How Has Destiny 2 Survived for So Long?

When discussing why Destiny 2: The Final Shape is one of the biggest releases of this year, I looked back on my journey with the franchise. Honestly, it’s impressive that Bungie’s shared world shooter turned social shooter, then looter shooter and maybe MMO-lite shooter, has survived for all this time. Then it really begins to hit – Destiny 1 launched in September 2014, and the conclusion to its story, referred to as the Light and Darkness saga, is out on June 4th with The Final Shape.

That’s ten years that the franchise has survived, and it’s ridiculous, not only because of the shifts in live service trends, the internal troubles at Bungie and much more, but because this franchise had to be rebuilt and overhauled twice over. If anything, Destiny 2 has seen multiple new features, overhauls and business strategy changes throughout its life cycle.

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It’s still amazing to go back and realize that Destiny 1 at launch wasn’t the game Bungie had spent years working on. Writer Joseph Staten’s vision for the title, presented in a supercut, didn’t go well with leadership. Such was the fallout that those in charge decided to scrap the story and cobble together whatever it could (which led to Staten’s departure). Keep in mind that all of this happened with only eight months to go before launch. Destinations, characters, dialogue, missions and more had to be rearranged, re-ordered and re-defined to get the game ready for launch.

Long-time Bungie and Halo fans realized something was off after the first beta when they arrived on the Moon after clearing missions in the Cosmodrome. Surely, this wasn’t all the game had to offer, right? Maybe there would be more missions on Earth in the final product. At launch, their worst fears were realized. Anyone playing through that campaign quickly realized that the story made no sense. What was the Heart of the Black Garden? What was the Awoken’s deal? What was the Traveller, and what even was the Darkness?

The gunplay did a lot to keep players hooked, which is a good thing because everything else tried to push them away. Resource grinding, reputation grinding, weekly caps on marks, the Light level system, Legendary Engrams had a chance to decode into Rare items (on top of having horrendous drop rates), lack of content, numerous connection issues, numerous balance issues in PvP – miraculously, so many stuck around for as long as they did.

Even as players devised ways to find Xur and LFG for the Vault of Glass raid, Bungie rewarded them with the first major content drop – The Dark Below. Four missions, some essentially recycled from the base game, as players traversed the same locations but backwards. Two Strikes, one exclusive for PlayStation players for a year.

Destiny 2 - Crota's End

The Crota’s End raid had some good ideas but faced numerous bugs and exploits, like sword-flying across to skip the Bridge encounter or disconnecting your LAN cable to essentially freeze Crota when he kneeled. The fact that it was a smaller scale than Vault of Glass led to some players calling it a glorified Strike. Truly, $20 well spent.

House of Wolves would arrive several months later, and while it was a step up, that wasn’t saying much considering how abysmal The Dark Below could be. Still, players enjoyed bringing their items up to the new Light level cap. Unfortunately, the Prison of Elders wasn’t what players wanted. The story missions still retread old locations, the loot was disappointing, and none of this connected to the base game’s story.

This would lead to the first major revamp for the title – The Taken King. Bungie overhauled the Light level system, making it less punishing, and introduced Infusion. Granted, it also left behind all of the player’s Year 1 gear, forcing them to start afresh, and caused controversy by – no joke – locking three dance emotes behind the Collector’s Edition (before selling them separately for $20 alongside other goodies after extensive backlash).

But we got a story with a compelling villain in Oryx. A good campaign with memorable missions! Sure, some areas were recycled, but they had interesting new mechanics and platforming sections. King’s Fall was a great raid, and the overall amount of content for players, from side missions and new Exotic missions to mastering new subclasses, made it feel like a worthwhile purchase. Destiny felt like it finally showcased its potential.

Destiny 2 Eververse

Unfortunately, a few months later, Eververse was introduced, adding microtransactions to Destiny. It was tied to events like Festival of the Lost with its Legacy of the Lost mystery bags (essentially loot boxes) and three new emotes. However, you could still obtain the mystery bags by playing, making it less egregious. Eververse’s success encouraged Bungie to cast its net wider when Sparrow Racing League was added to the game in December 2015.

Both of these events were limited-time, however. In terms of permanent content, fans were languishing for things to do. Bungie would eventually release a massive new update in April 2016, adding a new story mission (lackluster as it was), the new Blighted Chalice Strike and a refreshed Winter’s Run with Taken enemies.

However, Prison of Elders finally got that desired revamp, including the Challenge of the Elders with random bosses and a scorecard. Eververse was as egregious as ever, but at least earning the new Desolate and Spektar Armor sets was easy, thanks to the generous Sterling Treasure drops. By this moment, there was some criticism over Bungie packing armor into its loot boxes, but they couldn’t drop at max Light, removing any pay-to-win debates. Still, the pot steadily boiled.

The rest of the year was fairly uneventful – Destiny 2 was allegedly meant to launch in the same year but saw some setbacks, leading to Rise of Iron filling the expansion role for the year. Aside from the Wrath of the Machine raid and its weapons, much of the content felt forgettable. At least SIVA brought some interesting lore implications, even if the saga of the Iron Wolves felt pretty forgettable. Festival of the Lost and The Dawning with SRL would return.

Destiny 2 (10)

Though Bungie announced earlier in 2016 that a sequel was in development, the hype was palpable when it finally unveiled Destiny 2 in March 2017. It promised a brand new start, with a heavier focus on story-telling and characterization, launching in September 2017. However, behind the glitz, the glamor, and the hype for a PC version – which became available a month later – came numerous concerns.

