Path of Exile interview: An Expedition into some big changes

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It’s been a long time since Path of Exile was the new outcast (so to speak) on the Diablo island. I first saw it in 2010, and it came out of beta in October 2013. Since then, Grinding Gear Games has released 30 updates and expansions. And with that has come a lot of power creep and mechanics that, as general manager Chris Wilson said, have resulted in players pursuing unfun strategies and facing less challenge than the studio and the community would like.

So after Wilson announced the upcoming Expedition expansion, he also dove into a series of balance changes and additions to address Path of Exile’s metagame and difficulty, including a rework of Act One. The 3.15 expansion, along with these changes, comes July 23 to PC and July 28 for consoles.

Path of Exile, like many online games, has been riding high when it comes to player numbers during the pandemic. But the Ultimatum expansion didn’t hold on to the momentum, for a variety reasons, including a rocky launch.

“Our Day One Ultimatum result, as in the number of players turning out for launch day, was 99% of our previous record. And the reason why it was just 99% is we had a day of terrible, terrible server problems. Worst day ever,” Wilson said in a video interview Tuesday. “And so I think we would have got to about 104% of our previous record for launch day, if we hadn’t had those server problems.”

But Grinding Gear also learned that the mechanics for this expansion didn’t sit will with players.

“Retention during the league was poor. I would say it was in the bottom 40% of leagues, a bit below average. And this is partly because for the league, both its combat was a bit spammy and its item rewards were a bit spammy,” said Wilson [no relation to the writerEd.]. “These are two things we hadn’t determine during playtesting that became apparent over the course of the league. And so the fact that it was quite heavy with its reward systems meant that players played it for less time than they normally would, and this was quite useful to learn from.

“So overall player numbers dipped a little more than they would have done by the third month, which is disappointing, but it’s a consequence of the way that Ultimatum was designed. ”

Above: Path of Exile: Now with more lightning than an angry Sith lord.

Image Credit: Grinding Gear Games

This is an important point. Even though Path of Exile has been live for nearly 8 years now, Grinding Gear learns something new about its players and how it makes game with every expansion. And Ultimatum had some good lessons for the studio.

“And the good news about having four releases a year is you can do it better the next time,” Wilson said.

Expedition is just one way Path of Exile is showing off the lessons that Grinding Gear Games has learned over the year.

“If you’re really generous with stuff, and if the combat is a little uninteresting, then the players kind of feel finished earlier. They finish the characters quicker, they feel that there’s less to experience than they’re still looking for,” Wilson said. “And so with Expedition we’ve tried very hard to hide a lot of cool secret stuff and give them cool locations to go to, and to be more careful with the pacing of the rewards so they don’t get everything they want in the first couple of days.”

For a full rundown, please see the above video. You can also check the 3.15 patch notes coming next week, Wilson said. This interview is more about the thinking behind the changes coming with Expedition, not a listing of every adjustment and nerf.

Change now, before Path of Exile 2 launches

Above: Support gems are getting some big changes in Path of Exile.

Image Credit: Grinding Gear Games

The changes that Grinding Gear are introducing with Expedition address problems the studio has seen with Path of Exile over the years. It’s getting 19 new skill and support gems, with a different approach to adding these abilities than with other expansions. Balance changes will address power creep from support gems. The campaign will receive a complete rebalance as well, starting with Act One out of Expedition’s gate (those of you who played Path of Exile in beta may remember just how lethal roas once were and shudder). Grinding Gear will nerf support gems so that you don’t pick damage-dealing gems over utility gems that could bring about new, interesting character builds. You won’t be able to trigger spells through gems without paying the mana cost for them. And movement skills have been changed so that they don’t bypass monster attacks.

Flasks will change as well, enabling playstyles in which you can take advantage of the benefits of these items without using the so-called “flask piano,” in which players would tap together their fingers or use weird contraptions in order to hit multiple keys at once for their flasks. Wilson even showed a flask-only build that turns characters into mad bombers … as long as they don’t use weapons.

As for the timing, this feels a lot like something Grinding Gear knew it had to do but also knew could be a tough sell to its players, akin to a hairy person looking at a bandage and knowing it’s easier to just rip it off and take the pain than to take it off slowly and prolong the hurt.

“Well, it’s always tricky with the timing of this, because the changes are going to be controversial with players. And we realize to some extent we’re being slightly held hostage by players opinions, as in, we knew that if we say we’re making this change, there’ll be enough players vocally who say, ‘I don’t like that change; you’re a bad person for making it,’ that it would feel bad to do that. And we didn’t want to upset the players and disappoint them and change something that they loved in its current form,” Wilson said. “And so it’s been easy to just say, oh, we’ll do it later. But [Path of Exile 2] is approaching, so there’s no later. We have to do it now so we get enough time to iterate on it and make it good.

