It's an exciting time to be a Path of Exile fan. This past weekend proved to be one of the most eventful in the game's history, as developer Grinding Gear Games hosted the first ever ExileCon in New Zealand. It was there a number of huge announcements were made, including Path of Exile 2, the game's 3.9 Conquerors of the Atlas update, and Path of Exile Mobile.
Following the weekend's festivities, we chatted with GGG managing director Chris Wilson about all the big news, including how long projects like Path of Exile 2 and Path of Exile Mobile have been in the works, the design philosophy behind Path of Exile 2, and how Blizzard's now infamous Diablo Immortal announcement last year helped inform how to announce Path of Exile Mobile.
Q: How long has the team been talking about making a sequel to Path of Exile, and when did those talks turn into making it an extension of the current game rather than starting at square one like more traditional sequels usually do?
Chris: This is going to be quite a long answer. We were talking about a sequel as early as 2013. Not from the point of view of “Okay, let’s go start making the sequel” but more from the matter of understanding whether we had to sandbag game features and content for a potential sequel. Strategically, if there’s something we don’t like about the game, do we fix it during Path of Exile, potentially alienating players, or do we plan to fix it in a sequel. Do we have to take good ideas and put them aside from a sequel, and so on and so on.
Eventually the conclusion for that was we couldn’t afford to take anything good and to save it for later. We couldn’t take a fix we wanted to do or a game system we thought of and delay it arbitrarily because the most important thing we could do was keep Path of Exile as big as possible. We threw everything we had at Path of Exile for so many years. The sequel discussion came up quite frequently. Every year we have discussions of “what are we doing next? Path of Exile is starting to show its age, how do we solve this? Do we just renovate the existing story and make it pretty? Or do we come up with a new one?”
There were so many problems with doing a full sequel like segregating the playerbase and so on that those discussions never really lead anywhere. We realized when we were planning 4.0.0, which is the mega expansion that contains the Path of Exile 2 storyline and is being branded as the sequel, we knew we wanted a new storyline for the game because the current one was just getting quite old. It wasn’t exciting, it was developed by a bunch of kids, literally, at the time. It wasn’t developed by a team of people with 13-years of action-RPG experience that we have now, if you see what I mean. We decided we definitely wanted a new storyline, and that’s what 4.0.0 was.
As far as our staff was concerned, until about three weeks ago, that was 4.0.0. The words Path of Exile 2 had not been spoken of outside my office until a few weeks ago. Part of this was to prevent leaks. If we refer to it as 4.0.0, the worst somebody says by accident is “they’re working on 4.0.0”, which is not a secret. Everybody knows that’s the next big Path of Exile release. In addition it helps give us time on how to do the marketing of this. It’s dangerous to announce a sequel. It runs the risk of destroying your current game while waiting. I vividly remember, I was a very strong Guild Wars player. I loved Guild Wars, I played it every single day until the day they announced Guild Wars 2, and then I felt no compulsion to ever log in to that game again once I knew there was a better version coming in the future. We desperately wanted to avoid that problem here, so announcing the sequel alongside a strong lineup of expansions leading to the sequel, getting a lot of its content in early, was the best plan we could come up with. Because of that, we’ve been very careful to take as much out of Path of Exile 2, like the graphics system improvements and game systems and so on, and put them in the expansions between now and then. Really, what’s coming out on launch day is the new skill system and the new campaign, which will be very compelling, but Path of Exile will grow massively in the next year because of all the improvements coming down the pipeline.
Q: So it’s more like you are building up to that point, rather than releasing 4.0.0 and it all comes at once. You are layering it on top of everything over the next year or so.
Chris: Right. We have this question we ask internally, which is “Does this need to be on release day or by release day?”If it’s important that that is the day it’s introduced on Path of Exile 2’s release, we will save it for then. But if it merely needs to be there by Path of Exile 2’s release so that players can take advantage of it, then we will release it early.
Q: Was the plan always for it to be a free update? It’s a big update, a whole new campaign. A lot of companies would charge for something like that. Path of Exile has always been friendly when it came to free-to-play monetization, but were there ever talks about charging for the new campaign?
