Great post. Not sure if I should reply to the whole thing.. (Fan Creations)

by Kahzgul, Tuesday, September 08, 2015, 02:19 (3182 days ago) @ Fuertisimo

Love hearing from someone with inside knowledge.

Just to be clear, I worked at Activision about 10 years ago. I worked directly with David Vanderhaar (who, despite what CoD fanboys may think, is an awesome guy and who was a real mentor to me) and several others who are in the credits on Activision's side. People change, so it's possible that my "inside knowledge" is really far off base, but I kind of doubt it, just based on my overall experience in the industry.

If you don't mind me asking, from my perspective as an outside observer, it kind of seems like Bungie is in disarray about what exactly they want to do with Destiny. It feels like somewhere between the concept and implementation things went haywire, and it almost feels with a lot of the changes they're making are sort of trying to plug some holes in a leaky boat. Does that sound like it might be accurate to you?

This would be my feeling as well. I've worked on a couple of games that were overly ambitious and they all turned out like trainwrecks during development. One or two magically came together at the end and turned out okay, but for the most part they came out like the devs bit off more than they could chew.

The first thing you do as a dev is figure out the concept of the game. What sort of game is it, what does the engine need to be able to do, what sort of concept art should the artists be making. All that stuff. And we know that the backstory of Destiny, the lore, is fantastic. It's rich, it's dark, it's mysterious, and it's epic in scale. All good. Then you make the new engine. Destiny has an *amazing* engine. I think we can all agree there. I'll wager that the early tech demos just floored people. At this point you get some concept art in place and start trying to inspire the rest of the team. Again, Bungie nailed it. Look, feel, atmosphere - everything we've seen from the concept art is spectacular, and lots of it translated directly into the art of the actual game. That is unheard of in video game development. Usually technical limitations get in the way, but in this case the engine of Destiny is so powerful that everything worked out brilliantly on the art side.

I'm going to add in - I'm not sure at what point the netcode people got involved. Because server jumping is so core to the basic architecture of the game, they may have jumped in right along with the engine developers. They may also have been initially working on a non-networked world which they made networkable later... hard for me to say. What I can mention safely is that for PvE purposes the netcode is stellar, and for PvP it's crap. This tells me PvP came later. More on this further down.

Now that you have art, lore, and an engine, it's time for the tools devs to start working, making scripting tools for the game designers to use. It's also time for the artists to make elements which the level designers can use to make engaging gamespaces. This is, I think, where we start to slip. The lack of big setpieces in most of the game, the incredible repetition of player tasks (defend the door! Now defend another door! Hey, look, one more door...), and the fact that bounties are pretty much entirely text based tells me that the tools team didn't give the scripters much to play with. Furthermore, the fact that events have to be hard-coded with patches is further evidence to me of a poor scripting environment. Changing which enemies spawn where should not be hard to do with a modular architecture, nor should solving exploits like the loot cave. So yeah, it looks to me like the tools programmers didn't give the game designers very robust tools.

AI programming happens around here, too. Again, the AI code is pretty awful in this game. Bosses literally follow set patterns (which is sort of a raid thing, thanks to WoW), and the basic enemies are almost purely reactive in nature. When was the last time an enemy in Destiny surprised you by behaving in an interesting way? Never. They're boring and predictable, and some of them seem to follow the same scripts, exactly. Find cover, lean out from cover. Repeat. Over and over. Personally, I expect more from Bungie after the really interesting AI of the Halo games. As mentioned before: Character is important. The AI in destiny lacks character (I'll say that the Vex are kind of interesting in that the goblins and minotaurs are fairly relentless, but the snipers lack interesting mechanics). None of the enemies use tactics - they don't flank, they don't lead a charge with grenades and suppressive fire, etc etc.. The game has turned into, basically, a bullet hell FPS, which I think the emblematic of a game where the AI just doesn't make the game challenging on its own.

Back to art. Specifically, level design. Gorgeous levels. Interesting levels. Levels where you enter in multiple places and take varying paths of traversal. Sort of. In fact, no, not at all. It's more like levels where you *could* enter in multiple places, but the actual mission scripting doesn't allow for it even though the art and geometry does. This disappoints me. The level designers spent a long time building interesting spaces with multiple paths through them, and the game designers decided to force the hand of the player to following a specific path for each mission. That's lame. It's really lame. You've turned an asset (expansive maps with multiple paths) into a liability (repetitive areas shared between missions, very linear gameplay).

