Since Polygon's Ben Kuchera wrote about his experience playing Destiny as a casual player, it seemed worth discussing what the experience playing Destiny as a hardcore player is like, what you get from the game for playing this way and whether it’s worth it.
I’ve played hundreds of hours of Destiny since its launch in September 2014 and I’ve beaten the hardest version of every raid while it was current content, including every hard-mode challenge mode in the current King’s Fall raid. I play two warlocks and a titan, and all of them are currently light level 319 out of a maximum of 320.
I’ve also written about the game extensively while breaking down its many systems. If Ben is a casual player, I am very much the opposite.
What makes a hardcore player?
There are many different kinds of players who spend a lot of time playing Destiny, so the qualification to be a hardcore Destiny player is a bit open to interpretation. There are people who spend ten or more hours per week in the Crucible enjoying player-versus-player, and players who assiduously keep up with their daily bounties. There are other players who chase after the game’s exotic weapons and armors. One of the best things about Destiny is how many rabbit holes there are in which to fall.
Some of these players engage with Destiny in ways that are fairly intense and systematic, completing Nightfall strikes on multiple characters and grinding to high ranks to secure the best rewards during events like Sparrow Racing League or Iron Banner. I’m not here to say this isn’t a valid way to play.
But the players who are considered Destiny’s one-percenters, the players who get the coolest looking and most powerful toys, are the players who do the raids. Particularly the hard mode raids. While players in other activities chase after the very occasional item above 300 light, hard raiders squirrel away extra loot with stats above 310 for infusion fodder, and approach the maximum light level on gear chosen for optimized stats and perks.
The Trials of Osiris Crucible mode is also pretty damn hardcore if you complete a flawless ticket with 9 wins and no losses. This impressive feat gets you into the Lighthouse area, where you can loot a chest that contains hard-raid equivalent weapons. A small percentage of players go flawless every week on multiple characters, which is hard to even imagine. But you can’t upgrade all your gear with Trials rewards, so most successful Trials players also raid. Doing both at the highest levels is a bit like making it the Super Bowl and then playing in the World Series during your days off.
Raids get covered less than other facets of the game by mainstream gaming press, and the elite nature of the pursuit may be one reason for this. While many games writers play a lot of Destiny, most of them aren’t engaging these challenges. A recent Polygon Minimap podcast, for example, convened a panel with a combined 1,900 hours of experience in the game to talk about Destiny. While Crucible, gun balance, exploration zones and the campaign were discussed at length, very little discussion centered on the raids.
For me, since raid rewards dramatically outclass rewards from just about everything else, the raid becomes the sole path for progression, and therefore the central experience of the game. This is why I have argued that, once you get your characters leveled and you learn the ropes of the raid, that you can be a hardcore Destiny player on less than five hours of play per week. You just need to know where to spend your time.
So for purposes of this article, and, with those caveats, we’re going to talk about hardcore player in terms of raiding, since that’s the activity behind which most of the game’s best rewards are gated.
Raiding in Destiny
Destiny is a hybrid MMO / shooter, and raiding has traditionally been the highest tier of player-versus-environment, or PvE activity in MMO games. A raid is a cooperative multiplayer activity in which a relatively large group of players tackle extremely challenging enemies together, and the raid is on a weekly lockout, which means you can only get loot from each boss once per week, per character.
In Destiny, a raid group is a fireteam of six players. The complexity of the raids require all the players to have microphones and to use them. If you’re not in constant communication, you won’t stand a chance.
Since Bungie doesn’t want to force players in random groups into voice chat, there is no in-game matchmaking for raids, which means players have to coordinate with friends or use external sites to find groups with which to play. Forget about the skill and knowledge needed to do well, simply organizing a raid takes a not insignificant amount of time.
Many of the fights require each player to take on some sort of specific role, and every player needs to know where to be for each phase of the fight and where to go when certain events occur. There’s also a pretty high execution cap on these fights. Players have to learn how to handle challenges like killing swarms of enemies very quickly, avoiding incoming damage from attacks that can kill in one or two shots and nailing sniper-rifle headshots to quickly drop dangerous enemies before they can wipe out the group or trigger harmful mechanics.
