Path of Exile is a hardcore, old-school ARPG from the indie developers at Grinding Gear Games in New Zealand. They’ve been doing very well for themselves recently, and here at games.on.net we’re big fans of what they’re doing. But how are they coping as they scale up to open beta, and how has the recent launch of Diablo III and Torchlight II affected their player base? We spoke to producer and designer Chris Wilson for all the answers.
GON: Now, you’ve just announced Act 3.
Chris: Yes, it’s a major content upgrade that is due in open beta, so we’ve still got five-ish weeks before it’s available to the general public, but we should have alpha testers enjoying it in about a week.
GON: How many acts do you plan on doing before you finally launch?
Chris: It’s tough to say. I expect the third act will be the final one prior to us labelling it as ‘launch’, but we intend to add more at the rate of say, one every nine months, for as long as we can afford to.
GON: So you don’t have an endgame in sight – it’s not going to be a five-act game, for example. It’s just going to be constant expansions?
Chris: Yeah. We’re anticipating adding constant free expansions for as long as we can.
GON: How does that affect your level structure? You’ve already got a skill tree – or should I say a skill forest – that many users find terrifying. In a good way, obviously. How do you balance that and keep adding expansions?
Chris: So the endgame that we have is somewhat separate from the actual act content — we have these randomised map areas, which is a separate topic I guess, but in terms of balancing the levelling it’s actually a very difficult question adding in another because, when people have established characters, where do the levels fit in? We don’t want to invalidate people’s hard work, when they get to the endgame and they’re grinding for specific items with specific properties, we don’t want to come along and say “Here is a new act and everything is twice as good” – you know, the World of Warcraft way of doing things. So it’s important to us that our later acts that we add are extra content, but their function in the end game is somewhat parallel — more places you can play, perhaps with some new stuff you want to get, but it’s not just strictly better. It won’t invalidate your gear or the effort you’ve put in.
GON: So you won’t be constantly raising the level cap for example, it’s a more a case of ‘this is an alternate path to the endgame’.
Chris: That’s right. I don’t think we intend to raise the level cap. The levels have a lot of diminishing returns going on at the moment. It’s exponentially harder to gain each level, all the way up to level 100. This is done for a few reasons, mostly because it’s kind of a badge of honour, how long people have been playing. You see a level 70 guy, you know that he’s been playing for a really long time, and a level 80 is just that much more. So if you find a level 95 person, you know that years of his life have been sunk into this character.
GON: Speaking of sinking lots of time, are you going to wipe these characters when you do launch? Or are you going to keep all the existing ones?
Chris: We’re wiping the characters when we go into open beta in December, and that will be the final wipe. So this is why we’re treating open beta as a release internally. Because once it’s available to the public, and once we’ve pledged to not wipe characters any more — which is the case — it’s essentially a launch, except with a ‘beta’ title because things may go wrong.
GON: When do you expect to leave open beta and do the ‘final’ launch after December?
Chris: We’re intending to remove the beta label as soon as we can. Once we polish up any loose ends that we’ve got to sort out in open beta, which will mostly be driven by player feedback. If they say ‘look, there’s not enough content’ then we’ll add a bit more. If they say ‘there’s not enough skills’, we’ll get that sorted out. The intention will be to remove the beta title and formally launch around 3-6 months after entering beta. But it’s difficult. We’ll happily keep it in beta if we have to.
GON: It seems like you guys are doing quite well in closed beta already — how are things going for Grinding Gear Games on the back of Path of Exile?
Chris: They’re going really well. We started selling access to closed beta in April this year and I think in American dollars we’ve sold about $1.35 million of access to the game, which we’ve very pleased with.
GON: How does that compare in terms of your initial budget?
Chris: (laughs) We haven’t paid back the cost of the game yet, but it gives us quite a runway to open beta and to add the content we want to add. It’s a good sign that in the future we’ll make enough money to do what we want to do with the game, but uh.. the founders aren’t rich yet. Put it that way.
GON: How many people have you got working there at Grinding Gear?
Chris: We have 22 full-time people working here at the moment.
GON: Is that very large for a New Zealand game developer?
Chris: There aren’t very many large studios here. I think there are just two larger than us, there’s Sidhe down in Wellington — who are rebranding themselves to PikPok — they have something in the order of 100 people, and there’s also Gameloft, the large French company who has a studio in NZ with a lot of teams. They’re both big. But other than us and those companies, it’s pretty much just small teams who work on iOS or Flash games.
