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Path of Exile: A Free ARPG that Stands Out

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By: Stephen Crane (Photos: Courtesy Path of Exile)

While we've all been lapping up as much information about Diablo 3 as possible, a few have begun looking at similar Action RPG games to fill the void while we wait. It's often thought that the genre is completely dead as we haven't really seen too many true ARPGs to fill the void. Fortunately, the genre is alive and well! There are a few indie developers out there working on breathing new life into the genre. One of the most exciting indie titles to surface recently is Path of Exile.

I recently had the opportunity to speak with Chris Wilson, one of the founders of the studio working on Path of Exile, about what we can expect to see from the game as well as what makes it more than another Diablo clone. His ideas and game mechanics are definitely worthy of attention and hopefully a large fanbase.

Why don't we start off by letting us know a little bit more about you? What did you do before working for Grinding Gear?

I'm Chris Wilson, one of the founders of Grinding Gear Games. I'm the Producer and Lead Designer on Path of Exile, which means that I mostly deal with production tasks (project management, scheduling) and handle the game balance.

Before Grinding Gear Games, I studied at the University of Auckland in New Zealand. I studied Computer Science and Finance, but more importantly, met a lot of awesome programmers who I was able to later recruit for this project. In late 2006, I teamed up with Jonathan Rogers (our Lead Programmer), Erik Olofsson (our Lead Artist, from Sweden) and Brian Weissman (a good friend and ex-professional Magic: The Gathering player from America) to found Grinding Gear Games. We've been working on Path of Exile ever since, though the team has grown to 15 full-time people since then.

What inspired you to bring together such an eclectic team to work on this project? Was the idea for it yours, and what idea was it that you started off with?

Our co-founders were in the right place at the right time – we all knew each other and had the spare time (and savings) to be able to commit to a project of this size. It's hard to say if it was my idea because we all wanted to get into game development, but I pushed hard for it to be an Action RPG. We were all big fans of the last generation of ARPGs, such as Diablo, Titan Quest and Dungeon Siege. We felt that we could do the genre proud by introducing some new concepts such as our flask system and our skill system.

Why don't you tell us a bit more about this ARPG you are working on, then? What's the Flask System, and how does your Skill System separate Path of Exile from past ARPG games?

Path of Exile is an online action RPG set in a dark fantasy world. It's played entirely on our online servers and has an emphasis on visceral combat and a strong item-based economy. We've gone for a dark and gritty art style to help communicate the destruction and despair present on the wasteland that the player has been exiled to.
Our Flask system is our response to the common problem of "potion spam" in action RPGs. As we researched this genre, we noticed that most games required the user to stock up on dozens of healing/mana potions in their inventory that they just drink constantly while taking damage. We felt it was silly to require the user to just purchase huge batches of disposable potions in town, so we designed a new system. In Path of Exile, the user has Flasks that can be refilled in town or by killing monsters. These Flasks can have magic properties such as healing twice as fast, holding more charges or granting you increased movement speed while you're healing. By itemising the Flasks in this way, they become part of the character's build and an important part of the barter economy.

The skill system in Path of Exile also tries to solve perceived problems with the previous generation of ARPGs by pushing the itemisation. We found that in other ARPGs, players obtain skills that level up in strict ways that were controlled by the developers. If a certain skill didn't quite match the play style of the player, then there was nothing that they could do about it. In Path of Exile, our skills are itemised on skill gems that can be found in the wilderness or granted as quest rewards.When these skills are socketed into items, the player gains their abilities. The gems level up as the player kills monsters, which means that high level gems have substantial trade value. The complexity in our skill system (and the reason why it allows players to control the progress of their skills) is the presence of Support Gems, which modify the properties of skills that they are linked with (in connected sockets). For example, if you link a Multiple Projectiles support gem with Fireball, then you cast multiple fireballs at once. There are lots of complex support gems that drastically alter the skill's properties (such as making it into a placeable trap)

You mention that the game will be played entirely on your online servers. Is this going to be a browser based game? Will it be more like an MMO? What exactly would that entail?

