It's been two weeks since the mood music in Destiny 2 got so bad that game director Joe Blackburn took to his personal Twitter to deliver a video message addressing various community complaints and concerns. For a studio that tends to deal in lengthy blog posts, such a personal approach only underlined the perceived urgency of the situation. Ironically, the latest meltdown had been triggered by one such 'State of the Game' post, which, rather than allaying concerns, had air-dropped petrol onto them.
It should be noted that Destiny 2's audience is febrile at the best of times, as is perhaps inevitable with an almost 10-year-old live service game, but things have escalated this year. In a recent video, the veteran Destiny 2 content creator Datto described the reaction to the post as: "An absolute frenzy" and "the worst I have ever seen the community, surpassing even Curse of Osiris in season two".
The Destiny 2 community's laundry list of issues includes burnout with the seasonal model, aggressive monetisation, the lack of attention paid to PvP and the complete abandonment of the Gambit mode. Hell, you know it's time to worry when the lore guys are lighting pitchforks. None of this was helped by the fact that this year's big expansion, Lightfall, was substantially weaker than its predecessor, The Witch Queen, particularly in terms of its confusing narrative. Although Blackburn's video didn't address every complaint—microtransactions were conspicuously absent—it did serve as effective damage control, resetting the community's anger meter ahead of last week's showcase for The Final Shape expansion.
Joe Blackburn cut his teeth on the raid team at Bungie, where his work included the acclaimed Last Wish from 2018's Forsaken. He then served as creative lead on Season of Opulence, before leaving for a one-year stint as a principal designer at Riot. In 2020 Blackburn returned to Destiny 2 in the role of game director. Most seasons Blackburn earns the Conqueror title via LFG, and after The Final Shape launches he plans to start streaming the game.
During the showcase, Bungie outlined its plans for the last instalment in the current saga, including a new enemy type, the surreal 'Pale Heart of The Traveller' destination, and extra super abilities for three of the Light subclasses. It also talked about what lies beyond, with a major switch coming to the seasonal model in the wake of next year's expansion. Watching the showcase, it felt relatively conservative in terms of reveals. Speaking to Blackburn later that week, I ask him whether Bungie is now entirely focused on sticking the landing to its decade-long story, particularly given Lightfall's rocky reception.
"That is a kind way to phrase it," he says. "We're really trying to focus on what we do well… We've seen a bunch of other games, mostly in the single-player space, try to cap off a big chapter and how challenging it is." That challenge is also the reason why, as Blackburn explained in his video, The Final Shape isn't going to introduce major systemic changes like this year's Guardian Ranks feature. Instead, Bungie wants to double down on the core fantasies of Destiny. For Blackburn, that means weapons. "When our weapons are good, Destiny is good".
Over the last couple of seasons, I've felt less compelled to craft god rolls of the new guns, largely because my arsenal is already so stacked. Despite the tireless work of the sandbox team when it comes to creating new perks, it feels like we're running out of design space for new stuff. "Yeah, you've obviously identified one of the reasons why, to do this right, it requires a shift of focus—not just on the weapons team, but in the leadership teams," says Blackburn. "I talk about this with exotic weapons and armor, or anything we put in the game, whether it's a new super or aspect. The law of diminishing returns means each one has to [work] harder to make an impact on your guardian's loadout. We know that we have to do disruptive things to make that happen."
He gives the example of the Forbearance grenade launcher from the Vow of the Disciple raid, which is best in slot at clearing entire waves of enemies. Blackburn says the feeling of many players towards Forbearance is: "Holy shit, I'm never unequipping this thing." So he says what the studio has to do now is make something that changes how players feel about that.
One of the ways Blackburn thinks the sandbox can stay fresh is by having 'eras'. "We'll rotate things in and out," he says, referring to perks and artifact mods rather than the dreaded sunsetting. "There was like a year of Destiny where no one reloaded because of Barricades and Rifts. That was a time of Destiny! I think we're going to continue to make different eras. We've moved the needle enough that we know ways to break into that and keep it constrained so it doesn't also, you know, undermine the whole game."
The risk of trying to one-up yourself is of course power creep, but Blackburn sees potential in creating new weapon sub-archetypes, such as the sidearm that shoots small rockets that's coming with The Final Shape. He also thinks that, despite the fact "most players are DPS goblins" who "just want to make damage numbers go higher" that there's scope for weapons that offer different kinds of utility.