Chris: There’s a couple issues here. First of all, there’s do you make more money selling it or do you make more money just releasing it? We firmly believe being free and being generous works well, not only for our image but because it gets more players playing it. If you release it free, you get a lot of players, a lot of excitement, a lot of buzz. It maximizes the number of people actually playing the game and talking about it. It might not maximize the day one sales, right? Maybe it has the ability to make $20 million in a day by charging for it, but now that you’re selling it, it restricts the audience to those who are going to pay. Free-to-play, when done correctly, will generate more money because of the concept of price discrimination. A player who can only afford to pay a few dollars will get to pay a few dollars, and a player who has a lot of money can afford to buy a lot of things that make them feel special. It’s like when you go see a movie. People with a lot of disposable income can go buy popcorn, ice cream and things like that. Those who really can’t afford to do that just buy the movie ticket.
The other thing as well is because of our philosophy of not tying any payment into actual game systems. We don’t want people paying for an advantage. If it costs money to get the new expansion, the people who bought it might have an advantage inside the game. We certainly want the expansion to have both compatibility with the main game and also a bunch of powerful new stuff. We have to give that to everyone for free so everyone is on an equal playing field when it comes to getting access to the new content and new power without having to put money down for that.
Q: During the Path of Exile 2 announcement, you mentioned bringing Path of Exile’s campaign up to a 2019 standard. You said earlier the first campaign was done 13-years-ago and you didn’t quite have the grasp on things that you have now. When you say “2019 standards”, what are specific examples of what that means in terms of elevating the Path of Exile 2 campaign over what came before?
Chris: The first thing is graphically. As you’ve seen in the trailer, it looks really nice. We feel it’s really competitive with other contemporary action-RPGs that are being announced. That level of graphical fidelity will be throughout the entire game. Which is good, because previously the first act of Path of Exile was made last decade, and the second act a little bit later, and act three is earlier this decade and act four mid this decade and act five, well, it starts to look a bit better but it’s still a few years old, so on and so on. The content we are adding with each league we release, like the assets in Blight and Legion, are top notch. But they are hidden away in various areas of the game. The core game you are playing through looks like it’s old. So the first thing we are doing is renovating the graphics.
In addition, just the game design and quality of the content we are making. For example, some of the bosses in act one of Path of Exile are very simple. You fight a guy, he will hit you hard occasionally, and that’s it. As you’ve seen in the trailer, the bosses in Path of Exile 2 are more complicated, multi-stage large fights with lots of cool custom stuff. That’s something we’ve learned to do really well because each league release have so many big bosses that have to be ultimate boss fights. We have a philosophy of make boss fights like that all the way through the campaign, as opposed to a slightly larger than normal monster that uses a different colored attack on you.
Q: At one of the panels at the convention, there were talks on the design philosophies behind Path of Exile 2. One of the things that were mentioned specifically was making the skills and socket system easier for players to understand. What about the current system did you find new players struggled with and how does Path of Exile 2 address those issues?
Chris: There were two key problems we found. The first was it was really unclear what worked with what. In the current game you have a whole bunch of sockets. You put your skills in the sockets and now you can use you’re skills, and that’s good. But when you get support gems, you can just arbitrarily put those in sockets and it’s unclear if you put that support gem in the right thing. You could put multiple projectiles alongside a melee attack and then it’s a little uncertain whether that helped you or not. New players certainly wouldn’t be able to tell. Under the new system, it’s really clear. When you try to put something in, it will only work if it actually has an effect. So when I lift up my projectiles gem, it will highlight the gems I can put it next to and it’s really clear with that. That helps the problem where people are jamming random gems into random places and not really understanding how it goes.
The second thing is, in Path of Exile, new players and experienced players get frustrated that whenever they find a new item. Say you kill a boss and some boots drop, you look at the boots and go “Oh, those are good, I like those, I want to wear those.” But you can’t, because you have boots on already that have your sockets and gems in them. In order to put those new boots on, they have a red and a green socket not linked, but you need two blue sockets and two red sockets all linked together. So you say, “Alright, we can do this.” You get out the jeweler's orb and spent some jeweler's orbs on the item until you get four sockets. “Okay, sweet, now I need some chromatic orbs.” You spend your chromatic orbs to try and get those damn blue sockets, and you can’t because it’s quite hard to get two blue sockets. You have to go buy more chromatic orbs from another player. You go and do some trading, you deplete your currency, and you get your sockets. Finally, it’s a matter of linking them together. Again, go do some trading, get some fusings. Finally, you got the sockets you need. You put your gems in, you equip the boots, you’re more powerful now. You keep playing. And then you find another pair of boots you want to wear, and you’ve just wasted all your currency on the last pair. It’s even worse in the endgame, where in a lot of cases, the value of an item is all in its sockets.