GON: Sounds like Australia then! Has the New Zealand government provided you with any sort of support or assistance to get Path of Exile off the ground?
Chris: We haven’t received a cent of support or assistance.
GON: Is this a thing that is available to you as a New Zealand developer?
Chris: It’s something we’ve been looking into recently, but there’s so much paperwork and long complicated discussions about it that haven’t actually led anywhere. I’d like it to, so it may be in six months that we’ll be able to get a grant of some type, but so far it hasn’t yielded anything.
GON: So on the subject of selling beta access, it’s now October in 2012, and this is when your site says you’re planning to ship the pre-order rewards. Are those still on track?
Chris: With the rewards, we’ve actually received all the physical goods in the office at the moment, I can see people in the distance signing posters and so on. They’re going out pretty soon. There was a digital component like soundtracks and kiwi pets that people have already had for some time, but the physical ones should be posted out as quickly as we can sign and package a few thousand of them.
GON: And those pre-order rewards have been really popular as a way to get people in? Do you see a lot of people buying the high-end gold and diamond ones?
Chris: Yeah, I think the last time I checked 37% of our revenue was above the $10 minimum level. So for example if someone gave us $25 we’d count $15 of it above the minimum. So 37% of the revenue is above the minimum, as in discretionary stuff that they’ve chosen to spend above just buying game access. And we’re up to 100 diamond packs, plus or minus a couple.
GON: So when you finally launch you’re planning to be free for everyone to play, but will you offer the same sort of scaling cosmetic packs that you can buy as a general thank you to the developers, sort of thing?
Chris: It’s likely. We’ve got the microtransaction shop coming at launch, where you can spend the credit that people are pre-purchasing. The packs all represent dollar values of credit, you know, if you spend a thousand dollars you get a thousand dollars of credit and all the other stuff. So we will obviously let people actually spend that credit on the microtransaction stuff rather than sell it for real cash, as they’ve already pre-paid for it. But I expect that because of the popularity of these supporter packs that include physical goods, we will come up with a new set of them for open beta. There’s a lot of discussion about what we could put in them and it hasn’t been decided yet, but it’s likely.
GON: I don’t suppose you’re going to go down the Diablo III route of an auction house to support your game financially?
Chris: We don’t intend to have an auction house, no! (laughs)
GON: Speaking of that, how do you guys feel with the launch of Diablo III and Torchlight II this year? How did it affect your player numbers? Do you see a fluctuation in the player base when these games come out?
Chris: In general they are positive. It’s very interesting to look at the difference between, say, Diablo III and Guild Wars 2. When Diablo III and Torchlight II launched we received press coverage because we were similar. If they did like Diablo III they’d discuss us in a negative way, and if they didn’t like Diablo III they’d discuss us in a positive way. But either way we’re getting discussed, we’re getting users and numbers, which is great. There was a big exodus of people that got sick of Diablo III and came over to us, which is awesome. So I’m very glad that Diablo III did come out and that it sold so many units because that really helped.
But when something like Guild Wars 2 came out, people didn’t discuss Path of Exile at the same time as it because, well, it’s not really the same sort of game. But they sure played Guild Wars 2, reducing our player numbers by a little bit. It’s better that competitors come out, because then there’s some discussion around it rather than a somewhat-different game that people will go and play, because they’ve been waiting for years to play it.
GON: So surely you must play what are essentially your competitors games. How do you feel about the different directions that Diablo and Torchlight are taking the ARPG genre compared to what you’re going?
Chris: I completely understand and respect what they’re going for. The decisions to simplify game systems in Diablo III have made them a very large amount of money. They sold a ton of copies of that game and it had a lot of mainstream appeal. From their point of view it was probably the right decision to make, so people giving them flack about it probably don’t understand that they’re a business trying to make as much money for their shareholders as they can.
Which of course is great for us, because if gives us a point of difference. If they’d made Diablo III as a remake of Diablo II with modern graphics, that would have been quite bad for us, because we’re targeting that type of hardcore player. I’m glad they did what they did and I can respect we’ve both made good games.
GON: Well essentially Torchlight II is a remake of Diablo II with modern graphics in many ways. Did that affect you?
