This week, a storm of anger has enveloped the Destiny community. This particular storm was brought about by a specific thing that happened last week. But, in truth, it's been brewing for much longer.
Last week at E3, Bungie was showing off The Taken King, the new expansion for Destiny. We saw and played a bit of the expansion while we were at at the convention; it looks pretty good. Various controversies notwithstanding, we'll have more coverage of what we saw this week.
The pricing model for The Taken King is a bit funky. For people who currently own Destiny, it will cost $US40 to download on its own. That's twice the price of the first two expansions, The Dark Below and House of Wolves, which were $US20 apiece. Bungie is talking a big game about how much new stuff will be in Taken King, so it's possible -- or even likely -- that it will justify that price tag.
New players will be able to buy a "complete" version of Destiny that includes everything that came out this year -- Bungie has begun calling this "all year one content." For $US60, you get the base game, both existing expansions, and The Taken King. Once again, seems more or less fair. It's less than what we paid when we bought that stuff new, but hey, it was new when we bought it. In September, it will be old.
Things get hairy when you start talking about the Collector's Edition of The Taken King. That goes for $US80, double the price of the expansion. Along with a special metal case and some bonus art printouts, the Collector's Edition comes with some exclusive digital stuff. There are a few guns that probably aren't that good, along with "three Exotic Guardian Class items featuring XP bonuses, three class-specific emotes, and three armour shaders to customise every Guardian class."
"Emotes," for the uninitiated, are the moves and gestures you can have your character perform in the game. They're purely cosmetic, and have no real effect on gameplay. At the moment, the game restricts every player to the same four emotes, which vary from character to character based on class and race. You can wave, you can point, you can sit down, and you can dance. (Dancing is hugely popular, and has practically become Destiny's defining move.)
The problem is clear-cut: The most dedicated Destiny players have already spent $US90-100 on the game and its two expansions. Come September, they were probably planning to pay $US40 for the digital upgrade to The Taken King. But if they want to get those (possibly cool!) exclusive emotes and shaders, they will have to pay twice that and essentially "re-buy" the game they already spent this year playing. Hardly seems worth it.
On the one hand, three new emotes aren't that huge a deal. But they also kind of are a big deal, if you're the sort of person (raises hand) who has sunk hundreds of hours into Destiny and finds him or herself feeling unusually excited about the idea of having an exclusive, class-specific dance move or finger-guns manoeuvre. Many of us would gladly pay $US5 or even $US10 for some new emotes, but Destiny has yet to introduce those sorts of microtransactions, so the only current option is paying $US80 for a bunch of stuff we already have.
That whole situation set the fuse and primed the bomb. In an E3 interview just published by Eurogamer, reporter Tom Phillips pressed The Taken King creative director Luke Smith about the issue. Smith's response was more than enough to light the fuse. The full interview is worth a read, but here's the salient excerpt:
Eurogamer: Final question on prices -
Luke Smith: Is it also the final question on the emotes?
Eurogamer: I'm not going to mention them again. I can't get them.
Luke Smith: But you can if you buy the Collector's Edition.
Eurogamer: I'm not going to buy the game and the two DLCs all over again.
Luke Smith: OK, but first I want to poke at you on this a little bit.
Eurogamer: Poke at me?
Luke Smith: You're feeling anxious because you want this exclusive content but you don't know yet how much you want it. The notion of spending this money is making you anxious, I can see it -
Eurogamer: I do want them. I would buy them -
Luke Smith: If I fired up a video right now and showed you the emotes you would throw money at the screen.
Eurogamer: What I'm saying is that fan frustration is not because they don't understand the proposition. It comes regardless of how cool the exclusive content is. The frustration - and mine as a fan - is that the method of acquiring it requires me to re-buy content I bought a year ago.
Luke Smith: [Long pause] It's about value. The player's assessment of the value of the content.
It's easy to see why that exchange has people steamed: Smith comes off poorly, to say the least. First, he seems to tease a dedicated Destiny player for how his love of the game would prompt him to want to pay for relatively minor digital extras. He then appears to haughtily claim that were Phillips to see the emotes in action, he would uncontrollably "throw money at the screen" just to have them -- not just a little bit of money, but double the price of the base expansion. When Phillips suggests that he would buy the emotes on their own, Smith doubles down on the notion that the only way Phillips can get them is to re-buy stuff he already has. Yikes.