If you’re not in constant communication, you won’t stand a chance
Very small mistakes can get players killed, and losing a player can be devastating. In normal-difficulty raids, dead players cannot be revived for 30 seconds, which means the team has to manage the encounter a person down until someone can revive the dead teammate. In hard difficulty raids, dead players can’t be revived at all, except by the Warlock Sunsinger super ability that allows them to resurrect themselves. A death means that the group must finish the fight a man down or, in many cases, wipe the attempt and start over. A successful completion of a single boss fight can take more than ten minutes, so failure can be costly.
Raids also carry high light-level requirements, which function as a sort of artificial mechanism for scaling difficulty. You deal about three percent less damage for each point of you lack from an encounter’s recommended light level. Hard Oryx has a recommended light level of 320, so the players who killed him the first week the hard version of the raid was available had to tackle the encounter while dealing with about a 33 percent reduction in damage.
The newest addition to Destiny raids are challenge modes, which reward extra loot drops at maximum light level for defeating bosses under special conditions. One boss each week has a challenge active, and killing the boss while completing the challenge awards an extra item from the boss’s loot table dropped at the maximum light level of 320.
The Oryx challenge mode, for example, requires players to kill the boss by detonating all 16 of his orbs at once, making it impossible to complete the challenge while using the "no knights" strategy.
Why Most Players Don’t Mess With Raids
The raids are a markedly different experience if you play Destiny as a game that you can log into for a few minutes to chill out, run a few bounties or strikes and make a little bit of progress. The difficulty spikes are much steeper, and there is a real possibility of failure. When you fail you get nothing. And when you fail in a raid, five other people fail with you, which can be stressful and embarrassing if it’s your fault.
And some players don’t find the effort to reward ratio to be high enough. Killing Oryx on hard mode gives you a roll at his hard loot table, which can yield nothing, a roll at his normal loot table, and a guaranteed item picked at random from the entire raid’s loot table.
That means it’s possible to kill the hardest boss in the game and get nothing but a 310 class item. Depending on your outlook, this is either a good reason not to bother doing this at all, or a good reason to do this three times a week, every week, for several months.
The most common refrain of the Destiny non-raider is to lament the fact that the raid doesn’t have random matchmaking, however.
Bungie’s decision not to provide matchmaking for hard activities is a wise one. Random groups should be used for content that is tuned to the expectation that players will not be able to communicate, and may be of very low skill level. When the content is too hard for the group to handle, players tend to get angry, blame gets thrown around and things get nasty. It’s no coincidence that almost every game that uses random matchmaking to assemble teams is known for having a toxic community.
Even if Destiny forced players into a voice chat channel with random players, which no activity in the game currently does, it’s hard to imagine a random matchmaker assembling groups that succeed with any regularity in Destiny raids, since one poor or inexperienced player can prevent a group from killing a boss in King’s Fall. It’s very easy to imagine randomly matched groups breaking down in rage fits and abusive behavior, on the other hand.
For a while I had a hard time understanding why players felt the lack of matchmaking was keeping them from raiding, because it’s pretty easy to find a group to raid with. There are websites dedicated to helping players find groups, as well as a subreddit for fireteams.
Organized groups — even organized groups of players who happen to be trolling an LFG (looking for group) site at the same time you are — can filter out a lot of the problems you would find in random queues. People’s gear choices reflect their understanding of their class mechanics, and their emblems and ships show you what they’ve done before. Organized groups can also enforce a minimum light level, which can serve as a proxy for experience.
Filtering groups by experience and gear makes it a lot easier to achieve quick clean runs. Killing the final boss for the first time took me more than two hours of attempts — longer than it now takes me to fully clear the raid three times over. And many groups never manage to kill him at all.
It’s very easy to imagine randomly matched groups breaking down in rage fits
On the other hand, it’s probably not fun to get filtered. Since I have very good gear and emblems that show I’ve got a ton of raid experience, I have a pretty easy time connecting with experienced players to blow up the raid at pretty much any time. However, players with less experience and worse gear probably have a hard time finding groups that will invite them. Players are investing in each other during a raid, and if you don’t look like you’ll yield returns expect to have trouble finding a group for the best / hardest raids.
