Path of Exile is an action RPG, of similar mould to Diablo, created by New Zealand-based developer Grinding Gear Games. The game is a free-to-play title that the developer has stated is never pay-to-win, with microtransactions only for cosmetic items. It was released in 2013, and earned a very positive review from RPGamer's Glenn Wilson. The company has just announced its fourth and biggest expansion, The Awakening, and gave RPGamer a chance to chat with Producer and Lead Designer Chris Wilson (no relation).
Alex Fuller (RPGamer, News Director): How long has the expansion been under development?
Chris Wilson (Grinding Gear Games, Producer and Lead Designer): In 2013, when we released the game, we knew we wanted to make a follow-up expansion that was really big, pushed its plot forward a lot, and added new storyline and monsters. The problem was that we knew it was going to take two years and were concerned that two years without releasing any new content for existing players would be a death sentence. So we put together another team and had one team working on the expansion, while the other team finished three smaller ones, which took about four-to-six months each whereas this one has been in development since around 2013.
AF: Can you tell us about the general Path of Exile experience and what changes The Awakening makes to it?
CW: It is both a very large expansion to the core content of Path of Exile but also adds new systems that push the game in other ways. Path of Exile has a reputation in the community as a game that provides a lot of character customisation possibilities. This is partly because we have some systems that, while relatively easy to use for new players, can be very deep for players that like to fiddle around with the details. An example here is that all the skills you can use in the game are [equippable] gems that you can trade between players, and you can also combine them together by putting support gems in the sockets nearby to modify their properties. For example, you can take the fireball gem and convert its damage to ice, spit out multiple projectiles, convert it into a traps or set of mines that can be detonated, convert it into a totem that casts fireballs, or all of the above. That applies to the active skills, but it's the passive skill tree we'll be talking about more here.
The passive skill tree has become the game's identity to some extent. A lot of people associate the crazy tree with Path of Exile and so what we wanted to do was find a way to make it crazier. The passive skill tree is large and complicated, but it's also static, it only changes when we change it, and we wanted to make it a bit more dynamic. You'll see a new jewel socket with a blue border [see screenshots below]; you can unlock these like any other passive but it sits empty. You'll also see a new jewel that offers various bonuses and put that in the socket to make your own new passive. This means you can find one of these, and trade it with others for who it might be more useful. You can also find rare jewels, there a ton of things these can do, and it's intentionally a lot of possibilities so players find it difficult to get ones that have perfect properties. So it's hard to find good rare jewels, but when you do they'll be some of the best things to put in the passive tree. Just with jewels like this, it involves quite a lot of extra randomness that we can get from the tree.
But during the design of this, we found a couple of ways to make it even crazier, and this pushes the system to be what people have found most exciting so far about the expansion. The first to note is that all the traditional crafting methods of changing and modifying items work with these jewels. [Shows a unique jewel] This is an example of a unique jewel; unique items are ones where a designer has come up with set properties for that item. They designed a bunch of unique jewels, but during the design they found really cool ways to make jewels. This one called "Fluid Motion" says strengths from passives in the radius is transformed to dexterity, so now suddenly if my character is missing chance to hit or accuracy, you can just cut out a swath of the tree and say "that's all dexterity now". Not only does this let you customise the tree in an interesting way, it can also be a temporary thing. There's no cost associated with removing the jewel, you can take it out and put it in again later if you want to.
[Couple more examples showing changes to different types of modifier] This is the jewel called Selfless Leadership, and it says that passives within the radius apply to minions instead of you. This means that golem you've got or that army of skeletons now gets all the passive within the circle. These are all passives designed for the player, but now instead it gives them to all of the minions. This lets you cut out swathes of the tree and let you improve your army of undead. There's an interesting anecdote where I was talking to one of my designers to find the best place on the tree to put this jewel so that your minions are super-powerful. He came back with seven copies of the jewel in different places, converting ninety percent of the things his character was getting onto the minions. He was fragile as a piece of paper but the minions were killing machines, and we said "awesome, leave that in".
AF: Are there any additions in the expansion that might not be so obvious at first glance?
CW: We've put a lot of detail into making sure there's lots of new monsters in this act, we've gone for twice the density of monsters being introduced than normal. In a typical act we'll have fifteen or sixteen species, but here's we've gone for thirty-three, so there will hopefully be a lot of new play experience. Monsters will interact with others in ways that you might only notice occasionally, like a certain kind of guy will pick up another monster and throw him at you. I literally ran into that [an hour before the interview] and had never seen that in two years of working on the game. There are a lot of little touches and I really liked that.
AF: How does Act IV follow on from previous acts?