So, again, something has slipped in the mission design element of the game. The game designers chose simplistic, linear play against simplistic, predictable AI with basic, repetitive mission objectives spread throughout. As a result, every mission feels like the same mission, and ever strike feels like the same strike. Go in a straight line, kill the predictable enemies, defeat the boss. Some bosses follow different patterns, but they're all predictable and - as a result - they all become boring after the first time through.

That would be okay, except someone in charge became obsessed with forced replays of the game. This is where poor design turns into downright abusive design. Instead of focusing on making the game fun enough to replay, some evil genius realized that the game wasn't fun enough for that and decided instead to fill the game with hooks to keep you coming back, even if you didn't want to. Here's a good article about it. In the concept of a game, I personally feel like the only design parameters should be "is it fun" and "does it tell a story." Destiny seems to have been consciously created to ignore those questions and only look at "is it addictive."

And so we ended up with the game that we got. If I were the test lead on this game, I would have fought tooth and nail against the focus on addictive elements. I would have brought up, repeatedly, that the enemy AI was uniformly predictable. I would certainly have had a meeting or two with the mission designers to discuss where I felt they were missing the mark.

That being said, I worked in a capacity where I felt empowered to discuss my concerns directly with the developers. They respected my opinions and we worked together to make the games more fun. I don't know what happened behind the scenes of Destiny to let these problems become the core of the gameplay loop. I don't know who, if anyone, raised concerns. And I don't know who, if anyone, shot those concerns down.

We know there was a big shakeup about a year out from launch. First, that's never good. It means the initial design was flawed or weak or both. It means the people who fought for that design and kept it on track lost focus or left the company, and the design vision floundered. We know this is about the time that Joe Staten left. I'm guessing those two events are related, either with Joe having been the main proponent of the initial plan and then leaving, which left the plan open to revision, or with the initial plan being bad, and Joe leaving in protest. Or it wasn't related. Totally possible. My conspiracy brain wants the events to be connected, but as far as I'm aware there's really no evidence of that. Even so, I met Joe once and he sure seemed like a great guy who cared about telling good stories and enjoyed good games. So I think losing him was a loss for Bungie, regardless of the circumstances.

Anyway, the game was either a complete mess and someone came in about a year out to cobble together something reasonable, or the game was awesome (but different) and some new change came out that severely limited the scope of the game. Here are two possible scenarios:

1) Game is a hot mess. Someone realizes there's only a year until launch, looks at the game in its current state, and says "oh crap. This game needs two more years to get the story we want finished." They then have a mad scramble to salvage the story elements which are the closest to completion, make those be the main storyline, and wrap the rest of the game around it. This is totally possible and I've worked on games like this in the past.

2) New parameter scenario 1. The game is great, but it's next gen only. Sorry guys, ATVI wants it to run on last gen as well. Take what you have now, pare it down to something that will work on last gen, and devote all of your resources to making that a reality. This seems unlikely to me. I'd guess the initial contract stated Destiny 1.0 would be a current and next-gen venture.

3) New parameter scenario 2. The game is great, but we want to split it up into DLC expansions instead of having full content in the initial package. Split it up into sensical chunks and let's try to make the resulting elements stand alone. Again, this seems unlikely since DLC would be contractually obligated and not some kind of "surprise" 1 year out.

4) New parameter scenario 3. The last gen is severely limiting the scope of the game. Rather than spending so many resources to make it work, we're just going to ship what we have (which turns this into the "hot mess" scenario) and focus resources on getting the DLC and sequels going. This seems most likely to me, as we know last gen is wringing every iota of power out of the consoles it runs on and still doesn't have enough memory for a single additional inventory slot.

Again though, this is 100% conjecture.