Fan uproar came shortly after that interview was published, and it has yet to abate. I haven't seen the Destiny community this united about anything since the game came out. The popular Destiny subreddit has been dominated by threads slamming Smith and Bungie; the main thread dedicated to the interview has six thousand replies and counting. Dozens if not hundreds of players are swearing off Destiny forever, pledging not to buy the expansion, and saying they have lost all respect for Smith and for Bungie as a developer. Smith himself has been subjected to all manner of personal insult. Look at any Destiny fan site or forum and you'll see people talking about it.
Yesterday, Bungie spokesman David "DeeJ" Dague took the uncharacteristic step of quickly responding to players in that same Reddit thread. "Please know that we're reading this feedback and taking it as seriously - as we always do," he wrote. "I understand that you want me to go on record right now with something that will address the disappointment that's being expressed here. I'm going to differ [sic] to the Bungie Weekly Update, in which we'll talk more about the things we're doing to celebrate the year-one Guardians who helped us build this community. I'll also revisit our goals in offering different versions of The Taken King.
"The Collector's Edition is mostly sold out, so the people who found that stuff valuable jumped at the chance. You'll likely see it sold on ebay for much more than what we're asking. But that's not the point. Right?" he wrote in a second post on Bungie's official forums. "The real conversation here is: What are we doing to honour you, the players who have been bound to Destiny in this first year of action and adventure? I'm glad you asked. I'm going to answer in the Bungie Weekly Update. Please stay tuned."
Lots Of Anger, Not Much Information
There are still so many unknowns regarding the particulars of this situation that it's difficult to draw too many conclusions about the expansion itself. We don't know what new emotes will be included in the expansion for all players, for example. Will there be three? Or maybe six? Or twenty? Will the exclusive emotes and shaders be ugly and dumb? Furthermore, will Bungie start selling cosmetic items like shaders and emotes as low-price microtransactions? They may not be saying yet, but given how much money similar arrangements generate for games like League of Legends and Team Fortress 2, I have a hard time believing cosmetic microtransactions aren't in Destiny's future.
It's also unclear just what input, if any, Smith actually has into collector's edition content and pricing. He's the game's creative director, you know? He's not even Bungie management, and it's entirely possible that the collector's edition setup was in part or even mostly dictated by the game's publisher Activision. Smith made it sound like those decisions were being made by him and his team -- likely a misstep on its own -- but the truth of the matter is almost certainly more complicated.
Furthermore, there's the issue of Smith's tone. Despite the fact that he was a fairly well-known games journalist and even once briefly worked for Kotaku, I actually didn't know Smith at all until last year. I had an enjoyable interview with him last fall about The Vault of Glass raid, but we hadn't met in person until Jason Schreier and I interviewed him last week at E3. (Stay tuned for coverage from that interview in the near future.) He's a sharp, jocular guy, and a bit cocksure, but I don't think I'd call him any of the names I've seen thrown at him the last few days.
In fact, I can kind of imagine the tone he used when saying the things that made players so angry with him. When Jason and I spoke with him, Smith referenced how he regularly puts himself in the mindset of a Destiny player, how he goes home and plays on his personal account, where he is subject to the same rules and restrictions as the rest of us. Despite being one of the driving creative forces behind the game, it seems like he tries to think like a player… which is fair, because he is one. (It's a running theme with the Destiny developers I've spoken with: They're all hopelessly addicted to their own game.)
In the wake of the reaction to the Eurogamer article, the interviewer, Tom Phillips, mentioned that the interview wasn't actually contentious:
Bungie deserves tough questions on #Destiny pricing but it's getting pitchforky out there... Luke Smith interview was actually good-natured.
— Tom Phillips (@tomphillipsEG) June 23, 2015
That makes sense; tone doesn't always come across in a straight Q&A format. When I read Smith talking about "throwing money at the screen," I can picture him saying it, and I don't actually think he meant to come off like he was imperiously looking down on players. Rather, he was winking at the interviewer, saying, "believe me, buddy, I'm the same way." He had put on his Player Hat, and he was commiserating.
Which, of course, doesn't make what he said any less dumb. Smith and his cohorts at Bungie are the ones who make decisions that affect what the rest of us play, and while it's healthy for them to remind themselves what it's like for the rest of us, the fact remains that they are not regular players.
