Path of Exile is the newly-announced action-RPG by a new gaming studio, Grinding Gear Games. It’s an MMORPG, playable online by anyone in the world, for free. The game will feature six character classes, an innovative and very feature-rich skill gem system, large communal towns, instanced dungeon areas that are randomly generated (both surface areas and dungeons), a vast variety of randomly-generated items, a balanced PvP system with character rankings, guild support, and every other feature you might want in an MMORPG.

    The team is planning to release regular expansions through the Path of Exile website, and they’re committed to supporting and developing the game for the long haul. They all loved Diablo 2, and that game’s long term success did a lot to inspire GGG to try for a similar run with their own. It’s also what caused them to invite me to see and play the game earlier this week, since they’ve been readers of this site since before Diablo II’s launch, and thought our readers would be very interested in their ARPG-styled game. (I think they’re right.)

    Path of Exile is a horror-themed game, like the first Diablo. It’s gritty and cruel; the team is fond of calling their world “cut-throat,” and it’s designed with a high level of realism. As you can see from the screenshots and the gameplay movies, it’s not a lot of flash and style over substance. Armor looks like armor, there are no WoWish oversized shoulder pads or chain mail bikinis, and while PoE has plenty of fiery spell effects and magically-glowing weapons, it’s generally old school in appearance. It reminded me a bit of Titan Quest, in terms of the visuals, the size of the units, and the smooth animations.

    Their financial model stems from what they’re calling an “ethical” item shop; they’ll sell name changes and realm transfers and such, along with bonus goodies like armor dyes, evil pets, and some graphic shifts. They will not sell any items or abilities that affect the gameplay, though. No super items, no armors, no double experience potions or +magic find abilities, or anything else that players are told are optional, but that turn out to be essentially mandatory in order to properly enjoy or compete on an even footing with others while playing the game.

    PoE is well into their friends and family alpha test, and is rapidly approaching the start of a closed beta test. If that goes well, the team hopes to launch the game in early 2011.

    From my play time on the demo, and a long conversation with the game creators, I feel confident in predicting that most Diablo 2 fans will want to take a long look at this title. The gameplay is fast and fun, reminiscent of Diablo 2’s, and it’s got surprisingly deep features and design plans. If you’re into RPGs, and you like the Diablo III runestone system and concept, you’ll be fascinated by the much deeper and more varied system of skill gems in Path of Exile. Plus it’s got all the vast item slot machine elements that make the Diablo games so long term addictive, a wide variety of areas and monsters, and detailed long term plans for expansions and added content.

    Read on for more about my play experience, quotes from our lengthy conversation about the game’s features, and much more on this newly-announced title.

    Grinding Gear Games presents, Path of Exile

    Several weeks ago, I received an email from a guy named Chris Wilson. He said he’d been a long-time reader of the Diablo site, and that he’d even contributed a guest article, long ago, in the early Diablo 2 days. In more recent years he and some friends had founded a game studio called Grinding Gears Games, and for the past 4 years his small design team had been working on an action-heavy RPG which would be free to download and play online. Chris and the others at the company were all huge Diablo 2 fans, their game was heavily-influenced by the Diablo style of fast action fighting, and since they were about to announce their game, and were going to be in the San Francisco area in late August to meet numerous media outlets, they very much wanted me to come and see it.

    It seemed like a pretty cool idea to me, and that’s why I found myself heading to their hotel on Monday night, equipped with a tape recorder and a camera, a good amount of curiosity, and a bit of skepticism as well.  Chris had sent me one screenshot (to the right) in his initial email, and it looked pretty good, but I hadn’t seen any gameplay footage yet. I didn’t know if the game played terribly slowly, if the animations were lame, if the controls felt fuzzy, or any details about it. Was it even a real game? Or just a sort of tech demo with only a few monsters, boring tile sets, and an uninspired feature set largely ripped off from Diablo 2? After all, the quality level of free MMORPGs isn’t exactly distinguished.

    Happily, things turned out well. Once I was in their suite and had been introduced to Chris Wilson (Producer and Lead Designer), Jonathan Rogers (Lead Programmer), and Erik Olofsson (Art Director), they said it would be best if I saw the game before we started talking, so they sat me right down and fired it up. I played solo, on a laptop, with their other laptop serving as the server to my client, in a desk to simulation of the MMO experience.

