocking all of the perks for Destiny’s original exotic weapons required players to earn hundreds of thousands of experience points with the weapons equipped. This was frustrating and unnecessary, and Bungie responded to player complaints by radically reducing the experience required to unlock a weapon, as well as by repurposing a superfluous in-game currency called the Mote of Light to apply experience points to players’ gear.

Destiny gear

In Destiny: The Taken King, it’s possible to get a gun as loot during a raid, pop a few motes in order to unlock the weapon’s perks and then use the new gun to complete the raid, which is a huge improvement over the Year One process of leveling a weapon. The friction was removed.

The new boost is a cause for concern, because it may be evidence that Bungie and publisher Activision have stopped seeing points of superfluous friction in Destiny’s gameplay systems as design flaws and started to see them as opportunities to extract money from players. A cynic may worry that Bungie won’t just find new points of friction to exploit, but could begin to introduce them.

This is a bad trend, that’s getting worse

The most obvious precursor to this new Destiny boost comes from World of Warcraft, which, like Destiny, is published by Activision Blizzard. In 2014, WoW started selling a $60 paid character boost to instantly up a new character to its max level.

The Blizzard boost and the Bungie boost have some things in common: They’re both expensive, and they both allow you to forego leveling a character through introductory areas of established online multiplayer games where most players are already at the endgame.

But there’s a big difference: World of Warcraft is a subscription-based game and, to succeed, it must provide an engaging experience from the start that entices new players to stick around. Friction is anathema to WoW’s subscription business, and its patch-note history over the last decade tells the story of a team that has worked tirelessly to streamline its gameand find a way to make a complex MMORPG accessible and appealing to new players.

When Blizzard releases an expansion for World of Warcraft, it usually raises the maximum level a character can achieve, and existing characters must then quest through a new area added to the game to gain additional levels. The package of new areas to explore and new quests to complete is a big portion of the content that comes with a retail WoW expansion, so the journey from the old level cap to the new one is designed to be pretty long. That means that each new expansion could potentially add 10 or more hours to the process of maxing out a new character, which could create friction that entices people to buy boosts for their new characters.

But Blizzard streamlines and shortens the previous level curve whenever it releases a new World of Warcraft expansion, so leveling a character to 100 in Warlords of Draenor doesn’t take any longer than leveling a character to 70 back in previous expansion Burning Crusade did.

To put it more concisely, while Blizzard sells boosts for World of Warcraft, it doesn’t seem to be designing the game in a way that intentionally introduces friction in order to force players to buy the boosts — in fact, Blizzard usually seems to be doing the opposite.

Here’s why Bungie’s boost is more troubling: Each of the three classes in Destiny has three subclasses — two that shipped with the original game in 2014, and a third added in September's The Taken King expansion. Each subclass has a grid of options that allow you to customize or specialize your talents to a particular situation.

destiny subclass

For example, I usually use a perk on my Sunsinger Warlock that allows me to carry an extra grenade. Last week’s Nightfall strike had a modifier that caused me to do bonus damage while airborne, however, so I switched to another perk in the same column that caused me to hover in the air if I aimed down the sight of my gun while jumping.

In order to access this array of choices, however, you have to unlock all the perks by earning experience points while using the subclass. And the amount of experience required is insane; if you level a new character from 1-40, it’s likely that none of your subclasses will be completely unlocked when you hit the level cap. That means you’ll need to grind bounties for days or weeks to unlock key perks like the Titan Defender’s Weapons of Light, which gives a damage buff to players who step into protection bubble created by the Titan’s Ward of Dawn super ability.

A lot of players enjoy leveling up new characters and questing through World of Warcraft, but I doubt anyone likes grinding experience to unlock a subclass in Destiny. This process is pure friction, and The Taken King added a new subclass for each main class without reducing the grind required to unlock all those perks, meaning that the process of fully unlocking all of a new character’s abilities is now 50 percent longer than it was in Year One.

A point of friction was found, recognized and exacerbated.

This kind of superfluous experience grind is what Bungie should be trying to scrub out of its game. Not being able to raid on a character because you have to spend another week grinding bounties to unlock a key perk is the opposite of fun, and the burdensome experience requirements to unlock subclasses should have been reduced along with exotic weapons' experience requirements.

Instead, Bungie has opted to leave that friction in place and increase it by an additional 50 percent so that players will be enticed to buy a $30 boost, which lets them shortcut a process that shouldn’t exist in the first place.

For the long-term health of the game, this must stop.

A lot of new Guardians will be trying Destiny for the first time this Christmas and, when they reach max level, they will be met with a progression wall in the form of the needless subclass experience requirements, followed by a solicitation to spend an extra $30 per character to bypass that grind.

How likely are these players to stick around or to delve into the endgame?

According to the PlayStation 4's trophy tracker, only about 20 percent of PS4 accounts that have tried Destiny earned the achievement for completing The Taken King’s basic story campaign, which suggests that most players who bought Destiny in Year One did not upgrade to the new expansion.

If Bungie hopes to attract those former players back to the Tower, or to hang onto the new Christmas Guardians, it needs to regard pointless friction as the enemy of player retention, rather than an opportunity for monetization.

For those of us who have dedicated hundreds of hours to the game, invested in multiple DLC packs at full launch-day prices and made real-money purchases for emotes and event cosmetics, it’s distressing to see Bungie making short-term cash-grab decisions, rather than smoothing out the new player experience to help foster a vibrant community and assure the game's longevity.