"We have to think about it in the ways that utility matters to players," says Blackburn. He points to the return of the iconic exotic weapon Gjallarhorn, which now buffs teammates' rockets, as a good example.
Legendary weapons don't need to provide quite that level of utility to be desirable. For instance, there's a new perk this season called Heal Clip that restores health to allies and yourself when reloading after a kill. "That is a way to get into support that allows players to still shoot things, but be able to provide meaningful ways to modify other players' output. So I think you'll see us exploring more of those angles."
You can also see the same philosophy at work in the new Banner of War aspect which was added to the Strand Titan kit this season. It provides pulses of healing and a melee damage buff to allies within a nearby radius, and has already proved incredibly popular among my punch-happy pals. Again, the secret sauce seems to be damage + utility = good times.
Why Light subclasses got new supers instead of Strand or Stasis
Speaking of utility, two of the three new light supers revealed in the showcase lean into teamplay. Void Titans will be able to throw axes that explode and can then be picked up by teammates, while Solar Warlocks can buff all their core abilities and the weapon damage of their allies.
What slot does the new Golden Gun-themed sniper rifle go in?
We're getting a dungeon key next year but will we get a reprised raid?
We're getting two dungeons next year, we have not talked about reprised raids.
If Witch Queen was a psychic detective story and LIghtfall was an '80s action homage what is the touchstone for the Final Shape?
Some mixture between Lord of the Rings and Apocalypse Now.
Is it conceivable or desirable that you would do another saga this long?
We want to plan out what we do after the Light and Darkness saga better than we did the last 10 years.
What's stopping you from dropping the 2 from the name at this point?
Expectations and what a rebranding means.
Will we ever get an all-black shader?
Um, certainly, but I think the scary part is once you give someone Super Black, is there any other shader they want in the videogame?
What can I personally say or do to get an ornament made for Verity's Brow?
Get more people to use Verity's Brow.
What's something you wish players knew or understood better about how Destiny is made?
It's made by a bunch of people that really love Destiny. That's the easy one, but otherwise teaching people how tools work.
The burning elephant in the room is whether or not that will be compelling enough for Warlocks to switch off Well of Radiance, which has been ubiquitous since it was added to Destiny 2 due to its mix of damage boosting and survivability. I ask Blackburn if he's confident the new solar super can clear that bar. "I'm confident right now that the new solar super is very good," he says. "I'm not confident that without Well of Radiance changes it doesn't just become that you need two Warlocks and one of them is going to run Well and the other is going to run this super."
When I interviewed Bungie's Kevin Yanes back in February, he described Well of Radiance as being "probably in the realm of too useful", which I interpreted as hinting a nerf was inbound. Bungie swiftly denied that was the case, so I don't want to put words into anyone's mouth this time.
Here's exactly what Blackburn has to say about it: "We've had to do this before with things like Divinity and auto-reloading. At some point you're like: 'Hey, this super provides utility that a lot of people like, but we are handcuffing a bunch of our players too. So what's the version of this where we can say: 'Okay, the time for everyone feeling like they have to run this is over'. We know that we have to make some changes before The Final Shape raid." That's surely the nerf confirmed.
As for why the Light subclasses got new Supers when the Darkness subclasses (Stasis and Strand) still only have one each, Blackburn says the rationale is largely thematic. "You are literally inside The Traveler, and The Traveler needs your help. How is the Traveler going to help you?"
The answer is by giving you sweet new abilities. Bungie also wants us to feel like guardians of the Light once again. Although the studio hopes The Final Shape will appeal as widely as possible, there's clearly a rich seam of nostalgia to draw on for veterans who first woke up in the Cosmodrome back in 2014.
There's also a very good reason why we aren't getting an entirely new Darkness subclass, as had recently been rumoured: "We learned some things from Beyond Light, and how Strand is integrated, about how distracting that can be from the message that we're trying to tell."
Putting a conspiracy theory to rest
With that mention of Strand, the introduction of which felt shoe-horned uncomfortably into Lightfall's narrative (our character literally finds it in a street), I can't resist putting one of my favourite Destiny 2 conspiracy theories to Blackburn. There's been an idea in the community for a while that Strand was actually supposed to launch as part of The Witch Queen. It makes sense because that expansion is full of references to threads, seeing into the beyond, and, uh, also features the colour green predominantly.
