This time last week, Bungie set out its stall not just for Destiny 2's near future, but several years beyond that. As a service game with a voracious fanbase, Destiny 2 will likely never be able to keep its players truly sated, but the current mix of seasonal content and larger annual expansions is a very different proposition from the interminable droughts between releases that blighted the original game. These days, the week-to-week storytelling is actually one of the strong points.
We also spoke to Bungie about the current state of Destiny 2 and the forthcoming 30th Anniversary celebration. That interview includes:
* Bringing back Gjallarhorn without breaking the sandbox
* Being able to unlock more Seasonal Artifact mods
* The need for extra Vault space
It's live now and you can read it here.
However, due to the pressures of Covid, and a more general desire to avoid the Christmas release crush, the next major expansion—The Witch Queen—was pushed back to February 2, 2022. As a result, the Season of the Lost—which also landed last week—is substantially longer than the usual 13-week format. The gap will partly be filled by December's celebration of the studio's 30th anniversary, which will also see the return of the iconic Gjallarhorn rocket launcher.
So, in short, there's a lot to talk about. And no better person to ask than Destiny 2 game director Joe Blackburn. I spoke with him for almost an hour about The Witch Queen, weapon crafting, the revamp coming to the Light subclasses, and much more. Blackburn has had a particularly interesting arc at Bungie. Having previously been lead designer on the Last Wish raid, he left for Riot in April 2019, only to return last June. I began by asking him what he's learned since becoming game director:
Joe Blackburn: I'm trying to learn how to get the most out of the team, really, and making sure that we're tackling the right problems. And this is always a balance between where the team wants to take D2 and where the community wants to take it. Destiny is no longer the game that was made in 2011 by people that had never seen what it was going to be like in the wild. Looking at the community, and really looking at what they enjoy, we can say: 'Okay, we know what our game is now'.
I mean, Tim, you're more familiar than anyone… Was Destiny a Diablo? Is it Halo? World of Warcraft? In some ways, we don't fit cleanly into any of these buckets. But we know exactly what Destiny is, right? And so now it's easy for us to pick the features off the tree and be like, yes, weapon crafting should be in this game. Yes, we should be telling compelling seasonal narratives. This is how much activity content should be in the game. And so really, it's been about dialling in and focusing on what makes Destiny itself. What sets it apart.
Joe Blackburn is the game director of Destiny 2.
I really wanted to distill Destiny down into what makes it unique from its competitors. You can go read an article online that says how great Presage is, or how great the Whisper of the Worm quest is, or how great Last Wish is, and then you get into Destiny and say: 'Is this the same game?! Am I playing that game that they're playing?' It's about how we make Destiny, from the first five minutes, start feeling like: 'Okay, I see how this is training me for that big stuff.' And I see that it's all cut from the same cloth. I want Destiny to be so easy to recommend to your friends.
PC Gamer: It was mentioned in the reveal stream that Bungie wants The Witch Queen's campaign to be comparable to Halo, Titanfall 2 and the modern Doom games. What's being done differently?
Joe Blackburn: In our last couple of releases, the campaign had some great moments, but it often felt like right when it got started, it was over. So that's one of the things that, pacing wise, we knew we wanted to fix. Savathûn is a pretty long-awaited villain. We don't want this to feel like it got cut short. So there's something here about length, but really it's about making those missions start feeling more and more like what's special about Destiny. I think you've probably seen some of this in our seasonal activities, like Season of the Lost's Shattered Realm activity. It's fucking weird, right? It's a weird experience—so is Expunge—but it's something you can only find in Destiny.
We wanted to start bringing that into the campaign, because it's great for our new players—they get to see what's special about the game—but it's also why our returning players are here. They're the people that are grinding Legend Lost Sectors. Those are the people in raids and dungeons.
Blackburn doesn't want to make any promises on the actual length of the campaign, instead noting that the focus is on making its missions feel more definitively Destiny than ever. He makes the point that it's felt strange for Bungie to have learned so much from the seasonal model, but to then regress to the old style of campaign it's been making since 2014 each time an annual expansion rolls around. The Witch Queen will also add selectable Legendary difficulty, that sounds like it will present a more serious challenge than we're used to.
How hard are we talking for the Legendary campaign?
Joe Blackburn: You don't have to be able to solo a dungeon to be able to compete, but we really want the Legendary version to feel like it's engaging. And so if you're the kind of person that's doing Legend Lost Sectors, the harder tier Nightfalls, it should feel like that. If you're that regular player that's doing the higher difficulty stuff, it should feel like the mode was built for you. And it rewards you for doing it.
We're getting back to the thing where we have to be worried because, hey, new people are coming to Destiny—and if we kick them in the face, they're not going to have a good time. And so we thought: 'We need to split [the difficulty because] we can't service both the new people and the players that want a really hardcore, compelling shooter-action experience.
You're also adding weapon crafting for the first time in the series. That strikes me as very hard to balance, because you either end up with everyone having a god roll, or it's such a grind that it isn't much better than RNG was.
Joe Blackburn: Yeah, you've identified the pain here. Anytime we go to operate on one of the main progression points of Destiny—random [weapon] rolls being one of those—it's really easy to nick the spinal cord, and suddenly you're like: 'Oh, the whole game doesn't work.' And so this is something that when we knew we were gonna do it, we had to put a lot of resources and thinking into it.
Crafting is about finally delivering the fantasy that you can make the gun that you've always wanted. And we want you to feel like you went on a journey to get there. Because by the time you're able to make the exact god roll, you will have the ability to make all the versions of that gun that you want. So it's really about a long pursuit with a weapon. And we think if you're willing to spend that amount of time with the gun, we're okay with you being able to craft whatever version you want.
