This year has been a major turning point for Destiny 2. After experiments with a season-focused approach to live-game content and storytelling in the wake of 2018 and 2019's major expansions, the model has developed into a highlight of the game in the months following Beyond Light in 2020. New activities have popped up every few months, and more than in the past, they're adding to an unfolding narrative that builds off past seasons to make Destiny 2 feel more like a living world than it ever has before.
For developer Bungie, however, there's more to hone about its current seasonal approach. As Destiny 2 creative director Joe Blackburn explained, the studio is happy with where it has landed in terms of narrative development and activity content, but there are still places in which the seasonal approach takes a back seat to other big releases. Season 16, the next on Destiny 2's docket, will release on the same day as the upcoming Witch Queen expansion in February. As Blackburn sees it, that season will be another big step in the evolution of Destiny 2's live content.
"I think Season 16 is going to be the next big boiling point for us," Blackburn said in an interview with GameSpot. "We've really had trouble with some of these seasons that come out right alongside the expansion. And so we've put a lot of thought and effort into how we want to do that better this time around. I mean, you, as a hardcore Destiny player, know that it can feel tough for the season to matter when it comes out a week [after the release of an expansion], and you've already got raid weapons, and you're like, 'I don't know if I need this--does this stuff really matter?' So we're really excited to get Season 16 out day and date with Witch Queen this time and to have a lot of stuff for players to do and engage with, and really see the value immediately, not only to give you stuff to do while you're leveling up, but to give you stuff while you're prepping for some of those endgame activities."
Blackburn said some seasons this year have felt anemic because of other big content launches, like the Vault of Glass. Bungie announced in its Witch Queen showcase that 2022 will see two new dungeons, which are large endgame activities for three-player teams, and two new raids--one a revamped Destiny 1 raid like VoG and the other wholly new. With those big activities and their loot on the calendar, Blackburn said the studio wanted to make sure that 2022's seasons didn't get overshadowed.
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"I think the other part really is, it comes down to rewards," he continued. "I've been super happy with [Seasons] 13, 14, and 15 in terms of their rewards and stories. But we were still doing a little bit of robbing from the season to pay for things like the raids and I think players could still feel that. Season 14 is awesome, but you're like, 'Oh, one of the Exotics is in Vault of Glass.' And so if I'm a seasonal player that doesn't have five other friends, that can feel rough. So we're really trying to make sure, as we go into four pieces of raid and dungeon content a year, that the seasons are still fully funded. And that those dungeons and those raids feel like the icing on the cake, not that we're taking something out of that pie. That was a mixed dessert metaphor."
While Bungie might still be looking to hone how its seasonal content works with major additions like expansions, the studio also seems happy with the model it has developed for telling seasonal stories and dishing out seasonal content. The narrative approach has been particularly impressive, creating something that doesn't really exist in the world of video games: A game world that is in a constant state of evolution because of the story being told within it. As Destiny 2 general manager Justin Truman said during the interview, the world of Destiny 2 today is different from the world of Destiny 2 a year ago.
It's taken a lot of experimentation to find this point, though, Truman said.
"When I think back a few years, I remember when we first made the switch from DLCs to seasons--Black Armory was the one, the Season of the Forge. We had a thing for years where we would just come up with these cool ideas, these cool products, and then we would release them and, in the good cases, would tell cool stories. But then we didn't follow them up," Truman said. "We would start a thread and then we would just leave it, and then start another thread, and leave it. And I've been really happy with how our narrative team and how our creative leadership team has really been thinking not just one, but two and three years out, so that we can build to beats like the Osiris reveal at the start of this season that the team has been seeding for a year. It's been feathering into the content. And so I think one of the things that we're seeing in the difference in reaction now is that we're going somewhere in a clear way, and it can feel like all those beats matter, versus the interesting new monster of the week [of previous seasons] or whatever."
"We were still doing a little bit of robbing from the season to pay for things like the raids and I think players could still feel that."