Under the new system, because the sockets are in your gems and those will persist much longer than a single item, you can put items on whenever you feel they are better than your current ones. You can just swap them arbitrarily, completely free of having to worry if your sockets are broken as a result. That’s an amazing feeling for new players. It’s not a trap to find a new item anymore. For more experienced players, they can see an item, get an incremental power improvement, feel better about themselves, and keep playing.
Q: The passive skill tree is a little infamous for being this gigantic grid that’s a little overwhelming. I imagine it’s even more overwhelming for new players who are trying to dive in. I know you aren’t yet talking about what specific changes will be coming to the passive skill tree, but can you talk about what the goal is for those changes when they arrive with Path of Exile 2?
Chris: This is a difficult topic for us. One of the reasons we haven’t announced it isn’t because we are pacing the announcement information, it’s that we’re actually still fighting internally about what we’re doing with it. There’s two camps here. One camp says “we should take this opportunity to provide a simpler view of the passive tree to new players, so that when they load the game they can make easier choices, and then eventually the depth unfolds for them.” You don’t lose anything in the endgame, but the first impression is simpler. Which is a completely reasonable statement.
The other camp says, “But this tree is iconic. “If a player (and they have data to back this up) is going to have problems with the game, it’s better they have it early on so as not to waste too much of their time.” Our data shows if you make something real easy to understand, but don’t change its complexity, the player will just quit when it becomes more complicated later. On ramping them onto it hasn’t seemed to help us with various systems in the past. That camp of people think that complexity is important to indicate upfront so it’s not a bait and switch. We would also lose a lot of that iconic passive tree is we simplified and shrouded it for the first experience. There’s something about the right of passage of playing Path of Exile is having an insane passive tree, as well as we run the risk of upsetting our users if we in any way visually dumb it down, even if it’s just at the beginning of the game.
So there’s a war raging internally here and we’re not quite sure. We will see how that goes. I sympathize with both camps. If I fully agreed with one we’d just do that. But we have to work out the pros and cons.
Q: And that’s something that would come in 4.0.0, probably wouldn’t be coming in an earlier update?
Chris: That’s correct. It will come in 4.0.0 alongside a lot of other stuff to make it easier to understand. Even if we still have a full passive tree available at the beginning, certainly we will do our best effort to make sure players are onboarded onto it well, even though we know in the back of our minds it’s not going to stop from quitting later on once it gets really complicated.
Q: The addition of shapeshifting got a big reaction in the reveal announcement. How long has that been something the team wanted to include, and what different shapeshifting forms can players expect?
Chris: We’ve wanted to do shapeshifting for quite some time, and it felt like this is a feature that is good to delay for the sequel because it has both a lot of marketing benefit, as you can see the players love it, and it also needs a lot of support from the rest of the game. First off, it really benefits from our new animation systems in 4.0.0, the new classes are designed with shapeshifting, the old ones a bit less so. That’s been very helpful. In terms of forms, I believe initially we have a wolf and a bear form, which is pretty standard for shapeshifting, but we also have a ranger ascendancy specific cat form. So if you choose that ascendancy, you can turn into a cat.
Q: You talked about how Path of Exile is going to still be on its same update schedule with the challenge leagues, and how it’s all going to build to Path of Exile 2 and the 4.0.0 update. My question is how do you have time to do all of this? You’re doing all these updates and also building a whole new game, essentially.
Chris: We are very, very careful. Our studio is weird because we haven’t worked at other game studios. Our founders and managers, like myself, have no experience in the games industry other than what we know here. We structure this in whatever way would allow us to make the game quickly. We have a very tech-focused view on how to do stuff. When possible, we’ll get programmers to implement systems to prevent other people from having to do a bunch of work. Our random level generation has removed the need to handcraft a lot of permutations of areas, so we don’t need to have employees to do that. Instead people can focus on other aspects.
