More than six months ago, Jamaal “Rex Smaals” Smith decided to start a clan for Bungie’s then-upcoming MMO-infused shooter, Destiny. Not just any clan, though. Primeguard would be the premiere group of fighters in Destiny. The best.
“We were talking a big game,” said Smith. “A lot of people were doubting us, we were doubting ourselves.”
MMOs are the birthplace of raids, typically referred to as endgame encounters. They’re placed at the end because it’s not surprising for raids to take hours, days, or even weeks to crack open and solve. Raids are teamwork-focused affairs meant to provide the ultimate challenge for veteran players.
The initial group was made of three Titans, two Hunters, and a single Warlock. All told, that group’s raid took 10 hours and 42 minutes and 32 seconds. During that time, it took down a combined total of 5,733 enemies, and collectively died 1,606 times. The full stats are here. At the end, they were the victors.
When I spoke to several members of Primeguard, just hours after completing Vault of Glass, there was a mixture of excitement and fatigue. Some members had trouble answering my questions.
“It’s exhausting and it’s kind of a little bit surreal right now,” said Smith. “It hasn’t really set in.”
Smith started recruiting for Primeguard months back, and initially ran into pushback from the community for being too “elitist.” But Smith had enormous ambitions for Primeguard, and was looking for the right candidates. Just wanting to be involved wasn’t enough. There was specific criteria.
Not much was understood about Vault of Glass before it launched yesterday. It was known raids would be a focus of Destiny’s endgame, but it wasn’t clear how they would work. Zachary “ExpBountyHunter” Preu was part of the recruitment process, and tried to make sure Primeguard was fully prepared.
“We asked people about their game history,” said Preu, “so we have people from all types of games: MMOs, FPS, RPGs. All that came together just so that we would have the best chance to complete something like Destiny. Destiny is something completely different from anything else.”
Most Destiny players are likely familiar with strikes, cooperative missions which have players squaring off against massive waves of enemies and enormous bosses. It’s mostly a war of attrition, and the main strategy is survival. Raids are different and more ambitious. Vault of Glass involves puzzles, a stealth section, and more. In essence, constantly changing variables that require players to work together.
“We were very, very pleasantly surprised,” said Smith. “It was a big, major difference. If people think the raid is just a tougher version of the strike, I’ve got news for them. They’re going to be completely blown away."
Not long before Destiny shipped, Bungie announced raids wouldn’t have matchmaking. Bungie argued players wouldn’t have fun randomly matched with players. Stephen “Datto” Jonke agrees.
“After going through that,” said Jonke, “I wouldn’t wish that upon my worst enemy to try and do that with just random people. It would be nightmarish.”
“It’s all but impossible,” said Smith. “For someone to try and accomplish that with a group of random people that they don’t know, [where] they don’t know their playing style, they don’t know really how the other classes operate--it’s nearly impossible. I could not see a random group of people beating it until six months from now, when there’s online guides and people can reference those.”
You don’t have to finish a raid in Destiny in one go, though. Raids have checkpoints, and they last a full week. But Primeguard wanted to finish Vault of Glass first, which meant stopping wasn’t really an option. Smith started to question whether his group could pull it off during the second and final boss.
“There were a bunch of times in there where I was questioning whether we had [it],” he said. “We were going in there with two level 26s, one level 27, one level 28. They say it’s a level 26 encounter, but to get through it easily or painlessly, I would advise everyone to be around level 28.”
What allowed Smith and company to achieve victory was spending time evaluating their failures.
“We think we’re doing something right, it’s working a little bit, and then we reroute our entire strategy around something that one person discovers,” he said. “That’s the good thing about having so many people with MMO experience and high-end PvE experience. They recognize patterns that they’ve seen before, they figure out puzzles quickly, they see things occurring. So often, it would happen that we would be like ‘okay, stop.’ One person would say ‘hey, when he does this, these guys pop out in this pattern, we need to all be moving to this side.’ Boom. He’s down to 15%. Another two hours later, we switch it up, he’s down to 5%. Next thing you know, you don’t need to communicate as much as you have to before because everyone knows their roles. It’s like a machine. When you get that guy down, it seems like it’s rolling. Everybody’s in a zone and knows their roles and responsibilities.”
“I wouldn’t wish that upon my worst enemy to try and do that with just random people. It would be nightmarish.”
Though it took more than 10 hours to deconstruct Vault of Glass, Primeguard figures a team knowing exactly what they were doing could finish it in two or three hours.
Even in the team’s darkest moments, it never conceived of giving up. Of course, it helped the world, including Bungie, was paying close attention. More than 8,000 people were watching Jonke’s stream.
“First and foremost, we’re gamers,” said Smith. “We wanted to be the best, we wanted to be world’s first. Everything else that comes with it is amazing, but if Destiny was a game that wasn’t hyped up like it was, if Destiny wasn’t a popular game, if it was just a regular game that no one else liked that we enjoyed personally, we would have gone about it the exact same way.”
The only frustration for Primeguard was a complaint that’s been echoed elsewhere: a lack of loot. Though a few loot drops showed up during the extensive fighting, not a single person from either group earned anything meaningful when the completion screen for Vault of Glass showed up.
“All we got was a shader and a couple of high-level materials,” said Preu. “I don’t think either of our groups got any actual loot. I’m sure they’re going to fix that.”
Even still, all three maintained that wasn’t a true disappointment. The victory was worth it.
“We wanted to be the best,” said Smith.
(You can listen to my interview with Primeguard on the Interview Dumptruck.)