Destiny’s Vault of Glass, a six-player Raid filled with puzzles and traps, stands apart from any other experience in the game. It’s a massive pain in the ass, and Bungie’s Luke Smith directed its construction.
Smith is also the creative director of The Taken King, a huge expansion to Destiny that kicks off the game’s second year by concluding one of the game’s major storylines, creating entirely new Guardian subclasses, and setting player expectations for what to expect from future expansions. There is plenty riding on Smith’s shoulders.
The Vault of Glass is his resume. Nothing in Destiny’s campaign prepares players for what they will encounter in the Vault when they open its door for the first time. There is no training, there are no hints. Unless a group of even the most seasoned Destiny players know how to cooperate efficiently, they have two choices. Quit, or find cheeseball strategies to avoid facing the challenge of the Vault head-on. It remains some of Destiny’s most challenging content.
We spoke with Smith at E3 on Tuesday to learn more about The Taken King, the Etheric light system that entirely revamped how Destiny players reach max level with their characters, and how his experience designing the Vault of Glass has influenced his relationship with Destiny as a whole. The following is an edited transcript of our conversation.
When did development on The Taken King begin?
We had a really small team thinking about it while we were still making vanilla (the original release). I was working on the Vault of Glass for vanilla Destiny, that’s what I directed for that game…. As soon as that was over, I jumped over here to focus on [The Taken King].
Were you the creative director for the Vault, as well?
I was the lead designer/director for the Vault of Glass. It’s still one of my favorite things that I got to work on.
So how much were you studying The Dark Below expansion? You said you started working on The Taken King when Bungie was working on the original release, which means you were working on The Taken King during the development of The Dark Below.
With both the DLCs, with The Dark Below, I was definitely looking really closely at The Dark Below because it did introduce the questing model a little bit, just the concept of, bringing quests into our world…
Yeah. And that was, there was definitely education for that. For instance, I didn’t go home for the holidays last year, because instead I stayed to play through The Dark Below a bunch with my friends and get through and figure out, try to unpack what was working about that experience that, you know, we could look at The Taken King and start to pivot rapidly, coming into the new year.
Do your metrics capture the rate at which Destiny players are maxing their level? I’m wondering about the effect of House of Wolves and the Etheric light system. Are you seeing an uptick in engagement with endgame content?
We are still seeing a pretty strong bump from House of Wolves. We’re really excited about how people have come back to the game, and have continued to engage. Our numbers have been great. As far as calculating the impact of something like the Etheric light, we haven’t really done that yet.
But, as a player and designer, one of the things that I look at with Etheric light which, to throw the caveat on there, it does very clearly say year one. Year one gear, and we are entering year two with The Taken King. But what that’s creating, I hope, for Etheric light, is it’s creating this empowerment and creativity for players, and freedom, which is the ability to…first thing I did with my Etheric light was I made all my characters look like they used to look, in the Vault of Glass. I decided to go back to this different time, and be relevant again.
When I look at the armor in this room [points at murals of three Guardians from The Taken King], this isn’t the Raid armor. This is not The Taken King raid armor. If the player who saw this, or if I as a player want to look like these three characters, that’s how I want to play the game, we’re not talking about how, but that experience, we want to enable and empower that kind of creativity, later this year.
So you don’t have metrics in terms of how many Vault of Glass runs, how many Crota’s End runs, how many people did Iron Banner, such that you could look and see if there’s more engagement now…
We do track the population engagement, and we do samples from all segments of it, to extrapolate that out. We have definitely seen an uptick in PvP since we did the PvP update, and since [Trials of Osiris] came out. Globally, the rate [for Raids] has probably gone down a little bit, because the endgame play moved to Prison of Elders.
The Raids are still…if you told me a long time ago, when I was working on Vault, that this many people were going to play them, I’d have said you’re full of shit.
We’re totally humbled by the amount of people who’ve gone into that, into that activity, man. I could not have predicted the voracity with which players would dive in there. It’s pretty flattering and humbling to the Raid team itself.
Was the expectation that you weren’t going to pull a lot of MMO players into Destiny? I would think it’s a given that anyone playing MMOs is going to do the Raids. That’s what you do.
We didn’t really know, I mean…the Raid development at Bungie, for the Vault of Glass, even internally, was very secretive. I was very protective of that child, because if we showed it too soon, I felt like the studio, they might not have understood it. It might have gone by the wayside, and we had a really good team culture and we had a bunch of really smart, creative people. And we… [Laughs] There was a team meeting one day, where all I did was put up the door for the Vault of Glass, and I had the door open slowly behind me. And that was the video. And at the end of the meeting I said, “I’m not going to tell you how to open it, I’m not going to tell you what’s on the other side. But it’s been propped on the machines in the building. Get a group of six, and go play.”
Because I didn’t want to demystify the mythology… Developing the Raid, it was about presenting it to the team the way that we wanted the players to see it, and the way the players would be confronted with it. Yeah, man. It’s been really surprising to me to see how much it’s been played. Really humbling.
It is an MMO, but you’re pulling from the console audience, so I guess I can see why you would have thought that, but me, coming from MMOs, of course I’m doing the Raids. I mean, what the hell am I playing this for? Why am I ranking up all my characters? I’m going to go do Raids!
That’s how I felt, too. But like, it would have been dangerous for me to suggest or think that the way that I was going to engage with the game was how everyone would. We wanted to construct a pretty cool experience and hope that that experience would pull people into it. Maybe we pulled a little too aggressively with the Vault.
How do you mean, “pulled too aggressively?”
It was the only way to reach the level cap, you know, I think that that led to some frustration. There was the stuff that we’ve learned from along the way like “The Forever 29” meme. That was something that was pretty rough for us to go through, man. We’re players, too. A bunch of us play a shitload of Destiny.
I’ve been at Bungie for over eight years, and Destiny is by far the most played game I’ve seen internally at the studio, as far as products that we make. When we were working on Halo, people loved playing Halo. But the way that the studio’s consuming Destiny is unlike anything I’ve seen internally at the company.
The whole “level 29” meme, does that represent any kind of quintessential conflict between the console first-person shooter mentality and the MMO mentality? What you’ve done with Destiny is you’ve taken a primarily PC genre, the MMO, and made it palatable and workable on a console, which is exactly what you did with Halo, right? You took multiplayer first-person shooters that were primarily on PC, you brought them onto consoles and made it work.
Now you have Destiny, which to me is clearly an MMO, but you’re drawing off the first-person shooter crowd. So this level 29 thing, I’ve played enough MMOs to know there’s always a mid-game grind. That’s just how it is, and you work through it. So does that meme indicate some kind of essential difference between the console players you’re getting in this MMO, and MMO players?
I just think about it in terms of gratification. It didn’t bother us to work hard for materials, and it clearly bothered other people.
That’s one of those places where, you know, pulling things together more as we move forward, and trying to figure out the ways to make the game feel super rewarding and engaging, but also still have that long-term progression, because the progression long-term, that’s like what keeps you coming back, which means you’re there when your friends get on, and they’re there when you get on, because you’re also working for the same goal.
What we really want for Destiny is for it to be this alibi for you to get together with your friends and talk about your lives.
Does The Taken King close out the Hive storyline that began with The Dark Below?
There is definitely going to be a resolution to the “of fathers and sons” storyline that we’re in the midst of, with the murder of poor little Crota. All he was doing was trying to raise a Hive army to take over Earth, and then y’all went and killed him over and over for loot, and now Dad’s angry, and he’s here with a ship, a fleet, and he’s raised an army. [Laughs]
We’re just going to kill him over and over.
Screengrab via PlayStation/YouTube