Destiny's first expansion The Dark Below takes aim at story criticism
"Have you done the Thorn exotic quest?"
Destiny's story failed. Most agree on this point.
It was a disjointed, bizarre effort that made little sense. Exposition amounted to a short blurb from one of the game's few nonsensical characters as by-the-numbers story missions were loaded. The few cutscenes that did make the cut came across as cobbled together at the last moment, with instantly forgettable dialogue that made us clamour for the pre-release days of Peter "Tyrion" Dinklage's infamous "that wizard came from the moon!" line. And the less said about the text-based Grimoire cards, unhelpfully hosted outside of the game on Bungie.net, the better.
Why are we killing these aliens, a million Guardians wondered? I don't even have time to explain why I don't have time to explain, Destiny answered.
Yes, Destiny's story failed. Most agree on this point. Including, it seems, Destiny's developer, Bungie.
Harold Ryan, the company's president, is well aware of the criticism Destiny suffered at the hands of some reviewers and many players. Most of that early criticism, from what I could tell, revolved around the story, its structure and its delivery. Nearly two months after its 9th September 2014 release, and for me three days and 22 hours of play later, other aspects of Destiny have more than made up for the threadbare plot. But for Bungie, Destiny's first expansion The Dark Below provides the perfect opportunity to address criticism.
Here, in a telephone interview with Eurogamer, Ryan and Bungie confirm for the first time what's included in The Dark Below, which launches globally on 9th December 2014. There are new strikes, new competitive multiplayer maps, new items and some gameplay changes. But there's also a new way to tell the DLC's story, which, on paper at least, sounds more interesting than what's gone before.
What, exactly, is in The Dark Below expansion?
Harold Ryan: There's going to be new armour, weapons and gear, including new legendary and exotic items for players to earn. The light level cap will go up to level 32, so for players who are playing into the endgame, they've got a couple of more levels to go, which is going to really help them with the raid and other competitive weekly strikes and events.
There's a new vendor character in the Tower, with a pretty interesting story to tell, that you'll be able to experience and play through once you buy the DLC. Her name is Eris. She's going to send you on a mission against the Hive to help stop Crota and his efforts to invade and take over the Solar System.
In addition, your options are expanding with three new multiplayer arenas and a new raid, which will come with the expansion, but like the first raid it will unlock over time.
What are the story missions, exactly?
Harold Ryan: We're not going into the exact pieces and parts of it. We want people to explore them as they meet Eris. But Eris will send you on a quest that will take you through the new story content of the expansion.
Do the story missions play out in a similar fashion to the story missions we've already seen in the game? Will there be new cutscenes, dialogue and characters? Can you talk about their structure? Is there anything different going on compared to what we've seen before?
Harold Ryan: The structure of the story in this expansion is different than the story in the core game. Looking at how the story plays and how we wanted to repackage it and reacting to fan feedback, we're taking a different approach to the story in this one. So it's going to be driven in a very interesting way for players, as you meet with Eris in the Tower and follow her guidance through the story.
I'm sure you're well aware of the negative reaction to the story in the core game. You say it'll be different in the DLC, but how exactly?
Harold Ryan: Have you done the Thorn exotic quest?
I'm right at the end and need someone to help me with the last stage.
Harold Ryan: So, looking at how the exotic quests work, like the Thorn quest, was the inspiration for how we're attempting to tell the story in this expansion. And so it's going to feel much more emergent and interactive in the world as you play through and unlock the story of Eris.
One of the things people criticised Destiny for was the lack of story in terms of how it played out within the missions. For example, there was a general lack of characters, exposition, cutscenes and dialogue - the kind of stuff we've seen a lot of in the Halo series. Is that something you will address with the story missions in the DLC?
Harold Ryan: What you'll see in this expansion, it's going to be a very different approach to telling a new story to players than the thematically-driven story from the original launch of the game. It's going to feel much more loot driven and story driven in that it's going to feel faster-paced with more action as you go through it, and with exposition. The important thing about Eris is, this story is going to be her story, and she's going to send you on a mission that's a lot of fun.
Recent leaks suggest there are three new story missions. Is that correct?
Harold Ryan: There are multiple missions in the story, but they're all driven through Eris in the Tower [Bungie has since confirmed The Dark Below includes three new story missions].
What will The Dark Below add on the PVP side?
