In early June, as the video game industry assembled in Los Angeles for E3, app makers from around the world gathered a few hundred miles north in San Francisco for WWDC, Apple's annual developer event. There, Apple unveiled watchOS 3, software that, from a certain point of view, all but says, "Let's try that again."
This is the ebb and flow of software development, where bits and bytes evolve beyond their creators' initial conceptions. Developers make educated guesses and pitch their product to the public. After it's released and potentially millions of people use it, they learn whether they guessed correctly. In some ways, Apple guessed wrong about the fundamentals of the software that powers its popular wearable. It is far from the only company to have done so. Set for release this fall, watchOS 3's big changes are the result of observation, reassessment and refinement.
Destiny's developers at Bungie must know how Apple feels.
Like Apple, Bungie created a new software product using its best ideas. After it released Destiny to the world, millions of people played, and Bungie learned more than it ever could have alone or through playtests. Destiny's creators discovered what they did right. They heard about what they did wrong. Then, with update after update, expansion after expansion, Bungie changed its software. This fall, those efforts will culminate in Rise of Iron, Destiny's last big expansion.
Since Destiny's release in late 2014, the story of the game has been one of evolution. Destiny is a game in progress — always changing, sometimes in big ways, other times not so much.
"I think with Rise, the opportunity for us is not to reset the entire experience," Bungie's head of community, Eric "Urk" Osborne, told Polygon in a recent interview. "It's to tee off on what is working really well for us right now."
Vanilla Destiny was Bungie's first, best guess. Its updates since then — notably, last year's The Taken King expansion — were reassessments and refinements. That's why Bungie made "Destiny 2.0" synonymous with its previous expansion. But nobody from Bungie says "Destiny 3.0" when they talk about what's coming next, and with good reason: Bungie thinks it got its game right.
Rise of Iron isn't about fixing Destiny. Rise of Iron is about shipping a software update that could only exist after spending years learning and refining.
"New IP at this level is challenging in and of itself," Osborne said. "Rise of Iron, I think, is a great culmination of that sort of put into practice. With The Taken King to start, and then this year with Rise of Iron, we have the ability to sort of not just guess at what people are going to want to see in the game. We actually have a direct pipe to our players. And so that's in the telemetry. We see what they're doing in the game."
If vanilla Destiny was a best guess and The Taken King was a reassessment, then Rise of Iron will be a statement. It's Destiny built with confidence earned of experience and informed by principles about player interaction that have always defined Bungie's vision of an Earth, invaded, protected and in desperate need of heroes.
It almost never feels good to learn that you got something wrong, but it sure can be exciting when you figure out how to fix it.
Destiny's spring 2016 update, which reimagined one of the game's core systems, was a case study in a now-familiar pattern in which Bungie designs, Bungie releases, Bungie learns, Bungie releases something new.
It would be difficult to overstate the loot system's importance. Kill a bad guy, and they drop loot that players can use to upgrade their characters. For a long time, the loot system that governed Destiny's item drops was random and had a relatively wide range. The upshot: Players had to tread familiar ground over and over with only a hope of finding better gear. Enemies got easier. The loot may or may not have gotten better.
In April, Bungie retooled Destiny's loot system. In part, it forged a new connection between drop quality and the gear players wore — while continuing to offer a bit of randomization by allowing for drops higher than the average of players' armor light level. And thus a new loop began, with incentives to return and battle for better — and new — gear.
If Bungie's current system is right, does that make its previous attempts wrong? Not so much. It's not as if right and wrong are clear concepts. Bungie didn't add two and two and get four. Instead, it did the math correctly but eventually decided that it was solving the wrong problem.
That iterative development process matters because Destiny fundamentals incentivize players to return. Loot drops, for example, tell players to come back, fight and earn — hopefully — ever-better gear.
Osborne told Polygon at E3 that Bungie begins by thinking of Destiny as a hobby.
"It's a hobby, yeah," Osborne said. "We set out to make something that felt — this might be a little nerdy, but, like … a pub. It's like a club that you can belong to. It's a circle of friends."
That's the key to understanding Destiny from Bungie's perspective: It's a both a hobby and a place to hang out. That was true at the beginning, and it's true now.
"I think I've spent more time playing the game as myself — you know, bitching about work or chatting about movies that I like or whatever — than, you know, being immersed in a story, right?" Osborne asked. "So that's also been a really interesting thing for us, is to find that line between how often do we tell you a linear story, where we grab you by the head and say 'look at this!' versus letting you be the sort of hero. You think about ... I think some of my best experiences in Destiny have been when it's just me and my five friends plumbing the depths of the Vault of Glass, where there's fundamentally almost no story."
Osborne's answer raises a couple of questions, too: What do players want to do? If Bungie wants to create a hobby and a hangout, what should the studio put in the pub? After all, if you were to examine Destiny in 2014 and 2016, you'd find that the developer has done some remodeling. How does it know what to do?
In part, it comes from Destiny's players, many of whom are happy to tell Bungie what they like and what they don't. Ultimately, Bungie gets to decide what ships, but Osborne said that player desire is a significant factor in development.
It makes sense. If Bungie is trying to incentivize players to come back to the game, then its incentive is to give players what they want. Bungie's done that for nearly two years now — and sometimes declined to do so.