Less-experienced players should group with other less-experienced players and learn together, instead of trying to join experienced groups that will lose patience and kick undergeared or less experienced teammates who caused wipes.
The best way to avoid getting yelled at for being new? Play with people who are also new.
Why I do this
Destiny gets a lot of criticism in general, and plenty of criticism from me, but the raids have always been a standout aspect of the game. These elaborate fights against bosses the size of skyscrapers deliver the big cinematic moments that Destiny’s linear campaign missions never manage to achieve, and Destiny is the only game that manages to graft complex MMO-style boss fights onto a shooter with mechanics this polished.
While it’s frustrating to fail, that risk makes it exhilarating to succeed, especially the first couple of times. There’s really nothing else like this in games right now, especially if you’re into cooperative multiplayer.
The other thing that keeps me coming back to beat the raids over and over again? The stuff. The gear. One of the panelists on the Minimap podcast pointed out that Destiny feels like a better use of time than other multiplayer shooters, because Destiny gives you candy. I'm here to tell you: Raiders get the best candy.
Weapons and armor you buy from vendors with your legendary marks are 280 light. Activities like strikes and bounties drop engrams that can decode to items with a maximum light of 300. Nightfall activities each week have a chance per character to award an item rolled from 300-310, but Nightfalls also drop legendaries rolled below 300, exotics which will roll at 290 unless your character’s light level exceeds 310, strange coins, or 3 of coins consumables.
The raid has five different opportunities for loot, and it will all be 300-310 in normal mode and 310-320 in hard mode. Destiny players who raid get to have much more powerful characters than players who do not. It’s a different level of play entirely.
Raids also drop exclusive emblems, shaders and ships, so raiders have a number of other cool cosmetic goodies that show off their accomplishments. Players who raid consistently and well don’t just have better gear, they look different.
While it may require a marathon play session to learn the fights the first time, once you’ve mastered them and collected some gear you can clear the raid quickly if you’re playing with a similarly geared and experienced group. If you start from the Totems checkpoint, which is the first relevant loot in hard mode, a good group can clear the entire raid in half an hour to 45 minutes.
I used to raid in World of Warcraft, and joining up with a raid group in that game was hard. The raids required a large number of people, and players had to fit rigidly defined roles of tank, healer or damage. Generally, raid groups were organized guilds who ran the same lineup every week at specified times and you had to schedule your life to accommodate raiding. The actual time you spent raiding was only a few hours a week most of the time, except when the group was learning new encounters, but the burden of having to be online at 8 p.m. every Tuesday night was incredibly restrictive.
In Destiny, the roles are specific to the encounter. Anyone can be a sword bearer or a relic runner. You usually need a Defender Titan for their Ward of Dawn bubble, and it’s nice to have at least one Nightstalker hunter to make orbs or to tether a boss, increasing the group’s damage, but beyond that, you can pretty much just put together a group of six good players and go. I can raid with my friends if we’re online at the same time, and I can also raid whenever I feel like it by joining up with a pickup group. Sometimes, I jump on Destiny at 4 in the morning and kill Oryx with Australians. If my friends want to raid when I am not online, they can easily find another good player looking for a team on the LFG.
Destiny doesn’t get enough credit for how much it has improved on the hardcore raiding experiences of other games.
If you’re into Destiny, consider stepping up your game
If you’ve played games like WoW in the past, but couldn’t handle the commitment that high-end guild-based raiding requires, Destiny’s raids have a similar feel, but can be completed on a more flexible schedule. And if you’ve never done something like this, it’s a pretty cool experience to try. It’s very possible you’ll get hooked.
If you prefer your games to be relaxing, and you prefer to be able to reliably get a reward when you put in time, you may not find much appeal in the idea a punishingly difficult experience that can send you away empty-handed if you fail.
If you like Destiny because of the stuff, this is where to get the best stuff. You might want to consider trying out a normal-mode raid, and then maybe checking out the hard mode Warpriest challenge, which isn’t a huge step up from the normal fight and drops a guaranteed 320 heavy or sniper, plus a 320 artifact.
However you play? I wish you the best of luck in Destiny’s third year.