“I was also confident with the level of changes we want that this is a pretty safe set to make. They do improve the game pretty objectively. Our bar here that we had to cross was, we’ll make a change if we know it’s the right change. If there’s uncertainty, we’ll revert that and do it later with a bit more think. And so we’re pretty confident in the set, but it’s certainly needed doing now so that players can give us feedback. Before we get too close to the sequel.”

Netf

Above: Netflix has “Racket Boys.” Path of Exile has Reaper Boy. (Seriously, “Racket Boys” is good. Go watch it.)

Grinding Gear has been working on these changes for some time now.

“Some of the changes here have been in the works for more than a year. We could have made them earlier. To some extent, doing many at once is a good thing because then it changes the game substantially enough that players enjoy the fact that is different, if you see what I mean,” Wilson said. “If you say this is the game from before, it’s exactly the same but there’s one small change, they’ll work out what that means for them, and then they’ll just be annoyed about it. Whereas if you say look at all these changes, they will struggle to know which is the best build to plan over the exciting process of trying to find out the new best strategies to play the game.”

The big question about the changes, at least from my viewpoint, is whether they’d be happening even if Path of Exile 2 weren’t on the horizon.

“I’d like to say yes. I would like to say that it will make the game better and that it’s better for the long term future of the game. If we cancel Path of Exile 2 tomorrow, then I would definitely still make all these changes now that I understand they’re necessary,” Wilson said. “It might be the conversation about Path of Exile 2 design that made us realize we needed the systems to be in a different place.”

Wilson then used an upcoming internal discussion on Path of Exile 2’s skill tree to reinforce this point.

“And so when we sit down and say, right, let’s talk Path of Exile’s passive skill tree,” Wilson said. “Path of Exile 2’s passive skill tree, what crazy stuff are we doing? We may realize terrible problems with the existing Path of Exile 1 passive skill tree, and we may realize we were blind to those problems before. And actually, this makes the game a lot better.”

Community relations

Above: Path of Exile’s art team has long had a knack for making attractive loot.

Image Credit: Grinding Gear Games

Wilson said that Grinding Gear likes to hire top players for its quality assurance team, and it ran the changes by some others through Discord and its player community. But I got an unexpected answer when I asked Wilson the changes the studio has noticed about making and playing games and player habits during the pandemic. And what they learned has been incorporated in just how painstakingly Wilson and his team are going into details about the changes coming in 3.15.

“The two changes that we noticed during the pandemic, honestly, were that people have a lot more free time, which is great. That means more gaming. And that, honestly, sentiments are running pretty hot. The general feedback is, not just with our game but all the other games that we play and enjoy, every other subreddit that I read, people were just angry at changes and stressed out about what’s happening to the world,” Wilson said. “And so that kind of meant that communication with developers became a little bit more strained. ‘Companies became more evil during the pandemic’ is kind of the sentiment that players have. And so that’s been a bit difficult for us, because we’ve tried very hard to be friends with the players and the communications become strange during that time, and so we’re hoping that are very clear communication with us announcement of all of the rationale behind why we’re making changes, and so we’ll open a dialogue with the players so that we can, you know, have a better relationship with them.”

I asked if that hostility from the pandemic has continued.

“I would say that in Path of Exile and other gaming communities, the players are more unhappy with developers, even to this day, than they were before,” Wilson said. “I play Magic cards, and I read the Magic card subreddit a lot, and it is just, it’s just as scary, right? So, it’s been concerning to the extent to which there is a negative sentiment about game developers, and even after the pandemic’s calmed down a little bit. But we feel, at the end of the day we can control what actions we make and as long as we make the right actions, then hopefully the players will respect that.”

Above: Ghostly blades are how I like to roll in RPGs.

Image Credit: Grinding Gear Games

I asked Wilson if this could be how many players have been reacting to the loss of control in their lives when the pandemic hit: from losing loved ones, jobs, or a sense of freedom.

“I do believe it’s just basically a lot of people being upset at the direction of their lives. There’s so many things to be concerned about in the real world that is hard for the games to completely act as a distraction there,” he said. “I do genuinely believe that life became stressful. People lost their jobs, they lost family members, they lost the ability to travel. Social contacts got starved. All that kind of stuff is really sad. And so I can imagine people being a bit more frustrated. And then if their hobby that they love, their main distraction, the thing they’re living for, if that changes in a way that they don’t immediately love, I can see them being very upset and feeling betrayed at those changes. And so that’s why we’re trying to be very careful. But as I’ve said, we’ve stockpiled enough changes now that we can present them as a package and say this will make the game better.”

