OPINION: Bungie's XP Scaling Was a Decent Solution to a Stupid Problem
After the discovery of Destiny 2’s controversial XP-scaling, Bungie came under fire from fans. Players had long complained that the game felt tilted against hardcore players, but at last, they had solid proof. All that was left to guess was Bungie’s intention. But guessing the developer’s intentions has rarely proved profitable.
Many among players and press alike have assumed that Bungie used the XP-scaling system to push sales of the game’s microtransactions. With EA’s ongoing Battlefront II fiasco, it’s not an unreasonable course of thought. Ultimately though, I don’t find this the most compelling explanation.
The purpose of the XP-scaling system matches Bungie’s known priorities and the game’s known failings. Assuming Bungie’s evil or incompetent is poor way to fit together pieces of larger dysfunction. Whatever its purpose, the system was designed to a specific effect. I don’t believe Bungie had bad intentions, but I don’t believe the system’s results were an accident.
Bungie-Activision wanted Destiny 2 to appeal to both casual and hardcore players. This meant creating two different systems to reward them. The fundamental flaw is that Bungie wouldn't admit that they needed these two player-bases to be treated differently; hence, a UX that was normalized to the lowest-common denominator.
(I’m bundling Bungie-Activision, not because I believe they’re 'colluding', but because it’s impossible to distinguish which organization is responsible for that priority and both put their name on the final product.)
To accomplish this, the game had to immediately reward casual players who only experienced the game’s surface level but provide rewards for ongoing players. As a result, the campaign showers players with loot. Players get every imaginable reward for the slightest possible achievement. The first game’s complexity vanished. Guns have fixed-rolls, character specs are gone, questlines were all but eliminated, and subclass traits were whittled down to a few, simple nodes.
Even the exotic quests are incredibly easy, requiring players to dismantle 5 scout rifles after a brief story mission or get 50 mid-air SMG kills. The game really wants players to experience everything it has to offer as soon as possible. And that isn’t a bad thing.
Unfortunately, the game can’t shower players with loot long-term. They would run out of reasons to play almost immediately as the loot table evaporated. The XP-scaling system fixed that.
I'm not going to comment on whether the system is good or bad. You'll make up your own mind, although many readers will make up their mind based on whether it benefits them or not; this method of making up one's mind, of course, defeats the purpose of reading commentary.
Whether it's a good system or not is beside the point. A game cannot tell players they'll be rewarded in a certain manner, withhold that reward and then fail to inform the player. Destiny's XP-scaling system punished players for playing a certain way without letting them know they were being punished or giving them a chance to play differently.
If Bungie wants the game to play a certain way, it also needs to inform players in a way that lets them adjust their playstyle. Keep in mind, that doesn't actually make the system good, it's a basic requirement to meet the definition of "game." All systems must be consistent and allow the player to respond to them.
Bungie may not have intended to deceive players. But not telling them when the rules were changing is unconscionable. It degrades the game for all players, across all activities.
When the XP-scaling debacle broke, many players came to the conclusion that Activision-Bungie were attempting to scam players into buying Bright Engrams. This situation arose, after all, in the wake of EA's microtransaction scandal. But it's far more likely a symptom of Destiny 2's long-running problem.
We know that Destiny 2 is designed to be far more accessible to casual players. We know that many of the game's systems were redesigned around these casual players and that these changes frequently came at the expense of dedicated players.
When Bungie claims they didn't intend this system to affect hardcore players as it did: I believe them. They weren't hiding trickery, they were hiding badly designed game systems. It's a genuine, but stupid mistake.
But it's a mistake we see over…and over…and over…and over again. This is a mistake that was made at such a high level of the game's conception that I fear it will haunt the game until the release of Destiny 3.
Can casual and hardcore players coexist within Destiny 2? Player opinions may vary. But the XP-scaling system is proof that Bungie never truly believed it was possible.