Games

Destiny 2 Game Developer Conference controversy is unfair to Bungie

A Destiny 2 Game Developer Conference (GDC) talk is making the rounds on Twitter as players suggest Bungie is actively stifling developers’ ambitions for the game. Looking through a wider lens, however, the statements from presenter Justin Truman, Bungie’s chief development officer, might be taken out of context.

The presentation discussing the ongoing live service FPS game, titled ‘From Box Products to Live Service: How Destiny 2 Transformed Bungie,’ first appeared online in April, just a few weeks after GDC in March, but only recently garnered attention within the Destiny community. Specifically, players have latched onto Truman’s train analogy after telling the audience of game developers that “It’s HARD to tell a team that has extra cycles and energy and want to do something amazing — that would be amazing and awesome for the game — we should not ship this, because it is an overdelivery that will set us up for failure on future trains.”

Reading through the entire presentation shows the statement is part of a much bigger picture. The talk covers Bungie’s difficult transition from creating games that shine with one-off big releases to content expansions that add to online games. It illustrates how Bungie’s team learned to develop at a productive cadence for a live-service game that thrives on new content. One aspect of this means scaling back on the over-delivery of content to prioritise meeting player expectations. He refers to building a ‘box product’ game as similar to building a train, which is completed and then shipped in full, while a live service game is more akin to a train station, which releases trains at regular intervals.

From the train statement above, some players concluded Bungie doesn’t work as hard as possible to bring players the best content. In fact, Truman says the opposite.

Particularly when the current content cycle feels stale, it’s easy to draw a correlation between the mindset mentioned previously and player perceptions. However, the broader picture shows some players underestimate software development challenges. Burnout is a significant issue in the game industry. Many longtime game developers can share stories about how crunch has affected their lives. It impacts people’s mental health, relationships, and even physical health. These issues aren’t exclusive to game development, but the industry seems more willing than others to accept it because leadership teams consider video games a ‘fun’ work environment.

Destiny 2 Game Developer Conference controversy is unfair to Bungie: An image from Neomuna, a forthcoming destination in Destiny 2.

In Truman’s talk, he emphasises Bungie’s commitment to delivering content that meets player expectations. His statement regarding over-delivery simply notes that it’s easy to develop content to ‘wow’ players and then find yourself under pressure to deliver at an unrealistic rate.

It’s easy to suggest development teams should encourage runaway creativity. Truman, however, says that limiting innovation to planned and projected opportunities can save teams from working overtime to implement new features and activities, while delivering a finished product. Truman addresses the challenge and how to properly address it by pointing to Destiny 2’s Legendary Campaign option introduced with The Witch Queen, noting the team hypothesised it would be successful and built it as a blueprint for a repeatable content model.

Software development pros know there’s always a backlog of ideas, feature improvements, efficiency processes, or UI updates they can integrate into their work. Well-intentioned people often present good ideas, and it’s challenging to focus on core implementations without facing distraction by extras. Just look at Star Citizen, a game that’s been in development for more than a decade as ambitions grow with each new idea but it’s still so far from completion. Taking on too many projects at once is a recipe for failure, so it seems natural that Bungie would have to knock down some fantastic ideas to keep the content machine up and running. Failing to do so results in overtime, crunch, and burnout. Ultimately, developer burnout will harm a live service game. Burnt-out developers have little motivation to continue creating great content. If they fail to meet player expectations, they will also receive negative feedback, which can further demoralise the team.

Destiny 2 Game Developer Conference controversy is unfair to Bungie: A Dark Cabal force holds a weapon.

It’s healthy for Bungie to implement a strategy that allows the company to execute on a promise and do so in a cadence that keeps the developers’ health and well-being in mind. Many Bungie team members appear to stay with the company for a very long time for what seems to be this exact reason.

It’s fine to believe Bungie has gotten too comfortable with its seasonal model. But as it stands, the developer continues to produce a new story, in-game activity, and raid or dungeon each season. The team also introduces community events, new weapons, new ways to acquire, craft and mod, these weapons, new cosmetics, stylish new armour sets, and much more. A sentiment that the content is stale is not a reflection of pressure not to over-deliver but rather a misfire in the overall seasonal blueprint.

IGN reported on a toxic work environment at Bungie only two years ago. Despite many issues, crunch was an underlying theme. Taking steps to alleviate this may only solve some problems, but it certainly lays the groundwork for non-burned-out developers to over-deliver when it comes to the forthcoming Destiny 2 Lightfall expansion, which will also introduce the new Destiny 2 Strand Darkness subclass and much more.

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