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I Sold My Soul for a Ride to the Top in ‘Destiny’

I Sold My Soul for a Ride to the Top in ‘Destiny’:

Destiny has its very own Mount Olympus, the fire of the gods waiting at its peak. It’s called the Lighthouse. Only the most skilled and dedicated players can climb to the top, and the treasure chest nestled there houses the best guns in the game. Every weekend is a new opportunity for these players to reach the Lighthouse and claim new spoils. I visited three times last weekend, but I didn’t feel like Prometheus stealing the primordial fire. I felt like a cheater, because I bought my way there.

Getting to the Lighthouse on Mercury—reachable only through the game’s highly competitive three-versus-three-players Trials of Osiris mode—and opening that beautiful, golden chest is the ultimate goal for many Destiny players. Inside are special, unique versions of some of the best guns in the game that you can’t get anywhere else. But for your average player, getting nine wins without a single loss—the requirement for a ticket there—seems hopelessly out of reach.

You’ll be doing fine, at five or six wins, with only a few more remaining before you’ll finally get that flawless run. You faced some really good players, but through teamwork and sweat you scraped by, sometimes by the skin of your teeth. You’re feeling good. This is the one—you’re finally going to reach Mercury. Then you’ll come up against a team that straight up annihilates you, like they know where you’re going to go five seconds before you get there and their every shot lands exactly where they meant it to.

There are players who cheat, by using network trickery to get their opponents kicked out of the game and claim wins by default. Others use “cheap” strategies, like guns that are so good they tip the scales against you unless you’re using them too. And then there are players who are just so good that they win every match—so good that they charge other players money to play with them, and other players pay. Those are the ones I wanted to meet, and there was only way to reach them: through PayPal.

YOU’VE GOT HATE MAIL

trials of osiris

“I’ve actually had two separate customers thank us because they got hate mail,” one of these players told me, as he and his teammate carried me all the way to the Lighthouse. During the half hour or so we played together, we never lost a match. We never even came close.

I’m not bad at Destiny; on the contrary, I’m pretty good. I’ve been to the Lighthouse plenty of times on my own, with friends and with teams of strangers I’ve met online. I can hold my own just fine. But these two “professional boosters,” as they call themselves, ran circles around every other team we faced, steamrolling over multiple players in mere seconds using the same guns and abilities I was using. It was awe-inspiring, and humbling, and a little sad—for the players we demolished, at least, who never stood a chance. My teammates’ professional name—the “Destiny Elite"—wasn’t just hot air.

It’s easy to see why those who face them might be frustrated enough to send rude messages once they’ve been kicked from the running with a loss on their records. And it must be novel for less skilled players—those who rarely win, much less inspire hate mail—to see the world from the other side. So novel that it’s worth paying actual money for, opening yourself up to the possibility of being scammed, pissing off other players and violating the game’s terms of use in the process.

Paying for two incredibly skilled players to carry you on a flawless Trials run is like going on safari with two guides who, you feel certain, could wrestle with lions and come out unscathed if they needed to. It’s like being chauffeured through a warzone in the bulletproof Popemobile, or going on a police ride-along in a neighborhood you wouldn’t walk through at night. Playing Trials of Osiris with your friends or your clan mates is a white-knuckled, high five-inducing crucible that grants the highest highs when you win and genuine despair when you lose. Paying to be carried gives only the illusion of danger, a sanitary, anesthetized specter of that normally glorious competition.

I wanted to experience that firsthand—and find out if my biases against the practice were justified—and I had three opportunities to do so over the weekend, once for each of my Destiny characters. For my first run, I hit up DestinyLFG.net, a meet-up site that players use to find people to play with ("LFG” stands for Looking for Group or Looking For Game) and within minutes found a team of two who were more than willing to take my money. These dudes, Asterisk and Envious, were very good, although we met with a few hiccups; in one late game, my controller stopped working, and they had to finish three rounds just the two of them, against a full team. I’d already paid them, and they could have easily ditched me after that, but they won the match and saw it through to the end, even waiting for me to restart my PS4.

My second “money run,” as Envious dubbed them, was with GunzRUz, a player who broadcasts live on Twitch, a massively popular website where anyone can live-stream their gameplay to the tens of millions of viewers who tune in every month. Gunz and his partner, Truffle Shuffle, never had more than about a dozen viewers while I was watching or playing with them, but there was always a queue of players waiting to send “donations” in exchange for Lighthouse trips. He was exhausted by the end of the day, which consisted entirely of one ten-hour “shift” doing Trials runs. He doesn’t have a day job, he told me.