The irony in all of this is that it wasn't that long ago that Smith was playing the opposite role, breaking protocol and speaking out about Bungie's screw-ups with the maligned expansion The Dark Below. In a late-night post to the gaming forum NeoGAF, Smith spoke with more frankness and transparency than any of Bungie's official updates had mustered, and players greatly respected him for it. Now the shoe is on the other foot, and it's hard not to wonder if a smoother talker might have avoided the same mistakes. It highlights a frequent friction in how video game developers communicate with the press and the public. On the one hand, it's nice to talk to a developer like Smith, who speaks freely and at least somewhat openly about the game he's making. On the other, well, he's a creative director, not a PR guy. Sometimes that shows.
Personally, I'm bugged more by DeeJ's subsequent responses than I was by Smith's initial comments. DeeJ is probably a perfectly charming man in real life, but he has always come off as a smarmy presence on Destiny's various message boards, often responding to widespread player concerns with a jokey, condescending tone that feels out of touch with the community. His second response in particular stands out to me -- how he's sure to start by telling the person to whom he's responding that the collector's edition has sold out, before noting "but that's not the point. Right?" The way he begins his promise of better rewards by telling us what "the real conversation here is," as if the players who started this conversation need to be reminded what it is.
Bungie has never been much good at communicating, and that's a big part of what set the stage for this week's debacle.
Why People Are Pissed
I can't speak for all Destiny players here, but I can speak for myself, as a person who has enthusiastically taken part in (and reported on) the game's community over the past ten months. Destiny fans are pissed, but they're pissed about more than just exclusive in-game emotes, or even the price of The Taken King.
Smith's poorly chosen words were a catalyst for an explosion that's been primed for months, and the aftermath will take some work to repair. Since the game's launch, Destiny has been haunted by the unshakable sense that players are being taken advantage of, that Activision and Bungie are laughing at them while happily taking their money. It's an adversarial relationship that has defined Destiny since the very first guardian shot the very first alien in the head. It will likely define the game for months and even years to come.
It's rooted in the game itself: From my first review through my subsequent update through my disillusionment through to the game's (temporary?) redemption, I feel as though I have been chronicling a video game community's ongoing tug-of-war with their chosen game's developer.
At launch, Destiny aggressively screwed players over at every turn, and things got somehow worse with the first expansion. When I think back to Destiny's first six months, I still shake my head in disbelief at the shit Bungie pulled. Remember how purple engrams would decode to blue items? Or how we had to re-level our exotic guns mere months (or even weeks or days!) after getting them?
After the worst problems had been addressed, there remained a distinct tension between the community and the developers. For months, players would see their creative exploits and cheeses quickly patched while longstanding bugs lingered on and on. Through it all, Bungie's communications were lacklustre at best, all vague assurances and long periods of silence.
The House of Wolves expansion felt like a step in the right direction, but already players are beginning to sense that The Taken King may be another step back. Where House of Wolves let us re-level our existing gear and truly enjoy the cool stuff we'd earned over the preceding months, there's a suspicion that Taken King will finally render all of that loot permanently irrelevant. When we asked Smith about what would become of our old guns, he called it a "super challenging problem" and wouldn't say any more. Not exactly a promising sign.
It's hard not to fret that come September, my "year one" Fatebringer won't be anything to brag about or cherish. It will just be one more underpowered gun sitting in my vault -- not because the new guns were good enough to make me voluntarily retire it, but because the number next to Fatebringer is stuck at 365 and can't go higher. And speaking of vaults, DeeJ recently dodged a question from IGN about the ever-present problem of players running out of storage space, saying "there are moments where we ask you to make tough decisions." His implication being that in The Taken King, players will simply have to continue breaking down potentially useful guns rather than being given more space in which to store them. According to DeeJ, being forced to junk the cool scout rifle you just got will "lead you to better understanding the role that you play" in Destiny. Again: yikes.
This week, Destiny fans are upset. That anger isn't about any one thing; it's about a hundred things. It's about a dozen smiling Bungie Weekly Updates that joked about legitimate player grievances. It's about a hundred small design decisions that wasted our time, or robbed us of rewards, or left us feeling like we'd spent an evening in the fruitless pursuit of nothing at all. It's about the gnawing sense that we've spent a year playing the worst version of our favourite game, and that its brighter future may paradoxically make us regret having been there from the start. It's about how our relationship with this game that we love -- and we really do love it! -- can so often feel unbalanced and unhealthy.
I'm sure we'll hear more from Bungie soon. Outcry like this demands a substantive response. Hopefully that response will be satisfactory for players, and will demonstrate the sort of clarity that has so often been lacking in Bungie's communications up to this point. Destiny developers are also Destiny players, after all. A gap will always exist between the two, but it needn't be such a chasm.