Destiny 2 design director on the future of Xur, new player woes, and Sparrow arcade racing

(Image credit: Bungie)
Victoria Dollbaum

(Image credit: Bungie)

Victoria Dollbaum is Design Director at Bungie. She's been with the studio since 2015, when she started as a Character Investment Designer before being promoted to Senior Designer, and then, in 2018, into her current role.

Last week at PAX Australia I had the chance to speak to Destiny 2 design director Victoria Dollbaum. She was in Melbourne to celebrate the free-to-play launch of Destiny 2: New Light, as well as its accompanying premium expansion Shadowkeep. It was a good time to catch up on some of the changes, big and small, that the shift in model has ushered in.

Below we discuss the difficulties new players might have accessing old content, the future of Xur, the looter shooter scene in general, and Dollbaum's dreams to have a Destiny arcade game.

Shadowkeep has brought in major changes to the way armor works, and the return of a revamped location, but there's been frustration that the world loot pool—ie stuff that drops when you're just exploring—is largely the same as vanilla Destiny 2. At what point under the season pass model can we expect that pool, and the tower vendors, to get a refresh?

Rewards are always prioritised based on what we are building, so if we spend a significant time building the world pool it means new reward sources that we’re building potentially have either fewer end reward sources, or weaker reward sources. It’s a game, you have only so many resources and you have to spread them out where you will, and we tend to focus on the new things rather than the old things, because even though you’re experiencing world drops once in a while it would not be fun to go play something new and not get something new.

The level of customization with the seasonal artifact has been fun for build crafting. Will the Season of Dawn bring in more solar focus mods?

So, each season will have its own set of mods that come with that. I think there's a static set of mods, and then there's some that are seasonally focused. So the team will select what the theme of the release is, and then build mods according to that theme. They could dramatically shift from season to season to get you to play in a different way. So there could be solar.

(Image credit: Bungie)

Bungie has acknowledged that New Light can be intimidating for new players, and I know from experience. Are there any plans afoot to make that transition easier, or is it going to stay the way it is?

We are focusing on Destiny being an evolving world, and New Light is in that same vein. We have a team that is dedicated to looking at New Light and continuing to evolve it, and improving places where players are getting stuck or the systems are not optimal. We’ll start to see that as the game evolves.

We’re trying to shift the focus away from campaigns that are in the past and are now history. We’re trying to focus on the time period we’re in, and the future where these stories will lead us. So for players coming in, we want them to come in at the present and not the past. Being able to just jump in and play with your friends, and then to do all those other things as more optional content comes is actually better, because when you jump in and you’re starting in the Red War, and you say "hey I want to come play with you, how does this work?", they say "you can’t until you spend another ten hours playing missions"—it can be disheartening. So what we’ve tried to do is break down those barriers. It’s mostly you experiencing history, but we want you to live in the present.

Are there plans to expand the pool of universal ornaments beyond the old Eververse gear? And if so, what would be a reasonable time to expect that to happen?

I don't know that I can say anything about that, other than we are carefully monitoring the success of the universal ornaments that are available now. And there can always be technical hurdles to showing everything at once. So, you know, the team understands that there is a need, which is why they started with that small subset of ornaments to start with, and then the system can definitely be expanded.

(Image credit: Bungie)

Now that Xur only sells the same rolls on exotics as are found in the collection he seems irrelevant, despite being one of the game's cult characters. Are there any thoughts about how Xur could become valuable again, or is he only intended for new players?

I think with Xur, the current moment is intended as kind of catch up for players who are returning or new, not so much for the bleeding edge players who have everything and are looking for special rolls and things like that. It could be that Xur at some point is re-purposed, but that just depends on: is there a need? Are those people who are on the bleeding edge and have all the things... is there a need for them to have more of that? Or is it that Xur’s role is the thing to catch players up who don’t have exotics?

With character appearance, will it ever be possible to respec your gender, race, appearance? Is that something that Bungie has considered?

It is something that everybody wants, right? Like, I've been locked into the same appearance for years now. 

We all make mistakes.

