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Destiny will always be a work in progress, even if The Taken King is a success

Samit Sarkar (he/him) is Polygon’s deputy managing editor. He has more than 15 years of experience covering video games, movies, television, and technology.

Destiny had a lot of problems when it launched a year ago. Its developers at Bungie quickly became aware of them, whether it was something they realized themselves or something the outspoken Destiny community brought to their attention.

Regardless of the size or seriousness of a particular problem, you can bet that Destiny players are complaining about it — and rightfully so. Why is this broken? How quickly can you fix it? Why haven't you fixed it yet? Why is it a problem in the first place? Shouldn't an experienced studio like Bungie know better?

Bungie was able to address certain Destiny issues and add some new features with patches, but the solutions to other problems would be more involved. The studio released Destiny version 2.0 last week, the day before the one-year anniversary of the game's debut. And Destiny's third and most significant expansion, The Taken King, launched on Tuesday. Together, they address some of the game's biggest shortcomings.

The Taken King doesn't just represent Bungie's attempt to make Destiny anew; it's an opportunity for a fresh start in dealing with the game's vocal community.

Destiny: The Taken King - The Sunless Cell Nighstalker screenshot 1920

Destiny isn't Bungie's first rodeo; the company has been making games since the early 1990s. But it is the first time the studio developed a game with elements of modern massively multiplayer online titles, such as raids and grinding for loot. The shooter half of Destiny is just as superb as you would expect from a company with Bungie's heritage. In a recent interview with Polygon during an event at Bungie's offices, Smith said everything else remains a work in progress.

"Frankly, we were outside of our comfort zone with a bunch of these other mechanics and feelings in the game," said Smith, referring to Destiny's MMO trappings. Regarding those elements, Smith added, Bungie is continuously "learning by doing."

One of Destiny's MMO-inspired pieces was its progression setup. From launch until Destiny 2.0, your character's level was tied to an armor attribute called Light, so the ability to rank up depended upon random armor drops in high-level activities. You'd have to keep repeating those activities on a weekly basis, hoping for the right loot to drop. Coupled with Destiny's capricious and notoriously stingy loot algorithm, this feature created a frustrating impediment to progress.

Smith told Polygon that Bungie realized Light was a serious issue "very early on in the wake of" Destiny's release, and said the developers began to discuss options for addressing the problems with the system. Unfortunately for Bungie and Destiny players, the timeline for a revision to Light ended up being very long. The system was so deeply ingrained in the game that "we couldn't make a change like this until the year transition," said Smith.

Knowing that it wouldn't be revamping the Light system until The Taken King, Bungie had some room to plan out a path. Smith's Taken King group worked with the teams who were making Destiny's first two expansions, The Dark Below and House of Wolves, on areas like the game's reward structure.

"We sort of had a good idea of what we were going to try to get to this year, and then [worked] back from that with those teams so that the player story is the story of evolution," said Smith. "We want all the releases to sort of lean into one another."

Destiny's first two expansions generally fit into that strategy, although not always in the ways Bungie might have desired. The Dark Below allowed players to upgrade exotic weapons, but the process would reset any weapon perks that players had unlocked, which effectively punished Destiny's most dedicated fans. Bungie rectified that mistake with House of Wolves, which introduced the ability to "ascend" legendary weapons as well as exotic ones — without resetting progress.

"it would be easy for someone to say we should've known better"

"That all sounds really simple — like [...] it would be easy for someone to say we should've known better," Smith noted, explaining that developers sometimes get too close to a project and can't see the forest for the trees. "But this is the essential part of working on Destiny. One of the essential parts of working on Destiny, to me, is experiencing Destiny like a player."

Much of The Taken King is designed to address "stuff that upset us as players, like, stuff that we thought could be better," said Smith. He highlighted Destiny's lack of endgame content in particular, acknowledging that "a problem with Destiny 1 was that in that phase, there was basically one new piece of content" — the raid, the Vault of Glass — "and then, all of the other content that we asked you to play was just stuff you've already played." It remains to be seen whether The Taken King will have more longevity than the original game, but Bungie is promising that there will at least be a wider variety of activities for endgame players.

But many Destiny players say they aren't interested in returning to the game with The Taken King — and spending $40 on top of the $60-100 they've already spent — because they felt burned by the letdown of a game that Destiny was a year ago. Those individuals fill message boards and comment threads with angry phrases like "we paid to be beta testers for a year." Smith is certainly aware of people like that, and he seemed to be arguing that Bungie could only have reached this point by suffering through the trying times of Destiny's first year of existence.

"I have the data — I watched people fall off the cliff when they hit level 20 — and I know that the game didn't rise up to meet their potential and expectations," said Smith. "And I say 'I,' but we all at Bungie recognize that. So The Taken King really is an opportunity for folks to come in and check it out again."

The first year of Destiny was often marked by controversy around Bungie's seemingly contentious relationship with the game's players, something that Smith — having put, by his own admission, his foot in his mouth during an interview at E3 — is intimately acquainted with. In our conversation, he reiterated Bungie's commitment to working on Destiny; after all, the studio reportedly has a 10-year plan for the game.

"We're super fucking serious about supporting Destiny and making it better"

"We're super fucking serious about supporting Destiny and making it better," said Smith. "And for all of the ways that we, Bungie, hope to have improved Destiny with The Taken King, our work is unfinished and we're going to continue to work and make the game better."

Smith said that ongoing effort will be guided by the players — not because Bungie doesn't have a vision of its own, but because the studio must ultimately answer to its fans.

"In every copy of the game that we've sold, we're hopefully providing a bunch of entertainment to players," said Smith. "And they have every right to tell us how they think it should be better, and it's our responsibility — in a game that we're committed to — to just, like, make it better.

"One of the things that [The Taken King executive producer Mark] Noseworthy and I have talked about — and I'm not just repeating it for the sake of repeating it, man — is, like, I love Destiny. I hate that it's not better."

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