Real Money Transactions Are Threatening My Love Of Destiny

by Matt Miller on Apr 14, 2016 at 12:51 PM

Destiny’s April Update is an entirely free collection of new content for anyone who enjoys the Destiny universe, and I applaud Bungie’s desire to provide something new to a hungry player base. I’ve detailed my thoughts on the good and bad of the new content here, but one particular aspect of the April Update has left me frustrated. As a longtime player, as well as a writer who has been tracking the game since prior to launch, I didn’t want the moment to pass without a mention. The microtransaction model in the game has reached a turning point, and I worry about the line that is being crossed.

Before anyone thinks we’re about to start down an all-too-familiar hate train, I’d like to keep the conversation in check. I comprehend the business realities facing Activision and Bungie, and my many conversations with the people crafting the game have revealed a development team at least as fascinated and devoted to the joy of the game as any of its fans. They want this game to be the best experience possible, and whether gamers like it or not, that takes money. I understand the need to fund ongoing development. 

I’m also not here to critique the broader strategy of microtransactions as a revenue stream. The addition of new emotes, in particular, has always felt to me like a suitable place to look for new player monetary support; new emotes have never been a core aspect of the investment and progression system, and are a minor personality feature, even in in their best moments.  

However, the new April Update doubles down on a strategy, first seen in a limited way in the brief SRL event, for introducing new armor through paid transactions, and alongside the new one-for-one infusion system, it adds up to a system that is all too close to the very strategies that have alienated me from much of the current mobile game scene. 

The April Update includes a new reward called Sterling Treasures. These desirable packages include a guaranteed drop of one of the new armor pieces, along with several other potential drops, like new ships, sparrows, or class items, as well as a new colored-light customization option called chroma. Every week, even casual players have a good shot at obtaining three of these Sterling Treasures through logging in and engaging with basic in-game activities. An unlimited number of additional Sterling Treasures can be purchased with real money. 

One of the early warning signs was when I realized these three opportunities for Sterling Treasures are by account, not by character. In other words, if you play your main guardian and get all three in a given week, none are available for your alt characters. Moreover, the random nature of the guaranteed drops makes it unlikely that you will see a full set of armor for even your main guardian, even after several weeks of play. In my case, this week I saw two identical gloves drop in the Spektar set, along with a helmet for an altogether different Desolate set. To reasonably expect a full set in any given style in the first several weeks of play, especially for my second or third guardian, the only viable path is to spend real money to buy it.    

Many will be quick to declare that you don’t have to do anything of the sort. I already have great leveled gear to use – why do I need to fervently chase these new armor sets? The answer to that is self-evident to anyone who has played Destiny or really any MMO, RPG, or other investment-focused game. The desirability of an item is tied to both its newness and exclusivity. In a game that sees a lot of repetition in the same activities, the changes to your character are what many get excited about. When Bungie includes very few new armor pieces in the April Update, but the bulk of the new items can be acquired with real money, it feels like we’re being funneled towards that choice, since there are few other treasures to actively pursue. 

Others will argue that Sterling Treasure gear drops at 3 light, so it’s really only a cosmetic drop. But that’s disingenuous. Any active Destiny player has multiple sets of less desirable gear sitting around in their vault, each of which exhibits a high light value. With the new one-for-one infusion system (which, by the way, is a good idea), it’s a matter of moments to turn that chest piece you just bought with real cash into a high-level, raid-ready piece. 

The final argument for the validity of these new cash-purchases is a financial one. Spending a little money on these Sterling Treasures helps support the ongoing development efforts. The suggestion is that Bungie needs to pay for new content somehow, and the microtransaction model does that. As I stated above, I’m on board with this reasoning up to a point, but not when it harms the long-term viability of the game and its design. 

And here we come to the crux of my argument. Destiny has always positioned itself as a game about becoming a legend, and there’s little that’s legendary about spending money to get the coolest loot. The long term appeal for many players, myself included, is the idea that ongoing investment in play leads to requisite rewards. I have an official Destiny t-shirt that proudly proclaims, in Latin: “post proelia praemia.” Roughly translated, it means: “after the battle come the rewards,” which has always seemed like a potent descriptor of why this game works so well. When I finally got that Facade of the Hezen Lords warlock helm, it was a memory of confronting Atheon in the Vault of Glass. When the secret to acquiring Sleeper Simulant was finally unlocked, I retained memories of the anticipation that led up to its discovery. When Thorn made its way into my inventory, it was because I confronted Xyor the Unwed in a harrowing encounter on the moon. It doesn’t matter that all that sounds like nonsense to outsiders. Those of us who play treasure the fun and memory of those moments.

How much will anyone treasure the moment that they finally caved, and spent enough money to get a Spektar Hood to drop from a Sterling Treasure purchase?

Even if you’re a player who manages to resist the temptation of spending money on Sterling Treasures, and you decide to wait it out for the moment it drops in the real game, the availability of these items to other players cheapens the fun for everyone. Even at the end of day one after the April Update, I saw Guardians flitting about in decked out Desolate and Spektar gear. What could have been an exciting reward for me to chase suddenly because something far less exciting. 

I know this form of microtransaction purchases is prevalent in many other games. But Destiny is particularly vulnerable to the ways in which this type of purchase can damage the community structure of the ongoing game, especially with a stated plan to chart years of adventure still to come. In a landscape of ongoing games suffused with predatory microtransaction models, Destiny has the potential to provide a happy alternative – a rich, decade-long adventure where we can be free to enjoy the challenge and rewards, rather than get pulled into the same money traps that have troubled so many other projects. In the long term, I honestly believe that a more restrained microtransaction model encourages greater player investment, which in turn means more financial success for Activision and Bungie. Against the more likely odds, I hope that’s a recognition those two companies can also reach as they shape the future of one of my favorite games.