Yeah, it's not really mistakes, but sometimes you just want something fresh, right? Like you change your hair colour in real life whenever you want to. So we understand that it's something players are asking for. It's something that they want, but it's also a very large system. So we have to look at where it falls into the roadmap of things that we are trying to do for the game.

(Image credit: Bungie)

In year three How is Bungie intending to absorb the loss of the work from Vicarious Visions and High Moon Studios, given that those studios contributed large chunks of content in year two?

I think we are planning further out for the things that we want to happen, and then making sure that each team is staffed appropriately to do those things. But we also tend to know that our eyes are bigger than our stomachs, and we have a very high bar for what we do. And so we know that it is better to do fewer things at a very high bar, than it is to do a tonne of things and have them not well received by the community. So while you may see us do a little less, that means we're trying to do the high quality version of what we're doing.

The design space of the current weapon sandbox seems to have been explored fairly thoroughly. Beyond creating new perks, which can't be done infinitely, it's hard to imagine how the sandbox team keeps making, say, a new 150 rpm hand cannon that people will lust over. What's going to be the key to keeping weapon loot exciting long-term?

So I can’t actually speak to the sandbox part of it, but—this may not even answer the question—but my team really deals with the story and the journey for how you arrive at getting your item, and then the journey that you can take afterwards. So we can possibly see more interesting acquisition stories, longer journeys—so things like Whisper—and interesting ways to get things where, maybe the whole point is not specifically the actual item you're getting, but the stories that you can tell and share with other people. Or items that you get and then go on a journey with, like “Hey I have this weapon and it’s actually counting how many hunters I've killed, so right now I'm the leaderboard person who has the most hunter kills in the world”, things like that.

You can think of things outside of just what its effectiveness is in the sandbox, like how you represent this item in the community and things like that. So the sandbox side I can’t actually answer, but we are always looking at interesting ways for you to acquire things, specifically in the seasonal content. We like to focus on player agency and making the ways that you get these things cool.

(Image credit: Bungie)

When Destiny first released it was mostly alone in the living world, loot shooter space. But there are other games out there nowadays vying for attention, like the Division 2, Anthem, and Warframe has been there for a long time. Is there anything about those other games that you admire from a professional point of view? Do you monitor those games? 

Sometimes the customization options that they have, like how in The Division you kind of capture points. We don't have anything like that in destinations, but if you had to go and claim points, and maybe you had to last for some amount of time, that would be pretty cool. I do like The Division. But I think Destiny is very unique, I think the fantasy of it is very unique, and just the gunplay... there’s nothing else out there that feels exactly like Destiny. And it's also very satisfying to me that I'm a Space Wizard. 

When you're working on a game that is living and, in theory, permanently evolving, is there ever a point where you just want to do something entirely different? Or does Destiny keep you utterly engrossed all the time?

I think every person who works in the industry kinda has ideas and pet projects that they're working on in their head. And I kind of do that sometimes, but I think Destiny is really interesting because our idea of what Destiny is—if you look at the history of Bungie’s relationship with Destiny—the definition of what Destiny is has constantly evolved. It's always changing and shifting, and so there's a lot of design challenges in a game that is carving its own identity that is not exactly like everything else. So there's a lot of interesting challenges that the teams face, which I find really interesting. I do enjoy working on Destiny, I won't say we all don't have internal projects going on in our heads, or ideas for things we want to do. But yeah, Destiny is very engrossing. I love the challenging spaces within it.

Do you imagine Destiny becoming more modular? It's primarily a first person shooter, and there's been elements of racing before. But can you imagine the universe expanding to take in other sub genres, or other components that vary from the FPS mold?

It could. I would really love to do Destiny arcade games but I don't know what that looks like yet. I'm thinking like, you could ride big sparrows, you know, motorcycle rides and race against your friends.

Shaun Prescott

Shaun Prescott is the Australian editor of PC Gamer. With over ten years experience covering the games industry, his work has appeared on GamesRadar+, TechRadar, The Guardian, PLAY Magazine, the Sydney Morning Herald, and more. Specific interests include indie games, obscure Metroidvanias, speedrunning, experimental games and FPSs. He thinks Lulu by Metallica and Lou Reed is an all-time classic that will receive its due critical reappraisal one day.