This past week, there was a lot of controversy surrounding Destiny, a video game in which players travel through space collecting unique resources such as Spinmetal, Helium Filaments and Red Bull.
But before the firestorm started, most Destiny fans were pretty damn stoked about how the game has been evolving. House of Wolves, the latest expansion, is excellent, and there are a lot of indications that Bungie has learned quite a bit over the past few months about what players actually want. They still need to work on their communication skills — big time! — but additions like Trials of Osiris have gotten hardcore players psyched in a way we never have been before.
So let’s forget about the controversy for a little while. At E3 last week, before any of the drama began, Kirk Hamilton and I had the opportunity to sit down with Destiny: The Taken King director Luke Smith for a long chat about the State Of Destiny and what’s coming this fall.
Smith, who is snarky and boisterous, is clearly a big fan of the game he works on. (He says he’s got three level-34 characters and has played some 800 hours, not unlike the rest of us.) He was honest and candid about some things, yet he wouldn’t answer questions about many others. At the end of the conversation, we all agreed that we’d like to chat again soon — maybe this fall, after The Taken King is out and we’ve got a long list of new problems to complain about.
(It’s probably also worth noting that Smith briefly worked at Kotaku many years ago, before either Kirk or I started.)
The interview is long and sprawling, so I’ve broken it up into segments for easier reading. Let’s do this.
On The Taken King
Jason Schreier: Alright, let’s talk about the future of Destiny. So what we saw [in the demo we played] seemed totally different than any other mission we’ve seen before. Is that what should we expect to see in The Taken King?
Luke Smith: Yeah, “The Coming War” is this characterful, toneful experience that we wanted to begin year two for The Taken King, begin it with basically a bang. That is the opening of the game — that’s how it’s gonna kick you out into this struggle against Oryx. He’s here. He’s not super-thrilled with the Guardians of the city. Y’all killed his kid — I know you guys killed his kid a bunch over and over.
Schreier: Pulled out the LAN cable.
Smith: (laughter) Yeah, exactly. He’s *really* upset about that. He’s really mad. So he’s here, he’s brought this Dreadnaught, which is our new destination, full destination, he’s got an army of Taken, these evil alien creatures that have been ripped from our dimension, corrupted and imbued with new powers… That’s how the game’s gonna start. One of the things I hope that you guys have begun to pick up a little bit, is it’s an evolution of what we’re trying to do since vanilla Destiny with our characters. I think there are some good smiles to have with the Zavala and the Eris interaction. I think there’s some fun characterfulness and toneful work that we’re doing. That really is an outcropping of what we started to do in The Dark Below where you met Eris, and you met the scream queen Omnigul, and Crota, and then we have those other two characters in The House of Wolves, Petra and Variks. Weaving those characters into the backdrop of you as a monster-killing machine is something we’re playing with.
On Peter Dinklage
Schreier: So is Ghost dead?
Smith: No. Ghost is not dead. There are gonna be doors to open! He’s still, the Ghost is gonna absolutely still be part of the game.
Schreier: Is Peter Dinklage ever coming back?
Smith: We’re not talking about any of the voice acting or casting.
On Future Levelling Systems
Schreier: Obviously you yourself admitted that the Radiant Shard thing — there have been mistakes there. Is the future gonna look more like the Etheric Light system?
Smith: So, yeah, this is one of those things that I really want to talk about, badly. And I know because it’s the thing that gives players, in their heart, it’s the thing that’s like ‘No, I love my character, tell me how you’re gonna let me play it!’ We’re not talking about this. Seriously, we have a whole summer to talk about this. I care a ton about this stuff. I think that if you look back to my recklessness on NeoGAF, sure, looking at those things, like the Etheric Light occupies a really interesting place in the player economy, where it says ‘year one’ and we’re beginning year two, so there’s some expectation management that we’re setting there. But what it enables to me that’s really exciting is when you look at these three characters on the wall, that armour looks badass. It looks beautiful.
Schreier: Really cool.
Smith: If that’s the way your character wants to look, we want systems that enable that type of player expression and creativity going into Year 2. While we’re not going into specifics today, I’m really excited to sit down and have the conversation and for you guys to tell us if we screwed up.
Schreier: I’m sure you’ll hear plenty from us.
