Sep 222014

In perhaps the biggest game of the year, one of the things players are spending a lot of time doing is shooting, for hours on end, into a cave. They’re not doing it for fun; I’ve tried it for just a few minutes and I can confirm, it’s incredibly boring. But, it’s also productive, in the sense that it gets players more of what they want, what they in fact need if they want to progress. So quickly, before it gets nerfed, gaze in awe upon the wonders of… The Loot Cave.

How does something like this happen? Well, it’s the result of RPG design elements that range from pedestrian to outright bad.

Let’s start with the pedestrian elements, which relate to world design and mob spawning mechanics. The Cosmodrome levels are a troubled design in that the world almost entirely lacks a structure that rationalizes the dispositions of enemy forces. Unlike the other worlds that are full of various installations for enemy races to defend, the earth areas are just a bunch of junk and ruins laying around all over the place. Fallen are camped out in some of these areas and Hive in others, but there are few details to explain why any group of enemies is in any particular place. The Cosmodrome, more than most other parts of the game, seem like an area that’s just there so players can shoot things.

However, as in every area of the game, the enemy forces are scattered thinly across the world, so as to provide ample safe spaces for pausing and zones for executing dynamic loading. If a player clears an area of targets, it can be quite a hike to the next place where there’s anything to shoot, and in Destiny, if there’s nothing to shoot there’s essentially nothing to do. The sparrow alleviates some of this, but presumably either playtesting or early design iterations demonstrated that this was insufficient, so Bungie came up with a very aggressive respawning schedule.

The video above is proof enough of this, but experience shows that the cave is the rule, not the exception. If you wipe a mob, their replacements will show up within a minute or less. It can get really absurd: at the entrance to Skywatch I have killed the tiny group of a captain and two vandals repeatedly just by ducking around a corner. There’s a complex on the moon I’ve never been able to really clear because emptying it out takes me far enough away from one of its spawn points that another group of vandals shows up immediately, and clearing them gives enough time for the servitor to return.

To provide a (thin) rationale for the appearance of reinforcements, every world has been dotted with tiny caves and mechanical rooms: dead ends that spawn hordes of enemies. Some specific thought and balancing has gone into these spawns. That’s evident from, for example, the way the mob composition changes when a character is close to the cave in the video above. Low-level characters (who might well be in this area) could be rushed and killed by the thralls without warning if they’re too close. The acolytes are more survivable in these circumstances. Thus, there’s an exclusion zone preventing thrall spawns when a player is nearby. Still, the reasoning behind distributing and spawning enemies in this way reflects some really basic and boring level construction.

So, the cave behaves the way it does because of pedestrian RPG design. Why do the players behave the way they do?

This gets into the outright bad design choices in Destiny, which are focused in the loot system but are a bit more comprehensive.

First, let’s talk about incentives. Why do the players want loot? Every RPG player in the history of ever has gathered loot and improved gear as much as possible, but Destiny makes equipment upgrades absolutely critical. After level 20, the only way to level up is to obtain gear with “light”. This means that progression is no longer a question of what the player does but what the player has. I think this is a questionable system for a number of reasons, but what’s relevant here is that the only way to improve a late-game character is to continue acquiring ever-more-powerful gear. Consequently one should expect level 20+ characters to obtain that gear in the most efficient way possible.

Unfortunately, enemies do not drop loot very frequently. Through most of the story content I would say I got a drop every 10 minutes or so, with large stretches of getting nothing. Drops tend to be streaky: on a second run through a story mission I got a cascade of loot, but patrolling Mars once I went half an hour without seeing anything (including a huge firefight in a Cabal base where only one kill even dropped ammo).

This pace is actually not so bad early in the game, when regular leveling ensures that almost everything found is better than what’s already equipped. It’s less tolerable at 20+. Even at level 20, I dismantle more than 9 in 10 drops immediately; this ratio can only get worse as I progress. Given the frequency with which engrams give weaker loot than their color suggests, the process of getting drops must get deeply dismal as time goes on.

Compounding this is the fact that drop frequency and quality doesn’t seem to scale with enemy level or strength. This is a general problem with the game: on my first patrol of the Cosmodrome I (at level 3) got into a fight with a level 7 dreg and eventually took him down for 20 experience, the same amount I would have gotten from a level 2 dreg. This being the case, why would I ever challenge myself that way?

Well, for loot maybe, but in terms of number and quality of drops that doesn’t scale either. Of the few blue engrams I’ve seen, almost all have been dropped from normal dregs of level 10 or below. Majors don’t reliably drop anything, and outside of public events the best I can remember seeing pop out of one was a green engram. I won’t positively state that there’s no loot scaling at all, because I don’t have the numbers in front of me, but if I can wax something like 4 Vex majors and 2 Fallen ones in a firefight on Venus and not see so much as a heavy ammo drop then whatever scaling exists is not doing enough. I’m not particularly interested in the PvP, but anecdotally it seems that the drop distribution is depressing there as well.

In this context, the principle of efficiency suggests that the best thing to do is to kill many low-level enemies as rapidly as possible. In the video above the player runs past everything inside the building, as well he should, because taking the time to engage in those firefights is a waste. Most likely not one of those enemies would have dropped anything, and fighting them would take away time that he could be using to endlessly slaughter a stream of hapless mooks in hopes of the RNG coming up purple.

Destiny’s design puts every incentive on the side of doing boring things rather than interesting ones, because it refuses to reward the time and effort needed to do cool things. The Cosmodrome levels are pockmarked with deep caves containing fairly high-level Hive majors and I would never recommend anyone try to fight them because not only are they big bullet sponges but also it’s pointless to fight them in the context of a late-game leveling system that prioritizes loot over experience. Mars and Venus have interesting locations that I would never recommend anyone visit unless they had a specific bounty, because the more difficult enemies there require more time and resources to defeat, and offer not the slightest sliver of hope for better rewards than that sad little level-5 mob in the Cosmodrome.

Doubtless the Loot Cave will be nerfed in a future update: the respawn schedule will be dialed back, or its exclusion zone expanded, or some other kludge will be applied so that the sad spectacle of high-level characters taking potshots at a cave will cease. The underlying issues that give rise to it, however, are what Destiny’s designers really need to address. Destiny makes boring farming productive and interesting exploration and combat wasteful; player use of the loot cave is a positive and correct response to the presented incentives. Bungie’s pedestrian approach to level design and spawn dynamics made the Loot Cave possible. Their misguided approach to late-game progression and loot drops made it inevitable.

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