"A lot of the goal is to create a place that people want to keep coming back to, right?" Osborne asked. "And giving them that — almost, like, setting a stage for them to have fun with, whether they're playing alone or with their friends. And I think there are a lot of really subtle decisions that go into that on the design side that are kind of almost a mystery to most people, but they're very intentional. Like, we got feedback … a little early on, like, 'Oh, you can't talk to other people in the Tower.'
"Can you imagine hitting the ground in the Tower with, like, 16 people all talking? A cacophony of insanity?"
"Can you imagine hitting the ground in the Tower with, like, 16 people all talking? A cacophony of insanity? But instead, we have an incredibly positive Tower experience, you know? So there are a bunch of those decisions, I think, that add up over in a sum total that make the game, just, uniquely positive. I mean, we've made, I think, one of the most positive first-person shooters on the market, right?"
This is a point that Bungie has returned to since before Destiny's release. With the Halo series, Bungie played a significant role in popularizing multiplayer gameplay on consoles. On the surface, that seems entirely positive. But in reading multiple interviews since Bungie started talking about Destiny, it became clear that there was one aspect of gaming online that Bungie didn't love. Sometimes, people on the internet are jerks, and some percentage of players in online multiplayer games feels free to be jerky.
From that perspective, Destiny's focus on gameplay that requires cooperation makes sense. Bungie wants to foster "uniquely positive" experiences, as Osborne called them.
"Yeah, there are jerks in every hobby, every category of anything you can think of," he said. "Like, you can go to the most mundane — you can go to a knitting group, you know, on Reddit, and you'll find somebody in there just, like, trolling them up and making it a bad experience. These are people, anonymous people on the internet. You guys probably have no experience with this!"
Osborne seems happy with the community's behavior and open to its feedback, much of which the developer incorporated into previous updates. Rise of Iron carries Bungie's ideals into the future, offering refinement rather than rethinking.
"We're not really using the moniker 'Year Three,' and I think that's kind of intentional, because Year Two — the reason we went there was to sort of very clearly signal to players that we were going to make overhauls, right? Like, the Light system got overhauled. The way we told story in The Taken King got overhauled. The way we served quests and let people hunt for gear saw huge improvements, based on the player feedback from Year One."
We're not really using the moniker 'Year Three,' and I think that's kind of intentional"
Now that Bungie thinks that the game's working well, will Rise of Iron do?
Ultimately, Rise of Iron will build upon the foundation Bungie laid in 2014, expanding each of the game's modes. A new campaign will make Earth's playable section larger with an area called the Plaguelands. Of course, there will be new weapons, armor and gear. A three-player Strike, new maps and modes for competitive multiplayer in the Crucible, and a six-player raid are all on the docket. After all, as Bungie co-founder Jason Jones has long said, having an activity for players' every mood has always been part of the design.
By the fall of 2016, Bungie won't need to explain what the game is. Millions have played it. Accepting that gave the developer license to build Destiny's final expansion without having to worry so much about retooling. And nowhere is that more apparent than in the story, which itself is an expansion of Destiny's obtuse lore. If you've played a bunch of Destiny, then Rise of Iron should answer questions you've long had.
"Yup, activities for every mood, and that moves down a couple of different paths," Osborne said. "It's like, what do you feel like doing right now? But it also, I think, speaks to this thing that we can that's really interesting for me, anyway, which is: I know who Lord Saladin is. I've dealt with him through the ritual that is Iron Banner. But he's now going to roll in and become a campaign character that I get to learn more about. Like, that's a pretty interesting mix, right? It's not a compartmentalized mode that's carved off to the side. It has this history and story, and players are like, 'I want to know about this,' and we can say, 'All right, let's open that up.' And yeah, I think Rise of Iron is definitely focused on delivering story, right: delivering that campaign content, making all of these activities — whether they are ritual or endgame or gear collections — feel like they're thematically connected to this rich history of Lord Saladin and his Iron Lords."
"It's not a compartmentalized mode that's carved off to the side. It has this history and story …"
What happens after Rise of Iron? Bungie isn't detailing that as it focuses on this fall's expansion. We know that a sequel is in the works, but what that will include is anybody's guess. The way Osborne talks about Rise of Iron could be an indication, though. Destiny needs players, like any other game, but it also needs to retain players throughout its decadelong lifespan. Osborne said that Bungie's livestreamed reveal for the expansion attracted 250,000 viewers, which is a pretty good indication that players want more Destiny, too.
Of course, nobody knows whether Rise of Iron will be a triumph or a dud, but it's clear when talking to Osborne that, in mid-2016, it is an expansion born of confidence. As with Apple's watchOS 3, this software maker knows how its customers use the software and what they want from its next iteration. If Bungie is right, then Rise of Iron could be a big success and an indication of what's to come.
Bungie released Destiny 2014 with a bunch of best guesses. Rise of Iron would be similar, except now Bungie has been listening to Guardians for years. An expansion devoid of fundamental changes implies something: It can only exist only if Bungie is currently rather satisfied. Osborne, rather satisfied himself, is excited about the possibilities.
"It's really encouraging and exciting that people are, you know, really into it. It's also, I mean, there's a lot of pressure that comes with that, right? You have to deliver, so … I think we got it. This is going to be a fun one."