Blackburn noted that a side benefit of having a more deterministic loot system is that players will no longer need to store hundreds of versions of the same gun in their Vault. (Hallelujah.) The upshot should be that if the meta changes in terms of which weapon archetype or perks are good, players will be able to adjust relatively painlessly by crafting a new roll. Of course, with February still a way off, this is all subject to change, and it's also important to emphasize that you will still be limited by the gun's original list of perks it can roll with. But the specific example below certainly sounds like exactly what I want from weapon crafting.
Let's assume, hypothetically, that there's a 600 RPM Stasis auto rifle in The Witch Queen, and my white whale is for it to have the Overflow and Headstone perks. Is the way it works that gradually I'm going to be picking off the perks until I have them all available to craft?
Joe Blackburn: Yep, yep. And I mean, without getting too specific, we still want guns to have unique identities. But when you go in for the first time, and see the recipe [of possible perks] you're like: 'Okay, this is all the things that I could do on this gun.' This is the possibility space.
Savathûn's Throne World
How swampy is Savathûn's throne world going to be? Are we going to be knee deep in muck?
Joe Blackburn: This is something that makes a bunch of developers super world class: We can give references like True Detective, some Southern gothic influences, and we're never worried about coming out the other side with it being something that you've seen before. When things go through the Destiny art direction machine, they come out in a really incredible new way.
One thing that Blackburn admitted the whole team was worried about was whether Savathûn's throne world might end up feeling samey. They were excited by the bayou direction, but would it be too relentlessly green? He's confident that won't be the case.
Joe Blackburn: We have this dark crashed pyramid ship in one corner, and it's lush swamp water—you're really getting Kermit on a log vibe over there. And we have Savathûn's big castle which is a giant bowl and has this super ornate, white, light-blessed Cathedral [feel]. And we have another bubble that's sort of a blend between the two. What I'll say is, any time you're walking through the throne world, you know where you are. I think that's the sign that we've done it. I'm never confused. 'Hey, which bubble of Venus am I in? They all sort of look the same.' Nope. I know exactly where I am. The artists really knocked it out of the park.
Let's set expectations. Is the throne world going to be about as big as Europa? Will it be full of mysteries and puzzles like the Dreadnought was?
Joe Blackburn: I think it's gonna be one of our best destinations. We wanted something that feels different than all of our other destinations. But it's Savathûn's home, and she brings a lot of influence. When you start thinking about the Dreadnought, you start thinking about secrets. We have a lot of that too.
And Hive Guardians are now a thing. Can you give me a sense of the frequency with which we're going to be facing them, and how strong they are?
Joe Blackburn: "For those familiar with Destiny lingo, think of them like Wyverns—which are big, tough, meaty, mechs. Every time you see a Hive Guardian, we want it to change the way you play. They don't have the specific sort of lock-and-key mechanisms of Champions, [enemies which require a matching mod to stun—Ed] we want that same feeling."
Blackburn was clear that Hive Guardians are definitely not like the Barons from the Forsaken expansion. It won't be the case that there are eight of them and, once you've killed them, they're gone for good. But you also won't be seeing 70 of them in the same mission. Instead, they're elite enemies, which Blackburn told me will be used to create 'crescendos' in the action.
Filling the Void
Prior to the reveal stream, the expectation had been that The Witch Queen would introduce another Darkness-based subclass. Instead Bungie is opting to revamp the old Light subclasses to bring them up to spec with Stasis. I asked Blackburn what discussions had informed that decision, and whether it was influenced by how much time the sandbox designers have had to spend re-balancing Stasis after it launched knowingly overpowered.
Blackburn responded that consistency is actually the main concern. It's a major problem that players emerge from the New Light campaign, which is used for onboarding, only to discover that the Light and Dark subclasses have a totally different UX interface.
"The light subclasses don't have the aspect and fragment system, they don't have the customization," he said. "And so when we're thinking about build possibilities, new exotics, new mods to make, it's really limiting. So we knew we needed to do this. The team was super passionate. 'Please, please, please, the thing that we want to do next is take all the light-based subclasses and move them to the new system.' I think it's hard for that to come across in a showcase—how different some of these feel."
To give players a better sense of just how different those void subclasses will be, Bungie published a deep dive in its weekly blog. It's worth a full read, but the gist is that some of the nodes on our existing void subclasses will be transformed into Aspects and Fragments in the new system. These will also be joined by entirely new abilities and perks, some of which will be class-specific, while others will be cross-class. It sounds like a chocolate box of purple destruction, and I'm already drooling at the thought of combining Handheld Supernova with the vampiric Devour perk.
In an interview with twitchgaming that took place on the same day we spoke, Blackburn did confirm that another damage type—and therefore, another Darkness subclass—is being worked on, though it won't arrive until all of the Light subclasses have been remixed. I asked him about the challenge of landing another damage type cleanly. "We've got to do it right," he said. "We've got to give it the time that it needs. We make expansions at breakneck speed with the amount of seasonal stuff that we create. So it's really about making sure we're giving the new [Light] subclasses the time, and when we come out with another damage type it needs to be fucking kickass."
In terms of the new possibilities being enabled by the Void rework, Blackburn believes that they've "just scratched the surface." He also noted that although hundreds of people will examine a new build of Destiny 2 before it ships, when it does, it's in the hands of millions. He cited the recent switch to infinite primary ammo as a good example of how that process can catch the team off guard: "We had our own ideas, like: 'Hey, fighting Lion's gonna be weird, right?' But people in the community came back with: 'You thought about Devil's Ruin, right? Have you played with it?' Oh, we should probably play with that!"
In the other part of our Destiny 2 interview: Bringing back Gjallarhorn without breaking the sandbox, will we ever be able to unlock more Seasonal Artifact mods, and the need for extra Vault space. Read it here.