What Does a Destiny Competitor Look Like?
Bungie’s Halo was the first console FPS to hit mainstream. In fact, it was one of the first games to become a “Blockbuster” in the same breath as a film release. To this day, the imagery of a Halo release--Steve Balmer and Bill Gates rocking the best of 2000’s dance moves on stage; Xboxes being thrown across Time Square into hordes of fans; delirious teenagers and adults packed into rooms with massive tube TV’s crammed into tight spaces—remains unmatched. It was the birth of a genre. Halo’s control scheme, level design, weapon archetypes and enemy variants proved so archetypically perfect that decades of FPS’s rained from the gaming industry into an enthralled audience.
Looking back, the FPS genre is defined not just by Halo, but by the various franchises that collectively shaped it; succinctly, by the genre’s creative breadth. In 2007, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare and Halo 3 were released. They’re wildly different games, derived from the same concept. Both left distinct, indelible legacies that shaped the entire console generation, beyond the genre.
But nearly 20 years later, the FPS genre became stale. The Xbox 360 generation of shooters began to exhaust its source material and even the Halo franchise itself began to show its age. As gamers transitioned into the current generation—led by the PS4 and Xbox One—they were greeted by a familiar face, the one who started it all.
Bungie, the creators of Halo, had a new sci-fi franchise that would break this rut—and save the FPS genre: Destiny.
Like Halo before it, Destiny exists in a unique genre. As of yet, it doesn’t exist within a wide catalogue of similar games—but we see it as a distinct type of game. Tom Clancy’s The Division is considered a “Destiny-type” game, yet is a third-person shooter. Prior to The Division’s release, it was speculated to be the Call of Duty to Bungie’s (new) Halo. The proximity of release date and concept supported this notion.
But alas, this was not the case. The Division floundered immediately upon launch. Like Destiny’s maligned launch before it, it proved a competent concept, trapped within a badly implemented MMORPG system. So here, I’m going to define both games by what players wanted them to be. The common ground for a genre is where it will eventually develop. What was unforeseeable for the masterpiece Halo, is apparent in Destiny and The Division—because of the intense criticism both received. We know exactly where these genres will head, because it’s being dictated by players.
A “Destiny-type” game is one that takes a familiar, accessible game genre and broadens it with MMORPG gear, loot and activities. Examined by gameplay alone, Destiny isn’t a far cry from COD or Halo; likewise, The Division handles similarly to Gears of War or Max Payne. Players become increasingly invested in their avatars throughout the game. While accessible to casual players, the RPG elements allow for substantially increased play-times. Rewards are doled out in proportion to activities, within in a world whose RPG scaling requires the player to continually improve.
Now to the criticisms of both games: the RPG elements, exactly. Both relied heavily on bullet-sponge enemies, to the disappointment of players. This promoted drawn-out DPS engagements where RPG elements and the core shooter gameplay were constantly playing tug-of-war. When the shooter mechanics won, it was at the expense of longevity; when the RPG mechanics won, it was at the expense of fun. So what do players want from this genre?
This, we can answer here: What does an ideal Destiny competitor look like? Many player look forward: Cyberpunk 2077, Star Citizen, etc. Each of these will have their chance to offer a compelling MMORPG universe with the same blend of familiar gameplay on a novel MMORPG system. The hopes of gamers are checklists of desires. I’d like to counter with this:
The future of the genre may very well exist in the hands of future titles. But Destiny’s perfect competitor is already here, predates Destiny, and is already beating Destiny in every conceivable way:
Grand Theft Auto Online
You wouldn’t immediately think of Grand Theft Auto: Online as Destiny’s competitor. And that’s exactly why it’s winning.
GTA Online took the near-perfect Grand Theft Auto V sandbox/pseudo-RPG and created an infinitely playable MMORPG that’s too natural an extension to feel unique. Don’t believe me? All financial indications show that it’s raking in billions. Casual and hardcore players alike sink hundreds, even thousands of hours into this online world. They didn’t buy Grand Theft Auto Online. They bought Grand Theft Auto V, and found themselves entrapped in the endless activities of Online.
So what does this mean for Destiny? Well, I’m going to outline how GTA:O exemplifies the RPG hybrid, and how its approach is something Bungie could easily imitate.
Foremost, the archetypically excellent single player mode.
Grand Theft Auto has been a staple franchise for decades now. What began as “drive here, kill this,” gradually expanded. Car acquisition, weapon collection, property ownership were all natural additions that complemented previous features. Car ownership and weapon selections directly let players drive places faster, and kill more quickly. By Grand Theft Auto V, players can trade on the stock market, play golf and scuba dive. The core gameplay experience—aside from the adoption of cover shooting—is remarkably similar to Grand Theft Auto III.
In Grand Theft Auto V, the expansion of these concepts had created a frightening imitation of reality. So much so, that further expansion would have compromised Rockstar’s storytelling abilities. Even with three separate protagonists, V ran the risk of losing the protagonists in that world. So Rockstar created Grand Theft Auto Online. While it existed in the previous title, the latest iteration was a vastly different machine.
Your character occupies the same world as the game’s protagonists. Likewise, you can acquire property, collect cars, purchase firearms. It really could have ended here. But GTA Online starts its sprint at this starting point. Players can own corporations, stock warehouses, sell methamphetamine, steal cars, sell cars, form motorcycle gangs; all while inhabiting the exact same world with the exact same gameplay. I’ve personally spent hundreds of hours engrossed in each of these activities. I form goals for each one, and set my mind to selling a certain number of cars, buying my favorite cars and living in the best houses on the map.
An RPG’s depth is often associated with quest system. Franchises like The Witcher. Diablo and The Elder Scrolls have gamers recall complex quests, decisions, item management and statuses. But Grand Theft Auto V excels with its RPG elements by offloading many of these decisions to the player. Players don’t need a Quest UI element to tell them what to do. The world inspires them to create their own goals, and the game gives them to tools to realize them. For an RPG hybrid game to succeed, it would do well to imitate this.
We previously established that Destiny and The Division took accessible game genres and expanded them with RPG mechanics. In this quest, they struggled to balance the core genre gameplay with those same RPG mechanics.
Grand Theft Auto: Online neatly sidesteps these issues by refusing the blend the two. In single player, they have a story campaign with archetypically perfect gameplay mechanics. Online, the game expands. The result keeps players hooked for thousands of hours and generates $.5bn/year in revenue.
Can Destiny replicate this? Absolutely.
In Halo, Bungie created an archetypically perfect sandbox game around a masterpiece of a story campaign. Each installment expanded on the previous, introducing online multiplayer, Infection, Forge, CTF, Griffball, SWAT, Duck Hunt…all built around a singularly created sandbox. The concepts that Halo introduced were expanded into an entire genre that dominated two entire console generations.
Destiny occupies a unique space in the industry, intentionally. As future generations of gaming blur the lines of genres, we face a proliferation of titles that can occupy our time for years. As a pioneer in this trend, and the FPS genre before it, Bungie stands to learn much from Grand Theft Auto Online. Both have occupied thousands of hours of my time, and I anticipate both will consume thousands more for years to come.