System Design Analysis

Purple Engrams.... Purple Engrams Everywhere...

When Destiny launched it was a different game than it is today. And a completely different game than what it will be a month from now. Today I want to review a change the developers made to the engram system.

Back Story: Engrams are like randomized item boxes. Once you bring them back to the Tower and have them decoded by the cryptarch he gives you back an item you can actually use. So in short you find item boxes collect them and bring them back to this guy to open them for you and tell you what you’ve received. There are 5 different colored engrams (yellow, purple, blue, green and white). These colors are where the developers screwed up. (The colors in Destiny correspond to a weapon's rarity and therefore strength. Yellow – Exotic, Purple - Legendary, Blue - Rare, Green - Uncommon, White - Common)

How it started: Initially when a player received an engram, when the cryptarch identified it, the item could be as rare as the color of the engram or worse. Example: If I pick up a green engram it would turn into either a green or white item. If I were to pick up a purple engram it could be an item which is purple or blue. As a result, purple and yellow engrams would fall fairly frequently. Unfortunately, players would become frustrated (frustrated is an understatement) when they discovered a legendary engram and instead got a rare weapon.

I think AlyMew put it fairly well (might want to turn your speakers down a little bit):

How Bungie fixed it: They reversed the engram rewards and adjusted the drop frequency of engrams. So instead of a green engram getting you a green or white item a green engram would get you a green, blue, purple or yellow item. If the player were to pick up a purple engram they would be guaranteed at least a legendary purple weapon if not an Exotic. So the player was guaranteed an item at least as rare and as powerful as the engram they collected. In response to this change Bungie also reduced the drop rate of purple and yellow engrams and increased the drop rate of white and green engrams. (I assume blue didn’t move too much because it was already in the center.)

What we can learn?

Don’t tell the player they COULD win a new car but instead give them a plastic bag. Tell them they’ve won a plastic bag and give them a new car instead. Let me elaborate: players were frustrated because they were given an item and told it could be this super cool thing but instead was 99.9% of the time something really lame. When they patched it players would be told they were getting this lame thing but instead got something super cool. So they were always getting either something they expected or better.

By learning from the mistakes of others I hope to not repeat the past in games I get the honor to work on.

Thank You


Systems Short: The Power of the Xbox One's Friends Leaderboard

The Xbox One's Friends Leaderboard is a powerful tool to help keep gamers playing. It is located in the Friends section of the Xbox One Dashboard (As of writing this on 6/19/15 I heard they will be making some changes to the dashboard in the coming months).  It works by tracking how much gamerscore you and your friends have earned over the course of the last 30 days and ranks you against them. (Side bar: players gain gamescore by earning achievements. Players earn achievements by doing specific tasks in games. An achievement can only be earned once.)

Here we can see Major Nelson is currently not doing so well at 11th place amongst his friends. It shows each player’s current gamerscore as well as how much it has changed in the last 30 days.

Leaderboards typically have an issue where eventually someone will score so high that it feels impossible for new players to catch up.  The timed leaderboard, which after some time, forces the scores back to 0 so players will have to come back to continue dominating the leaderboard. The 30-day achievement leaderboard is particularly clever. This is because in a normal timed leaderboard the players just need to keep playing the game to try to score higher. And every month the leaderboard resets. Sounds simple enough. But because there is an achievement/ gamerscore cap for every Xbox game, in order to continue dominating this leaderboard players will need to eventually buy new games. Thus helping to push sales. Because this is on the friends page, players are guaranteed to continually bump into it while navigating to the store or to see a list of which friends are currently online. (I know there are other ways to get to these pages without viewing the friends page but this is the most common route.)


I have condensed this system into a simple flow chart to help get the most important parts of the system down for better understanding. There are more parts to this but this is the basic flow. If there is some demand I can go into the finer details of how this system works. Click on the image to enlarge it.

Chart made in Lucidchart

Additional tension is created when the scores are updated. Like I said before typically timed leaderboards reset on a specific day for everyone. There is a universal reset. The way Xbox does it is it resets 30 days from when the player earned the specific achievement.

(Skip this paragraph if you hate math or word problems)

For example if I haven’t played my Xbox in over 30 days and I earned an achievement worth 100 GS (Gamerscore) on May 1st, I would have +100 GS on the leaderboard for May 1st. Lets say I earned an achievement on May 2nd worth 150 GS and then earned no more GS for the rest of the month. From May 2nd – May 30th I would have +250 GS but on May 31st I would only have +150 GS. This is because 30 days have past and the Achievement/ GS which I earned on the 1st no longer counts for the leaderboard.

This allows players to see their scores fall overtime and their friends more easily begin to dominate the leaderboard unless the player earns more achievements.

I find this system to be particularly clever and simple and I applaud whoever designed it because for the first few months even I didn’t put the pieces together. I was so focused on maintaining my dominance over my friends I didn’t think about how they are pushing me to buy more games.

And while it doesn’t bother me because I purchase ridiculous amounts of games I could see how this form of mental manipulation might bother some people.


