Just two days after the release of Destiny 2, the game’s fervent fan community has already centered its focus on a grievance that’s threatening to tear it apart. You could call it ShaderGate. (Please don’t actually call it that.) In short, the issue stems from a critical shift in how cosmetic items in the game work, and it has players accusing developer Bungie of overstepping its boundaries and caving to corporate greed.
It’s yet another entry in the ongoing love-hate relationship between players and a developer that quixotically attempts to keep those fans from burning its community to the ground. Destiny players are no stranger to controversy: the original game, released in a near-unfinished state and plagued for years by attempts to remedy its many problems, was the source of seemingly hundreds of uproars that ripped through the game’s 375,000-plus Reddit community over the last three years.
There was a time when players were forced to ride around the same repetitive areas collecting upgrade materials, or when progressing upwards in the game’s level system required you perform the same activity every week, hoping to get lucky and score one specific piece of rare armor. There are dozens of other design decisions that Bungie later walked back or fixed after aggressive and frequent player complaints.
Destiny 2, above all else, has been lauded for Bungie’s thoughtful fixes to those quality-of-life issues, getting away from the original’s forced repetition and Kafka-esque mazes of upgrade systems and luck-based loot drops. The sequel is a much-improved experience largely because it respects the player’s time and gives more purpose to the activities you perform in Bungie’s virtual world.
Yet, despite this, the shader issue has emerged not even 48 hours after the game’s worldwide release. It’s a singular point of contention that has some longtime fans saying they’ll refuse to play or even buy the game unless it is reverted.
For the uninitiated, shaders are items that let you change the color of the armor or weapons your character uses. In the first Destiny, these items could be used infinitely and applied only to an entire armor set. In Destiny 2, players can apply them to individual pieces of armor, as well as weapons, but they’re also now single-use consumable items. That means if a player wants to change his or her appearance, they must consider how many of a certain shader they own and whether the change is worth it. Most importantly, it seems, earning more shaders can be easily accomplished by spending real money on a virtual currency called “silver.” (You can also earn shaders by playing the game normally, but it takes longer.)
Checking the subreddit community yesterday, one could find at least three separate front page threads that had amassed thousands of comments concerning Bungie’s decision to limit how shaders could be used. “Do not spend a single cent on microtransactions until shaders become unlimited use,” reads the most popular one, with nearly 2,500 comments. (Another popular thread, popping up late last night, coyly mocked the trend: “Can we take a moment to appreciate that our biggest gripe with the game is the shaders?”)
It probably seems ludicrous that players are up in arms over something that only affects how their character looks, and impenetrably complicated to parse the different factors at play. But the central concern is one that runs throughout the entire game industry, and it traces back to an ever-present debate over how modern video games can and should make money and to what extent content in a game should be gated behind slot machine-style systems and real-money requirements.
The idea of microtransactions — the video game industry equivalent of an in-app purchases — is a divisive topic. Some justify them as a necessary reality of modern gaming, as sticker prices for console games have stayed static at $60, while industry budgets have skyrocketed. Others see them as a cruel and soulless money grab. Many often fall somewhere in between the two ends of the spectrum.
Bungie is in the precarious position of trying to straddle an industry line, which is what makes its community so vulnerable to being whipped up into these frenzies. Other popular service-style games, like World of Warcraft or Final Fantasy XIV, have monthly subscription fees that justify the existence of a microtransaction system. The logic there is that you’re paying slowly over time for an ever-expanding amount of content, with everything else being cosmetic and unnecessary. Blizzard’s Overwatch costs $40 to $60 outright, but also features both regular free updates and the option to pay money to earn cosmetic items at a higher rate than non-paying players. Effectively, the free content releases keep most fan concerns at bay. How else would Blizzard pay for that stuff if not by charging you for character costumes and other cosmetics?
Destiny, on the other hand, charges players $60 for a foundational piece of software and then another $20 to $40 for added expansions down the line. It also lets players spend real money on optional items like shaders or emotes. When players have already committed to spending as much as $180, as the original Destiny ended up costing players for the base game and all its expansions, there are certain consumer expectations.
In many ways, Bungie’s new shader system works better than before. You have a much bigger range of options for customizing your character, but the trade-off is what many players see as an attempt to boost revenue by pushing them to spend even more money. It’s a perfect storm for Bungie, blending age-old concerns that the developer is trying to squeeze every cent it can from consumers with a feeling of betrayal over twisting a functioning feature to ill effect.
Shaders are earned through gameplay: leveling, chests, engrams, vendors. We expect you’ll be flush w/ Shaders as you continue to play. (1/4)
— Luke Smith (@thislukesmith) September 7, 2017
It’s unclear if or when Bungie might change this. The developer did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the situation. Game director Luke Smith did, however, clarify a few points on Twitter this morning, saying Bungie expects players to be “earned through gameplay,” adding, “We expect you’ll be flush with shaders as you continue to play.” Smith confirms that shaders will drop more often once players have progressed farther in the game. “Shaders are now an ongoing reward for playing,” he wrote. “Customization will inspire gameplay. Each planet has unique armor and Shader rewards.”
The company has gotten quite adept over the years at silently absorbing criticism and then trying to address it later on in big updates and explanatory patch notes. That makes Smith’s public tweets a break from tradition, if only in that they acknowledge the issue so soon after it’s bubbled to the community’s irate surface. But right now, it would not surprise me to see the shader system stay in place while Bungie lets the community work out for itself how it truly feels over time. After all, it’s only been two days. By next week, we might have all moved on to the next big outrage.