Path of Exile isn't played in your browser – it must be downloaded and installed. Currently the beta build is around 2.3gb. Although this process is typical for many MMOs, we're being very careful to not label Path of Exile an MMO (instead, an online action RPG). Although both types of games are played with other players online, there are several key differences that we want to make sure players are aware of.

Path of Exile is entirely instanced, and has a relatively low cap on the number of players that can be in each instance (32 in towns, 6 in wilderness areas). Because of this, it means that we can design gameplay to be challenging for small groups, and don't have to deal with the technical problems related to having thousands of players in the same physical area. Also, it lets us randomly generate our areas for each party that plays in them, so that they are fun to replay later.

The other difference is related to the pacing and style of combat. In Path of Exile, position matters greatly. Monsters and players are able to box each other in, or stunlock each other. There's an emphasis on fast, tactical skill use.


 

From the sounds of it, PoE is going to have some strong multiplayer elements with a strong strategy component. Will players be able to turn on or off the multiplayer functionality?

Although the game is played entirely online on our servers, players can play alone if they wish. They'll still see other players in towns and have an opportunity to chat with them, but they are never forced to play with anyone else if they want to play alone. Plus, they can show off the items they found solo and know that they weren't cheated/hacked.

Getting back to the flask and skill systems, it sounds a lot like the game has the chance to provide a more nuanced experience than the usual tank, dps and healer roles. What were your main inspirations for developing these gameplay elements?

It's actually pretty rare to see healer roles in Action RPGs. The continuum is pretty much choosing to sacrifice DPS for the ability to absorb more damage (while not being a true tank in the MMORPG sense where you keep aggro away from your teammates). We tried to design a system where everyone in the party plays a DPS role, so that they can all play alone if they need to, as well as contribute meaningfully in a party. Of course, characters can still act as support roles if they want, but those ones are harder to build and more difficult to level alone. Our inspirations for the design choices were seeing how well they worked in other popular Action RPGs. We feel it's really important to encourage players to be able to play solo if they want to.

Another interesting game mechanic choice you made is the use of randomly generated levels and items. Are all the maps randomly generated on the fly, or are there X number of maps/levels that get drawn from a pool when you try to venture into them? And what led you and your team to decide to use this mechanic?

Our maps are indeed generated on the fly. There are a set of various global "topologies" for the maps (broad layout templates), but all of the exact placement and shapes of areas are randomly generated based on these topologies. We decided to use this mechanic for a few reasons. It adds an immense amount of replayability to the game, makes good re-use of our art assets, and helps keep the gameplay unpredictable! The same can be said for items, except more so. This type of game really needs a random item system so that character progression is exciting and fun at any level.

Interestingly, you appear to be offering this game for free. Is this just for the closed beta, or is it a business model you plan to continue through your final project? If you are, how are you able to make this a viable business model as an independent game developer?

Yep, the entire game is free even when released. This will hopefully enable us to establish a decent userbase! Once the game is released, we'll be selling "cosmetic microtransactions". These provide no gameplay/power advantage, but allow users to stand out in the world. Some examples are alternate spell effects, animations, armour dyes, weapon skins, cosmetic pets, etc.

Another interesting aspect of the game is its dark and gritty art and scenery. What made you decide to go for a darker game?

We felt an industry trend towards playful cartoon-like action RPGs recently, and decided that we wanted to set ourselves apart. We're big fans of darker fantasy and have had a lot of fun building this gritty, grisly world. It helps people take the game seriously and allows us to tell a relatively impactful story.

And thanks again for this interview. Is there anything else you would like the readers to know about the game or any last words you would like to leave the readers with?

Thanks for the interview! Please tell your readers that if they'd like to sign up for entry to the Path of Exile closed beta, they should make an account on www.pathofexile.com and hope that they are invited soon!

About Stephen Crane

Stephen was hooked by the NES at a very young age and never looked back. He games on a daily basis and is currently trying to climb his way up the ranked ladder on League of Legends! Outside of the video game world he actually likes running and owns a rapidly growing collection of toed shoes. Stephen Crane is the owner of Armed Gamer.

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