Destiny Vs. Clash of Clans: Time Gates and Currency

As a hardcore gamer I play disgusting amounts of games. Particularly when they come out. I’ll play for 20-60 hours over the course of the week then I’m finished with it and possibly never touch it again. I’ve played my fill and am happy with it.

My god this was fun while it lasted

My god this was fun while it lasted

I am part of the problem for developers: How do we retain players better?

DLC is one such answer to this. It sometimes brings players back after they have moved on to something else. By doing this, developers hope to suck the players back into the game for a second wind, bring back some of the community and make a few extra bucks off them. This is why we hear so often about future DLC before the game is released. So we wont sell the game to Gamestop and have someone else buy it; thus they lose more money. But this can easily fracture the community and typically involves players spending more money before receiving the new content. Which will already cause fewer players to buy it.

Another is a time gate. Clash of Clans handles time gates like so: When a player wants to build or upgrade a structure it will take time. The more powerful the structure the longer it takes to build (Some even taking up to a couple weeks!). Now the player can pay real world cash to speed the process up (The impatience of humans has made Supercell stupid amounts of money). But if the player wishes to wait or has to wait to progress they leave the game and don’t binge it, thus they don’t get tired of the game as quickly and come back more often. This may piss off some players but when paired with notifications of when the structure is complete on the player’s phone it keeps the player coming back for more.

You can see the numbers I.e. 15 H 58 M, that’s 15 hours and 58 minutes until completion before said structure is built/upgraded and ready for use

You can see the numbers I.e. 15 H 58 M, that’s 15 hours and 58 minutes until completion before said structure is built/upgraded and ready for use

So what happens when you try to bring this concept over to the realm of Xbox One and PS4? Typically the very outspoken hardcore gaming communities are not fans of micro transactions or of having the option to spend more money on speeding things up.  The way they see it is they have spent $60 on your product and expect to not be asked for more money. As outspoken as they are about this it’s funny that a similar system has been used to help retain high-level players of Destiny.

This brings me to the Vanguard and Crucible marks. Vanguard marks are a form of currency that are awarded to players for taking on PvE (Player vs. Environment) tasks. Crucible marks are a form of currency awarded to players for taking on PvP (Player vs. Player) tasks. They are the most reliable and only guaranteed way to get the gear the player wants. (Everything else is a random drop so the players wont get to choose what they get, with the exception of strange coins for Weeklies/Nightfalls and Xur. But even that follows a very similar system.) These marks can be used at their respected vendors to purchase very high-level gear. Here is where it gets interesting; players can only obtain 100 of each kind of marks each week. (This resets on Tuesday morning at 2am PST) To purchase high-level Armor it costs 75 marks for a chest piece, a leg set or an arm set. For a helmet it costs 120 marks. As you can see due to the 100 marks per week limit getting a full set isn’t going to happen this week.

A strange thing happens when a player reaches 100 marks. They stop playing. They put the controller down and do something else thus giving them some time away from the game to go do or play something else so they don’t get fatigued. Then when it resets on Tuesday they come back because they want to earn more marks and continue leveling up their guy. This time away from the game is a powerful thing because it helps keep the player from getting fatigued. There is no option to pay to speed the process up and there is no countdown timer. Because this isn’t as in your face as Clash of Clans players don’t think about it too much. And the developers completely avoid the issue of their game becoming pay to win.

So what is in the player’s face? How does a player know they have reached the 100 marks limit? A couple bars that fill up in the map menu show the current status of the player’s weekly-earned marks.

We can see here the Crucible and Vanguard marks are shown via the red and blue circles going around the locations named Vanguard and Crucible

We can see here the Crucible and Vanguard marks are shown via the red and blue circles going around the locations named Vanguard and Crucible

So it makes the player feel good because they finished this task for the week. Not to mention if you are playing on Xbox you get an achievement the first time you do this. (I would imagine there is a Trophy for this on PlayStation) And it’s a reliable solution to leveling your character up. There aren’t any feelings of being cheated when the player doesn’t get the loot drop they want. Because they are guaranteed X number of marks for task Y.  And it stops the player from feeling fatigued from the game by subtly suggesting to them “Hey you aren’t going to get anymore of these until Tuesday. Why not come back then?”

When they come back or start a new mission they see this map and they see how many marks they have. They see when it resets. And there is something rewarding about having that bar filled up. The only issue with this is there aren’t any notifications, outside of the game, reminding the player that the marks have reset. Instead it is on players to be apart of a community thus causing them to think about Destiny and wanting to return. And if the player base wasn’t already so feverish for the game, without notifications it might not work. (Try playing Clash of Clans without notifications. Life gets in the way and it might be days before you return to the game if ever.)

Notice the circles are empty because it has reset for the week

Notice the circles are empty because it has reset for the week

Using a time gate in one form or another isn’t a bad thing necessarily. And how you use it and how you display it is important to how your player base will perceive it. But if Destiny and Clash of Clans are any proof it can be used to hook casual and hardcore gamers and extend the life of the game by forcing them away for a time. Distance makes the heart grow fonder.

Now if you’ll excuse me I need to run this strike so I can get my final 6 marks and buy that Legendary Helmet I’ve been eyeballing.