Which brings us to the Activision influence. A few months out (8-ish, i'd guess), ATVI would stop taking just periodic game builds and would get the first fully testable version of the game. ATVI testing is mostly governed by checklists. Is every item collectible? Is every area traversable? Can every mission be completed? It's all basic functionality. A few experienced testers would probably raise concerns about the actual fun of the game, but for the most part it's the production testers who need to be the mouthpiece for the gamer. Activision would contractually demand certain benchmarks of progress, and certain game elements such as 2 pieces of DLC in the first year (though they typically aim for 3), that the game be an FPS in the setting described in the original pitch, etc etc.

This was also probably where the stuff that was supposed to be in the game got shuffled off to the grimoire. Personally, I hate this. Anything that isn't in the game, per se, is not part of the game as far as I'm concerned. The grimoire is just points. The story in the grimoire is cool stories on the web, but they aren't in the game and I do not consider them part of the game, proper.

We know that Bungie spent a lot of time on user feedback in order to establish how fun the game was. Here, I think, is a place where they really made a major mistake. They got new focus testers for each run. They did not, apparently, test repetition. They did not test investment. They did not test if a strike was still as fun the 5th time through as it was the first time. And, frankly, that's a major failure when the basic gameplay loop is to replay strikes over and over and over.

In fact, we know that most of the design team didn't see the raids until the bungie day "can you beat the raid" challenge. That's also kind of a failure. I think that the raids are the best part of the game (though they still suffer horribly from lack of variation and a need to repeat them many times in order to get the raid loot drops), and I wish that the raid team had been sharing their design concepts with the mission and level design teams throughout the process.

I want to add here that part of my incredulity comes from my experience in MMORPGs. Lots of the mistakes of Destiny's loot system were also mistakes of WoW's past incarnations. Things like RNG loot drops are things that players hated. I remain surprised that no one at Bungie pointed out these blunders, or - if they did - that no one listened.

And then we have the final game. Either cobbled together from a mess of other half-finished pieces or salvaged from a technologically limited and more complete game, the result is kind of insulting to the intelligence of the gamer. Look at the story of the game just through the first two levels:

1) Initial cutscene shows astronauts on mars, with guns, who find this big orb, and it rains. That's the set up for the game, apparently. None of the epic setting is really explained at all, and you have to go online to learn about it, which is poor design.

2) You spend a long time making a new character. No explanation what "Awoken" and "Exo" mean or if they have any effect on the game world.

3) You come to life with no personal history. Okay, I've seen worse in video games. It's not ideal, but I'll take it.

4) Okay, there's guys shooting at us and we have to run. That makes sense. This area I'm leaving looks big, I hope I get to come back to explore it (nope).

5) Got a gun, time to shoot back, this is all standard tutorial stuff. Trip mines? That's cool. Too bad it's the only time they show up in the game.

6) Oh man, did you see that giant ship warp in?! That was rad, and it spawned all kinds of dudes to fight. So cool. Too bad that sort of thing isn't really a part of any future story missions.

7) Got a ship and now, hey, a big baddie shows up. Okay, we'll come back when we're ready? Cool, we have a goal.

Level 1 is off to a good start.

Then we go to the tower. This guy says "I could tell you the stories, but I won't." well F you guy. Am I ever gonna get some backstory here? The answer is no. Okay, I guess it's time for mission 2.

8) Wait, I'm... I'm going backwards through mission 1?

9) You told me I'd fight this guy when I was ready... am I really ready right now? Because nothing has changed. Which means I was ready then.

And the mission design is kind of downhill from there.

Again, I don't want to take anything away from the engine and art teams. The lore is incredible. The real time matchmaking system is unnecessary and only provides a minor improvement to the single player and/or multiplayer experience. And the mission design is pretty bad. The plot is pretty bad. The characters don't exist. The bounty system is literally just text. And so forth.

TTK claims to be improving on literally all of these issues: They're reordering the missions to make more sense. The plot has been expanded to include the DLC and new Xpac, which actually gives some player actions an effect on the game world and the consequences of those actions. The characters are being expanded (dinklebot is being full revoiced, hopefully with lines that make sense given the context), the bounty and mission systems and everything are being "questified" whatever that means. So I'm hopeful. But, and huge but - I feel like we were misled with the initial launch, and I feel like all of these things are fixes to problems which never should have existed in the first place.