Harold Ryan: We're launching three new multiplayer arenas. The Pantheon is set in the Black Garden in a Vex temple, and it's a pretty interesting close quarters combat map. There's a new vehicle map called Skyshock. We want players to explore the details of it when it comes out as well. That will give us enough vehicle maps to start working on more interesting vehicle focused game types and hoppers in the future.
Will you add any new vehicles for use in Skyshock?
Harold Ryan: It's just a new arena. We're not talking about new vehicles. The last map is The Cauldron. It's another close quarters arena.
I saw a post recently about changes to Iron Banner, which are welcome. But will you make any fundamental changes to the Crucible in its standard mode?
Harold Ryan: We're making changes across the board based on feedback and how people are playing, both balance changes and mechanical changes to improve matchmaking times and latency, which are both really good already, but are always the kind of thing we want to dial in.
We're building a sizeable team just to work on the live game. That group is continuing to get better at taking feedback from the community and building on patches and updates to the world.
Can you speak about any of those gameplay changes in any detail?
Harold Ryan: No. The reason is, we have a bunch planned, but we have to build them and test them, and then depending on how stable they are they get slotted into releases. We're doing weekly update notes, and as things pass our QA department they get slotted in and announced. There are a bunch in the works, but I can't overcommit to them until they get through QA.
What new strikes will be added?
Harold Ryan: There's a new strike, The Will of Crota. You fight a new boss in that, Omnigul. That's just one new strike that's global. And then PlayStation users get a new exclusive called The Undying Mind. They get a new exotic as well. It's centred in The Black Garden as a strike.
Is there any more exclusive content for PlayStation owners?
Harold Ryan: No, not as a part of this release.
What can you tell us about the raid, Crota's End?
Harold Ryan: This is another raid built with the same experiential goal of being endgame content for players. It's set in the Hellmouth, which we think is a fun place to go for a raid. But beyond that, we want it to be something people experience for the first time as they work their way into it, get to the right level and can actually survive.
Part of the appeal of Vault of Glass was experiencing new gameplay mechanics for the first time with friends. Will you be switching things up again in a similar way as you did with Vault of Glass, which has a platforming section, a stealth section and encounters that require tactics we don't see in the rest of the game?
Harold Ryan: Yeah. The only thing I'll say is, for sure it's going to require learning and adapting to the tactics required to beat the raid and getting your gear dialled in as well, so you can actually survive the encounters.
Are you making any mechanical changes?
Harold Ryan: We're adding new bounty slots as part of this, so people can keep doing the weeklies along with picking up the new content that comes with the expansion. We're going from five to 10.
The thing to know is every single week we're triaging through what we can add and evolve in the game, both on the platform side and on the user experience design side. There's a lot of core work that's been going on over the last three months on The Dark Below, and daily and weekly we're changing things as well. We literally just finished putting together The Dark Below.
We'd hoped we'd be going to a new planet with the new expansion, but that doesn't seem to be the case. What can you say about the possibility of going to new areas we haven't been to in the launch game? New worlds, that kind of thing.
Harold Ryan: In The Dark Below you're not going to a new planet or a new destination. But you will find many new experiences in existing ones.
Is it possible we will go to new planets in the second expansion, House of Wolves?
Harold Ryan: House of Wolves is not something we're ready to talk about at this point. But we certainly understand the desire for new destinations.
There's a multiplayer map in the game now set on Mercury, which feels like a tease at what might have been, or what might be.
Harold Ryan: Yeah, Mercury would be a fun place for sure.
Are there any new modes in Crucible? I've seen mention online about a mode called Double Play, which is a 2v2 mode. Is there anything new in terms of modes in Crucible?
Harold Ryan: Nothing we're confirming at this point. We're testing a bunch of ideas and concepts that relate to the game modes for the Crucible. You've seen already the programmed events, which we turn on over time. That's part of ongoing work and testing. Then see how people are playing and make changes to the world.
But you can't say whether there are any new modes coming in with The Dark Below?
Harold Ryan: No. The thing about Destiny for us is, because everyone's connected, we're constantly working on what's going to be ready and what's going to be the best thing to roll out. We'll be working on what specifically the Crucible is and how it will evolve week by week, all through the holidays, including when The Dark Below goes live.
I'm sure you sure the recent leaks with players able to see a lot of this planned content already in the game. Based on what you've told me, a lot of that doesn't seem to be in The Dark Below.