Smith: I have no doubt about it, gentlemen.
On Legacy Weapons
Schreier: One of the problems we’ve been running into is that even though there are all these cool new weapons being added in House of Wolves and beyond, we’re just sticking to our old Gjallarhorns and Fatebringers. How do you plan to address that sort of thing, where people are just attached to those old weapons: are they going to be able to keep getting more powerful as time goes on? Is there going to be a cap on that stuff?
Smith: This is one of those great questions that we can’t talk about right now.
Schreier: [to Activision PR] Steve, get out of here so we can talk about it. (laughter)
Smith: It’s a part of looking at the arsenal that players have and figuring out where that arsenal can go, how could anything match up against something like Fatebringer or Vision of Confluence, it’s really hard when some of those guns are pegged basically as high up on the food chain as they could go. And then to be like, ‘Oh, well now we’ve gotta give you new weapons that you’re excited about,’ and you’re like, ‘I’M NOT EXCITED ABOUT THEM, I WANT TO USE MY OLD STUFF!’ It’s super tough. Super challenging problem. We’re not talking about any of our proposed solutions today.
On The New Raid
Schreier: Can you talk about the raid?
Smith: I can talk about the new raid in this one way: there’s a new raid. It is a six-player raid. And it takes place on the Dreadnaught. It is built for the Dreadnaught. It’s gonna be epic, and I believe one of the things I’ve said is it’s definitely our biggest raid yet.
Schreier: Help us conceptualize the Dreadnaught. How big is that compared to, say, Mars?
Smith: It’s tricky to try to conceptualize how large or small or anything that the Dreadnaught is, because it’s this labyrinthine creepy fortress. There’s a lot of stuff there. One of the things that the Dreadnaught does represent is our next way that we’re thinking about destination design and iteration. With the Dreadnaught, we wanted to take some of the things that we felt players liked about the Vault of Glass, which is like explorability, discovery, mythology, mystery —
Schreier: And a sixth chest.
Smith: …and weave that into the, weave that into — I’m ignoring your sixth chest comment — weave that into the player experience, that players feel like they have opportunities to go back to this place and figure out different secrets. I’m not gonna do any of the secrets a disservice now, but we want this to be the type of place that players go and explore and share their discoveries with each other.
Hamilton: So it sounds like you’re going for a kind of Dark Souls thing, that kind of approach. Where you get there and you haven’t seen the full extent of the map.
Smith: We hope not only that it’s — you don’t get to see everything at once, but we also hope that a bunch of things that you see as you’re adventuring around the Dreadnaught, at some point you’re like ‘oh my gosh, I wonder if that’s a portal’ and then you figure out what it does. Or you see a sliver of light in the distance and you see a treasure chest out there and you’re like ‘oh my gosh how are we gonna get out there?’ And then when you get out there, and you try to open the treasure chest, it’s locked. And now you’re like, ‘well now what, how do we figure this out?’ That’s definitely one of those design rules we have, which is to make a destination that feels a little bit different.
Schreier: Is it safe to say that there won’t be a raid between now and The Taken King?
Smith: Yeah, the raid that’s coming with The Taken King is the next raid.
On Raid Checkpoints
Schreier: So it sounds like you want this one to be way bigger than previous raids — but when the weekly reset comes around, and we have checkpoints that get reset every week, it might be more difficult for casual players who can only play a few hours at a time to go through it. Have you guys thought about changing that system at all?
Smith: We’re not discussing anything about potential iterations to the checkpointing system. We’re thinking about all that stuff. We want as many players to be able to engage with the Destiny endgame as possible. I think that some of the things you pointed out earlier about the economy simplifications we’ve made are a broad stroke in that direction. We want to continue to make the game more friendly for all players. What we want is to compress the delta between a fresh player and here so that more people can play together. The game’s about playing with other people. You need to embrace that as much as you can.
On Raid Matchmaking
Schreier: So one thing we have to ask about is matchmaking. That’s something you guys have been asked about over and over again — is raid matchmaking going to happen? The solution I thought would be ideal is an option to turn matchmaking on or off for all of the different weekly things. Is that something you can talk about?
Smith: We’re not talking about anything with matchmaking —
Schreier: I love those words. ‘We’re not talking about that.’