Diving into change

During the press briefing, Wilson said that the changes to support gems for some builds would work out to a “total of somewhere around 20%, potentially as high as 40%, damage reduction for a character using a fully six-linked skill with entirely damage support gems. There’s much less impact for characters that used utility support gems or who didn’t have a six-link setup.”

I wondered when Grinding Gear realized that such support gems were a problem.

“So, we were having a look at ways in which we can reduce player damage on top-end characters, because we feel that there’s such a discrepancy between incredibly good characters and average characters, and we were looking at where they were getting their damage from. And we said, wow, that’s a lot from support gems,” Wilson said. “What support gems are doing that? And we had a look, and it was like this shelf of these support gems are good, they add 50% more damage each, and these other support teams do cool stuff like blind to the enemy, but is blinding the enemy really worth not having 50% additional damage?”

So Wilson said they “shaved” the top off those numbers to get them back down. “The intention here is to make it so that people do consider the other ones slightly more because it opens up a lot more interesting build capabilities” like blinding, he said.

I play a necromancer, so I asked if Grinding Gear’s goal is to enhance playstyles without just adding raw damage.

“I really hope that we’re able to do that without the way that we buffed the minions, turning into just doing more damage, if you see what I mean. Because every single gem starts out with good intentions, ” he said. “What about a support gem that dramatically reduces the area of effective skills and makes them really tiny, but in return, they do more damage? That’s a cool idea, except in the end, it’s just a damage gem, because the way that it reduces the area of impact can be mitigated in some other way. And that’s an example of what we mean by a damage gem.”

This applies to support gems that increase your speed, Wilson said, because being able to kill more creatures quickly just ends up in you doing more damage. “And so we have to be careful to kind of come up with more intelligent things than just brute power here, which is challenging, but very rewarding when we do come up with support jumps like that,” he said.

Above: Flasks are getting a big rework — including an option to ditch weapons to throw explosive flasks around like a mad bomber.

Image Credit: Grinding Gear Games

Grinding Gear doesn’t like removing things from Path of Exile, as players often enjoy the gear they earn. But flasks became a huge problem, so they get nerfed instead of exiled. “The power level of flasks was just really high, like it got to the point where you could almost run around the game naked with a set of five flasks and actually do pretty well, because your flask provides so many weird bonuses that were constantly active,” Wilson said.

I asked what about if I wanted to play a build in which I ran around naked with just a set of five flasks? Enter the new explosive concoction skill comes in.

“I suspect that will certainly be slightly harder, but there will be interesting playstyles there. An example is the explosive concoction skill that we added, where you need to care about your flasks a lot and you’re not allowed to use a weapon,” Wilson said. “You can wear whatever armor pieces you want, but you have to have the empty your hands so you can throw flasks around. That plays into that particular playstyle, and I suspect that if someone picked the Pathfinder ascendancy [subclass], which is very flask-focused and went all-in there and put a lot of effort into their flasks, they could still do pretty well without a lot of equipment.”

Mercantile exchange

Above: The merchants of Expedition are ready to haggle with you. And no, the big guy isn’t Grinding Gear’s take on Torneko from Dragon Quest.

Image Credit: Grinding Gear Games

The new NPCs that come with Expedition are Kalguurans, and they want you to find artifacts left from an ancient exploration expedition. A key to this league is selling the treasures you find, but each of the four merchants handle them in different ways.

When Grinding Gear started work on Path of Exile over a decade ago, one aspect of Diablo II that it wanted to capture was its gamble mechanic. One way it’s doing this is with Haggle. The merchant might set a price for something, and you can counter … but you may risk losing a chance to get the item.

“This is partly motivated by the fact that it’s just kind of fun to have this dude who might retract the item, if you low-ball him too much. But at the same time, low-balling is what it’s gonna take in order to get his crazy prices to be dropped enough. And so we’re trying to create this negotiation behavior of you saying no, you’re not getting 300 units for this thing; I’m giving you 110. And if you’re too aggressive, he was goes, fine, you’re not getting the item.”

China and skulls-on-sticks

One of Path of Exile’s most important regions is China. But the outcast “doom and gloom” look of skulls, skeletons, and ghosts doesn’t work with Chinese game regulators.

In Expedition, you quest on special maps to find the lost treasures of the Kalguurans, and the markers include skulls on sticks. But since skulls are a no-no in China, I wondered what the localized version would use in its place.

Community manager Bex said they’re just “glowy sticks.”

I sure hope that when I play Path of Exile after the balance changes, my zombies don’t somehow turn into “glowy sticks” as well.

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