    Play Time

    The game loaded quickly, and in just seconds I was looking down on a rough, desolate beach, like the one in this screenshot. My character was lying face down in the surf, collapsed just at the edge of the shore. I clicked on him, and as he got up I got my first taste of the game’s excellent animations. My character was on his face, but with a click he got up to all fours, then to his knees, and then stood up, with every bit of the animation looking quite realistic.

    It took another click to walk through the knee-deep water to shore, and there I clicked on a large club that was handily lying there. It equipped automatically, and with cliffs to my left and straight ahead, I walked to the right, where I immediately confronted several zombies. The undead! Shambling corpses, who were almost disturbingly realistic. They were creepy, very real, with puffy white skin and bodies that looked bloated from the ocean, as glimpsed through the tattered rags on their bodies. These were non-survivors from the shipwreck that had tossed me ashore, I presumed. Happily, my avatar’s arms weren’t too weak from fighting the surf, and I had plenty of energy left to commence some clubbin’.

    While I played, working my way along the beach and dispatching a variety of zombies and smaller, scorpion-like crab things, I realized that yes, this was a real game. It had a nice pace, the controls worked fine, the monsters were fun to whack, the clicks felt precise and accurate (not laggy or vague), and the animations and textures were very good. I was especially impressed by the waves; they broke on the shore and receded in very realistic fashion, and the water was even transparent; bodies sprawled in the surf looked very real, and when the crab monsters crawled out of the ocean to attack, they were visible shimmering just below the surface.

    During my play time on the beach I tried out a variety of weapons. A bow was fun, with the potential for fired arrows to remain visible, sticking out of the enemies as I turned them into shambling pin cushions. My Marauder character was best suited for smashing things with a big stick though, and when I found a larger maul type weapon I switched to it. It was plenty for the various zombies, allowing me to kill in one or two hits monsters that had required three or four with my starting weapon. There was even one minor boss near the end of the beach; a huge humanoid who was already stuck through with numerous arrows, and even a sword stabbed right through his chest.

    It turns out that he had it there on purpose, since near the end of our battle he paused, gave a scream, and yanked the sword out of his body and started swinging it at me. This posed hygienic problems, at the very least, and I stood back to let him wave it around a few times, enjoying the animation before I moved back in and dispatched him. Helpfully, he coughed up the first nice blue item I’d seen, and I grabbed it and looked it over, before moving on into town.

    I’d been playing slowly, talking to the developers the whole time; after all, how often do you get to play a game for the first time with the entire senior design team watching and explaining what’s going on? By the time I got to the first small town, I was more full of questions than a desire to keep playing at that low level, so I surrendered the controls and we got into the conversation that was our 2.5 hour interview. That was the best decision to make at the time, but as the night progressed and we talked more about the game, I started to get a desire to play some more. Not just for ten minutes while sitting at the desk in their hotel room, though. I wanted to play it for real, building up a character and engaging in long play sessions, primarily since I was so intrigued by the gem/skill system, and wanted to try out some of the nifty combos of gems in items that we’d been discussing all evening.

    Happily, these guys aren’t Blizzard, with their infinite budgets and patience, and Path of Exile is going into closed beta testing in the next couple of months, with a release scheduled for early 2011. And since it’s free to download and play, I, and anyone else who is interested, will get the chance fairly soon.

    Since playing the game on Monday, I’ve been thinking about it. I want to play more of it. To have fun and experience the game, but I’m very intrigued by the skill gem system. I want to try it out in the same way that Diablo 3’s DiabloWikiRunestones seem like they’ll be fun to experiment with. Especially now that the Runes seem to be much less predictable in their function. But even varied damage elemental damage types from DiabloWikiHydra pales beside the depth and complexity of the skill gems in PoE, as you’ll read about later in this article. They will definitely be fun to experiment with, and the experience of finding an awesome item with several connected sockets in PoE, when you’ve got gems waiting to use in it, is going to be such fun.

    The Interview

    After my play time, we started talking. And talking. And talking. It was an interview, in that I was asking the questions, but on virtually every topic the conversation digressed in many directions, and the GGG guys were happy to elaborate on any point. As a result we talked nearly as much about game theory and design and other games in the ARPG genre as we did about Path of Exile, and could have gone on all night.