Smith: (laughter) And I mean I’m not talking with you guys about it. At Bungie, we’re talking about all that stuff. We’re always looking at ways we can get players together. I think stuff I’ve talked about with matchmaking before is when we look at systems that are gonna bring players together in certain environments, it has the potential to get very hostile and negative very quickly. And so we want to continue to be sensitive to that. What we’re trying to build with Destiny is a friendly online game where you’re excited to go in, people can’t really ruin your experience. And the raids are an opportunity for some pretty legendary trolling on the part of players.
On The Size Of The Taken King
Schreier: I guess if you’re not talking about bigger-picture things, we should talk a bit more about The Taken King. How big is this thing? A lot of people are wondering, since they saw the $US40 price point, how much content they’re gonna get?
Smith: I think that’s a great question and one I would really be concerned about too as a player… There’s a fully-realised campaign, cinematics, I believe there’s a story up today that says they’re skippable… It’s a rich campaign that’s gonna continue the story in the Destiny universe. Rich campaign, cinematics, story-telling, a bunch of new strikes — we’re not talking about how many — there’s patrols. We’ve updated patrols all across the game world. Like I said earlier, there’s a brand new raid. There’s like two new PVP modes that we’re announcing today, a bunch of new PVP content. All new armour, weapons that you guys have probably had a chance to see.
Schreier: How many story missions are there?
Smith: We’re not talking about the number of story missions. It’s really hard to quantify that.
Hamilton: Would you put it on par with the original story length from vanilla Destiny? Is it closer to that or an expansion?
Smith: The number of selectable activities in the director is much closer to vanilla Destiny than it is to any of the DLCs. There is a lot of content in the game for players. One of the things we’re doing is introducing a bunch of content in the endgame, so there’ll be new stuff to do in the endgame that’s not just your ritual activities. We want players to have sort of new stuff to uncover, and we’re not talking about any of that yet, of course, but I’m really excited to talk about it later this year.
On Keeping Old Raids Relevant
Hamilton: Are you guys considering how to make the Vault of Glass continue to be relevant? And are you thinking about Crota’s End — few people do Crota’s End now because the guns aren’t that great, you can ascend a VoG gun and make it just as good, so there’s no good motivation there. Are you gonna figure out a way to address that next year?
Smith: The thing that — it’s like breaking into jail, in a bunch of ways. If we continue to make all the content super-relevant in the moment to all players, what we’ve done is created a wide swath of stuff for you to do, but we’ve also now potentially psychologically encumbered players so they feel paralysed. With stuff like the Crota’s End and Vault of Glass, we would love to find a way to bring those into the fold in a temporary fashion. But that falls underneath the we’re not talking about it yet… The focus this fall for raiding, we want people to focus on the new raid. We want you to get in there and have a great time.
Schreier: Something I’ve heard brought up a lot is the idea of a monthly heroic raid. Is that something you guys have talked about at all?
Smith: I certainly have thought about that too. I think that would be a really exciting thing for players, it sounds like a great idea.
Schreier: Well there you go. Take it. Make it work.
On PVP Vs. PVE Weapons
Schreier: Something [Kirk and I] were talking about before is the idea of PVE versus PVP, because right now it feels like they’re two separate tracts, where a lot of the weapons that are good in PVE aren’t good in PVP and vice versa. Have you guys thought about finding ways to make weapons useful in both modes?
Smith: One of our opportunities for potential improvement is how do we reward players moving forward? How do we reward the types of things you’re gonna do — like, the Trials of Osiris weapons, to pick on them, they’re very powerful from getting to Mercury, and they’re not super powerful in that you don’t need a damage type for PVP, you don’t need an elemental damage. So we dangled this carrot in front of players that has led to players having to go outside of their comfort zone to do this thing that’s a very hardcore PVP activity and you know, we’re learning a lot of lessons from the way that we’re itemizing things.
So moving forward I think we’re gonna be much more sensitive to that. Imagining what a PVP player really cares about — that killer player archetype — it’s about showing off what’s the thing that you see on me that doesn’t necessarily make me more powerful but makes you like ‘oh my gosh that dude’s been to Mercury’ — what is that, what are those experiences? And that’s the sort of stuff that we’ve gotta continue to think about as we go on.
