While Destiny has been brandished with a less than stellar critical reception, its advocates exist in droves. It seems this is one of the few cases where marketing has entirely prevailed above a games critical performance as the game appears to retain a strong playerbase and community. With this in mind however, I’ve seen many people, including journalists asking themselves why they’re still playing despite not finding the experience that interesting, with anecdotes like ‘It’s not that exciting, but I still find myself coming back’, and in turn this article intends to propose the rationale, that keep consumers hooked on the Destiny experience.
At its core, Destiny is a good game
Before I in any way begin to critisise the rationale many have for playing this game, I think one salient factor, and one that needs its due focus is that Destiny, is at its heart a very well built experience. Featuring all the fundamental design underpinnings that would traditionally constitute a very high quality, FPS experience, Destiny ticks most of the boxes that most consumers ask for. Responsive controls, exotic and impressive weaponary, cinematic and entertaining boss fights, open world exploration and plentiful replay-ability are merely a few of Destiny’s assets and this is something that is hard to ignore. While in terms of content there are many aspects of the game I find could be much better, the gameplay is fundamentally enjoyable which automatically lends almost every activity within Destiny’s universe to some form of pleasure for the player. Even if it be running the same strike for the 15th time, it’s still fun and satisfying to pop heads with your hand-cannon, merely because the control scheme, enemy response to bullets and difficulty keep the game engaging, despite vast number of flaws.
A game built by Psychologists
However I believe these foundations aren’t enough to keep people invested in the experience. A myriad of games have solid underpinnings yet fail to satiate cravings for content or fall short in relation tot their core design, and in turn lack the following that Destiny has found. It’s clear that many of the games systems have been built in accordance with Psychological principles that would make a video game more engaging, or even addictive. Of course this is not dissimilar to what we see in many MMOs, but I feel that Destiny’s particularly stringent employment of variable interval schedules of reinforcement – a principle of operant conditioning – is almost used to mask its lack of genuinely compelling content.
To explain, operant conditioning is the notion of conditioning a response from an individual. Skinner (1948) demonstrated it was possible to reinforce certain behavior within mice, through the provision of either positive or negative reinforcement. While I won’t bore you with further details, you can – do some reading alone if you will – in many ways the function of the Cryptarch in Destiny is to serve as that positive reinforcer, in this case reinforcing the continuous play of the game. Similarily, Destiny’s frequent but limited time events operate almost as negative reinforcement for not playing. Unlike most MMOs the quest lines, and higher level content is generally, freely available to complete at any time, but in Destiny these limited duration events punish players for not logging in over specific time periods.
Futhermore, Cryparch (and the provision of engrams in general) is not at all dissimilar from a slot machine, and subsequently the principles of gambling fallacy. In particular this pertains to the idea that the odds of success increase with the less success you have. Traditionally the ratio doesn’t change, the more you play on one of these machines – and neither does it with the cryparch – but people inflate the probability of the success of ‘one more spin’. Relating this back to Destiny, it reflects on how people continue playing, because they believe that ‘eventually’ they’ll be rewarded if they keep doing so, perhaps due to the previously aforementioned variable reinforcment schedule, or less rewarding yet vicarious reinforcement where players are reinforced after seeing a friend or clan member drop something worthwhile.
A mask for Destiny’s explicit lack of content
Ultimately this method of distribution serves to covertly mask the games lack of content, video games have always operated on principles of reward and punishment – basic models of operant conditioning – however Destiny is is a game that’s terribly frugal with this implementation. The difference between games like Borderlands and Destiny, is that the former genuinely has a lot of content to dish out, so they can more frequently offer positive reinforcement for the players efforts, I would posit that this is a vastly better design philosophy, as the player is continually rewarded and the game is fundamentally more enjoyable as a result. Meanwhile Destiny has to restrict itself to more restrictive reinforcement schedules so as to compensate a lack of content, this has a similar impact in terms of reinforcing the player to play the game, yet remains fundamentally less enjoyable because the player is rewarded with much less frequency.
The hype train hasn’t ran out of steam
Of course there are other reasons. I can say that I still play Destiny too, and while my rationale I’m not entirely sure of, I think one of which is the initial, emotional investment in a game. I found myself exited standing in the midnight launch queue for Destiny, I realise on reflection that my pre-purchase impressions were miss-informed, I didn’t know what I was getting into, I was expecting more. In a way Destiny didn’t explicitly disappoint me, I don’t feel disappointed inside, I don’t feel cheated and I think a big part of that is that a lot of us are still aboard the that hype train. Sure the trains slowing down, but it’s still going, Destiny is still a very popular product and many consumers still have a lot of faith in Bungie. Which is why I believe, that many of us are still searching, still playing the game in the hope that it will captivate us at some point or another, either through a patch or its later DLC. In many ways it’s hard for people to let go, and to on reflection recognise their mistakes, often justifying the game as enjoyable with reference to the number of hours they’ve gotten out of it. However when most of those hours will have been grinding farming locations, or running the same mission repeatedly this rationale becomes a little questionable.
That isn’t to say that some people have a more simplistic explanation. They just enjoy it as they do any other game, the artstyle, gameplay, general focus of the game is something that appeals to them. I’m making no attempt to discredit those that genuinely enjoy Destiny, but merely offering potential explanation for those who don’t quite understand why they’re still hooked. My advice to those who are questioning why they’re still playing is to take some time away from the game, play something else for a little while, and try and evaluate if your time is worth the expense. Destiny is a grind by nature, and I hope no one is missing out on fantastic titles like Bayonetta 2, Shadow of Mordor, and Alien Isolation by playing a game that they aren’t truly enjoying.