Harold Ryan: There's a bunch of shared-world content we've shipped on the disc specifically to limit download sizes for people. Both inside the US and all over the world, how much you download on your local home internet connection can be a problem, and even how much storage space it takes up on your console.
So we share a lot of assets across all the activities in the game. When people get into areas that aren't unlocked right now, they're seeing pieces we built and shipped ahead of time, but they're by no means the finished experiences or even the finished content.
But when we can get into these areas already and see this content, there's a feeling at the content is finished, cut and saved for DLC.
Harold Ryan: No. Eris and her story were built over the last three months, long after the game was done. For example for The Dark Below, that included the activities and the bosses and all of the polish of it.
More generally, you announced recently that 3.2m people play Destiny every day. That's an impressive number, but I'm curious to know how the game is doing relative to your pre-release expectations now.
Harold Ryan: In general it's meeting or exceeding all of our goals for the game. Consumer engagement and people both in the game and on Bungie.net, average hours played a day, the total number of hours people are playing, with the number of people who are getting into the high 20s, approaching level 30, it's pretty amazing. The number of people who have played the raid is pretty amazing as well.
Matching ambition is always an interesting goal, because we have some competitive history to deal with at Bungie. I'm optimistic, but humbled by the challenges ahead of us as well.
The reception to the game was interesting. There were heavy criticisms around the story. What was your reaction to it?
Harold Ryan: We've always been very critical of ourselves internally as well at Bungie. We've built a really big game with a lot of activities that suit a lot of people really well. You always want to iterate more on your artwork when you roll it out to the world.
There are bits and pieces of the feedback for sure we agree with internally, as far as, we wish we had put more time into some areas.
Is there anything in particular you can point to in that regard? For example, what was the most common piece of feedback you received?
Harold Ryan: It's so broad. When I read a lot of the feedback, and I see it's after playing for 100 hours, it's hard not to couch that in, well if you played the game for 100 hours... What other game do you play for 100 hours, right? As we play the game and test the game, there are all kinds of things we want to improve and evolve, and we are improving them and evolving them over time.
We had our challenges getting the game out on four consoles. Three of those consoles, most of us had never shipped on before. I'd only led the team to ship games on Xbox and PC. All the PlayStation stuff was an interesting learning experience.
But overall, the fan reaction, the reviewer reaction based on how they're playing, is pretty inspiring. We just committed to address the feedback. Because we're getting the feedback from people who are playing so much, including the reviewers, there's a lot of it over time, as you read the updates along the way, that's pretty actionable and becomes common across a lot of people and their feedback.
So you can address a lot of the complaints in the future? The thing people talk a lot about is the story, which you say you're addressing in the expansion.
Harold Ryan: Yep. The interesting thing is, in The Dark Below you'll see us casting a new approach to rolling out story in Destiny. We'll see how that works. There's not a game exactly like this that exists. We're learning as we go what works for people and what doesn't work for people. It's completely different for us and for players to engage with the game, in the way that Destiny plays.
Can you give us an update on matchmaking for the raid and some of the tougher challenges such as the weekly nightfall and weekly heroics? I know Bungie has talked about this issue and is exploring it. Is matchmaking something that might be added to the game in time for The Dark Below, or maybe even sooner?
Harold Ryan: It's hard to commit to when matchmaking would roll out for weeklies for sure. It's an active discussion with all of the designers about whether a raid should or shouldn't. We're testing and playing with that mode internally to see how we think how it feels.
It's a common ask for the raid, but it's also interesting to see the number of people who actually successfully complete the raid without it. There are some other pieces as well. When you matchmake into a group, you don't necessarily get people who play the way you want them to play.
My colleague plays on Xbox One. I play on PS4. We wish we could play together. What is the issue there? Why can't I play with my Xbox One friend?
Harold Ryan: That's a question for Microsoft and Sony.
They're not fans of each other, then?
Harold Ryan: They seem to have a few competitive disagreements.
It's a shame, really. This is nothing new of course. But when a game like Destiny comes along that is so ingrained in multiplayer, it shines a light on the division.
Harold Ryan: If you look at the service we built behind Destiny, there's nothing from our point of view that would stop you guys from playing together. Technically, actually there are reasons why an Xbox and a PlayStation can't play together. Anyway, the characters are all in a common back end.