    It reminded me somewhat of the good old days of Blizzard North, when the developers were happy to chat at length about any element of the game. Viewing Diablo 2 at E3 doesn’t compare to seeing Diablo 3 at BlizzCon, but one thing the old LACC event had going for it was the attendance of virtually the entire development team, most of whom would stand around the booth all day, watching people play and answering any questions that were posed to them. Actually, I’m sure the D3 development team would do the same thing if they were allowed to—I had a great conversation with DiabloWikiChris Haga and a couple of other guys during lunch at last year’s Fansite Summit on the Blizzard campus—but at Blizzcon the D3 devs are kept locked tightly away by Blizzard PR, with the only access via supervised and precision-timed interviews in the press rooms at BlizzCon.

    I spent much of Tuesday listening to my recordings and typing up what was said during the Monday night conversation, and even with much condensing and abridging (as requested by the GGG guys) the transcript ran upwards of 11,000 words. The whole thing is being posted on IncGamers; half yesterday, the other half later today, so I’m only going to quote some portions of it in this article. Portions that cover things I thought were most interesting about Path of Exile, or that relate directly to issues the community has been debating about Diablo III.

    The “Ethical” Item Shop

    It took a while in our conversation before we got into details about how they were going to make money. They had all these great plans for game features, and expansions, and customer service, and yet it was all free to play. How were they going to cover their expenses? By selling stuff, obviously, but even on that front they had good answers, since they weren’t going to money-grub and sell things that ruined the playing experience, like most “free” MMORPGs do.

    Here are some excerpts from our conversation on the topic. See the full interview on IncGamers for every last word on the issue.

    Flux: Item Sales. You said you wanted to do it ethically?
    Jon: Yes. Many of the Asian MMORPGs are designed around a treadmill of items you must buy. They start off by giving you a few samples of them. And you quickly learn that the only way to have fun playing is to drink this special experience gain potion. And then you get another one for free at level 3, as a reward for being online long enough. And after that you have to buy them from the cash shop.
    Chris: We really dislike the concept of players being able to just buy their way to success. So we’re making sure that everything we sell is just not giving the player a gameplay benefit, in the absolute sense.  We’re looking at more visual flair and fun stuff. So you might buy something that would change your spell effects; give your character a dragon’s head or something like that.
    Jon: We’d rather be the good guys and have ethical item sales, and get more players because of that, than sell out and let people buy their way to success.  There are many games online that aren’t really games. There’s no gameplay, but just ways to dress up your avatar. And plenty of them make plenty of money. One of our specific things, we’re not selling cute pets. We’re selling evil pets.

    Flux: Evil pets!
    Jon: One thing I think Erik wanted was a bird that would peck the eyes out of the corpses you left behind.
    Chris: One thing we’re thinking about is something you could buy that would increase the amount of gore from kills. You’d be running through an area and some character is getting so much gore it’s amazing. It’s not helping you kill, just making a visual display.

    Flux: All the top items in the game are found in the game?
    Chris: Oh yes.
    Jon: We don’t sell any items that grant stats or work like weapons you find from playing. In fact, none of the items you buy from the game shop are actually represented as items in the game. You can’t move them around your inventory or put them on your character. They tie to your account.
    Chris: An example of something to buy would be a sort of virtual wrapping paper. You’d use that to wrap up an item you were giving to someone else for some special occasion. That sort of thing is completely harmless.

    It’s refreshing to hear developers who are being honest with the fans about a feature like this. They know that we know that most “free” MMORPGs are nothing of the kind, since you have to buy items to play them without being severely gimped. I don’t know if PoE’s style of optional item sales will bring in enough income to enable them to keep things running, but I certainly hope so, just as a reward for them not trying to spin the whole process. They’d be wise to put up a tip jar; fans who enjoy the game might well want to put their money where their fun is.

    Gems and Skills

    This is by far the most interesting and complicated feature in the game, and the one we talked the most about. It’s so different than anything in the Diablo games, or other similar ARPGs, that it took me a while to get my head around it. Even after viewing a tutorial video they’ve produced to demonstrate the gems, and seeing them in the actual game. 

    I boiled it down into three paragraphs in the intro to the article on IncGamers, and trust me, that took about ten rewrites, and it’s still far from perfect. It’s also incomplete, since I didn’t even get into the three different types of gems, why various types of skills occur on them, why some items have more or less of intelligence, strength, or dexterity sockets, and more.

    I am sure that this system will be an interesting issue to discuss in our forums, once more information about it is released. Read the skills info on the PoE website, and the interview excerpts below to give you a sense of how these skill gems work.