Also regarding the addictive gameplay, you said;

My one quibble: I don't think Bungie hates PvE. Or even solo PvE though I admit that HoW is incredibly frustrating to play solo. Rather, it seems to me that the focus of the game's initial design was to create compulsive gameplay rather than compelling gameplay. Experience bars, RNG loot, repetitive strike modes, daily reset timers, weekly reset timers, timed events, events with social obligations... they all fall into the category of addiction-building activities. I'm not saying that these things are all bad, but I am saying that they appear to have been more important in the design space than, say, a coherent plot or interesting characters.

This mirrors my thoughts exactly about the feel the game has, but I am curious, as you are someone who worked in the industry and probably understands these things better than me, what constitutes "good" addictive gameplay elements versus bad ones? For me, I view the current trend of addiction-building with quite a bit of contempt, because it seems to me people aren't building products to entertain, enlighten or delight, but rather to try and separate your money from your wallet. I don't use this word often, but it seems like there is some evil intent there, or at the very least is extremely cynical. Maybe I'm wrong, but I find a lot of it to be manipulative, and even coercive at times.

I fully agree with you. Focusing on addiction building is evil.

That being said, lots of things that are addictive in games are also fun. I like leveling up. I like finding new loot. I like gaining new powers. I like unlocking skins for my player. Destiny has so many of them, however, and is designed in such a way as to make them all feel required in order to keep pace with your friends in order to be strong enough to raid in order to be strong enough to hardmode raid and so forth. And these addictive elements were dropped on top of uninspired gameplay. If the basic loop of play was really fun, then I don't think I'd care that there were addictive pieces dropped all willy-nilly throughout the game. For me, it all comes from the goal. Bungie straight up said (see above link) that they focused on addictive play. That's fucked up.

A lot of things you're talking about are almost tragic, because the Destiny that was initially unveiled and marketed to us way back in the day had a feel of a game that was truly going to be special. I really wish we had gotten that game, rather than the one we did.

I agree. It makes me sad. Especially because the real fundamental elements of the game truly are magnificent. The core engine, the art, the lore, the sheer joy of movement through the gamespace, those are really fantastic. To see such incredible ingredients cooked into such a mediocre entree is very disappointing.

Last question I swear, with a situation like Destiny, what happens with the people inside the studio? Not the bosses or the execs but the people in the trenches trying their damndest to make a great game. Do employees clam up and go into denial about problems with the game, or are they as frustrated about the situation as everyone else? I have to imagine it would be crushing to put in so much fantastic work (and a lot of Destiny really is fantastic) only to not have it come together for whatever reason. How do employees handle that?

Otherwise, thanks for the insight. As a journalism major it always warms my heart to get info from the inside :).

It probably runs the gamut. There are certainly people who feel despair, like they put their heart and soul into something and no one appreciated it. There are also people who probably feel vindicated, and like the public response is what they were advocating for all along. Still others will feel like they did an awesome job and nothing they hear will change their minds.

Listen, the art team should all take a serious bow. They killed it on this game. It's pretty beyond anything I've ever seen on a console. That being said, I'm obviously pretty down on the game's script and mission design. The writing is truly atrocious, and not at all up to Bungie's historic level. I think the mission design is awful, but it's hard to say if that's because the designers sucked or because the tools programmers didn't give them any choice or some combination thereof. Someone in that chain blew it though, and that's the meat and potatoes of the game. Whoever decided to emphasize smooth animation over consistent gameplay in PvP made the wrong call, and should have known better. Multiplayer should always be designed such that lag does not convey an advantage because you never want to encourage glitchy play.

For the most part, it seems like Bungie has taken their lumps and is learning. I'm shocked that they needed this spelled out for them by the public writ large, but hey - any way you can learn, you should. TTK really does sound too good to be true to me right now. A long time ago, I made some kind mental of list of things that needed fixing in Destiny, and TTK has been checking items off that list like Bungie hired a bona fide mind reader to tap into my brain. I'm sticking to my guns and refusing to preorder though - Bungie burned me with Destiny. If I'd waited, I may still have bought CE, but I'd never have bought HoW. And I wish I'd waited. So lets hope TTK lives up to the hype in a way that Destiny didn't. I want to fall in love with Bungie all over again.

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