Here's Blackburn with a big bucket of cold water: "You're going to get a big scoop here," he says. "Strand was never designed for Witch Queen. For one thing, it just takes us longer than a year cycle to make a whole new damage type… Even the green correlation is really funny to us because Strand didn't start out from someone writing 'Green Power' on the white board." Instead, he says that in the same way that Stasis thematically fit the blasted tundra of Beyond Light, so Strand suited the neon synthwave-iness of Lightfall. "Strand was all Lightfall, all the time," reiterates Blackburn, "and I'm sure that some people will never believe me unless they can go and see the flag fluttering on the moon."
Ensuring the confrontation with The Witness pays off
Last season's big lore bomb was that The Witness—the smoky-headed, saucer-eyed, space goth who serves as Destiny 2's big bad—is in fact an entire dead civilization smushed into one supremely powerful being. The Witness intends to enact The Final Shape, which as far as I can make out involves reducing the universe to its simple state by destroying everything weaker than itself.
It makes for a pleasingly esoteric antagonist, and I'm looking forward to tracking it inside The Traveller, where we'll explore a realm called the 'Pale Heart' that reflects our experiences back at us, providing another chance for a dollop of nostalgia.
As cool as all that sounds though, I can't help but feel a slight sense of disappointment that The Witness' vast fleet of pyramid ships is largely empty, barring a smattering of new elite units. (The Final Shape will add Strand and Stasis-wielding 'Subjugators' to the 'Tormentors' that debuted in Lightfall.) Throughout my time with Destiny, I'd always assumed the Second Collapse would bring an entirely new race of enemies rather than one admittedly very powerful and weird dude.
Blackburn understands the concern, but points out that Destiny's previous major threats, like Ghaul and Oryx, have all followed the same formula of arriving in the Solar System with an army. He describes the formula as: "I'm going to bring a bunch of spaceships. They are full of aliens. I am the most powerful of the aliens."
"What makes The Witness scarier?" says Blackburn. "It's important for us that the Witness has to feel different. The way that we keep phrasing it to the raid team and the combatants team is: 'If the Witness 1v1s any character in the Destiny universe, The Witness wins.' The Witness vs Riven? The Witness wins! The Witness vs Atheon? Easy! We have to also establish raw boxing power and what [The Witness] does differently."
As for the lack of new rank-and-file enemies, Blackburn argues that creating a bunch of new Dreg-level units wouldn't be interesting. He compares the core combat in Destiny 2 to a skateboarding game in which the tricks you're stringing together instead involve shooting aliens in the head. In that scenario, switching out the basic enemies doesn't make much difference to the overall experience. Instead, he points to the addition of Wyverns in Beyond Light as a better use of design effort. "We want to focus on the big bads that are going to move the needle… it's going to be Hive Guardians, it's going to be Tormentors, it's going to be Subjugators. Things that we put on the battlefield that make it feel more interesting and dynamic."
Bungie has already confirmed that the confrontation with The Witness will take place in The Final Shape's raid, but also promised that non-raiders will experience the climax of the story in full, including the defeat of The Witness. (Assuming we win, of course.) Blackburn says that the denouement won't just be a cut-scene. He explains that whereas The Witch Queen and Lightfall campaigns each had eight missions, The Final Shape will ship with seven "on day one". The implication being that the eighth mission unlocks for everyone once the raid has been beaten. He also indicates that the format of that mission will be different to the boss encounters against Savathun and Calus from previous campaigns. "When we did The Witness it just didn't pass the sniff test, so we knew we needed a different strategy."
Burnout and the switch from seasons to episodes
The eternal question with the Destiny series is: 'Okay, but what happens next?' In the year following The Final Shape, Bungie is switching its content model from four seasons to three episodes. Each episode is structured as three acts and intended to tell a standalone story, rather than the endless soap opera we've had for the last couple of years. But I still wonder how the new model will help with player burnout, given that it still looks very much a template. "What we want to be doing with episodes is creating more touch points to inject change into the game," says Blackburn. The benefit, as he sees it, is the opportunity for each episode to create longer beats around a single creative idea, ultimately resulting in stories with more depth. "I think what we're really looking at is being more reactive, more agile to change."
He's understandably coy when it comes to talking about whether episodic content will stay in the game for longer than the seasonal stuff did. "I don't think we're talking about that yet," says Blackburn when I ask him whether episodes will be moved to the Destiny Content Vault at the end of the year. "The answer that's not great here is that the pressure of how much stuff can fit on the disk is still immense for Destiny. For the last few years, we've been really focused on how to keep all the stuff that's critical to the Light and Darkness saga in the game.