    Flux: Can you give me a run down on the gems and skills?
    Chris: Skills are represented by skill gems, which can be leveled up. Currently they get 10% of the experience a player earns. As the gems level up, they go to higher levels, which improves the spells they provide to the player. Gems can be removed from items at any time, without cost, and given or traded to other characters.

    To gain the function of a gem, players need to have that gem socketed in an item they currently have equipped. Item sockets may be found in weapons, shields, and most of the armor items. 

    The maximum number of sockets vary by item type. Six on body armor. Six between your weapon slots: 6 on a two-handed weapon, or 3 and 3 on a sword/shield. Helms can have up to 4, but that’s not finalized. There are also some one-slot rings. There will be about a dozen for the average equipped character, probably.

    It’s hard to find items that are full of sockets. Especially connected sockets.

    Chris: Item sockets can be found in three colors. Red = strength. Green = dexterity. Blue = intelligence. Items spawn sockets that are closely related to the type of item. For instance, a staff is a strength/intelligence weapon. Where as a maul is strength, or a bow is dexterity.

    The reason why a staff is strength / intelligence is because intelligence on weapons grants critical strikes, the idea being that the wielder knows more of combat and can aim more precisely. So it’s both arcane and real life knowledge reflected in the intelligence stat. A staff is like a maul, except you’re more likely to get a critical hit since you’re hitting them in a specific location.

    Jon: The connections are where it really gets interesting. You want to connect things to continue to make skills better. The more sockets that are connected, the rarer. It’s relatively easy to find items with two connected sockets. Getting 3 or 4 is much harder.

    We’ve laid out all of the items on the str / dex / int continuum. And that affects the chances of sockets of certain colors spawning on them.  The maul is very likely to have red sockets, but can get blue sockets rarely. So sockets can be connected, and the more connected is rarer. You could potentially get six connected sockets, which would be extremely valuable since it lets you do a lot of augmentation at once.

    Chris: Take a sword with 3 red sockets. You could put your Leap Slam gem in one, your Ground Slam gem in another, and a gem with Elemental Hit, a passive bonus, in the third. When you had that weapon equipped, you’d be granted those two active skills, each of which would be modified by the passive Elemental Hit skill. And each of those skills could be at a different level, because skills/gems level up.

    Currently we have 5 levels of gems, but we’re anticipating between 10-20 in the final game. To allow for a lot of room to improve them over long periods of time.

    Flux: So if those 3 sockets are connected, what changes?

    Jon: If the sockets are connected that allows you to use augmentations. Those come from “support gems.” You use those together with normal active skills. The modify the effects. You’ve got your say, Cleave, in a weapon with two connected sockets. You put Multi-Attack in the other socket, and that grants your Cleave the ability to deal multiple attacks, a bit like the Paladin’s Zeal skill in D2.

    Flux: So the Multi Attack gem wouldn’t have any function by itself?

    Jon: Nope. You can also augment two things at once. So you can have two actives and one support gem.

    Chris: Let’s say you’ve got six connected sockets. You can put three skill gems in there, and then 3 support gems. So all three of those active skills have all 3 support skills.  So if it were say, Multiple Projectiles, Increased Projectile Speed, and Piercing, which is what we show in the sockets tutorial video. Now all three of those active skills would now fire multiple, faster, piercing projectiles.

    Jon: We made each of the supports very general. They’ll work with anything that makes sense. Take Multiple Projectile. Any kind of skill with a projectile will always be multiplied by it. 

    Chris: Imagine you have several groups of sockets, in different items or on the same item, that aren’t large enough groups to do what you’d like to do. You could have two different items with two sockets. Or four sockets in the same item that are linked in two pairs, but not all four together. In that case you could put the same active skill gem in both pairs, and a different support gem in each. But when you then used the skill, you’d get both augmentations every time.

    That’s taken four sockets, rather than three, but you’re getting the multiple bonuses all the same. And two linked socket items are much more common than three.

    Jon: Another example. There’s a skill that triggers on critical hits. So you’d tie that to another skill, so when you score a Crit it would trigger that other skill as well.

    By default it’s double damage. But there are some other effects. You can double the Crit damage with another skill. And there might be effects like a Crit with cold would slow the target, or fire might ignite them. That sort of thing.

