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In Destiny's Sparrow Racing League you still have to win, even if you pay

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When DLC is a transaction, lottery, and contest ... at the same time

Destiny’s Sparrow Racing League (SRL) event has been running for about two weeks and will continue until Dec. 29. The event lets you race your sparrow mount for reputation and rewards. Anyone with The Taken King expansion can participate but, as seems to be the plan with Destiny’s live events, there are some extra challenges and goodies for players who spend extra money on microtransactions.

The racing is simple. There are only two tracks, and on each players try to pass through a series of gates which give a short burst of speed. The gates change size depending on your position in the race. They are very wide for the last-place racer, but very narrow for the leader. The difference is enough to turn a stretch where a first place player must slalom through gates into a straightaway for somebody in fourth.The only racing mode is a multiplayer race for six players.

Even though sparrow racing is pretty simplistic compared to a full-featured racing game, there’s a pretty high skill-cap on these races. The median player takes 4 minutes, 53 seconds to complete three laps on the Mars track, while a 95th percentile player shaves 17 seconds off that time. A 99th percentile player, probably someone trying to get the fastest theoretical time will have finished the race in 4:10.

But if you want to collect the goodies — whether you’re willing to pay or not — you’ll have to race a lot, and you’ll have to race well.

What you get for free

You can race your sparrows on the two racetracks without spending any money. The races can award legendary helmets and class items with racing perks. These can be dismantled for legendary marks or infused into your gear to increase your light level, and the quality of these end-of-race rewards is determined by your SRL rank rather than your race performance or your current gear level.

If you raise your SRL reputation to rank 2, these items will drop with light levels of 300-310, which is equivalent to Nightfall rewards or normal-mode raids. Once you pass SRL rank 3, these will drop at 310-320. The only other place to get a helmet above 310 is by defeating hard-mode Oryx, so SRL is a significant opportunity to improve your character if you haven’t completed the hard raid.

There are bounties which provide healthy amounts of reputation, so you can get to rank 3 playing only a few races per day, but you’ll still have to run a bunch of races to get high-level helmets. After more than 120 races, the best I’ve gotten is 319. This is still, by far, the easiest way to get a high-quality helmet. By way of comparison, I have more than 20 hard-mode Oryx kills, and prior to SRL, I’d only received four helmets above 310.

But it’s time-consuming and a bit of a grind. You need 9000 total rep to get to rank 3, and then you’ll need to keep racing to get the high level drops.

If you complete the main questline, you’ll get a total of 1800 rep. You get 45 rep for completing a race, 55 more for coming in first, 35 for second and 20 for third. Daily bounties are worth 100 rep and the weekly bounty is worth another 600. Using an SRL class item increases all rep gains by 15%, but you’re still probably looking at somewhere between five and eight hours of racing in a single mode with two tracks to hit rank 3, depending on how good you are.

SRL is pretty fleshed-out for a temporary event, but it’s still just a minigame, and you’ll have to play it far past the point where most players would get kind of bored with it to collect the best incentives. If you’re a hardcore Destiny player with a helmet that’s holding back your light level, you’ll power through. The grind won’t be worth it for most casual players, though. It’s not like this is going to be a fun task once you get over the novelty of the experience.

The main questline centers around upgrading your racing license. It rewards you early on with a new legendary sparrow, which assures that everybody has a suitable bike for racing, even players who hadn’t acquired a legendary sparrow from another source prior to the event. If you complete the questline, you’ll get a set of gear that looks like a racing jumpsuit and has no light level, but provides bonuses you can use while racing, as well as a Sparrow Toolkit, which contains one of five cool-looking new Sparrows, chosen at random.

You get one free Toolkit per account when you finish your license, and you can buy more $5 each if you want the other Sparrow variations.  Each Sparrow you get will be random, but you won’t get duplicates, so four purchased Toolkits ($20) plus the free one you get for finishing your questline will get you all of them. The last two stages of the license quest require you to place in the top three 10 times, and then to win 3 races. Since this is a competitive mode, that can be pretty difficult, as I’ll discuss more later.

There’s also a special questline that is Playstation exclusive, which awards a sparrow called the Nightsteed.

One cool feature that I really liked was that the event includes gear shaders that let you match the color-schemes of your suit to each of the new bikes. These have a pretty high drop-rate in matches and use a smart-loot system to assure you don’t get duplicates, so you should be able to collect all the shaders pretty quickly.

