Slot Machines That Pay Out Ever-Smaller Slot Machines: Strange Coins and Threes of Coins in Destiny

I’m late to the Destiny party. Then again, maybe I’m right on time. There’s a good case to be made that the Taken King expansion brings the game much closer to the ambitious, wry, inviting world that the development team originally envisioned.

I’ve been watching the game from afar for a while, checking in with the folks at the Experience Points podcast as they walked through the beta and the Year 2 relaunch and the game’s recent experiments with microtransactions. I’m fascinated by the intensely specific, almost scholarly kvetching of the game’s fanbase—”I talk shit about Destiny all the time, while at the same time never stopping talking about Destiny,” Jorge Albor said in the second of those three episodes—and its catch-all geek culture bricolage, mashing up space opera and first person shooting with loot-centric dungeon-crawling, World of Warcraft-style antisocial sociability, and D&D’s cardinal Fighter/Thief/Magic-User triad. It’s not just like Star Wars in that it looks and sounds like Star Wars in places. It’s also like Star Wars in that it draws from a deep well of apparently disparate influences, wizards cavorting on spaceships, greatswords that consume heavy weapons ammo.

But what’s gotten Destiny’s hooks into me most deeply is something it shares in common with basically every Massively Multiplayer Online RPG ever: a fathoms-deep strategic metagame layered on top of ceaseless Skinner Box shenanigans. You could think of the latter as an endless supply of delicious junkfood, or as an abusive cycle of empty drudgery, but the essence of it is that the core moment-to-monent loop is, by design, both deeply stupid and profoundly hypnotic.

And man, Destiny really pushes that Skinner Box stuff to remarkable levels.

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If you’ve been an at-distance Destiny appreciator like me, then you’ve probably heard about Xur, the guy who shows up from 3 AM Friday to 3 AM Sunday (Eastern Time) to sell Exotic items and items that help you get and manipulate Exotic items. For those who aren’t familiar, here’s what the hell that means.

Xur accepts only one currency: Strange Coins. You get these randomly from multiple sources, all of which are themselves at least semi-random.

You can complete Bounties (tasks offered daily, like use this kind of weapon of a lot or kill a bunch of these guys), and from completing in-game quests and Strikes (repeatable quests, excised from their story context, also offered in random “playlists” and daily and weekly features).

You can also get Strange Coins by Decrypting Engrams.

Decrypting what now?

Engrams are items that have yet to be identified. When you get one, you know what color-coded tier of item rarity your new position occupies—green for Uncommon, blue for Rare, purple for Legendary, yellow for Exotic—and you know whether it’s a heavy weapon or a pair of boots, say, but in order to find out exactly what you’ve got, you have to get the engrams magicked by a guy called the Cryptarch. Sometimes you’re surprised by the result. Sometimes you’re not. Sometimes an engram gives you more engrams and/or some Strange Coins.

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You never know what Xur is going to offer. But you know you’ll probably want some of it. If you don’t, and if you’ve nonetheless got some Strange Coins burning a hole in your pocket, then you can pick up this I-think-it’s-supposed-to-be-a-card-maybe called the Three of Coins. Using one of these items will up the chance that you’ll receive an Exotic engram the next time you take down a boss or some other Ultra enemy.

So, let’s sum up. The Three of Coins increases the chance of randomly getting a randomly selected item (with some randomly rolled properties). You buy the Three of Coins with a currency that you get randomly when you complete randomly-assigned activities, including rolling randomly dropped engrams into randomly rolled items.

It’s a slot machine that, when it pays out, pays out in other, smaller slot machines. Fractal gambling. Skinner Boxes within Skinner Boxes. It’s insane, it outwardly encourages some fairly unhealthy compulsive behaviors, and needless to say, it’s intoxicating to play. Does this stuff even register as insane to most MMO players anymore? I get the sense that maybe it doesn’t.

But hey, here I am playing lots and lots of Destiny while also complaining (vividly and effusively) about Destiny. From what I hear, that means that I’m now officially a Destiny fan.

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