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Destiny 2's launch week uproar shows why developers need to talk about money

Sweet business.

It's hardly surprising that the Destiny community got so angry about Destiny 2's microtransaction system, and the new consumable cosmetics that comes with it. And it's hardly surprising that the fury spread beyond the bounds of the Destiny subreddit. Outrage over corporate greed is a games industry play that gets new actors every week.

Nuance is always lost when this happens. A thunderhead of consumer emotion has to break against something before useful conclusions can be drawn. Developers seem to understand this, even though the process can't be pleasant; they keep waiting until the last minute to unveil their microtransaction systems, after all. They have to know by now what the consequences will be - they must have the spreadsheets that say it'll all be okay in the end.

Destiny 2's first furore has abated now, replaced by less transferable concerns about maintenance times and Crucible matchmaking. It has faded because there has been time for the relatively benign nature of paid-for Bright Engrams and consumable gear shaders to emerge, and for these systems to become understood as part of a broadly positive restructuring of Destiny's endgame grind. That understanding looks something like this: you no longer need to earn experience with a given gun or piece of armour equipped to unlock its potential. The drops you receive have set bonuses, so you don't need to grind to find a version with the best upgrades. Crafting materials have been simplified into reputation-boosting consumables with singular, obvious, rewarding applications.

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The resource game is much friendlier: where Destiny 1 asked you to maintain stocks of weapon parts, various planetary resources, legendary marks, motes of light and so on in order to stay ahead of the power curve, Destiny 2... doesn't. Resource caps have been raised and progression is, on the whole, more intuitive. It is still possible to play in ways that boost your efficiency, but the difference between min-maxing and regular play is less pronounced than it used to be. As a consequence, dedicated players are less likely to leave their more relaxed friends behind - and if they do, catching up is faster.

This is a fairly unusual direction for an MMO to move in. These changes improve player quality of life by reducing the variability of the rewards you receive in the endgame: but as a consequence, there are fewer reasons to stick around and grind. Lengthy stickied Reddit posts and popular YouTube channels owed their existence to Destiny 1's randomly-generated guns: you could be maxed out in every way and pour hours into grinding for the 'god roll' weapon that could give you an edge in the Crucible. By changing the game in this fundamental way, Bungie has created a system that is easier to balance and more rewarding for more players: but as a consequence, many of their most powerful user retention mechanics are gone. It shouldn't be surprising that a new system was contrived to replace them.

Destiny 1's permanent-use shaders were designed for a game that did not have microtransactions and that would hold on to its players through unreliable power progression in the endgame. When microtransactions were introduced, consumable cosmetics called chroma - pretty coloured lights, essentially - were one of the earliest things you could fish for with your money. Destiny 2's new one-use shader system is essentially a marriage of the old shader system and chroma, creating a timesink that players care about but that doesn't impact their power level. When you've done grinding for everything else, you no longer grind for edge-case guns that weight the Crucible in your favour: you grind to make your guns pretty.

That this system also forms the basis of Destiny 2's microtransaction store is arguably secondary in importance to the role it plays in player retention. Bungie already has your money - a full-priced game's worth, as it happens - so they don't need to chase your wallet in the way that a purely free-to-play game might. That you might drop a bit of cash on a couple of Bright Engrams is a bonus, but far more valuable to them is the way this system keeps you coming back. If you're farming XP for Bright Engrams or the shaders that come in faction packages, then you're providing content for other players: you're filling out Crucible queues, strikes and public events, and this is ultimately the value you provide to Bungie.

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That said, "they're coming for our time" doesn't have the same emotional impact as "they're coming for our money". If last week's uproar over the new shader system demonstrates anything, it's the way that microtransactions warp the conversation around a game. Bungie may well have made a calculated decision to wait to reveal Destiny 2's in-game store. They may have understood that they'd weather a storm of controversy, and that would be temporary.

Even so, they've demonstrated the way that developer coyness about in-game purchases creates a negative atmosphere around a game. Even as community ire has faded, concerns remain - warranted or not. The presence of minor stat-boosting mods in paid-for engrams - a very minor power boost, received at a steady clip through regular play - is enough to suggest to some players that the next step is full 'pay to win'. The issue isn't that this is true, or that you couldn't spend hundreds of words explaining why it's not the case - it's that it's infinitely more true than it was in Destiny 1, and some players can't let that go. Microtransactions, even in their most benign form, are the hole that player trust drains through. For some, it's a gap easily plugged. For others, it's a wound that doesn't heal.

As risk-laden and expensive as modern big budget games are, microtransactions of some sort are an inevitability. The onus is on developers, then, to be transparent about their plans: to get out in front and explain why players should trust them to balance their business needs with player experience. If they don't want the only conversation about their game to be about their business model, then they need to start that conversation themselves - and start it earlier.

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