CW: There's a long complicated story about why you're encountering these very different areas [see screenshots below]. The act is set around a mining town and the people doing the mining discovered an ancient beast deep under the mountain, which has been slumbering for a few hundred years but is now waking up. As it wakes up, it manifests it what it was dreaming about as reality, and has dreams related to various things from Path of Exile's history. There are a lot of internal references for players about things that they know and quite a lot of fanservice for those who care about Path of Exile's story and the past, while being cool areas to play through for new players.
We've introduced nine new boss fights in this expansion. Normally we keep to one fight, because we felt boss fights should be climactic, but they proved so popular that we went for nine because it's the end of the game — the fourth act — so from the beginning to the end you're having set-piece boss fights that are very cool.
AF: Is Act IV the conclusion of the main story?
CW: We concluded the main story with the end of Act III, but we're concluding a different part of it here. The subtlety in Act III is dealing with the direct antagonist; here you're dealing with a much larger world-crisis problem. There are still other unresolved threads in the story, so there are other directions the story can go in the future. The solution is having lots of consecutive endings that each one feels like the biggest one, while you still have bigger ones up your sleeve.
AF: How long is the fourth act compared to previous ones?
CW: It's roughly the same length as the other ones. What that actually means is action RPGs are deceptive with regards to play length. If you sit down and want to play through Diablo or Path of Exile it doesn't take that long, but playing just once through the game is not at all what action RPGs are about. You kind of get addicted to playing higher difficulty levels, you have random level generation so it's different each time, and there are monsters you don't necessarily even see on your first play through. Then there are random in-game systems, there are tons of items to find, there are competitions, we have races and PvP tournaments. To cut a long story short, if a player just wants to see the game once they can do it in around fifteen hours, but then some people get sucked in for two thousand hours, which is where our company makes most of its money. Our monetisation model is cosmetic microtransactions and we try very hard not to sell anything that provides a power advantage for the users. They can't buy the ability to be better than other people, they can buy the ability to look more sparkly than other people.
AF: How has being a free-to-play game benefitted the game and development?
CW: Being free-to-play means people can more easily check the game out. You put an article up and normally some percentage of people will buy the game, but here a larger percentage of people will check it out for free. It removes that barrier. It also incentivises us to make a good game, because if we released a bad game for free then no one is going to give us any money. But if we release a good game for free ideally it will cause people to play it and then we will eventually get money, so I feel the incentivisation is correct.
AF: How has reception of the game been compared to what you originally expected?
CW: We were expecting less because we were literally a bunch of university guys just making our first game. Our success metrics didn't involve us running a fifty-seven-person company. It's phenomenally successful as far as we're concerned. It's the story of a game the market really liked that did well because of its positioning and timing, as well as being a good game.
AF: How much of the development is a result of fan-feedback and suggestions?
CW: We've gone through all of the community-suggested improvements in terms of the user interface and applied all of those that we can. We've actually kept the information about this expansion away from them as much as possible. They know something's coming, but they don't really know what. What they have had to contribute to is giving us feedback on what we've done in the past, but also giving us laundry lists of what they want to see changed. There's a lot of good stuff in there, so we've taken on board a lot of suggestions for UI improvements. A guy wanted a clock in the user interface and managed to get a thousand user signatures in a petition, so it now allows you to turn a clock on inside the game; it's that kind of thing where we've gone through and done all the small things they wanted.
AF: Are there any changes that you hope will encourage new players to join the game, or in general to the earlier parts of the game?
CW: When we were rebalancing the game around the new content we got to apply all the things learnt about making the beginning of the game easier to approach. We noticed there were systems we were introducing too late, the support gem stuff is an important part coming in at level thirteen, so now we've moved it down to level eight. We've gone through and redesigned what the early-game skills are so they work better and feel better. There are a lot of changes just to make the beginning of the game feel better than it did before. What we're hoping will happen is because the hardcore players in each gaming group will be trying out the expansion that the new players will hear about the bunch of new content, jump in, and find the experience is a lot more accessible than what we've done in the past.
One thing we've done is gone and made the early parts tighter and more condensed. This is partly because we've introduced all this Act IV content and don't want the game to take too long to play through and chopped out about an hour of the most boring content from elsewhere.
AF: How much effort has gone into building the game's setting?
CW: There's a growing team who basically work on that alone. We have our creative director, Erik, and Erik cares a lot about planning what the monsters are and how the world works. He works with a writer who entirely writes backstory for the game and populates who the characters are, how long they lived, what they did in their lifetime, and who knows who. Together the two of them put a lot of effort into backstory and they work with the level design guys who have to bring them to life in making the game world feel alive and so on.
AF: One of Path of Exile's interesting points is its community and competitive leagues. How have these leagues helped build its community?
