Destiny is a very weird game. I love it and still play it regularly, but I’m also incredibly frustrated by it on a regular basis. I don’t believe I’ve ever played another game that had this problem: its massive, dedicated player base simply wants more content.
The game’s last expansion, “The Taken King,” came out in September, and it was great. Since then, Destiny players have taken part in regular limited-time events—Iron Banner and the Trials of Osiris—and a pair of one-off, multi-week events: Festival of the Lost and the Sparrow Racing League.
The latter, sparrow racing, took place last month, in December, and shortly after the announcement I got the chance to speak with Bungie’s Jerry Hook, the head of the developer’s “live team.” I didn’t run this interview at the time, but given recent developments in the world of Destiny I realized this conversation is of more interest now than ever.
The fact is that players are craving something more to do in Destiny, and while Bungie this week announced a Valentine’s Day-themed event (“Crimson Days”), rumors are flying (thanks to a report on Kotaku) that Destiny 2 will not be released this year, as was previously expected. And it turns out even Bungie may not know what’s next for the game—which may explain why they’ve been so hesitant to communicate with players on the topic.
Destiny’s live team is the group within the studio that’s supposed to be working to make sure the game feels consistently fresh, yet most hardcore players agree that it’s been stagnating since the Sparrow Racing League ended in December. So I think now is the perfect time to revisit this interview, which took place during the PlayStation Experience convention in early December, and find out just what Destiny’s live team actually does.
Playboy: So you’re the head of Destiny’s live team?
Jerry Hook: Yeah, I’m the project lead on the live team at Bungie.
A “live team” is not a thing that all game developers have. So what exactly does Bungie’s live team do?
Our main goal is to help ensure that the game is feeling fresh, as well as addressing concerns that the community has and hopefully bringing the things that the community would like to see into the game world itself. But the end result is we create a more living style of world for Destiny that continually refreshes and keeps players engaged.
Has Destiny always had a live team or is this a new thing?
No, it’s recent, we recently created the live team—over the last year—and have been bringing everything from the Festival of the Lost to patches to balancing, that sort of thing, to players.
So was Festival of the Lost the first thing the live team really brought to players?
No, we were doing patches, listening to the players, looking at the “House of Wolves” patrol modes, those sorts of things, bringing those into players’ hands, and letting them experience Destiny in a way they haven’t done before.
You guys are in charge of weapon balance and other minute stuff like that as well, and we’ve started to see in year 2 that that stuff will happen more often. Is there a set schedule of like every month you’re going to revisit weapon balance or is it just whenever it’s needed?
It all depends. So in general we work with the entire studio, and so different parts of the studio—for example, [the sandbox team] is the primary for weapon balance—they end up working, like, Sage did a great writeup on balancing the classes for Titans just I think it was yesterday or today.
Yeah, I’m a Titan main so I’m worried.
No, it’s fantastic. I’m also a Titan main, so—so what you end up doing is you end up working with the various teams, seeing what’s the right way, how to package it up as an impactful mode, but then there’s just other things where we just realize, hey, this is broken and we need to have it happen right away.
A patch recently broke boot engrams so they stopped decoding properly—is that the kind of thing that you guys work on? Is there like a red rotary phone that rings in the middle of the night and you have to fix it?
Yes, absolutely. And we go touch all the teams who are involved and we go “This needs to be fixed right now!” and they go “OK, we should do X, Y and Z!” and we’re like “Great, how fast can we do it?” Pull everyone together and make it happen as fast as we can.
This is not a thing that has to go on at most game developers. Did you look at another studio as a template? Is this like a thing that Blizzard does?
No, it’s mostly, quite frankly most of the live team is made up of employees who have played a lot of MMOs, who have played a lot of “long tail” games, even MOBAs, a lot of MOBAs, and so from that accumulated experience as players, that’s probably the best that comes to play. From professional background, I helped build Xbox Live, you have a bunch of other services backgrounds, you have a bunch of other players who have worked on other MMOs in the industry—those all make up the core of the live team.
Sparrow racing specifically is a limited time event right?
Yeah, so…it’s a limited time event. We want to hear feedback from our players, we want to hear feedback from the community—what works? What doesn’t work? And then we’ll figure out how to bring it back if the community wants to.
So in the announcement video when it says “this is a thing the community is going to have a hand in,” that’s what that means?
Yes. And we want more of that. Live team spends a lot of time with our community managers and our forums. We do regular reviews of what’s going on, what’s happening with the players, what are they talking about, ourselves also reading things, and then that helps make up our list of what we want to end up doing. Sparrow Racing, like most of the things we want to be able to do for new experiences, comes from the community, but also the passion we have on our own team. And so when you see both at a high passion moment, you’re like yeah, that’s going to go near the top of the list, we’re going to go make that happen.