I’m using nicknames for these players, partially because online handles are often inscrutable to non-gamers’ eyes, full of symbols and numbers and random-seeming punctuation. But in addition, I promised I wouldn’t blatantly identify them, because the players who sell their skills online don’t want to attract unwelcome attention. That went triple for the Destiny Elite players, who requested I not identify them by name at all—even by nickname—for fear of reprisal from Destiny’s developer, Bungie. The fact that they have a professional-looking website, DestinyElite.com, makes them extra paranoid about attracting Bungie’s ire. But it also makes them seem more legitimate to customers, so it’s worth the trade. When you’re charging $100 per run, that’s important.

Not everyone charges that much. My first run cost me $60, and the second, with the Twitch streamer, was only $30 (he said he’s considering raising his prices). But the Destiny Elite have to pay to host a website; they deal with more Paypal fees, since they actually classify themselves as a business for payment purposes; and they split the money from their Trials runs with the guy who keeps their site running, keeps track of their customers and answers their emails.

They were also far and away the most skilled and professional of the players I sent money to this weekend. They even offer a special service: if you don’t want to play on their team, because you’re bad or embarrassed or don’t have enough time or whatever, you can send them your log-in info (username and password) and they’ll simply log into your account and do it for you. Sometimes they’ll do three of these at once, maximizing their efficiency (and profits).

They’ve been doing this since the Trials began in May with Destiny’s “House of Wolves” expansion, but they only launched the website recently. They told me they’ve made as much as $6,000 in a single week since then. Split among five or six people—assuming they’re telling the truth, which I have no way to prove but no concrete reason to doubt—that’s more or less a full livable wage.

One player told me in an email later that they’re “working with a lawyer/accountant to register as a business” officially. But some of these players said they’re still in high school.

DODGING THE ISSUE

destiny elite

Bungie’s website has a page titled “Destiny Account Restrictions and Banning Policies.” It doesn’t mention anything about players charging each other for in-game help. The Destiny Software License Agreement, on the other hand, states that users “agree that you will not do, or allow, any of the following: (1) exploit this Program or any of its parts commercially;” which seems to pretty clearly apply here, although Bungie hasn’t taken an official stance on the practice beyond that.

“Boosting” your progress by riding the coattails of better players in any game is, generally speaking, frowned upon, depending heavily on the specific circumstances. It’s a very grey area, though. For example, there are entire communities of “sherpas,” people who help less experienced or less skilled players through difficult missions and competitions, usually out of the goodness of their hearts. Most people agree there’s nothing wrong with that, but once money starts changing hands everyone suddenly has an opinion.

I had a great chat with Bungie’s Derek Carroll, the design lead for all House of Wolves player-versus-player content and the guy in charge of the Trials of Osiris, as part of my research for this article. He told me lots of interesting things about Trials. It was envisioned as “a PvP endgame,” a mode where high-levels players who’ve completed most of the game’s other content can go to compete against each other so the game doesn’t get stale. The 9-wins requirement was the result of “some really boring math,” Carroll said, to ensure that not just anyone could reach the Lighthouse. And he confirmed that the half dozen or so maps on which players have played Trials already are the only ones that will be in the rotation until the next Destiny expansion, “The Taken King,” launches in September.

You can read our full chat here, but for now I want to talk about the relevant part, where I asked him about the professional sherpas, the elite players who make a little money on the weekends—or full time wages—boosting other players through Trials of Osiris and other high-level Destiny content.

“So I think it’s great that people will sherpa people and carry their friends and that’s kind of part of the social aspect of the game, is that if one player, one amazing player can carry two other players to victory, you know, kudos. That’s great for him,” Carroll told me. “Selling it gets a little—it’s kind of creepy for me, but I’m not sure if we have an official stance on that.”

There are lots of online games where players can trade and play with one another, and meta-economies often crop up among those players. The most infamous example of one such economy is probably the gold-farming culture of World of Warcraft, where teams of players all over the world would spend all their time accruing in-game currency just to sell it to other players for real money. WoW developer Blizzard has dealt with gold farming in a variety of ways, but this is the first time Bungie has had to face any such practice in Destiny.

I pointed out as much to Carroll. “Like you said, we’ve avoided things like that, and I’m going to continue to avoid the topic,” he replied. “I honestly don’t have a comment on that.”

SAFETY IN NUMBERS

Paying my way to the Lighthouse was a new experience for me, but clearly plenty of other players are doing it. For those getting paid, business keeps getting better, and prices are on the rise. But even after spamming Reddit and the Destiny LFG sites with posts all weekend, I couldn’t get a single player to admit to me that they’ve done it. I fully understand why.

Opening that chest is one of the greatest achievements for Destiny players. Shooting other players with the guns you get inside—instantly recognizable—and walking around Destiny’s social spaces with the special Lighthouse emblem equipped to your name tag is like taking a never-ending victory lap. Standing on the podium holding your gold medal, or being carried down the road on your peers’ shoulders, wouldn’t you feel just a bit dirty knowing you’d cheated or taken a shortcut? I felt a twinge of guilt every time I opened that chest this weekend, and I did it for work. At least that’s what I told myself.