Players could clamber and had new Class abilities like Wells, Dodges and Barricades, which was good. The weapon system had become heavily streamlined, with a double-primary system and shotguns and sniper rifles sharing the same slot with rocket launchers and the new grenade launchers. Elemental Primaries were now common, but they – along with numerous other weapons – didn’t feel nearly as powerful as in Destiny 1.

Several other changes were made, from reducing 6v6 Crucible to 4v4 to encourage more competitive play, removing Trials of Osiris in favor of Trials of the Nine, and taking away all subclass customization for the sake of pre-made set-ups. Worst of all, the armor sets – a high point when Age of Triumph debuted in the same year for Destiny 1 – had been dumbed down to lock most of the best options behind Eververse. After hitting the level cap, players would be rewarded with Bright Engrams that doled out random cosmetics from the shop. Naturally, you could buy Bright Engrams as well.

When Destiny 2 was released, it earned its fair share of top marks from several outlets. As the hype died down, many fans began to examine the title and what it offered. Grimoire Cards were gone along with the more serious story-telling Destiny 1 began leaning into. The new characters grated. There were no Heroic Strikes; Public Events were the best ways to get loot, including Exotics; and the end game was bereft of things to do. Tokens were everywhere, even the raid, and it felt like a dumbed-down version of the game that its fans celebrated months prior.

Destiny 2 Curse of Osiris_05

Perhaps the worst part is that fans didn’t rail against Bungie and trigger any significant backlash like the old days. No, they just stopped showing up. It was a dire time for the game, and the release of two lackluster expansions – Curse of Osiris and Warmind – didn’t help, nor did the attention that Eververse continued to receive. Then again, the development team responded to feedback and slowly reverted many unpopular design decisions. Supers and abilities received abnormal power spikes, and maps designed for 4v4 now had to accommodate teams of six in a return to the traditional Crucible from Destiny 1.

Still, it would take another landmark expansion in Forsaken to right the ship, once again returning the focus to the dark sci-fi space fantasy that fans loved while delivering an abundance of quality content. Of course, as always, what came next was the big question. Bungie had abandoned the concept of expansions and instead introduced the Annual Pass.

It was essentially three seasons of content that didn’t offer too much story but featured tons of permanent content, from the Forges, Gambit Prime and The Reckoning (which arrived around the same time that Bungie had split from Activision) to new raids like Scourge of the Past.

When Season of Opulence landed in 2019, the game was in a pretty good state, primarily due to how well-received the Menagerie was. Now independent of Activision, Bungie announced Shadowkeep, an expansion that would return to the Moon and finally provide more information on the mysterious Pyramid ships teased at the end of Destiny 2’s Red War campaign.

destiny 2 shadowkeep

However, it also opted for changes to its seasonal model. The Season Pass was now a more traditional Battle Pass that provided access to Exotics, armor, weapons and materials (with the Premium tracks offering more rewards). Seasonal activities were now time-limited, and Champions were introduced, with players having to utilize new mods to counteract them.

It also didn’t help that, in terms of story, Shadowkeep was a letdown, regressing extensively from Forsaken’s campaign. Since the launch of Shadowkeep also marked the game’s shift to a free-to-play format, the New Light experience was meant to ease newcomers in. To say it was a mess that pushed away more than engaged is an understatement (and it remained that way for years).

The Pit of Heresy was received well, so of course, Bungie began monetizing it. That was the same year that Beyond Light launched. It didn’t offer much of note, aside from the usual – a boring campaign, the same seasonal approach with upgrades to grind, etc.

Stasis was an intriguing addition that was unbalanced in PvP, and the grind to unlock new Aspects was torturous. Did I mention that Bungie removed significant content from the game, including paid expansions, with the Destiny Content Vault before Beyond Light landed? How about a Power cap on Legendary weapons, ensuring they remained viable for nine to 15 months at best? At least the Deep Stone Crypt raid was good.

Destiny 2 - Warlord's Ruin

Fast forward to 2021. By this point, the sheer amount of monetization in Destiny 2 had soured many players. Battle Passes, microtransactions, Battle Pass tiers, numerous sets of armor in Eververse while the free offerings languished – the list goes on. Crucible players were left wanting, feeling neglected at the lack of new maps, while PvE players lambasted the time-limited seasonal activities.

Interestingly, Bungie would delay its next expansion, The Witch Queen, to focus more on polish. It would arrive in February 2022 and was considered the best campaign in the series to date, but the rest of the package also received acclaim, from the Vow of the Disciple raid to the story-telling and lore.

The boring seasonal structure was still in place, but the activities were enjoyable with worthwhile rewards. Naturally, this all came crashing down again in Lightfall, where Bungie, once again, completely whiffed on the campaign, leading to some of the lowest concurrent player counts in the series’ history on Steam. By the time revamps to the seasonal structure arrived, it felt like too little too late.

Destiny 2 - The Final Shape_04

Nevertheless, despite all the controversies, especially those behind the scenes with poor leadership and mismanagement, or the reports of Sony taking over if Bungie didn’t meet its financial targets, Destiny 2 survived. The fact that it’s still alive in an age where most other live-service games like Anthem, Marvel’s Avengers, Suicide Squad: Kill the Justice League, and more have failed says something about its appeal, if not the fanaticism of its players. Maybe the gameplay is more compelling, its art and music teams better at delivering spectacles, and marketing that much more superior.

With The Final Shape, Bungie is making numerous changes and implementing long-awaited features. Into the Light, the recent free update added a Horde mode long past the point that fans asked for it, and there have even been new Crucible maps. The developer’s back is certainly against the wall for the next expansion. Can it succeed and chart a new course for the series as it always has? Or will Destiny’s legacy end up much like its would-be competitors – as yet another example of the live-service model’s failure? Whatever the result, it’s an unprecedented occasion.

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