In May, Bungie flew Post Arcade out to L.A. for the announcement of Destiny 2 with a sweaty mix of fans and press in an overheated airplane hanger. Destiny 1 was a mix of impeccable gameplay design mixed with some frustrating issues. Despite that, it’s garnered a huge player base and an army of dedicated fans. The atmosphere at the event was palpable (and a bit smelly. It was a hot room).
I sat down with game director Luke Smith, who was quite courteous despite having been kept in a small poorly ventilated cubby hole of an interview hutch for hours on end.
Smith — who got his start as the news editor at the then Gawker-run video-games blog Kotaku and later as a breakout star on one of the first video-game podcasts — has been quietly working at Bungie for close to a decade. This is his first title as game director.
Post Arcade: You’ve had a lot of experience working at Bungie and working on Destiny at this point, leading the raid team on Destiny 1 and as the lead on that game’s Taken King expansion. What’s the philosophy you went into with Destiny 2? How much did you feel comfortable changing from Destiny 1?
Luke Smith: The formula for Destiny 2 — and the way I thought about the formula for building a Destiny game — is like chili. And chili is this thing that you put in the crock pot, you look at, but you can’t really tell until you taste it. And so, the ingredients for a game like The Taken King and the ingredients for a game like Destiny 2 have a bunch of commonalities, things like, awesome sandbox, things like a great co-op gameplay.
(The big issue with the rocky launch of Destiny 1 and something we tried to fix in Taken King) was un-hiding the fun in the game, which is something that is very important to me, because I do think that in many ways, Destiny is like in its own genre, it’s like a place that you can come back to and have a bunch of cool stuff to do.
With Destiny 2, we wanted to make sure that players had even more to come back to and experience. That meant sort of opening the doors on these previously hidden experiences like the Nightfall, the raid and Trials and guided games, leveraging clans is our way of doing that.
PA: I know in your history as a gamer, you have certainly prided yourself on having sort of unique titles that may be only a few people can get, like Scarab Lord (an infamous achievement in World of Warcraft that only a handful of players could get). There were some parts of Destiny that felt quite exclusive like that. Do you think that having that sort of thing in Destiny is antithetical to the welcoming new or more casual players?
LS: I don’t know, I think that one of the things that’s really important about a game like Destiny and certainly Destiny 2, is the ability for players to express themselves, and the Scarab Lord thing from Warcraft is an example of that, an expression and while we’re not, we don’t have something like, “World First, get a unique title,” (I think there are) future opportunities for us to look at type of worlds of players and think about, like, you’re the best in your city, or you’re the best in your tower, or whatever.
We have opportunities there to create social works for the best in your clan, or you’re like number two in your clan for the week. To create that like localized competition and ultimately when you think of something like a leader board — and we’re not doing anything with leader boards, so I’m just giving you an example here — the thing is to make a leader board, it’s not actually like I’m 67,000th in the world, who’s up there in number one? You don’t care, you’re like, who’s close to me, who’s around me and so it’s about tide-pools of social groups and figuring out how to create the right set of acolytes that.
PA: In Destiny 1 there were sort of three pillars of power for the player, they could be good at thumb skill (being good at shooting), good at tactical skill and player co-ordination (knowing where to shoot) and just getting powered up by gaining experience points and finding powerful items in the game (time played rewarded). So there were these different vectors for players to get better at the game. How are you designing Destiny 2 to let players get better?
LS: I think what we’ve done with Destiny 2 is, we’ve tried to take the knowledge and understanding and bring that more to the forefront in something like PvP to give you a mastery loop and that you communicate on how you can do it better the next time (so you can improve your play).
Like a really specific example, like when you get power ammo in PvP, when you load your weapon, we actually broadcast to your team and to everyone in the game, so-and-so loaded a shotgun at a location. So you’re like, oh my gosh, there’s a guy in Green Yards that has a shotgun. Well it’s my teammate. Similarly, that information we’re also using to present who has their Super ready and what class are they and we’re doing things like changing the audio mix, so when someone activates a Golden Gun on your team, it sounds different from if someone activates a Golden Gun on the enemy team.
