Activision gave digital copies of Destiny 2 to any PC players who wanted them from November 12th to the 18th. The DLC for the game isn’t part of the offer, but there are no level caps and players will have full access to the game’s other online content, like the PVP crucible. This is definitely good news for anyone looking for an affordable gaming experience, but what does this mean for the future of Destiny 2 as a game? Is this a well-timed move that will help the game spread or a desperate grab to keep the community alive? Could this even be a sign of how best to handle the game moving forward?
The closest mainstream equivalent to Activision’s peculiar giveaway is probably the increasingly popular concept of free weekends, which have helped loads of games bring in new audiences to their community. Rainbow Six Siege, Overwatch, and others have attracted plenty of fans who hadn’t played before and who were glad to start paying once they got a taste of the experience. But those people could only play the game free for a few days, whereas those who downloaded Destiny 2 within the allotted timeframe will be able to keep their copy permanently, which should attract even more players, at least in theory. But this willingness on Activision’s behalf to give the game for free raises an interesting question: Should Destiny 2 be free-to-play? For many adopters, the answer is a resounding ‘Yes’.
“Destiny 2 is a mixture of a boxed game, microtransactions, and a subscription service, and it's all a little difficult to keep track of”, writes Forbes contributor Dave Thier, and his point is easy to understand. The game launched as a full-price game with what many felt was a limited amount of content, only to release more in the form of paid expansions all while promoting its own microtransaction economy. Put simply, Destiny does not need all of this monetization. It uses an economic model typically seen in free-to-play games, which introduce a free base-game to entice players into paying more for additional campaigns and accessories. With how much criticism Activision has drawn from the way it charges Destiny players, they could—again, in theory—redeem themselves with a free to play switch. But is there enough reason to believe this turn would work in practice?
The Free-to-Play Effect
The Destiny franchise and its focus on multiplayer player vs environment raids and looting have invited comparisons to MMOs since the first game’s inception, so we can reason that looking at games in that genre might tell us what we can expect from this turn in the series. Granted, some MMO players see free-to-play switches as an omen of their chosen game’s failure, but it’s a change that has legitimately revitalized many player communities successfully. A change from a pay-to-play to a free-to-play model has brought games like Lord of the Rings Online, Tera Online, and Dungeons & Dragons Online from near-closure back to a sustainable player base and all of them are still running successfully to this day. Since Activision has recently admitted that Destiny 2 has failed to meet their sales expectations and we had a very hard time finding other players to group with, this sort of turnaround could be just what the doctor ordered.
On the other hand, this sort of change can just as easily signal the death of the game in its entirety. Sure, sometimes it’s because the game was already failing anyway and the monetization change simply failed to make a strong enough shift, but there is a precedent for free-to-play design turning people away from games they would otherwise enjoy. MMOs like Aion went from having rewarding systems that got players invested into looting and raiding to being stuffed with pay-for-convenience—or worse—pay-to-win mechanics that diminished the significance of gameplay skill and losing their core appeal in order to support their free-to-play model. This is economic philosophy is no stranger to Destiny 2 either, as any player disgruntled by the advantages brought by buying the game’s Bright Engrams can attest. After all, what’s the point of buying a game focused around loot-collection like Destiny 2 if the best way to collect is to open your wallet? That’s not a problem that can be resolved by simply eliminating the cost of entry.
Destiny 2 stands to gain significant goodwill with players by switching to a free to play model, but its issues go much deeper than that. Removing the microtransaction system would probably be a bigger step in the right direction, but that seems unlikely at this point and the limited giveaway of the game at least implies that Activision may be willing to make the base game free in future and we hope that that’s enough to turn it around. Despite the problematic payment models, Destiny 2 has a lot of strengths that make it deserve success. The moment-to-moment gameplay is thrilling and on the occasion that a group can be formed, the experience is engrossing. Hopefully, Activision will make the right decision and give the community the game it deserves.