Destiny 2 finally has a transmog system. It feels good to say that. Players can now customize their Guardian's look without messing up their build. And it works! I spent several hours playing space-age dress-up over the weekend to make the perfect outfits for all my characters, just as I've wanted to for years. The problem is that "it works" is about all the praise I have for Destiny 2's transmog system – in its current form, at least. Known in-game as 'armor synthesis', it's held back by a dejecting and counterintuitive grind that's totally killed the buzz of a feature that should've been a slam dunk.
Armor synthesis uses three currencies, which you could reasonably argue is too many. Synthweave, the one you actually use to transmog armor, is crafted using synthcord. You get synthcord from bounties which cost synthstrand, and in the run-up to the Season of the Splicer, Bungie stressed that you can get strands just by killing enemies anywhere in the game. The studio neglected to mention that synthstrand also has a hard time gate.
As players quickly discovered, you can only get one synthstrand every two minutes. You could kill two enemies or 500 in those 120 seconds, and you'd get one strand regardless. You need 150 synthstrand to buy a bounty for synthcord which you can then use to craft one synthweave – and yes, this is oddly complicated – meaning each ornament requires roughly five hours of killing. You can earn 10 synthweave from bounties for each class this season, so you'd need to spend 50 hours killing enemies on each class to max out your Season 14 transmogs. If you play a Warlock, Titan, and Hunter, that's 150 hours of combat for 60 ornaments in a three-month season.
That is not an end-game pursuit. That's a wage.
The horrible reality of knowing
Beyond the enormous time investment here, getting synthweave like this feels terrible. Imagine if you needed to finish exactly 100 raids to get a rare Exotic, instead of having a 1/100 chance of getting that item on each run. On paper, both systems lead to one Exotic across 100 raids, but with a random drop rate, each raid is more exciting because you're rolling the dice, not inching slowly toward a fixed finish line. When you know exactly when something is going to drop, everything leading up to that breakpoint feels tedious at best and worthless at worst. Again, math says that those raids are all equally valuable, but we're going to focus on emotions, not math.
This analogy isn't perfect, but the sheer drudgery highlighted here still applies. In fact, it's more frustrating with synthstrand because, rather than kills, these are gated purely by time, something I have no control over (at least not yet; maybe that second coronavirus vaccine makes me a time wizard). If I needed to kill a set amount of enemies to get one strand, at least I could speed up that grind by playing better. I'd still prefer a drop rate that gives me a chance to roll high, but I'd at least have some shred of agency in the process. But with synthstrand, I don't. In fact, the way Destiny 2 awards strands actively discourages me from putting in more effort, because that effort doesn't pay off. You are awarded one synthstrand for every two minutes you play. That's it. You also get 30 minutes for lunch and you clock out at 5pm. See you in five hours.
It's dispiriting to grind through hours of time-gated drop intervals to buy a random bounty that takes upwards of an hour to complete, all for the privilege of wearing one piece of armor I already obtained months, if not years ago. It feels bad. And so, I've already stopped engaging with transmog as a goal. As a fashion tool, it works great. But as a system, it couldn't be further from my mind when I'm actually playing Destiny 2.
Looking cool can be a fun end-game, but how?
Lots of MMOs treat transmog as an end-game pursuit, but the thing you're pursuing in those other games is the gear itself. It's easy to transmog an armor piece in Final Fantasy 14 or World of Warcraft. The hard part is getting the armor, and working towards that is fun because you just have to play the game – kill the boss, do the raid, whatever. The thing is, armor synthesis uses gear from your collection, meaning Destiny 2 players already have armor ready to transmog; we've just gotten a feature that lets us properly wear it. Bungie clearly wanted transmog to soak up some time in the Season of the Splicer and beyond, and since players already finished getting the armor, Destiny 2 padded things out with this weird, retroactive grind where we unlock things we've already unlocked.
Let's not forget that the only way around this is to spend real money. You can buy unlimited Synthweave at the Eververse store for roughly $2 each. I have a lot of faith in Destiny 2 and a lot of respect for the folks at Bungie, so I try to avoid cynical assumptions wherever possible. Wrapping the system around a time-consuming grind, with the only way to circumvent it being with real money, feels like textbook free-to-play railroading. It's not a good look, especially in a game with paid expansions and season passes, and especially when the feature being sold is so incredibly common elsewhere in the industry.
I actually like that this two-minute interval guarantees a fixed number of strands, but I wish this was treated as a minimum, not a maximum. What I want is for Destiny 2 to remove the hard time gate and add a chance for enemies to drop additional synthstrand within that two-minute window, giving me a chance to earn more and to improve my chances by playing more efficiently. It would be even better if enemies also had a very small chance at dropping synthcord since that would give me another dice to roll.
In a similar vein, because this entire system was built on the fact that players already have the armor they want to transmog, I think we could've done with more bonus synthweave up front. Everyone has a lot of cool armor to work through, and I worry this will create a backlog effect in future seasons, with old armor eating up our limited free synthweave and pushing out new armor. The fact that we get extra synthweave this season (over 10 in future seasons, with no freebies) does help, but not if most players can't feasibly play enough to collect all 20 on each class. If we were given another pack of 10 or 20 synthweave for each class, we'd be able to transmog a good chunk of our backlog right now. This would give the synthstrand grind a bit of a buffer, and it would let players experiment more to see the good parts of transmog.
Armor synthesis has been good for Destiny 2, no doubt, and I want to see it evolve in the future. We might not see drastic changes in two weeks, but Bungie was quick to acknowledge player feedback regarding the transmog economy. And if the studio can remove some of these roadblocks and make armor synthesis more fun to engage with, I think it would be great for the game, not just good.