This is all about building a game that can be understood and improved at and create mastery. I think that’s an area from Destiny 1 where that’s what we wanted to do, I don’t think we got there.
PA: You sort of want to make the deep game more accessible to sort of jump into, even you’re still going to drown in the beginning.
LS: That’s a way better way of saying it than I did. Yes.
PA: So a little bit more than a decade ago, you wrote an essay about Halo 2-
LS: Halo 2 is Broke.
PA: … yeah, Halo 2 is Broke.
(This essay, posted on the now defunct 1up.com website when Smith was the news editor there, went into the minutia of a multiplayer match for the then top console-multiplayer game Halo 2, made by Bungie. In the essay, Smith listed off dozens of minor details that added up to making play for Halo 2 quite random, and making high-skilled play difficult and frustrating. The essay is credited by some as getting Smith on Bungie’s radar before he got hired there.)
PA: And in that, you sort of railed against a lot of randomness in that game. Do you think there’s ever a sort of a role, or a place for randomness in a shooter like Halo, like Destiny?
LS: Yeah, I mean we certainly have some amount of randomness and I think some it is that it can create drama. I think it can certainly, with rewards, randomness is very exciting to people. But there’s an expectation and a Covenant that players want, which is like on-bullet pixel accurate.
PA: You said on Twitter that you played 300 hours of Monster Hunter? Has anything from Monster Hunter sort of transferred into how you see in Destiny? Or is that just a sort of completely different food that you like?
LS: It’s a different food that I like. It’s a very different food that I like, but a thing that I loved in the game, like Monster Hunter was about getting everyone together to go out and battle, and go fight monsters together, like I had a great time doing that and that’s just like an amazing commonality between a game like MH and a game like Destiny, which is they both have opportunities to bring players together and do something amazing that’s way harder by yourself but, bring two friends it’s more fun, sort of like a Nightfall Strike, a Nightfall Strike by yourself pretty hard, bring two friends, guide in an extra person so you can get to three and guide the games and it’s a blast.
PA: In the first year of Destiny, I had my sort of weekly habits with my clan also based around the Nightfall Strike, based around doing things you could only do once a week or had to do once a week-
PA: … and that sort of went away a little bit as the updates game and became less punishing, less necessary to do those. Do you ever worry that by making the game a little bit more friendly, you are actually sort of striking down some of the habits that made people really good players.
LS: We think that the weekly kids that you’re describing, we think is really important because it’s a reason to log in, it’s ritual and bonding and friendship, like, oh it’s our Tuesday night, like the equivalent, to me, of Tuesday night poker or something where you have a poker game, a regular poker game, so we’re going to have weekly experiences for players to have and reasons to keep coming back for sure. I’m not worried about tearing that down (by easing some of the restrictions).
Compared to the normal human being, if you’re making a shooter, you’re probably pretty good at playing a shooter and we have to fight our instincts
PA: So, just on a further thing, a lot of the stuff that people said they hated about Destiny 1 when it launched and then two or three months later, like that was kind of the stuff that was keeping them playing, do you ever feel sort of like, ah they just missed it, they didn’t admit it to themselves when they started to play?
LS: I don’t know, they’re having like a sort of human emotional response and those responses are never wrong, but I think the role of the designer is to understand those responses and then try to earnestly try to discover why, ’cause the why is not usually what someone says he does. The why is usually something else and that’s sort of the job of the designer is to understand the why and so, I will always welcome hearing things people have an emotional response to. I’ve sat through people telling me things like the Gorgon’s Maze (a section of the first game’s raid area where a group had to avoid enemies they couldn’t kill) were stupid and never going to work and they hated it because they couldn’t use any of their abilities and they’re having a reaction. I welcome all of that, like it’s about understanding why you’re having that reaction. This moment’s taking my fun away, I hear ya, I understand that. So the job of the designer, is to understand why.
PA: From a sort of broader perspective, are there any games that have come out since Destiny that have influenced the way you’ve looked at Destiny 2?