Destiny 2's seasonal approach currently feels a lot like a TV show, with new story beats popping up each week with the addition of new or slightly altered seasonal activities. In Season 15, the Season of the Splicer, Bungie started with six-player "Override" activities on several different planets. After a few weeks of Override rotations, it added "Expunge" missions, which were more story focused fights through linear levels. Each new week fleshed out the story with additional cutscenes and dialogue as players worked to uncover the mystery of the season's big threat, the Endless Night.
Blackburn said Bungie looks at Destiny as both a combination of smaller seasonal stories told over time, and bigger tentpole moments in expansions--like a combination of TV shows and movies filling out a cinematic universe.
"Surprising no one, we still pull a lot of inspiration in entertainment from things like Disney," Blackburn said. "Like Disney Plus, I think, is a great example of something that Destiny looks at and says, 'Hey, we can do that too,' right? And so you look at Marvel or Star Wars and Disney Plus, and they have this sort of S-tier-quality TV shows going on. And then they're like, 'Oh, by the way, we drop movies every so often.' And as a fan of any of that, as a Marvel fan or a Star Wars fan, it's easy for you to drop in and be like, 'Hey, I'm into this show. And I want to watch this show.' Or, 'I just want to tune into the movie. I'll just be a once-a-year person.' And we want Destiny to feel really approachable to people that are just into sort of the big battleship campaigns and the people that are like, 'No, this is my hobby. Like I want to play it for more than just 50 hours once a year.'"
But Blackburn also noted that while both the studio and much of the player community seem to be happy with the way seasonal content is currently working, the studio hasn't necessarily found the perfect approach.
"I think, overall, the stuff that we really want to keep pushing on is finding the model that works and then making sure that even if we have a model that works, that we're continuing to push forward and iterate and find things that the community likes and doesn't like, and moving forward in that direction," he said.
The flow of seasonal content--and rewards to match--means Bungie is constantly adding to the game, even if those activities only last for the year in which they're released. But with the game's constant addition of new locations and activities in its expansions, the developer has to continue to deal with the problem of the size of the game and portions of it languishing.
With the release of the Beyond Light expansion, Bungie solved that problem by removing parts of the game, placing it in what Bungie calls the "Destiny Content Vault." Early Destiny 2 destinations--Io, Mercury, Titan, and Mars--and all their related activities and story campaigns were removed. That brought down the game's install size and made room for the Beyond Light expansion, but it remains a contentious move with the community. It means that older parts of Destiny 2's story can't be accessed, and some players are frustrated that content they paid for with Destiny 2 and its earlier expansions, Curse of Osiris and Warmind, is inaccessible.
But Bungie is also positioning the Destiny Content Vault as something that old content can return from, bringing revamped experiences to the game from as far back as Destiny 1. This year saw the first release of that kind: Vault of Glass, the original Destiny's first raid, was revamped for Destiny 2 and made free for all players. Another free Destiny 1 raid is due in 2022, as well, as part of upcoming seasonal content.
"...I love that we have a single evolving world that is still there years after players first showed up and it's always the right place to go to."
"This is a very real, what we call, an 'us problem,'" Blackburn said. "Where it's like, technically, we just have to bite some of these bullets that none of us are excited to bite down on. And so it's really about, what can we do to make that as painless as possible to the player? And in some ways, I think, [it's about], 'Hey, is there a way that we can [vault content so that] there's a positive, that feels like we're curating the buffet.' What does Destiny look like 10 years from now? [With a] game that has potentially had 50 strikes made for it, how many are live at the game at one time? And [how does] whatever's in the game feel like it's loved and touched? And it was a thing that, yeah, just feels like this deserves its spot."
"And I will say ... when I put on my game designer hat, I would love to just release new sequels that come out every two years and then be able to build everything from scratch," Truman added. "And that would feel so much easier than the stuff we're grappling with. But then, when I put on the community hat, I love that we have a single evolving world that is still there years after players first showed up and it's always the right place to go to. And so, these problems are tough, but I'm happy that we're grappling with them because what we get in exchange is this single community and evolving world."
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