There’s a sense in the community that it’s shameful, legitimate players loathe to even acknowledge that it’s going on. A moderator on the “Fireteams” subreddit, where players go to team up, told me that anyone caught “paying or offering runs in exchange for payment” there gets banned, and indeed, most of the people selling runs turn to the unofficial Destiny LFG sites, which were created by enterprising fans to help players find others with whom to play. Moderators for DestinyLFG.net and DestinyLFG.com, the two big ones, told me they ban several people a week for advertising money runs, but judging by the posts’ proliferation it seems many more slip through the cracks.

flawless runs

The LFG mods supposedly look for certain keywords and phrases, automatically deleting listings that are clear solicitations, and the boosters told me they continually adjust the wording of their posts to escape notice. For the people running the sites it’s like a game of whack-a-mole. “I have banned numerous players who have been spamming paid runs already. Three just this past week!” Brock Busby, who created DestinyLFG.com last year before Destiny even came out, told me over email. A moderator of the dot net site—Busby’s main competitor—said much the same. “I didn’t create the site to be a Craigslist and filled with spam that isn’t helpful to find players who are playing for the fun of it,” Busby continued. “Not only that. There is no safety in it from being ripped off.”

Now that’s a legitimate concern. The first duo I ran with, Asterisk and Envious, asked for $30 up front and $30 at seven wins—when our run was almost complete. They asked for me to classify the PayPal transaction as “friends and family” so they wouldn’t get charged fees, but that also limited the protections PayPal would be willing to offer me if I tried to get a refund later. How did I know they weren’t going to take my money and run?

“I wouldn’t do that,” Asterisk said. And, to be fair, he didn’t.

“There’s a lot of people that are unsure about it, and a lot of people who want to know more about it. Some people just leave as soon as I explain it to them,” one booster admitted. But “It feels good,” he continued, “and you’re also making money out of it, so it’s whatever, right?”

‘DO YOU GET MAD AT YOUR TAILOR?’

jewel of osiris

I knew I had to play with the Destiny Elite team once I learned that they would literally log into your account and play for you. How did they guarantee customers that they wouldn’t sell their account details to others? They told me it rarely comes up; there’s only so much you can do with a stolen PlayStation Network or Xbox Live account after all, they said. That’s debatable, but it sounded convincing.

“[Bungie] are well within their rights to ban us if they decide to,” one of the Destiny Elite players, the one who answers their emails, admitted as his partners and I steamrolled opponent after opponent. He didn’t actually play—he’s not good enough to carry players, and in fact, he met these guys as a customer first, he told me, and became involved with them later when they learned he’s a web developer. He simply hung out in our digital party to chat since I told him I was doing this story.

“Most of our clients are like parents or something like that,” he said—in other words, people who want good gear in Destiny and have more money than free time. For those players, it’s a simple equation: how much money is that free time worth? How much are they willing to pay to get those good guns without having to put in the time? One customer, a woman in her mid-forties, allegedly paid the Destiny Elite team for six Trials runs—three characters across two different accounts—and six runs fighting the hardest boss in the Prison of Elders, another high-level Destiny mode. Her bill totaled $1,300, my teammates told me, and they expect her back next week.

I know how I feel about buying victories I didn’t earn, but talking to these guys made me rethink my position slightly—or, at least, it made me sympathize a bit with some of the players who do it, those who want the spoils and simply don’t have the skills or the time to get them fair and square. There’s also the fact that these inordinately skilled players are spending ten-hours-or-more shifts playing this game mode, walking all over team after team, “polluting” the player pool and preventing normal players from going flawless, which they said even they feel bad about sometimes. But ultimately they’re just making money by doing what they’re good at, not breaking any laws or harming anyone outside of losses in a video game and bruised egos for the players they stomp.

“Do you get mad at your tailor?” the Destiny Elite guy—the one who started out as a customer, and now runs their website—asked me. “They didn’t make the suit, yet you’re paying them $200 to make it smaller…people are paying their tailors to make their suits better, just like people are paying us to make their game better. That’s my favorite analogy for it I’ve come up with so far.”

One of the three times I opened that chest at the top of the mountain this weekend rewarded me with a gun I’ve been pining after for months. Every time I use that gun—a “hand cannon” called the Jewel of Osiris, infused with flaming “solar” damage from the sun itself—I’ll feel that twinge of shame. But that doesn’t mean I’m not going to use it—so what if I got a little help climbing Destiny’s Mount Olympus? That fire now belongs to me, and no one—save the gods themselves—can take it away.


Mike Rougeau is Playboy.com’s Gaming Editor, in charge of all things video games but mostly concerned with getting sweet Destiny loot. He lives in Los Angeles with his girlfriend and two dogs. Follow him on Twitter @RogueCheddar.


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