D20: Path of Exile and the Sudden Joy of Theorycrafting

Path of Exile

By on March 25, 2013 at 11:22 am

In real life, I’m a planner. I think through everything, weighing up the pros and cons of any given situation before committing myself. I’m not exactly spontaneous, if you get my drift — I’m more a “measure seventeen times, cut once” kind of person.

When it comes to games, however, I’m far more likely to adopt a “suck it and see” kind of mentality, jumping in with both feet, doing what seems fun and damning the consequences. Sometimes this works well — there is fun to be had with randomised characters that force you to play differently from how you normally would, and there are rarely any game breaking problems by casually misusing a couple of stat or skill points in most RPGs.

After spending a week or so with the beta of Grinding Gear Games action RPG Path of Exile however, my opinion of taking a haphazard approach to character design has changed rather drastically.

I’ve never been one for theorycrafting. In fact, I’ve written more than one column making fun of the people who take more time working out how to play a game than actually playing it. After a first rather disastrous run at Path of Exile during which I went with my gut instead of actually taking the time to work out how I wanted my character to work, my approach to character building in this game, and, I suspect, many more to come, has made an abrupt about face.

Path of Exile doesn’t so much encourage theorycrafting as it does mandate it. The terrifyingly big passive skill tree has been constructed in such a way that each of the six character classes has multiple branches they can expand down, each holding special passives that can be greatly appealing, with added damage, health regeneration, bonus armour, special attack effects and the like. If you don’t check carefully, however, some of these branches can and will force you to spend points that are useless to your chosen character, making for an inefficient and sometimes not particularly useful build.

In the case of my first character I thought it would be awesome to create a stealth, dual-wielding Shadow (the rogue style class) and just put points where I thought I needed them every level. As a result I wound up with a melee fighter almost entirely dependent on gear who didn’t have enough mana to use any of his good attacks and could hardly hit anything even when he did. Not the best thing to be playing when the game heats up in the second act.

I normally dread trawling forums or using spec calculators because there’s usually some type of cookie-cutter spec that is considered the best, and in many games the skill trees are taken up with multiple filler talents placed in between important skills, making coming up with a spec rather straightforward and/or boring. The theorycrafting required in such games to come up with an optimal spec is straightforward but ultimately unnecessary.

Path of Exile makes thinking about how you want to play your character a necessity. I’d even go so far as to say that it gamifies the entire idea of theorycrafting, making it a rewarding experience rather than something that is a necessary evil. Grinding Gear Games does this by making every decision count, not by making every skill spectacular, but by limiting respeccing. Instead of being able to simply buy complete respecs, Path of Exile instead rewards players with limited respecs as quest rewards and random drops. These respecs only give you a point or two to change at a time and in a skill tree that can support up to 120 skill points, that’s not a lot, and as a result every decision made about your character feels weighty.

It’s a clever point of differentiation in a market that is fairly glutted. Whereas games like Diablo III, Torchlight 2 and the upcoming Neverwinter offer tight, coherent games in which most players will have similar experiences by having tightly structured skill trees (or none at all in the case of Diablo III) and easy respeccing if you place a point wrong in your skill trees, Path of Exile appears to be attempting to turn the act of thinking about and creating a character into something as important as the content of the game itself.

7 comments (Leave your own)

It was a lot of fun figuring out where to place each skill point to get that perfect build. Shame the rest of the game is kinda meh.


I love theory crafting in all my games to the point where it drives my wife nuts. :P


Oh dear. This was my concern with PoE. I absolutely hated the amount of time I spent theorycrafting in Diablo 2 and even in Torchlight that I wholeheartedly embraced Diablo 3′s skills, stats, and gear model when I played the open beta. There’s nothing that breaks up the flow of a co-op ARPG session than when someone needs to spend time speccing.

I like a little bit of skill planning. But I don’t have time to start a character a fresh if I make a mistake or if a patch changes the dynamics so much my build is no longer viable. That’s why my Diablo 2 characters had only the bare minimum stat and skill points used. That’s why my Torchlight characters went down the same path until before the fight with Ordrak when I knew I needed more damage (but there were pretty good guides to builds by then and I just went with ones that suited my play style and the gear i had).

Diablo 3 did away with stats point allocations, gave us a punishment-free approach to skill selection, and I don’t mind the heavy reliance on good gear (got my head around the AH by now).

Don’t mind the theorycrafting in Borderlands either… it’s pretty much one skill with a bucketload of passives or skill changers. Too easy.

Perhaps I’ll give PoE a go once I tired of Diablo 3… I’ve almost hit lvl60 with all classes and just have my Hell and Inferno difficulties to complete… but I’ll probably just do one character in PoE unlike D3 where i did all 5 classes.



That’s part of the challenge of these games. Taking that away or over-simplifying it is the RPG equivalent of aim-assist.


man when i saw the board there i thoguht ffx got a new background image lol. i dont mind multiple paths style like these, gives me something to mull over if i need a break for actuall gameplay


These guys must have been fans of Shadowbane then. In SB it was possible to gimp your character BEFORE you even pressed the create character button.

I cannot wait until that game returns…


I just wish they’d hammer that content out so stupid grinding goes away.

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