Last week, Bungie generated some inevitable controversy by finally spelling out their plans for Destiny weapon balancing. It included a few known quantities, Auto Rifles need buffs, PvP dominators like Thorn need nerfs, but the proposed patch goes out of its way to cripple other strong weapons like Ice Breaker, Black Hammer, and the game’s Ark of the Covenant, the Gjallarhorn.
The specifics of these individual decisions I’ve already discussed, but the long and short of it is that people are upset that weapons they liked won’t be as strong as they’ve been previously.
But how will they react if someday it happens to all their weapons?
In its first year, Destiny has always had systems in place that allow players to “ascend” their old weapons to new max damage levels. During the first level/damage-cap raise in the Dark Below DLC, it was a convoluted system that involved trading in old exotics for new ones, and spending eons re-leveling them to unlock their new top tier of power. It was one of the biggest missteps of the DLC, and the next time around for The House of Wolves, the system was streamlined. All exotics could be leveled using one or two easily-purchasable shards, and even all old legendaries could now reach new damage max levels using the more rare Etheric Light.
But now as we head into Destiny “year two,” where does it end? Can Bungie keep inventing new ways to continue to make sure old weapons stay relevant? Or will they finally have to draw the line at some point and say “alright guys, it’s a new era, find new weapons and learn to love them instead.”
It’s a more complicated problem than might be initially apparent.
If Weapons Have a Shelf Life
If Bungie lays the hammer down either at the debut of The Taken King (unlikely), or a year later when Destiny 2 inevitably comes out (more likely), that will upset many people. After all, even though Bungie has indicated your specific Guardian can probably transcend multiple games, your character is really a composite of your gear and weapons at any given time. Everything else is just cosmetic.
By introducing a hard cut point where no, you will not be able to keep increasing the damage capacity of old weapons, that will effectively nuke the entire collection of gear players have spent years building. No matter how good your Gjallarhorn or Fatebringer, if they can’t hit the new damage max, they will never be able to compete with new weapons.
In most games, this isn’t an issue. Obviously in other shooters like Call of Duty, Halo, Battlefield, Far Cry etc, the games are self-contained experiences in which you personally are not amassing gear in any meaningful capacity that would need to carry over from one installment to the next. But even with loot-based games where Destiny draws influence, Borderlands and Diablo, there’s no expectation of carryover from one sequel to the next. Or in Diablo’s case, when the level cap was raised in the Reaper of Souls expansion, everyone simply understood that no matter how big and brawny their collection of level 60 legendaries was, now they were going to have to get out there and find a new set at level 70.
But Destiny, as ever, is a unique experience, and one where players seem to be a great deal more attached to specific weapons than pretty much every other game I’ve played. To nerf my beloved Ice Breaker hurts, but to be told I can never use it again? Unconscionable! So the argument here is that if gear is ever left behind, it essentially erases all the hard work Destiny players have put into building their characters, because characters in this game are effectively a compilation of gear, and it forces them to divorce themselves from weapons they have grown to love.
If Weapons Are Immortal
After all that, the obvious solution seems to be to allow Destiny players to hold onto their weapons and let them hit new high watermarks for damage with each new piece of content, potentially even with sequels. No one loses anything, right?
Kind of. But allowing the game to have an eternally widening pool of top-tier weapons is something that can bog it down in the long run. We’ve already seen this in practice with the most recent House of Wolves expansion. Despite two new full endgame modes, one for PvP in Trials of Osiris and PvE’s Prison of Elders, players have been remarkably slow to pick up new “top-tier” weapons in favor of old favorites, with only a few exceptions.
Obviously, I realize there are specific problems with many of Wolves’ weapons including inarguably useless perks (Shank burn!), but the answer here isn’t just “make better weapons and we’ll use them!” In that world, if you allow all guns to be max damage, you constantly have to make better and better weapons to outdo them if you want people to use new things. This is power creep, and can quickly zap all the fun out of a game.
This has been a problem with the recent weapon nerfs. People look at the Gjallarhorn getting its damage cut and say, “just make other stuff as good as Gjallarhorn!” but all that would do is create a wider gap between good items and the mediocre.
Do you see where all this leads? If Destiny continues to allow the ascension of all weapons indefinitely, it’s going to be harder and harder to balance the game with a stupidly wide pool of usable weapons, and will create a situation where players are less inclined to pursue the endgame when they already have their collection of favorite weapons that only need a piece of currency or two to stay relevant whenever new content is released.
So what’s the answer here?
There are a few options I can see working going forward.
First, Bengie could stop allowing the ascension of legendary weapons indefinitely, while continuing to let exotics reach new max damage levels. That would create a much smaller pool max damage weapons to work with, and though a few favorites would be left behind, fans would get to keep their exotic collection functional. Legendary armor is a different story and too much of its own issue to even go into here, as the game desperately needs better endgame armor options.
Alternatively, Bungie could draw a hard line as to when players will simply have to forage in the wild for an entirely new set of gear. It would be painful, but certainly not unprecedented, and might help the overall health of the game. And after all, is it really realistic that you’d be able to keep using an exotic you found in 2014 by the time Destiny 3 rolls around in 2018? I don’t think so, and other than adding nostalgia value, I’m not sure if such a thing would provide an overall benefit to the game.
Or, everything could just be ascended forever and Bungie would have a hell of a challenge on their hands designing weapons that are so mindblowingly awesome that everyone is content shoving their existing arsenal in the vault.
Perhaps there are middlegrounds even between these different ideas (you get to ascend three weapons of your choice per reset? I don’t know), but this is going to be a problem Bungie will run up against probably with a year, and there are no easy answers that will satisfy both fans who love their current loadouts and a game that has to keep feeling fresh by creating new, must-have loot.