On Level Difficulty Modifiers
Schreier: In PVE, something that’s frustrated us a lot is that sometimes to ramp the difficulty up instead of adding new encounters or challenges, you guys just raise the level cap higher than players can get. That happened with Crota on hard and it happened with Prison of Elders — is that something you guys are going to continue to do? Is it something you saw as a temporary solution?
Smith: I think that we’re not gonna talk too much about difficulty today, but I will say that I empathise completely with those concerns and the level delta stuff has been a source of controversy and discussion internally. And when we unpack the way the game’s gonna work later this year I hope that people see that we’re learning and reacting to those criticisms.
Schreier: Are you gonna nerf Thorn?
Smith: So one of the things that’s really good about having a live game that we’re able to update a bunch is that we have this freedom that allows us to balance and bring into style and bring out of style different weapons. We want to have different weapons that have different seasons and ages and, you know, ‘This was the time when X was really powerful.’ When the game shipped, October last year, the Regime, SUROS. Now SUROS is but a memory. So I think that a bunch of weapons are on their own journey, and they’re all gonna get their time in the sun.
On Destiny’s Weird Resource Economy
Hamilton: You know, one thing that’s come up with reforging is that, with each expansion there’s a new thing that people don’t have enough of. Right now it’s weapon parts. And there’s this new weird workaround where if you get to rank 7 in Trials, then you can buy that gun a bunch of times and break it down and then farm glimmer to buy the gun and get more weapon parts. So each time this [kind of thing] happens, and now people don’t have enough plasteel plating… are you guys continually aware of that? Are you gonna make it so people can just get all the materials they need one way or another?
Smith: I think as we’ve sort of played reward wack-a-mole with different things as the game shipped. Like, ‘oh my gosh they had like ascendant economy.’ We’re gonna look at these things. I think the story you told, which is a story I’m familiar with, yeah, that’s not a great player experience. We need to get to the place where getting gear and upgrading it or equipping it needs to be a great player experience.
Schreier: Do you think there are too many materials? How do you solve that problem, at this point?
Smith: We have to continue to try to narrow the funnel down to what’s the minimum amount of things that we need to gain to drive players to be excited — for players to have stuff to go do. And again, we have a bunch of stuff that we’re gonna be talking about later in the year. I’m sure there’ll be some talk or stream or who knows what. I know you guys will be watching that.
On The Thorn Bounty
Hamilton: Were you involved at all or what was the process of coming up with the Thorn bounty? Because now that I’ve done it I’m really fascinated by it in terms of like, something that was in the game to begin with, and it was this really great thing, you’re talking about a long-term goal or maybe a short-term goal. It was a really cool thing to work toward, a really cool thing to get. Now that I’ve done it it was one of the best things in the game, I think, as a “thing.”
Smith: I didn’t work at all on the Thorn bounty, but one of the things — I agree with you, the Thorn bounty is a really fun, across the game world tour of player experiences that ends with you getting a unique-feeling activity that just has a little extra moment that’s kinda cool. That bounty chain was so influential in the way that we’re thinking about things with The Taken King, that, while I’m not gonna talk about anything specifically, that bounty is a good tilt in the direction we want to go with players having goals that they’re working towards and having a cool pot of gold at the end of that activity.
On The Weird Raid Bubble
Schreier: So it sometimes feels like parts of the game, like the Vault of Glass, play by different rules: you can’t get glimmer, you can’t get experience. Is that something that’s intentional? And the reason I bring that up now, after Thorn, is because I can see an epic bounty going to the Vault of Glass, or to Crota’s End, but it feels like those are separate games, almost. Is that something you guys are aware of, that feeling of segregation, and are you going to try to unify things?
Smith: Yeah, we want it to be much more consistent, especially with respect to some of the stuff you’re talking about. We’re not gonna talk too much about the specifics, but I agree, I think that quest-lines that take you into epic raid experiences for you to put together a sweet piece of loot, that sounds great.
On Luke’s Biggest Regret
Schreier: So in retrospect, what is the number one thing you wish Destiny had done differently when you guys launched?