"We want to make sure that in the next year of Destiny, the most critical content, both from player enjoyment of logging in every day, and from knowing what's happening in the narrative and seeing the best content, remains in the game. That's the lens that we're looking through. We have not been able to defeat gravity in terms of making Destiny twice as big as it is, but we want to make sure we're keeping the stuff that's important."
What happened with PvP and the plan going forward
Despite the fact I'm a PvE main, it would be remiss not to ask Blackburn what's gone on with PvP, a mode which appears to have been staffed much like the Marie Celeste was crewed for many years. In his Twitter video, Blackburn outlined how a PvP 'Strike Team' of developers was being brought in to perform triage on the mode. But that begged the question: When and why was a decision made not to have a dedicated PvP team? Because there was a time in Destiny 2's life when it had fairly high-profile developers just working on PvP. However, I specifically recall a reference in a This Week at Bungie blog post from last November that the Trials of Osiris revamp had been handled by the team responsible for the weekly ritual modes (ie Vanguard, Crucible and Gambit), clearly confirming PvP no longer had its own specialist team.
Blackburn explains that when he came back to Bungie in early June of 2020 he found substantial uncertainty over the future of PvP. He describes the mood at Bungie as: "I'm not so sure about this thing in the long run. We haven't seen it move the needle. Have we ever been able to satisfy the PvP audience? How do we deliver players what they want?" Part of the problem has always been that there just aren't many examples of games that provide a hybrid of PvE and PvP. However, for Blackburn, being able to find an awesome gun and then take it into the Crucible remains part of the magic of Destiny.
One of the first things he said as game director was: "Hey, we have to support this thing. We have to figure out how it makes sense." He swiftly adds that the strategy, which mostly amounted to better balancing and the occasional new mode, has not been enough. Now, with the new PvP strike team gearing up, Blackburn says the plan is to no longer "sit on the fence when it comes to PvP."
I don't blame PvP mains, who must feel like the FPS equivalent of Stockholm Syndrome sufferers, for still being sceptical. After all, Destiny 2 once went 950 days without a new map. (In his Twitter video Blackburn announced that a free map pack will be released in 2024, at which point I'm pretty sure I heard a choral swell in the background.) What's really interesting is the promise that Bungie is finally going to prioritise the needs of people who actually play PvP, rather than trying to drag the entire playerbase into the Crucible.
When Season 23 launches on November 28, Destiny 2 should finally get its delayed in-game LFG finder. Blackburn describes the challenge as creating a system that "works well for new players, and players that have not done content before, but also serves the need of advanced players. What we know is that the system will not work if we do not get Guardian Rank 11 players using it. So that means it has to work for someone that's like, 'Hey, I'm going to teach a player how to do the raid', and also for players that need to be able to say I only have 45 minutes to do this. Looking around at other systems, that bar is hard to clear, but we want to make sure we do."
"We don't want to say: 'Hey, we're going to try to make every single person happy'. There are really divisive camps, so the way we want to really change our strategy is to be clear about saying: 'This is the PvP audience for Destiny, this is what they want'. We're going to centre PvP around our players that enjoy playing Crucible for 20 hours a week. And we're going to make it more optional for players that don't."
I put it to Blackburn that PvP has been in a vicious cycle because the lack of content meant the only thing to do was complain about balance, or lack thereof, which led to the mode feeling toxic. His answer is candid: "Throughout Destiny 2—for maybe its first six years, including Destiny 1—there was a sense of: 'Hey, we're putting a bunch of effort into [PvP], but it's not what the community wants. Or we're not making them happy'. Even when we put out maps, people would say: 'I don't like these maps, and I wish they were different.'"
Blackburn makes a contrast here with when Bungie added The Menagerie, which was a seasonal PvE mode that was universally loved, suggesting that when developers get that sort of reaction, the natural tendency is to try and make more of the thing that people have responded positively to. "Straight up, I just think that we have to be more balanced than that," says Blackburn.
"There's a different strategy that can work here, [and it's] us going in and saying: 'Okay, we're going to be more clear, we're going to have a more targeted audience'. And that's not going to be for everyone. But I think that if we are clearer with who we are trying to make PvP for, we can make the right decisions for that group and we can build a thing that people enjoy. It's definitely a new take, and if this one doesn't work, we'll try something else. We're not afraid of being wrong here. We're not going to let a fear of being wrong stop us from doing something and trying to really nurture this part of the game."
The Final Shape launches on February 27, 2024. Destiny 2's Season of the Witch is live now. Some answers have been edited for length and clarity.