Chris: The interesting thing about Torchlight II is when I was playing it the one thing I noticed is that all of the Diablo II-isms that we changed for Path of Exile came back to annoy me. And I’m not saying Torchlight II is a bad game! I enjoyed playing it but certain things that we’ve changed for Path of Exile that I’m now used to doing our way I found frustrating, because I felt they were bad systems, so I changed them in my game, and therefore it’s frustrating to play them in someone else’s.
GON: Can you give me an example of that?
Chris: A good example of that is the potion system. In a lot of ARPG’s, Titan Quest, Torchlight, you buy a ton of potions and every time you’re hurt you drink one and it’s just a big homogenous stack. In Path of Exile your potions are in set flasks that are actually items that you have to upgrade, and they can be used multiple times, and they become part of your build. If you want a flask that extinguishes fire if you’ve ever been ignited, then that’s part of the way you build your character rather than just a number of potions you bought from the shop last time you were in town.
GON: How many hours of playing ARPG’s did you and your team spend trying to nail down exactly where the cracks in the system were, how you thought you could differentiate yourselves?
Chris: We came to creating Path of Exile off the back of playing ARPG’s as gamers for a long time. In fact I met two of our founders playing Diablo II online and we’d put in tens of thousands of hours by that point, I mean literally years of study and playing the game – or being unemployed and playing the game, whatever our personal situations were (laughs). We played a lot of Diablo II and then in research for this game a lot of Dungeon Siege, Titan Quest and so on. We made the game that we would want to play as gamers.
GON: So when you see games like Diablo III taking the always-online step, that’s something you’ve followed for Path of Exile? It’s not possible to play offline in the manner of the old Diablo II.
Chris: That’s correct. We basically designed the game to be an online game. The reason why is because when we played Diablo II you could play either online or offline, and there were big differences between the two and we felt the online mode was more fun. We were hardcore players and we always played online. Offline was kind of a ‘second tier’ way of playing because there were cheats and hacks and that kind of stuff so we chose, because we were playing online with our friends and having a great time, this is the experience we wanted to replicate. In addition the thing that most people don’t mention is of course being always online is great for fighting piracy.
GON: Is that something you’ve seen yourselves? Have you been affected by attempted piracy?
Chris: Well they’re only able to log in they have an account, and currently they need to either get a beta key from a giveaway, or be picked by the random timer thing on our front page, or give us ten bucks. And that’s worked well. Nobody’s cheated their way in. If it were a game they could download and just play, they could copy it for their friends — but the primary motivation for being always online is that we’re making an online game and so that’s what the design is going to be. It’s… for example, trade is an important part of the game. Trade is a thing that we can plan around players doing to solve certain problems in the game.
GON: What sort of problems?
Chris: Well for example if your equipment at the higher difficulty levels just isn’t up to scratch, we do allow leeway for trade. Like we don’t give you all the tools you require in terms of item drops. Obviously this is all random item drops so we can’t control it specifically but we don’t have the drops so high that you can find every single thing you need yourself. There’s a certain degree of having to go interact with other players to get the final piece for your build, for example.
GON: Right, so it’s a bit like Pokemon – you can’t get all of them unless you interact with other humans.
Chris: To some extent. We haven’t done it explicitly, it’s more of a statistical thing. It’s unlikely you’re going to find everything, especially if you’re doing something crazy and niche.
GON: Is it the sort of thing that grew organically out of your design during development, or did you always plan for trade to be a huge part of the system?
Chris: Well from the beginning we wanted to encourage players to work together to solve things. Now that can be trade, or just getting help. For example when I was playing Path of Exile recently I wasn’t able to kill one of the boss monsters on a higher difficulty. So I asked one of the guys online, ‘can you give me help?’ and I got help with it and it made it easier. So this is the sort of thing we want players to do, because it encourages players to work together, during parts that are difficult to solve with their current character.
GON: Do other players just teleport into your instance?
Chris: Yes. There are towns which are shared, but everything else is privately instanced. This enables us to do a lot of random generation, so if you walk out of town with a friend or even alone, you get an area which is unique to you. It hasn’t been seen by anyone before. This means that whenever you play through the game it’s different each time. I mean, not completely different — if you’re in a swamp, you’ll probably still be a swamp next time. But the layout of where things are, what monsters there are, will be different.
GON: Anything else you’d like to say to our very handsome audience?
Chris: If you’re keen to check out the game, go to www.pathofexile.com to have a look, and if you have any questions just post them on the forum or write to us, and we’ll answer them!