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Sunday, January 13, 2019

Divorcing Activision won't stop Bungie making mistakes, but will change Destiny for the better

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Divorcing Activision won't stop Bungie making mistakes, but will change Destiny for the better 

When you've sunk literally thousands of hours into playing a game, and voraciously consume every piece of rumour and speculation about it, you're unlikely to be blindsided by any one particular piece of news. But that's exactly what happened yesterday, when to the surprise of pretty much everyone Bungie announced it was saying sayonara to its eight-year relationship with Activision, and would be going it alone as the self-publisher of Destiny, effective pretty much immediately. 

Tensions between the two have been apparent for some time, spilling over into public last November when Activision expressed disappointment with sales of the Forsaken expansion as part of an earnings call. That sentiment was later rebutted by game director Luke Smith, who said "We are not disappointed with Forsaken. We set out to build a game that Destiny players would love, and at Bungie, we love it too. Building Destiny for players who love it is and will remain our focus going forward."
You hardly need a sniper scope to read between the lines. Post-launch, Destiny 2 was rightly criticised for catering too hard to casual players, leading to an anemic endgame that left 'hobbyist' (ie hardcore) players frustrated by the lack of reasons to log-in. With the advent of the excellent Forsaken expansion, many of those criticisms were addressed. Building on the great work done by the secret mission to acquire Whisper of the Worm previously, Bungie created the Dreaming City, a new destination packed with puzzles and evolving challenges.  
Veteran players who'd stuck around loved the increased challenge and a lore-rich narrative that also saw the death of fan favourite Cayde-6. But clearly not enough of those casuals came back to sample the new style Destiny for Activision's liking. On that same earnings call, publishing boss Coddy Johnson mentioned wanting to “improve the pace of innovation and cadence of in-game content" adding that because some franchises were underperforming, Activision would need to "drive stronger engagement and in-game revenue generation". 

For the foreseeable future, Destiny 2 will remain on the Battle.net launcher, as confirmed yesterday by Blizzard. However, the PC port (which it should be noted is excellent) was a created in collaboration with Vicarious Visions, a New York developer which has been wholly owned by Activision since January 2005. I reached out to ask whether the split means that partnership will now end, as seems likely, but was told no further comment at this time.
That last part sent a collective chill down the community's spine. Destiny's 2's microtransactions have long been a pain point for players, with particularly strong pushback over the amount of content that was gated behind the in-game Eververse store versus earned from for, y'know, actually playing the game. In recent expansions however, Eververse has largely been brought to heel. For regular players, it's entirely possible to collect all of its inventory without spending a dime, but Johnson's statement signalled a return to the bad old days might be on the horizon 
With Bungie now master of its own Destiny, that scenario looks less likely. At least that's what players seem to think. When the news broke late yesterday, the reaction I saw (the related Reddit threadhas 28k upvotes and hit the top of the r/all front page) was overwhelmingly positive, laced with some amount of caution. Of course it's easy to frame the breakup as Bungie the frustrated creatives finally slipping the shackles of their evil paymasters Activision. But as with the end of any relationship, unless you were on the inside, trying to accurately apportion blame for what went wrong is a fool's errand.  
What I can confidently say is that seeking to blame Activision for everything is unreasonable. It wasn't Activision's accountants who decided Destiny 2 should use the entirely unloved double-primary weapon system at launch, which sucked a chunk of fun out of the gunplay. And it won't have been Activision CEO Bobby Kotick who designed a hidden XP scaling system that throttled Bright engram drops or failed to balance patch the Crucible for five months. Even the hated Eververse store was, as far as I understand it, an approach suggested by Bungie as a money-making alternative to the punishing DLC schedule it had originally signed up for.

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