I was reading this phenomenal (really, just great) interview that Kirk Hamilton did with Luke Smith, a designer on Destiny‘s Vault of Glass raid, and I was struck by the following questions and answers:
It’s funny, there are fourteen unique ways to fail in the raid, but there are also fourteen ways to succeed! It feels really cool when you figure out this new way to succeed, so there are two sides of that. Watching people play, do you get a sense of, “Oh, okay, we could get away with this sort of thing in the main game”?
Well, you’re giving us an awful lot of credit. Look at the raid versus the structure of the rest of the game. The raids are linear in a way that a given suite of missions [isn’t]. From encounter to encounter, in the raid, we’re able to build your knowledge base and teach you more in a very predictable way. And I feel like sometimes we can’t assure [that] organically in sort of a more linear campaign. We had this really good advantage of freedom, flexibility and the knowledge of how you’re going to be able to constrain players.
Yeah, that progression to the final boss Atheon, how you go through the time gates, and you learn how those work, and you learn how the relic works, and then you have to put it all together. It’s this constant progression.
We’re really happy with how the Atheon encounter turned out. For us, it really feels like the culmination of the raid, in terms of all the things we’re teaching you over the course of that experience, we’re trying to introduce you to different verbs, and the natural extension of that as you get further into the raid is to ask you to combine all of those verbs together over the final culminating battle.
Overall, Destiny has a lot of problems (I’ve written about the narrative and competitive multiplayer), and yet I’ve spent a lot of time in its weird embrace. It scratches the same itch that World of Warcraft does–these developers have used the most advanced techniques to ascertain what gets someone hooked into a game. Fundamentally, it is about loops and how good they feel when you make a cycle.
For example, I play a Strike for fifteen minutes. It is incredibly easy, and I walk through it. At the end, I am granted some Engrams, which have to be taken to the Tower in order to be turned into items (which are then converted to materials).
What is happening there is not as important as how it feels: I go full-on zen autopilot for fifteen minutes, items pop out of the enemies that I shoot in their clearly-marked heads, and I run to gather the glowing objects. I slide into them. I dodge the enemies, and it is thrilling not because it is hard but because it is like a ballet that I’ve practiced over and over (every mission, every moment is a movement in this dance number). The credits role, some circles fill up with experience points, and more items appear. I go to Orbit, go the the Cryptarch, watch more circles fill up, and repeat it again. I feel like a machine, and being a machine feels good. Every day of my life is spent thinking, and Destiny is a strange reprieve from that.
Put another way: playing Destiny is like living in the film Groundhog Day, and it feels amazing and horrible all at once.
When Smith describes the raids as “linear,” which allows the developers to “build on your knowledgebase,” he’s really describing something profound in the context of Destiny: the Vault of Glass is a game, where Destiny overall is merely a series of loops.
Gambling is a loop. Going running is a loop. Reading John Grisham novels is a loop. Eating is a loop. You do a thing, you get a reward, and the mechanical process between each instance of each loop maps onto the next cycle. Loops happen over and over and over again, and they’re made to be that way. If the loop is especially grand, you never make it out of it.
At the core, Smith’s description of the Vault of Glass’ uniqueness in Destiny is merely a version of Anna Anthropy’s excellent “to the right, hold on tight” argument. The raid requires experimentation (on a group scale rather than an individual one), failure, and synthesis of those two things in order to beat it. The Vault requires the same kind of experiential moves as most other games, but the raid itself becomes unique in contrast to the ludic wasteland of the rest of the game. This isn’t to minimize the impact of the Vault–from my understanding, it is truly a wonder of modern game design and implementation. But the design principles are standard, and the fact that those principles weren’t used for the rest of the game is telling about Bungie’s priorities in the development of Destiny.
The Vault of Glass is a game. Destiny is an addiction machine.
A remainder question: Would the Vault of Glass be worth playing if it were divorced from the rest of Destiny?