    Chris: We actually have several builds in the game that are based around increasing the rate of Crits and the bonuses they grant. The passive skills tree is full of lots of conditional “when you Crit, ______ happens.” Or “You get ______ when an enemy scores a Crit on you.”  That kind of thing.

    Got all of that? Good. There will be a test later.

    Character Design Philosophy

    Besides a lack of fear about putting potentially complex, feature-rich mechanics into the game, another way that PoE differs wildly from Diablo 3 is in the character design. PoE characters are more like D3 chars than they are WoW chars, since all of the characters in PoE are designed to be killers. There are no healers or support characters, at least not by design. You could certainly try to create one, or try to play your caster as a tank, or your tank as an archer, etc. The game’s character types, and the skills they use, are so open-ended that the varieties of builds are almost endless.

    Flux: Since the characters all have their skills coming from the gems in their items, what makes the characters different? They vary by swing speed or accuracy? Stats?

    Chris: The passive skills are the largest character differentiation, ultimately. The passive skills you use determine the attributes your characters gets. Those effectively determine the items and armors you can use. And the items you use determine which type of gems you can socket, which grant your skills.

    Flux: But you could in theory build 2 different classes with identical equipment and active skills? It would be difficult, since the sockets of the right type wouldn’t appear on some items very often…

    Chris: Yes. One class would be much less suited to that role, though. We don’t want to hinder players from doing odd varieties. If you want to build a caster/strength character, you can. And there will be plenty of disadvantages in attack speed and such.  This system also allows players to play a character they find aesthetically pleasing. Or if they like the class personality.

    Jon: You do have to stick more or less within the guidelines of a given class, or else you’ll find it a whole lot tougher. If you try to be like… a Ranger, doing Leap Slam, it’ll be a whole lot tougher for you. That said, it’s interesting. It’s more work for us too, since we have to make the animations for every class using every skill.

    Chris: With regards to the classes, there will definitely be differences in how they play. But because of the ability of the system you could achieve the same goal with different classes. One would just be better with it.

    Flux: How many classes will there be in the final game?

    Chris: Six. And they’re sorted by their stat type. See the little wheel on the website? It’s divided into three pie wedges, red, green, blue. There are six characters around it; three each in the center of the colors, and 3 on the borders. The Marauder is right in the red, since he’s very strength-based. And you see the green and blue-based characters. There will also be three hybrid characters, who are on the edges. Red/green, red/blue, blue/green. So imagine what the strength/intelligence character might be.

    Flux: there’s room for one more right in the middle. Who is good at all three things.

    Jon: *laughs* Excellent. We’ll name that one after you.

    Chris: We won’t need to add more characters though, since they’re largely determined by their skills, which all characters can use. For instance, if we wanted to add a Summoner we don’t need to add another character. We just need to add more summoning skills, which then any character can use once they find the skill gems.  In fact that would be a great addition for an expansion. But there will be some kind of summoning in the base game upon release.

    I could go on and on with these quotes, since I’ve literally scratched the surface of the full transcript. There are long, deep conversations about their plans for PvP, low level dueling, ladder rankings, RMT issues, guild support, the game world and lore, visual design, good vs. bad grinding, ongoing content, Hardcore, gold and the economy, death penalties, an Auction House and trading, end game challenge and variety, and much more. Honestly. Much more.

    It’s not quite fair to compare PoE to D3. PoE is the first game by a tiny company with a limited budget, while Diablo 3 is… the exact opposite of all those things. That said, it’s interesting to contrast the design styles and the features of the games. The character designs, for instance. PoE’s are limited in their looks since they don’t have 50 artists to do M/F versions of all of them and 500 types of armor, but in PoE they can make up for it with such an open-ended design. You can use your passive skills and skill gems and equipment to build a character of virtually any type you want in PoE. Many such characters will be sub-optimal in performance, but the team sees this as a feature, not a bug. They’re not hellbent on stamping out individuality and variety in the name of not confusing players, or not allowing players to make char build mistakes, as the D3 team has so constantly stated.

    Check out the Path of Exile website for more info on the game and the developers, witness the screenshots and gameplay movies (5 screens and 1 movie are exclusive to IncGamers), and look for more on this game in the future. The GGG guys said they’d be sure to provide us here at IncGamers with a number of beta invites, which we’ll be sure to pass on to those of you who are interested.

  • Full interview transcript, via IncGamers.com.
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