Smith: I think that what we’re doing this fall with The Taken King is sort of continuing that story of improvement, like the way we’re going to hopefully tell a better story, the way that we’re going to drive player empowerment and creativity, the way we’re going to finish up subclasses. We have so much to continue to make the game better.
Schreier: But as for the question I asked.
Smith: It’d be really unfair for me to just pick one thing that I wish we’d done differently. There’s a lot of stuff that I think we could be doing.
Schreier: Any examples? It doesn’t have to be #1 — I just think people appreciate hearing from companies like Bungie about things you wish you had done differently, which is why that NeoGAF post resonated with so many people, because it wasn’t going through PR — [to PR rep] no offence — but it felt like you just being raw, and I think people really dug that. Even though you might have gotten yelled at by your superiors.
Smith: Throw me the question again.
Schreier: In retrospect, what do you regret most, what do you wish you had done differently when Destiny launched, or even when Dark Below launched?
Smith: I think that we’ve hidden a bunch of the fun parts of the game away, and we’ve like — the thrill of acquiring gear is one of those pieces of fun that we’ve hidden away… How do we get loot into the world? How do we make the acquiring of loot part of the story? Thorn’s a good example of that.
Schreier: So more stuff like Vestian Dynasty and [items] that you get as a natural progression as opposed to having to roll for them.
Smith: Yeah, and even stuff where like, when you kill a monster loot comes off him, and some of it you’re excited to hoover up, cause it’s gonna be sweet.
On ‘Delivering Happiness’
Schreier: The purple engrams sometimes dropping blue — that was a huge misstep.
Hamilton: Sometimes we look back and say we can’t believe you guys did this.
Schreier: Although it is, to your credit, a lot of things have changed in a lot of positive ways…
Smith: Frankly it feels like watching you guys go on a journey, and it’s the type of journey I think you could only go on as players. You can only really be frustrated by something you love… I’ve had experiences at home that have been very frustrating and that have driven me crazy and have led to manchild behaviours. My golden retriever looks at me probably really weirdly sometimes when she sees the controller fly across the room.
And then our responsibility as developers is to engage with the game like players — I have something like 800 hours in the game, I play a lot, I have level 34s in each class — and then to play the game as a player and then go to work and figure out how to be a designer. And for us to make the best sort of changes we can to make players have a good time. Because we’re ultimately responsible for delivering happiness.
On Trials Of Osiris
Schreier: So did you guys anticipate that Trials would be full of just the most elite teams?
Smith: I think there was a lot of conjecture and positing about what Trials was gonna do, and in typical fashion, we were probably right on some things and not on the other. If there are rewards players care about at the end of the adventure rainbow, they’re going to do whatever they can. Some of my favourite times playing Destiny are playing Trials. I got down here on Friday, stayed with a buddy in Santa Monica, and made him go buy stuff for his router because it wasn’t working, ’cause I needed to get that hunter and warlock helmet, ’cause like I’ll be damned if I’m not gonna be complete and have everything. So like, my buddies who I haven’t seen in a year basically, they’re like ‘what are you doing?’ I’m like I’m not even going to Mercury man, I just gotta get my five wins.
Smith: I’m playing with a couple guys from the office, and they’re like, no mic, the dude I’m playing with doesn’t have a mic. And like.. Trials is pretty hard when you can’t communicate.
Hamilton: It’s pretty hard when you can communicate. Is it generally the reaction you expected? There’s definitely people who feel kinda locked out by it, but then it’s also sort of an elite activity, so is that the idea? Is that what you were going for?
Smith: I think we were going for an intense PVP activity that rewarded teamwork, skill, and had an unpredictable fidelity for who you’re gonna match with. I think that a thing we didn’t anticipate very well was the way players would react to the rewards. I’ve seen a lot of frustration online with players who really want to get those weapons. For some of those things that a primarily PVE player would care about, for them to not be able to work towards this thing is really frustrating.
And Finally, Our Biggest Scoop Ever
Schreier: Without spoiling anything, can you talk a little more about what we’re gonna see in the Dreadnaught raid?
Smith: No. (laughter)
Hamilton: Is it set in the world? Is it like Vault of Glass where it’s “there”? Or is it like Crota’s End where you have to fly there?
Smith: It is set in the world.
Hamilton: Nice! That’s one detail!
Schreier: We got a detail! Scoop!