clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile
Guardians from Destiny 2: Lightfall Image: Bungie

Filed under:

Live-service games need to respect their dedicated players more

Despite its pros, seasonal content still has plenty of cons

Sea of Thieves recently received its long-awaited “Captaincy” update, packed with features that hopeful pirates have been clamoring for since the game launched in 2018. You can now name your ship and decorate it with custom trinkets and cosmetics — simple but appreciated stuff like that.

But the wider update was not nearly as appreciated. Since the Captaincy update’s launch, the game’s subreddit and official forums have been flooded with posts decrying the new “milestones” system, a layered series of trackers that are supposed to “allow you to look back on all the unique things that you’ve done,” as the game’s creative director, Mike Chapman, phrased it in the studio’s recent season 7 deep dive video.

The thing is, Sea of Thieves’ most dedicated players have already been doing “unique things” — and plenty of not-unique things — for over four years. The game’s menu has pages and pages full of “commendations” that track everything from the distance you’ve sailed under the flags of specific factions to the number of skeleton ships you’ve sunk since achieving Pirate Legend status. But the new milestones all begin at zero progress, no matter how many dozens, hundreds, or thousands of hours a player already has in their log. Veteran players may have already earned tons of gold, completed hundreds of quests, and slayed dozens of Megalodons — but if you want any of those new trinkets or rewards, you’ll have to do it all again.

Players standing on a beach to commemorate Sea of Thieves’ Captaincy update Image: Rare/Microsoft Studios

Putting new and veteran players on equal footing is one thing when it comes to new voyages or quests, but this is something else entirely: an indicator that Rare does not respect the vast quantities of time that its most dedicated players have already invested in this game.

Rare has already updated the system to reduce some of the most outrageous milestone grinds, like 100 hours spent sleeping, drinking grog, or literally being on fire — things no player would ever accomplish incidentally in the normal course of playing the game. Sea of Thieves lead designer Shelley Preston took to the game’s official blog to clarify the designers’ thinking around the update as a whole: “The intention of this system is to enable you to track the way you uniquely play and the things you like to engage with the most, and then give you rewards for that.”

In other words, these milestones aren’t meant to be a checklist that you tackle one by one, but a reflection of your personal play style that no individual player is meant to fully complete. But the system is meant to track only what a player accomplishes while on a “Captained” ship, which hasn’t existed before now (although this is at its core a silly rationale, since I’ve obviously been the captain of my own ship in Sea of Thieves for years now).

Preston also explained that many of these trackers were literally not coded into the game before, making them impossible to award retroactively. Be that as it may, as a longtime player, seeing all those big fat zeroes still feels awful, especially for the trackers that definitely were in the game, in the form of commendations. For Sea of Thieves’ most dedicated players, the Captaincy update has left a taste more sour than week-old grog.

Sea of Thieves’ Captaincy features Image: Rare/Microsoft Studios

This is hardly a problem unique to Sea of Thieves, though. As game designer Cliff Bleszinski recently pointed out, more and more games are switching to seasonal models that promise an endlessly escalating treadmill of new content for players, and new work for developers. A game that, had it existed a decade ago, might have received one or two expansions, today exists as a “live-service game” — one that’s treated more as a subscription than a single-purchase product, usually with a new premium battle pass every few months.

There’s nothing wrong with the battle pass system itself; whatever the game, it generally gives hardcore players new things to earn by simply playing however they want, while allowing more casual players to ignore it entirely.

But the live-service model’s overlapping hamster wheels of content — and the need for developers to constantly add new wheels to keep players running in place — often lead to a game’s most ardent fans feeling disrespected.

It’s the reason why I quit playing Destiny 2. In 2020, several months into the pandemic, developer Bungie announced the “gear sunsetting” system, by which guns and armor that players had earned would be gradually phased out to make room for the new toys being released with each season. This system was intended to address several real issues: Destiny players tended to use only the best-in-class weapons for each inventory slot, ignoring most of the new guns released each season (many of which were boring reskins of older guns, but that’s beside the point). That meant less grinding of each season’s new content, and, maybe, more time spent playing other games. In addition, Destiny’s massive sandbox of weapons and abilities has, historically, been unwieldy for Bungie’s designers to balance.

Whatever the intention, in practice, the “gunsetting” system was simply the latest way for Bungie to wipe the slate clean. Instead of letting Guardians play how they wanted to, the system forced them into funnels by continuously making new batches of weapons mathematically useless. If I were to log into Destiny 2 now, two years later, I’d find a vault full of guns and armor, trophies that represent great memories of Nightfalls and raids and Crucible matches my friends and I sweated and cried through — most of which is, as of now, effectively worthless. Their numbers just don’t go high enough.

Destiny 2’s developers have talked extensively about the problems they have attracting new players. Here’s assistant game director Joe Blackburn discussing it with GameSpot, and design director Victoria Dollbaum discussing it with PC Gamer. For the devs, wiping the slate clean for all players is a tempting way to make onboarding easier. But disregarding the accomplishments of players who’ve spent thousands of hours in their world feels like an overcompensation.

In 2021, Bungie abandoned the gear sunsetting system. Blackburn wrote that although the studio “still believes in [the] goals” that sunsetting’s infusion caps were meant to address, “it’s clear [its] execution was off the mark.” However, Bungie continued adding things like destinations and activities to the “content vault,” effectively deleting them from the live game to lower the game’s file size and funnel players toward newer stuff. With the announcement of Destiny 2’s next big expansion, Lightfall, the studio promised to end that practice as well.

But for some players, including myself, the damage was done: Bungie had once again attempted to negate hundreds of hours that we had chosen to spend in its world, and there’s no guarantee that they won’t do it again sometime in the future.

The Mountaintop, a weapon that hasn’t caught up with Destiny 2’s current content Image: Bungie via Polygon

By definition, live-service games are always evolving, and developers are still figuring out how best to attract new players while keeping invested fans content. It’s a difficult balancing act — but it isn’t impossible. Fortnite, for example, usually gets this right. Any cosmetics earned or purchased throughout the game’s entire lifespan remain useable forever, and things that are rare tend to remain rare, and continue to reward players’ investment — they were there for this in-game event or that season, and they can still show off the spoils, no matter how much time has passed.

Some MMOs also respect player investment. Take Final Fantasy XIV, which received its version 6.2 patch this week, adding new content like Island Sanctuaries. FFXIV players can show off their accomplishments with earned titles and flashy Relic Weapons, which never go out of style. The “level sync” system ensures that high-level players can’t cakewalk their way through old content to earn prestigious items, while the game’s version of a transmog system, called Glamours, ensures that you’ll always be able to show off your trophies.

All of this is to say that there are live-service games that strike the balance between keeping veteran players sated and courting fresh ones. Designing systems that reward both camps is an undoubtedly challenging task. But the alternative — repeatedly burning your game’s most passionate fans — can only have diminishing returns.

Sign up for the newsletter Sign up for Patch Notes

A weekly roundup of the best things from Polygon