Sparrow Racing could have easily been a permanent game mode added, so how do you decide which additions will be permanent and which will be timed?
Most of it has to do with do we believe we can make enough of an impact in a short period of time to be able to get it out to players, right? So if we have to take too much time then you start talking about, well, maybe we go talk to some of the milestone posts like “The Taken King,” right? But it’s mostly about how fast we believe we can get it out there, what the test has to look like, and can we create enough of an event in the time frame to get it out to players so they have quests, they have other things you would expect from an event like we’re doing with Sparrow Racing.
Also the limited time events have microtransactions tied to them, and if you have microtransactions for stuff that’s around permanently you’d probably have people dragging their feet more, hoping to get the same items “eventually” instead of just paying for them. The microstransactions kind of fit better with a thing that’s timed.
I think we’ve seen a lot of games do microtransactions both ways.
Yeah, but specifically in Destiny.
It’s more that we have short timed events because we want to learn from the players first what works and what doesn’t work for them.
Is that something that you work on—finding the balance between what players will get just out of playing and what they’ll need to pay for?
Yeah, that’s also our work as well.
So what’s that process like?
So that process is a little bit bigger. That’s more of we do the game first, so we want to make sure that the gameplay and the experience is fun—that’s the number one priority that we have. If players aren’t engaged and having a fun time with the game it doesn’t matter what you’re trying to sell, so that’s the primary focus. Then what we look at is we go through our UR, we go through our playtest, we understand what’s working and what’s not working for players, and then we’re like, OK—what do we blow out the doors for those players who really want to show off? How can we blow the doors off for them? And almost all of that is always vanity, right? They want to be able to show off, they want to be unique, and they want to be able to earn things, and earning always takes a priority over the monetization side.
How much time do you get to devote to cool stuff like Festival of the Lost and Sparrow Racing as opposed to “oh, this thing’s broken, we have to deal with that!”
It actually depends, right? It depends on what it is and what needs to happen. What we try to do and what we want to make sure that we’re trying to do or have for players is a solid experience that we can wrap. If you redo the sandbox, and you do a whole new weapon balancing, that’s a full new experience for players; I don’t have to add anything, right? The players are already there and they’re already excited about it, they just want to see tweaks—and that changes the meta of the game and changes the gameplay, right? Then you add in new experiences on top of that and you start seeing a very broad wrapper. Not everything is going to hit everybody. And then you create that package. There’s no real—we don’t have a formula that says like, only 10% bugs! That doesn’t happen, it all depends on the overall package you’re trying to do. So if you’re looking at December right now, you have the weapon balance, you’re going to get the class balance, you’re going to get the new exotics, you’ve going to get the Sony questline, you’re going to get Sparrow Racing—that’s a nice package for a lot of players to come back to and enjoy some time in Destiny again.
How much of a consideration is player expectation? I spend a lot of time on Reddit seeing what players are saying—
We do the same.
I think especially at a big convention like this when there’s an announcement people set their expectations high—lots of players want to have the old raids updated to the current light level for example. And Sparrow Racing is cool, but it isn’t that. How much time is spent for you guys trying to manage those expectations?
So I think one of the things the entire live team has learned is our players will always want more than we can possibly provide. There’s just not enough hours in the day. But what we try to do is continually chunk away at that—make those chinks in the armor. And then some of the other big, big expectations that players have, we’re constantly thinking about new things to do. We are listening—there’s lists on Reddit, there’s lists of top things that people want, those sorts of things. We hear that, we keep those on our boards, they’re a permanent conversation of “what’s next?”
There was also the expectation now since you did a Halloween event that Christmas would be next, but we have Sparrow Racing instead—
One of the challenges a lot of live games have is they get stuck in a rut of just being around holidays. And I think that players want more than that, they don’t only want holiday-specific things. Festival of the Lost is actually unique in the Destiny world since we’re all basically ghosts and zombies, right? As well as the lore for it. The main thing that you’ll see that we want to try to do different is we don’t want to just be locked into a seasonal model of you’re doing things just based off whatever the holiday is of the season. We’d like to, like, if the World Cup comes out with something and fans are like “Hey, what can we do around the World Cup?” Let’s do that. Those are the types of things we want to hear. It’s not just about holidays, which frankly worldwide are different anyway. And then these types of events that really bring those new experiences—that surprise players, that they don’t expect.
Mike Rougeau is Playboy.com’s Gaming Editor, in charge of all things video games but mostly concerned with getting a 320 Ghost shell or class item in Destiny , which he is starting to accept will probably never happen. Follow him on Twitter @RogueCheddar.
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