Activision shares are down once again after a less-than-rosy earnings call which dealt with many issues, but one that stood out more than most. Call of Duty sales are relatively flat, Diablo Immortal drew enormous fan backlash, but Activision specifically called out Destiny 2: Forsaken as underperforming its expectations.
“Some of our other franchises like Destiny are not performing as well as we’d like,” was the exact quote, followed up by a promise to create more content and pursue additional forms of monetization. “We have not yet seen the full core re-engage in Destiny,” said Activision COO Coddy Johnson, “which has led to the underperformance against expectations to date. Some players are in ‘wait and see’ mode. If you’re in, you’re deeply engaged. If not, we think now’s the time to bring players back.”
While this is not great news for those “deeply engaged” current players, most of whom would agree that Destiny is in the best place it’s ever been in the wake of Forsaken, this is not that much of a surprise, given recent developments. It only took a month for Bungie to bundle Forsaken with its other season pass DLC, which was proving a barrier to entry for many. Then this past week at BlizzCon, it was announced that Destiny 2 would be free to download and keep in the next two weeks on PC. These are not signs of a super healthy game.
So what’s going on here? And what happens next? Both are long and complicated questions, but since I write long and complicated Destiny articles, here we go.
Much of the failure of Forsaken is due to the launch of Destiny 2 itself, which spent the first six months of its lifespan being relatively useless with problems in both the vanilla launch and the first quite bad DLC, Curse of Osiris.
While I do maintain that Activision’s punishing “you must release enormous expansions/sequels every fall” contract is partially to blame, with Destiny 2 not getting as much time in the oven as needed, I can’t pretend that Bungie didn’t also make some just flat-out bad decisions. Activision was not forcing them to do dual primaries or consumable shaders or create a lackluster endgame, which were all core problems with D2 at launch.
Destiny 2 did not really start to improve in any meaningful capacity until Warmind, its second DLC which launched in the spring, but by then many players had fled. And the problem with Destiny’s model is that when you got all the way to Forsaken, a content expansion that almost every agrees is pretty fantastic, the way Destiny is set up requires players to own Destiny 2, Curse of Osiris and Warmind in order to even start playing Forsaken. Yes, Bungie put together deals that bundled them all together for $60, and eventually made the season pass DLC free, but often times it’s as much of a psychological hurdle as it is a financial one. Players simply feel too “behind” to get back into Destiny 2, and even if Bungie does have items that can rocket you up to the proper power level to start Forsaken, many players A) don’t know that and B) have felt burned out by Destiny sometime in the last four years when it wasn’t as good as it is now.
The truth is that we are now entering what is essentially Year Five of Destiny with the launch of Forsaken, so no, I’m not all that surprised that many people have dropped out by now, no matter how good things may be. The Walking Dead is having an incredible season 9, but after many missteps and nearly a decade on the air, ratings are a third of what they used to be. It’s often just how things go.
Part of this may also be an Activision expectations problem, a company that doesn’t feel like it can celebrate a $500 million opening salvo for Black Ops 4 because that wasn’t as much growth as they wanted to see. We know that Forsaken brought in more digital revenue than any other title on the market in its launch month of September, yet it’s still being viewed as this failure. And for all the complaints about Destiny 2 at launch, it was still the third best-selling game of 2017, behind only Call of Duty and NBA 2K. It seems possible that a series like Destiny may never meet the kind of lofty revenue expectations a megacorp like Activision has for it.
The monetization problem is an interesting one, and one that’s going to be very, very hard to solve. Destiny has essentially the same problem as Diablo. How do you monetize a looter in a way that doesn’t defeat the entire purpose of the looter itself? Destiny has tried this with the Eververse store in the past, where its ultimate low point was the release of Curse of Osiris when there were more new items in the Eververse store than loot you could find in the world as that DLC launched.
Since then, fan complaints have effectively nerfed Eververse into irrelevance. It still exists in the game, you can still buy what are effectively loot boxes in the form of Bright Engrams, but these days you earn them so often just by playing that there’s practically no reason to actually spend money at Eververse, and holiday events which used to be designed to sell microtransactions have relented and allowed things like banning duplicate drops, so most players can easily assemble collections just through playing. This is great news for the player, bad news for revenue, and yet it’s not like when Eververse was greedier, that was any better.
This exact same thing happened with Diablo, though mercifully Destiny didn’t have to suffer through anything as bad as the auction house. The only DLC that really makes sense for Destiny are these paid content expansions, but those are known to sell less and make far less revenue than say, battle passes or loot boxes. I am slightly worried about this fact because Diablo 3, a game that sold something like 30 million copies, effectively had its second expansion canceled and broken up into a mishmash of free content as the game went on life support, as Blizzard never figured out how to “properly” monetize it. Diablo 4 is coming, but in a different effort to monetize the IP, well, that’s how we got Diablo Immortal. In a parallel universe I think that once upon a time, Destiny might have actually worked on a subscription MMO model like WoW, though obviously that’s out of the question now.
All of this leads to a question: what changes now if an expansion like Forsaken is a disappointment to Destiny’s overlords?
I doubt that we will see Year 2 (Year 5) plans change, and we’ll still get our three smaller content additions in the form of Black Armory, Joker’s Wild and Penumbra, as surely development on those is too far along to change. Though if Forsaken has sold poorly I’m not sure how much faith I have in sales of the annual pass. We may once again get another big fall expansion, though I doubt one as big as Forsaken, similar to Rise of Iron.
After that? I’m not sure. Even if Bungie’s deal with Activision was supposed to be a decade long, I’m not sure that we’re guaranteed a Destiny 3 at this point, and we know that Bungie is starting to look at developing other games as well. I would say that despite DLC sales, Activision and Bungie would be crazy to drop Destiny as it’s home to one of the most passionate, engaged core fanbases in gaming, and yet I just watched one misstep from BioWare essentially put the similarly beloved Mass Effect series on ice indefinitely.
I think the community can at least convey the message to Bungie that they should keep doing what they’ve been doing in the Forsaken era, as from lore to content production to gameplay, the game is in a nearly perfect spot (though the Destiny community will always find something to complain about). The problem is now not a quality one, but a marketing one, getting people back into the game again, which is why you’re seeing things like it being given away for free on PC and PS Plus. As for monetization, that remains a difficult problem to solve. I have previously suggested a ton of cosmetic stuff Bungie is leaving on the table, as they could be selling character re-designs, new haircuts, face paints, etc. I’ve suggested ship interiors, where players could pay to display their guns and armor in some sort of achievement room. But again, unless you are practically designing your entire game around getting player to shell out cash regularly, Fortnite, Hearthstone, GTA Online, that kind of serious revenue generation will probably forever be elusive. Getting some fraction of playerbase to pay for new story DLC is just not good enough for most corporations these days, Activision included, which leaves a game like Destiny in a tough spot.
All I can do is keep telling people “Destiny is good now, you really should give it a shot.” I don’t work for Activision or Bungie, but I do love this series, and I don’t want to see it wither because of past mistakes and a greedy market model that seems to have no place for it.