It’s been five years since Destiny 2 first launched, and I’ve played it most days since then. There are a lot of things that keep me coming back for more week after week. The constant stream of new challenges and activities keeps the gameplay interesting, the ever-evolving story filled with endearing characters that I care about, and the periodic refreshes to its RPG systems ensure there’s always a new meta to adapt to. At its core though, Destiny 2 is a game about collecting loot.
All of its other qualities are supported by the loot grind, and it wouldn’t matter how interesting the narrative was or how many new campaigns were added if the process of acquiring powerful gear was lacking. That process has proven to be a challenge for Destiny over the years, and it hasn’t always had the kind of rewarding, satisfying loot system it needed. It took quite a few years of iterating, experimenting, and sometimes even reverting, but the state of the loot game going into the Lightfall expansion is the best one Destiny has ever had.
It’s all about finding a balance between luck and deterministic acquisition – or in other words, finding just the right amount of RNG. Deciding how frequently players should be able to acquire the best gear – and how many ‘best’ pieces of gear there are to collect – has always been Destiny’s most precarious tightrope walk. If people don’t get enough gear they get frustrated and stop playing, but if you give them too much gear they run out of things to pursue, and stop playing. Dialing in the perfect amount of RNG has been Destiny 2’s most difficult and long-standing issue going all the way back to the beginning.
In Destiny 2’s first year, weapons had fixed stats. This caused a lot of problems, because you only ever needed one copy of each gun to complete your collection. As a result, every additional copy you earned after the first one was worthless, which had the effect of making activities feel unrewarding and pointless. Hardcore Destiny players were able to farm all of the relevant weapons in the first few weeks and months and had no reason to keep playing.
In the second year, all non-exotic weapons received random stat rolls, and the whole game changed. Now players needed to farm multiple copies of each weapon to find a version with the perfect perks combinations. Two copies of Better Devil may look the same, but if one had Outlaw/Kill Clip, it was going to perform much better than the other. This change gave players a reason to grind activities and an incentive to farm long after completing the campaign.
Random rolls were a step in the right direction, but they introduced a new problem. During Forsaken, there was no way to deterministically acquire a lot of the best weapons in the game. If you wanted a specific item from the Nightfall or Raid loot pool, your only option was to play that activity over and over again until you got it, with no guarantee that you ever would.
The Menagerie, introduced during Forsaken’s Season of Opulence, was the first big step towards balancing luck and determinism. Using a resource called Runes, players could narrow down their next Menagerie drop to a specific weapon or armor piece, and even choose its masterwork stat. This system allowed players to have more control over their drops, but still left room for randomness, since you never knew what perks it would have.
The Menagerie, still considered to be one of Destiny 2’s best activities, eventually evolved into Umbral Engrams during Beyond Light in Year 4. This universal engram has been used in every season for the last two years as a way to farm specific gear. During Beyond Light umbrals were strictly used for seasonal activities, but throughout The Witch Queen a similar system was implemented for Gambit and Crucible. For all of these activities, you still get a random piece of gear at the end, because luck is a necessary and enjoyable part of the loot game. Focusing engrams is a supplemental, more deterministic system that serves as a nice balance to RNG. If you’re unlucky with drops, your time investment is still rewarded.
The next evolution of engram focusing was The Witch Queen’s crafting system, called Shaping. Shaping was meant to be the ultimate deterministic loot system, allowing you to perfectly tailor your loadouts with the exact perks you want. At its introduction, Shaping was fairly flawed and Bungie quickly made some significant changes to it. While the Shaping system and the acquisition of weapons with Deep Sight Resonance still isn’t perfect, weapon crafting now serves its purpose well. Shaping is not essential, but it gives hardcore players something meaningful to pursue long term.
As we move into Lightfall, we can see all of the pieces finally click into place. The Vanguard vendor is finally getting the focusing treatment, which will bring it in line with Gambit and Crucible. More importantly, it will create an opportunity to deterministically farm gear from Destiny 2’s pinnacle PVE activity, Grandmaster Nightfalls. We’re also seeing changes to the way that focusing engrams works in the pinnacle PVP activity, Trials, which will give players the opportunity to farm adept weapons even if they aren’t skilled enough to go flawless. Almost every activity in the game now has a way for players to target the specific gear they want, while still preserving opportunities to be surprised with lucky drops.
Surprisingly, umbral engrams, used for focusing seasonal gear for the last two years, are going away in Lightfall. The seasonal loot grind has gotten stale and it's time to mix things up, so there will be a new, yet unknown system replacing umbrals in the new expansions. Though we don’t know how grinding seasonal loot will work, it’s clear that Bungie now understands how much random chance the game needs, and how much players will tolerate. Whatever replaces umbrals will need to serve the same purpose, but after five years trial and error, it feels like Destiny 2 has finally gotten it right.
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