When one of the most influential game developers in the industry is hooked on a game widely criticized for its lack of story, that game must be doing something right.
Brianna Wu, who calls herself "the Godzilla of tech feminists," is a devoted player of Destiny — Bungie's wildly successful online shooter, which has just received a massive expansion pack called The Taken King (out now, $40).
Wu is head of game development at Giant Spacekat, the Boston-based independent game studio she co-founded in 2011. When she wasn't working on the upcoming PC version of her studio's award-winning iOS title, Revolution 60, or fighting for equality for women in the tech world, she was kicking butt in Destiny as a level-34 Hunter.
Although she's been critical of Destiny in the past, Wu recently tweeted that The Taken King makes Destiny "a game worth sinking 10 years into." We spoke with Wu just before The Taken King was released about what needs to change in Destiny, how great weapons can be a hindrance, favorite raids and who, exactly, The Taken King is for.
Tom's Guide: It took you some time to warm up to Destiny. What was the light-bulb moment for you?
Brianna Wu: I played Destiny, and I didn't group in it [play difficult missions as part of a group], but I had some friends who told me, "Bri, you've got to give it another chance; just get to level 20. Just give it a chance."
So I stuck with it, and I fell so in love with this game. Prison of Elders, and raids like The Vault of Glass and Crota's End — this is some of the most fun stuff I've ever done in a video game, especially Vault of Glass.
But the level boost [a new item can advance users instantly to level 25], is concerning. There is so much that you learn about Destiny, when you manually level up, that you need to learn along the way! The layouts of the levels, how the systems work and what elemental damage is — I haven't seen anything that convinces me that normal/new players will have an easier time getting into it.
TG: The game tells users to check out Bungie.net for more information, but do you think Destiny should be more proactive in suggesting that players use online resources?
Wu: Absolutely; they need it. This is where I need to go into game-developer parlance. A lot of the stuff in Destiny is not self-discoverable, in UI [user interface] terms.
It would be very, very hard for someone to beat the Vault of Glass without using the Internet. The same goes for Crota or Prison of Elders. This is a game that does really count on that meta level being there. I don't see a way to push people past that.
The other real fault of Destiny is that I don't think Guilds are really well implemented into the game. This is not a game you can play if you don't have a crowd of people that you hang out with a lot, that are willing to help each other level, and help each other figure this stuff out. If you don't have that, you're just effed, and it makes it hard to enjoy the game.
TG: Do you think any of the changes in The Taken King will mess up the hard work you've put in so far?
Wu: Every single one of the changes I've seen looks very logical. To me, this is good and bad: The Taken King is an expansion that's aimed at hardcore Destiny players. It's a love letter to us. It fixes a lot of the stuff and gives us more of what we want. It is not something for players that haven't been there the whole time.
The truth is, I will keep paying $20 to $30 a month, every few months, for expansions, for as long as they do this.
TG: What are you looking forward to, or hoping for in weapons changes?
Wu: It would be great for auto rifles to be de-emphasized, pulse rifles made a little more powerful. I'd like to see the Scout Rifle compete at that high level, as it is my preferred weapon.
I realize they can't make every gun in the game useful, but No Man Beyond is a sniper rifle that has no use in the game. It's an exotic weapon, and you can max it out, but it does not matter. What I want to see is every single exotic [weapon] in the game being useful in some way.
All of the weapons shouldn't be completely equal, but I think they could do a better job of not focusing on 10 items. Like the Vex Mythoclast [a very powerful weapon from Destiny's first year], everyone's trying to grind that out [going through missions over and over again until the right item randomly generates], and when you have a game that's all about finding this one gun, it's just bad.
TG: I'm curious what you think of the soon-to-be-worthless Gjallarhorn [a rocket launcher that fires homing rounds and has other unlockable perks, but will do less damage in The Taken King].
Wu: I really, truly don't know what I think about Gjallarhorn. There are so many aspects about it. I like having a superweapon for beating bosses, but at the same time, I don't think this situation where this one gun is required is good for gameplay. I really hope this issue gets addressed.
I personally prefer rolling with heavy machine guns. It's a lot of fun, but Gjallarhorn obviates the use of them.
TG: What else do you want to see in The Taken King?
Wu: I want to see stories stacked up, and I'm so far from convinced that's going to be OK. I think Nolan North is a slight upgrade [from Peter Dinklage as the voice of the Ghost robotic companion], but it's not a fix. The problem is their writing, not the acting.
TG: I've been hearing secondhand about a number of hires at Bungie to work on mythology, so I hope that helps.
Wu: I've heard the same thing.
TG: Do you think, then, that Bungie needs to make the story more of a priority?
Wu: It's a hard design decision. When we're game consumers, and we talk about this stuff, we assume everyone has the same psychological priorities that we do with games. That's simply not true — studies have split us up into four categories. [Editor's note: The Bartle Test of Gamer Psychology classifies players of multiplayer online games as Killers, Socializers, Achievers and Explorers.]
For me, personally, I love story-based games. As much as I love Metal Gear Solid V, I think the story sucks; I think it's terrible. I think, for Bungie — they're trying to balance something. They do have some consumers that just don't want story and want to go straight to the action. At the same time, they have this design work that's beautiful and perfect. I think it's really tricky how you balance those two things. You're trying to please a range of consumers and make them happy.
TG: So are you feeling confident going into the second year of Destiny?
Wu: Gameplay-wise, I think they [the developers] are on the right path with the Nightfalls, but I want all of this stuff to fall together with better progression. I remember how much time I spent out on Mars, searching for relic iron [a material that upgrades legendary and exotic gear], and I don't want to do that anymore. But yes, I think they can pull this off.