CW: Path of Exile has leagues, which are essentially segregated economies in the game; players in the hardcore league are playing with others in the hardcore league, and you can't play or trade with someone who's not. People often have characters in a variety of different leagues. As an example, say I wanted to make a league that starts in one hour and lasts for an hour. The players call this a race league, because if you've only got an hour of gameplay you want to see how far you can get in it. Then we can award prizes for whoever came highest, because there's a leaderboard for it. We run schedules of these, and typically put together a couple of hundred of these races and let them run, and the duration can range from twelve minutes to several hours to potentially several days.
The leagues are really handy as they both create a new level playing field that drags people out of nowhere who have just become interested in it. But it's also cool as each one gets its own economy, community, events, and we found it really good for community consolidation.
AF: Have any community events stood out to you recently?
CW: The community really likes to organise their own stuff, and an example is they basically created their own PvP tournament scene by themselves. They got together, found commentators, got it streamed, put together their own tournaments with rules, and then played a bunch of PvP. This was all orchestrated by them and so one of the three expansions we released with the smaller team (in December) was focused around augmenting their PvP feature set. This was an example of them saying clearly "we want this kind of content, please give it to us".
AF: Are there are any standout unique builds that you've seen players come up with?
CW: I've got a small story about this. This is getting into in-depth Path of Exile talk but we added a skill called Mirror Arrow that copies you at a certain location and the copy fires shots at the enemies. This went along with Blink Arrow that is basically the inverse. One makes a copy away from you, the other moves you and makes the copy where you used to be standing. The idea was players would use them in PvP and players wouldn't know which was the copy. In order to make the copy seem reasonable we have to give a five-times bonus to health and damage. Meanwhile, on the passive skill tree there's a passive called Minion Instability that says as soon a minion hits thirty-three percent life then they explode, doing damage based on how much life they've got to nearby monsters.
What players would do is get themselves down to low life using a build that gives them a big bonus for being on low life. Then they'd use Mirror Arrow, creating a copy that automatically triggers the explosion, but because of the five-times life and damage bonuses it did twenty-five times as much explosion damage as we intended. We didn't even know the combo worked with Minion Instability so now they have the ability to nuke an entire screen. They were running around for half a day doing this until we worked out how the combo worked. It was quite awesome, and this was stuff they figured out themselves just by reading carefully and considering the rules. We were able to sort it out my making the life and damage bonus not apply to the explosion. So now it's still a cool trick you can do, but it doesn't do twenty-five times as much damage as intended.
AF: How long to you hope to keep supporting and releasing new content for the game? Are there any future titles in the works?
CW: As long as people are still interested in it, and buying supporter packs! It's going well so far, so it looks like it'll be another five or ten years for Path of Exile, maybe even longer. World of Warcraft is still going strong, and while I wouldn't want to compare ourselves to such a successful game at this stage, it would be great if people are still interested in a decade.
It's all focused on Path of Exile at the moment. We have two teams working on different expansions but we don't have any projects. As soon as this one's out we're going to have a look at how it did and make a judgment on what we're making for Path of Exile next.
AF: How did Grinding Gear Games and Path of Exile get their beginnings?
CW: Back in 2006, some friends and I were in a situation where we had enough savings to last a little while if we formed a company, and we'd just got off a lot of time playing Diablo II. We were in a situation where our respective talents allowed us to come together and form a studio. Erik was an artist in Sweden and wanted to be art director of game. My other co-founder, Jonathan Rogers, was a really, really talented programmer and really wanted to lead the programming on the game. While I was a developer myself I had a lot of desire to both run a company from a business point of view and contribute to the design of a game that was a good action RPG. So we got together and started spending our life savings, gradually hired employees, and grew until eventually the game entered closed beta in 2011. It got very, very popular and so we started doing crowdfunding, and that let us scale up the team a ton. Everyone who founded the company is still working there and we've grown to fifty-seven staff all based in Auckland, New Zealand.
AF: How long went into building the passive skill tree? How much has it grown since it was first released?
CW: The passive tree is on its seventh generation by now. They're getting pretty good at improving it, it generally takes one or two weeks of solid time for one person and then another week of three or four people contributing and making some changes.
When it was first released it only had one start location, in the centre of the tree and it was a lot smaller than it is now. Now it's grown to fourteen or fifteen hundred different nodes. There are now seven different start locations and it's certainly a lot different than it was back then.
AF: How long has been spent balancing the new expansion?
CW: Oh, so much. That's basically what the guys back in New Zealand are working on right now. The changes are so large that we're actually running a beta for the expansion. This is a first for us, as we normally test them internally and then release them, but here on April 20th the beta starts and we're going to initially be involving a small portion of our community and scaling it up over time. The beta will probably last between eight and six weeks, we're hoping for six, so that will put a release date in early June.
We would like to thank Chris Wilson and Grinding Gear Games for sharing this information on Path of Exile and its newly-announced The Awakening expansion as well as answering our questions. Those interested can read more about the game on its official site, with beta sign-ups now available for The Awakening expansion.