The SRL Record Book

The centerpiece of the microtransaction store for this event is the SRL Record Book. This costs $10, and it keeps track of your stats, and also includes a bunch of objectives, like playing 25 races on each map, doing 100 tricks on each map, and hitting 65 gates on each map, which give you additional rewards, including:

However, there’s one objective in the record book that is really difficult: You have to win ten races on each map. The competition to do this is very stiff; according to Bungie’s stats, the median racer has an a pretty modest best-race time, but the median racer probably isn’t running many races, while the players in the upper end of the distribution are probably running multiple races each day.

racing record book

When I was pushing to complete this, it wasn’t atypical for three or more competitors in a race to beat the 90th percentile times listed in Bungie’s update. Placing high is doable, but winning is hard.

Since you can enter a game with a fireteam of 6 to race your friends, it’s possible to cheese this by going into races with five friends who let you win. But unless you have five people willing to spend three hours helping you earn an emblem, you’ll need to do it for real. It took me over 100 races to win 20 and, if players aren't willing to go that hard, or aren't very good at sparrow racing, they won't be able to get that emblem even though they paid for the book.

This is a reward that requires players to make a substantial time commitment and demonstrate exceptional skill, which is tied to both a microtransaction and a time-limited event.

Usually, players expect items connected to cash purchases to be straight transactions, and I don't think I've ever seen a reward tied to real money gated behind a game-performance challenge this steep before. The Sign of Momentum emblem is likely to end up being one of the rarest in Destiny, and, on one hand, I like that there are exclusive things in the game, but, on the other hand, the mechanism for getting this is a little bit brutal.

It seems like the record book itself and the emblem for completing it should have been free, and the suit, the Momentum Master Sparrow and the shader should have been bundled as a separate transaction.  That would save paying players who don’t or can’t finish the challenges from feeling like they’ve missed out on getting something they paid for.

Destiny’s Lottery

In addition to the aforementioned Sparrow toolkits which contain one of five cosmetically-unique sparrows, the Eververse cash store is also selling horn toolkits which contain a random legendary-quality horn for your sparrow, including a bicycle bell, a fog horn and a clown horn (but no "La Cucaracha" or "Dixie").

The horn packs cost $1 each, and if you don’t like the horn you get, you can dismantle it and get an item called a Horn Relay, which can be used to upgrade a rare-quality horn you can get as a reward for completing a race into a legendary-quality horn. The rare horns will break at the end of the SRL event, while the legendary horns are permanent items.

The horn packs also have a chance to contain a Sparrow called the EV-43 Lightrunner. This is sort of a lottery; you can get one out of your first pack, or, if your luck is really bad, you might have to buy a bunch of horns to get this.

Bungie did something similar with Destiny’s Festival of The Lost Halloween event, which included mystery bags that cost $2 each and had a chance to contain a cool-looking flaming skull mask, so we’re likely to see more of these lottery mechanics in the future.

As Destiny runs more events, it becomes statistically more likely that players who spend money on this stuff are going to have a bad experience with the random rolls on these bags. There were 17 Halloween masks to get in Festival of the Lost bags, and 17 horns to get from SRL kits. Past that, there’s no reason to buy more except for a lottery roll, but if the odds of getting the lottery item are one in 10, about one in six people who buy packages will buy 17 without getting the lottery item in any given event. Over a relatively small number of events, this mechanism will manage to screw over most of Destiny’s biggest microtransaction spenders.

If you play Destiny, you should be racing

Destiny’s SRL includes a bunch of cool stuff, much of which you can get for free, including some really pretty shaders, the Nightsteed Sparrow for Playstation players, and the random toolkit Sparrow you get for completing the license questline.

To get the high-level gear, however, you’ll have to invest a lot of time racing your Sparrows, and while the mode is cool and polished for a minigame, it has only two tracks and it’s not as deep or varied as a full-featured racing game, and it will start to feel repetitive and grindy after a couple of hours.

If you decide to invest in this, the record book and its rewards might be worth a $10, but you’ll need to race well and race a lot in order to get all the rewards from it, even after you pay.

Finally, the cash-store toolkits offer neat looking Sparrows, but they’re $5 each, and the Sparrow contained in each toolkit is random (though you won’t get duplicates), and cute horn packs which may or may not contain the lottery Sparrow.

Whether this stuff is worth it to you depends on how much you like Destiny and how much you care about cosmetics. What’s clear is the Bungie is learning how to handle these events, but the resulting mix of lotteries, real-money transactions and skill-based events aren’t all good news for players.