LS: Candidly, no. I feel like the things that are influential to me as a creator, are the responses from our fans and my coworkers and dude, I have like something like 2,000 hours of (the retail, released version of) Destiny and if we added up, the amount of time I’ve spent playing the game, the time I’ve spent building the game, the time I’ve spent play-testing the game in development, the time I’ve spent sleeping, there’s just not a lot left. I’m glad my dog Maple is getting walked, I’m glad she and I are hanging out, like it’s a hobby and a passion of mine, so I rely a lot on me and my team’s gut, wit, drive and passion that we’re building a hobby that we want to love and enjoy and of course, I like fans and the various communities that are always providing an awesome emotional response and our job is to understand why.
PA: Destiny is sort of a place where you can feel comfortable kind of hanging out in, it’s like the Tower for how little there actually was there, it’s surprisingly sort of a homey kind of place, what are the ways sort of developing that in Destiny 2?
PA: Not necessarily in the Tower, because you blew that up-
LS: … we’re not specifically about these locations, but those places, like those sort of non-combat places where you can converge and just sort just be around other people and, sort of inspect them and see what they’ve got, wonder where they got it, see some cool sort of combination of gear and colours that someone’s chosen, we’re doing that. It’s important.
The other stuff that we’re doing in terms of making Destiny a great place to hang out it’s that it’s the stuff we’re talking about today, it’s about building destinations and worlds with more content than we’ve ever had before, more stuff to do, we want to create worlds that feel like a place, so it’s also about making the action game a place where you feel you can hang out. There’s a variety of intensities from your patrols, adventures and missions, which depends, like some of the adventures are hard man, they’re like really tough, which is awesome, so the lost sectors, which again they have a grade of challenge in them too, some are easier than others, to going into your strikes, raids trials, Nightfall, it’s a place that we hope that not matter what mood you’re in there’s some experience for you to enjoy there.
PA: Most games I play, I play on normal or lower difficulty and Destiny when I played it was one of the first games that I’ve played that really made me want to do those harder activities. Is there anything that you employ in the game design to sort of help people transition from being sort of, you know, not causal necessarily, but easy gamers, to being more hardcore, or more challenge oriented?
LS: No one has ever asked that question, that’s an awesome question. So, here’s how it works, we actually, when we’re building the game we are thinking about the campaign experience, some of that world experience found in Destiny 2 connective tissue as not training, or practice, but a primarily we want to teach you like the game systems, we want you to learn the fast way to battle the enemies.
(When you encounter other players) like when you encounter public events in the world as a low-level player, they’re going to feel hard, because they’re going to be deploying stuff you don’t totally, or maybe you haven’t seen before and so it’s about building this difficulty grading, so as you move up and finally get to something like The Raid, you’re like this is really hard, it’s requiring a lot of us, you’ve slowly been building the action game up in front of you.
One thing is that it’s really divisive at Bungie, because a bunch of us are like, “I play shooters all the time,” but compared to the normal human being, if you’re making a shooter, you’re probably pretty good at playing a shooter and we have to like fight our instincts, oh, let’s make the game harder for us, ’cause we’re already experts and what we want to do with Destiny 2 is log in a bunch of new players in and build a world of experts. We’ll have these layers of activities to go through together.
PA: Okay, last question. So, this is kind of granular, but in the past game, you had sort of prizes for finishing the player versus environment Raid, weapons that made you feel really powerful and to a certain extent that felt a little bit limited because you didn’t want to make them too broken for competitive player versus player. Is that something that you’re sticking with in this game, or are the PvE and PvP sort of weapon stats going to be separate?
LS: We still believe Destiny 2 or Destiny 1 is a game where you build an awesome character, take him or her through a bunch of different activities and you get to use your same stuff. We have, although we’re not showing it today, we have made changes to the way that we’re thinking about towns, we’ve made changes to the way we’re looking at weapons and spent a source of much discussion with the Sandbox Team on how do we make sure that the things you love in PvE and the things you love in PvP both still matter and that’s still a challenge we’re taking on with Destiny 2. (But keeping the same player, with the same tools through all activities) is still an important part of what we think makes Destiny unique.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and flow.