You have seen the movie before: aliens arrive who seem to have the best interests of humanity at heart, but it turns out they really want to devour us or whatever. Or maybe some dope in a government lab mixed up the flask with the horrible supervirus in it with his Earl Gray and before the end of the first act the whole world has major zombie troubles. In the end it’s not about the zombies, but the people. I lost track of the metaphor; the point I wanted to make is that the we live in a taxonomically different epoch in which the date is not 2016 A.D. but 15 A.D.E—After Deus Ex, the year in which our lord and savior J.C. Denton revealed the Word that RPG mechanics make everything better. Destiny and its 2015 expansion The Taken King are the new evangelists on the scene for shooters-which-are-also-sort-of-rpgs.
Events have largely borne out the glory of the Word, but like any religion there comes a time when the priesthood grows decadent and their vices must be named and numbered. I have two main points to tack up, both of which are not unique to Destiny but which fuse together there to cover it in a thick cloud of mediocrity. The first of these is something we’ll call hardpointing.
On modern warplanes there are specific places on the airframe called hardpoints which are designed to mount various kinds of external gear: fuel tanks, bombs, missiles, cameras, and so on. In addition to having a really bitchin’ name, hardpoints are ideal as game mechanics because of the way they induce the player to make real trade-offs in their capabilities. As a mechanic it’s one of the few cases in which reality, which most sane people regard as virtually unplayable, appears to have a balanced design.
Hardpoints, therefore, have enjoyed a long history in the games we play, and not just because our childhood dreams of becoming a jet pilot were quashed by astigmatism. For the purposes of this post a hardpoint is when a new, different ability can be gained only by sacrificing another. It is a subset of slot, because changing what is in a slot usually doesn’t involve giving another capability up. Hardpoints are so successful that designers, as they have in Destiny, often now extend them to include skills a character supposedly has in his head. That’s obviously pretty silly, but as we said earlier game mechanics don’t have to be realistic, and this is especially true to the extent that reality kind of sucks.
So if hardpoints are great, how are they ever a vice? It’s easy to see if you just reverse the trait that makes them a good mechanic to begin with: meaningful trade-offs. With rare exception, new abilities in Destiny arrive with the sound of a wet fart, because we know that not only are they hardpointed—we’ll have to give up something that is probably perfectly fine to get them—they won’t change anything about our relationship with the game outside of some extreme edge cases. I can’t come up with any challenge in the game that couldn’t be overcome by someone with a random distribution of classes, subclasses, and abilities. That’s a fairly damning observation and lays bare that Destiny is largely an exercise in aesthetics.
To compound this frustratingly timid class design, the meaningfulness of the trade-off is further decreased by the ability to simply pop into a menu and change your subclass and abilities at any time with no penalty. In space sims and military flight sims you usually have to go to some kind of base to do that, and the period of time you are out in the wild and are forced to live with the choices you made is when that tension manifests. Not that Destiny would benefit if you could change your abilities only at certain times, because, as we know, it doesn’t matter what your abilities are.
There is a subtler way in which an abundance of hardpoints can spoil a game, and that is when it becomes a crutch. Designers of PVP games, or as in Destiny games in which PVP is at least possible, have an additional burden of balancing player characters against each other, and the problems of balance grow exponentially with every additional possible build a player can have. In short balance grows easier the more similar players are to each other. If you have two identical players, they are balanced by definition. Even in PVE contexts it is easier to balance a player who is heavily restricted by hardpoints, rather than one who is constantly acquiring new abilities and using them together in unexpected ways. This is where timid class design and hardpointing are a lazy answer to difficult problems.
When you combine these issues you are left with a game that offers an extraordinarily superficial implementation of RPG mechanics. I was sold on being a space wizard but the reality of it was that I was just an especially uppity space marine in a long coat. I still enjoyed my time with Destiny, but with bolder ability design and a lesser reliance on hardpointing it would have been much more satisfying. Oh and of course the story is awful and so is the cast of shopworn cliches sentenced to deliver it. Especially the smarmy robot voiced by Nathan Fillion. He’s supposed to be funny because that’s not how robots act lol. Jesus. That’s another post entirely.