Between the four of us shooting into the mouth of this cave there is an unspoken agreement.
I’m shooting fish in a barrel with total strangers. We are on the outskirts of fallen Russia in Destiny, just outside Skywatch, facing a cave off in the distance. Every five seconds or so a group of Hive enemies spawn inside and quickly get mowed down by our weapons as they stream outside. We are exploiting the loot and spawn systems in Destiny to level quickly and collect all the tasty engrams that give our characters rare weapons and armor.
I am trying to understand why in Destiny, a shooter from one of the most prestigious studios in the world, this group of players choose to spend their time harvesting digital goods instead of playing the game “proper." Since players found the exploit a week or two ago, you can consistently find people alternating gunfire and picking up loot. They are practicing the mundane art of the grind in the most efficient way possible -- not exactly the most thrilling experience you could imagine.
Even so, in our rhythmic firing there is a calm satisfaction. Between the four of us shooting into the mouth of this cave there is an unspoken agreement. I wait for the Warlock to my right to fire off five rounds of his rocket launcher, then it’s my turn to do the same. Sniping the escaping enemies can become a mini-contest -- “Who will get the headshot that lets us continue?” Occasionally a Thrall or Acolyte escapes our bullets and one of us leaves the pack to play clean-up duty. We never speak, never demand someone plays the janitor role for these low level enemies, it just happens naturally.
In his excellent Kotaku review, Kirk Hamilton argues that “Destiny itself is brazenly, almost inhumanly exploitative, so it’s only natural that players would take every opportunity to exploit it right back.” He calls it “unhealthy play,” but I’m not so sure. The memes that have popped up around the loot cave are fascinating in and of themselves, but I think there is something deeper to explore here.
Sitting at Destiny's loot cave.
After all, why do we want loot so badly in the first place? I think there is something about acquiring loot that satisfies our psychological need to scratch that repetitive itch. The sounds of the weapons, the brilliant glow of a dark cave scattered with engrams, the momentary joy that you feel when obtaining a Legendary item, and even the emotional crash when that item becomes another useless piece of gears is all strangely stimulating, sure.
Even so, we also want loot not just to have, but to make us even stronger. In some video game catch-22, we want gear to play the game as intended, so we avoid playing as intended. We want to level, to take on new challenges and new adventures, which are genuinely entertaining, but to do so demands some grinding. To accomplish this grind efficiently, we look for exploits in the system, ways to take the fast lane to the content we genuinely want to consume.
This is the dilemma of the MMO. The constant loop of sub-optimal play to overcome thrilling obstacles later. It’s an investment in the future of our play session by sacrificing our immediate pleasure. The loot cave is work, a high paying albeit tedious job.
In an ideal scenario, work itself would be enjoyable, just like farming wolves in an MMO would also be enjoyable. To that extent, Bungie has offered up Strike missions, their version of classic MMO dungeons, and these really are fun, especially when facing challenges appropriate to the player's character level. Unfortunately the rewards do not seem commensurate with the effort. With a complex currency, reputation system, and a strange drop rate, planning how you might grow in power is a pain. As a result, you hit the caves.
Again, none of this is new. Many MMO fans have learned to love the grind, using their time to chat with friends, try strange builds, or more likely multitask. In that way, maybe the loot cave is no different than say chatting with coworkers or listening to podcasts while on the job. It’s just a piece of Destiny as an MMO and not necessarily a bad one. Like the player types that populate any D&D campaign, there will always be those seeking to min/max their character, exploiting anything they can to create the most powerful avatar. That’s okay. Those of us interested in narrative or RP can have our fun elsewhere.
Of course, this is not to forgive Destiny’s shoddy storytelling or generally atrocious voice acting, but the loot cave is a reminder of what the game is and always has been. This is a blend of shooter and MMO with all the occasionally unlikable design choices that implies. I think this explains some of the mixed reactions that the game has received too. Fighting enemies above your level isn’t just dangerous. It’s boring. Should we really find this surprising? Were we lied to somehow by Destiny’s marketing, or is it just very difficult to telegraph to players exactly what this amalgam would play like twenty plus hours in?
I don’t know what Destiny will look like six months from now, but I suspect I will still find it fascinating far after release. Meanwhile, back in the loot cave, I’ve decided to sit down and prevent enemy respawns. I suspect the few farmers on this server will see me sitting, know exactly what I’m doing immediately, and leave to find their pleasures elsewhere.