We are also quite fast at getting things together for rapid prototyping so we can test stuff quickly. We work on a lot of things at the same time, people jumping between tasks based on what their specialty is. There’s people yelling over each other to communicate. It’s definitely full-on here in terms of development. There’s a lot of passion and people are pushing really hard to get stuff in, especially when there’s something like ExileCon to announce it at. It’s a highly planned chaos, but it gets a lot of stuff done.
Q: Do you think you’ll do another ExileCon? Is that going to be a yearly thing, or an every now and then when you have a big announcement?
Chris: If you had asked me a week ago I would have said never again, because I was in the middle of preparation where everything could go wrong, a hundred moving systems, all of which are going to fail. It was our Fyre Festival, if you see what I mean. (laughs) We watched that documentary feeling sympathy for those guys, “they’re out of their depth, we know how that feels, it’s very stressful.”
Now, however, having been to the convention and seeing the energy and excitement, and how much of a morale boost it was to everyone, the community, players, myself and so on, I would love to have more of them. As to how often, there’s arguments for doing them more frequently, there’s arguments for waiting until we have big news. It really depends on expectations we set for players. I asked some of our attendees, “If we had another one of these in a year or two years, and we said up front there are no big announcements, just a new league expansion and that’s it, no other announcements or announcement ceremony but all the other good things like meeting fans and playing some kind of card game thing, and all the talks and parties and things, would you still come to it?” About 60 percent of people said “Absolutely, we’ll make our way back to New Zealand.” The other 40 percent said “Honestly, I’d kind of wait for there to be a big announcement before I made the trip, because it’s expensive to fly to New Zealand every single year for this, so respectfully I wouldn’t attend unless it was a bigger one.”
That’s interesting data. It suggests we could potentially do them dressed up as a fan-meetup as opposed to a big announcement presentation, but it’s all about marketing and messaging and what the team has the capacity to do. But it’s a lot of distraction to put on a con, though. That occupied most of my year. I wanted to work on it personally to make sure it went as well as possible. It was quite distracting.
Q: Were a lot of attendees flying in, or was it a lot of New Zealand locals?
Chris: Almost entirely international. About one percent or less of our playerbase is from New Zealand, maybe .6 percent or so. I would say out of attendees, ignoring our development staff, about 10 percent were from New Zealand. There was definitely a bias of people from New Zealand being more likely to attend, but they were still the minority compared to international attendees.
Q: Moving on to Path of Exile Mobile, how long has that been in development, and what are some of the goals for the project? How many people are working on it compared to the main game?
Chris: It’s been in development for quite a long time. I remember 18 months ago when we announced ExileCon, we knew the mobile announcement was likely going to occur at it. It’s been about two years that the mobile version has been in development. It has a very small team. It has the mobile fall guy which you saw in the video, Trevor, who’s leading up the project. He’s doing most of the design work himself and comes to talk to myself and Johnathan and Eric about decisions whenever needed. We’ve got one or two, depending on load, engineers who are working on porting it to mobile devices, getting it running on iOS and Android. We have a couple of user interface programmers who work on it 60 percent of the time among other work they are doing, to make the user interface on the phone. Occasionally an artist will come in and touch things up. Most of the art changes we are making are done programmatically, like downscaling geometric details, texture quality and so on with software, rather than having to make new assets. The approach was get Path of Exile running on the phone, the actual Path of Exile, and then make changes as necessary to make it a mobile game, if you see what I mean. Because it’s Path of Exile on the phone, if we wanted to make Path of Exile 2 on the phone, that would be half a day of hooking some stuff up and then bang, it’s Path of Exile 2 on the phone. The new league we are working on, Metamorph, will just work on the phone magically if you enter a Metamorph area. That should work as far as I’m aware. I haven’t seen it, but there’s no reason why it wouldn’t work. It’s the full path of Exile engine running there. Now, the full desktop experience is going to be unpleasant on the phone, so changes had to be made. That’s what those engineers have been working on, implementing different control systems and cutting out parts of the game that are too long to do before you get to the map endgame and so on.
Q: It seems you took a lot of lessons from Blizzard’s Diablo Immortal announcement last year. A lot of fans were disappointed with how they unveiled that, and there weren’t any other big Diablo announcements. You went the opposite way. You kept the mobile announcement at the end after the other big announcements, and you stressed it was a true Path of Exile experience but on the phone. How did the negative reaction to Diablo Immortal inform how you were going to announce Path of Exile Mobile?
Chris: Well, we watched the announcement with horror. I thought it was a great announcement in terms of how it was presented, but I guess they didn’t read the room correctly. That’s difficult, because I probably would have walked into the same mistake myself. Using hindsight from another company makes it easy. But the horror we felt came from how the internet reacted to it. I can understand why. They wanted one product and they were given another. That’s unfortunate when it looks like the product being given is a high quality one and the product they wanted was in development and coming to them. It was all a big misunderstanding, really. It’s unfortunate the misunderstanding occurred, but it allowed us to frame our announcement in a way to be cognizant of it and poke fun at it slightly, while being sure the players appreciated our intentions behind the announcement.
Q: In the trailer, you make clear it’s something you wanted to build with the community, and had an open way of framing it as opposed to the Diablo announcement where it seemed almost like the fans were being talked down to. If you put the two announcements side-by-side it’s really interesting to watch.
Chris: We had a year to prepare for that, so we had an advantage there. We see ourselves as part of a community. We look at the way we were announcing it as players, and say “Oh, that’s not going to go well. Let’s change that.” We iterate on it until we see the announcement and say, “Yeah,okay, that feels good.” Then we announce it that way.
Q: While on the subject of Blizzard, what did you think about Diablo 4 from what you’ve seen so far? Or have you been too busy with ExileCon you haven’t really looked into it?
Chris: I have been busy but I did take time to watch their announcements at BlizzCon. It looks pretty cool. It’s always hard to tell with these games though. Blizzard always has a high quality level with what they are announcing, but it’s hard to tell without playing something. I don’t think people understand how much something can change during the development period. What comes out will likely be a different game than what is shown merely because of the development process.
One thing I’d like to say to people from over the weekend, Diablo 4 may be an absolutely amazing game, it may not be, it’s hard to tell. They are rolling the dice with every change they make. There’s a lot of experimental game systems being made. Many of them sound good, some of which I don’t like, they are rolling the dice on each one. Some of the systems will be great, some will be okay, some might be bad, based on performance at release. Diablo 4’s quality could be as high as 100 percent, best game ever. It could be lower. We know Path of Exile is 90 percent, as evidenced by the enthusiasm, popularity, and people coming out to ExileCon. I’m confident Path of Exile is a good game, and the changes we are making with Path of Exile 2 are trying to only make that better. I know the Path of Exile 2 campaign is better, I can say that with certainty. I know the new skill system is better than the old one, it solves problems without introducing new ones.As long as you make changes that don’t drop 90 percent, and ideally bump us up a few points to like 92 percent. It’s likely Diablo 4 can hit higher. They’ve got a great team and a whole franchise behind it. Maybe they can hit 100 percent and be better than Path of Exile 2. But they are rolling the dice on so many things that it’s completely reasonable possibility that it comes in lower. I’m happy to sit where we are and let fate play out. Honestly, I think it’s a better thing for both games if Diablo 4 is popular. If everyone on the internet plays Diablo 4, that brings a lot more players to Path of Exile. I’m secretly rooting for them to make the best game they can.
Q: Was there anything I haven’t asked about that you would like to talk about or discuss?
Chris: The one thing we hope doesn’t get lost in the shuffle is the next challenge league and expansion is coming in a few weeks on the 13th of December US time. That one is much bigger than typical Path of Exile releases, so we’d love to see popularity around that. It’s getting a bit overshadowed by the Path of Exile 2 announcement, so one of the things we want to communicate is to play one of Path of Exile’s best expansions coming out in three weeks, Conquerors of the Atlas, it’s going to be a good one and it introduces so much new endgame stuff, it’s a breath of fresh air for existing Path of Exile players, and the Metamorph league is a whole lot of fun for new players to get into as well.
Path of Exile 2 currently doesn't have a release date, with GGG adopting a "when it's ready approach." A beta for the update could come "late 2020 at the earliest". For more information on all the news from ExileCon, be sure to catch up on all the announcements here, and dive into more detail about Path of Exile 2 here. As always, the Official Path of Exile Wiki is your best source of information for everything involving GGG's action-RPG, so be sure to stop by and contribute your expertise.
Cameron is a Wichita, Kansas based writer whose love for gaming spans all genres and platforms. On the rare occasion when he is separated from a keyboard or controller, he enjoys fencing and obsessing over the latest and greatest Godzilla film.