On Friday night, I had the chance to sit down with Chris Wilson — Producer and Lead Designer of Grinding Gear Games, the 57-person team behind the esteemed free-to-play action MMORPG Path of Exile. You may or may not have heard by now that the game has a big expansion on the way. So big that it will be adding in a third more stuff to do in game. Whew! This will be Path of Exile’s fourth Act and is the biggest yet. Did I say that it’s big?
Ethical Micro-transactions and Crowdfunding
Let’s just start with a little bit of history. One of Path of Exile’s biggest selling points is its free-to-play business model, renowned throughout the MMO community as being perhaps the fairest monetization model available for an MMO. Path of Exile’s monetization system goes all the way back to 2006 when the team first started work on the game. They had seen free-to-play games like Maple Story which were popular in Korea and they liked the idea so much that they actually set out to create the first free-to-play game for the Western market. Of course, that didn’t quite work out as many games adopted the free-to-play model during the game’s development, however, Grinding Gear have maintained their original vision for a fair free-to-play model, avoiding selling boosts and experience potions as many other games do, and sticking to their guns, to maintain what they call an “ethical monetization system” and it has worked out fantastically well for them.
While the team have no intentions to change the way in which their monetization system works, they will be adding a bunch of cool stuff that players can buy. Chris tells me that one of the things that has been very popular in the past are the Supporter Packs. They had seen several of the multi-million dollar Kickstarter campaigns and realized that crowdfunding could be a great option for Path of Exile, however they didn’t want to run a campaign through the Kickstarter website because that they they could keep the numbers internal and also wouldn’t have to pay fees to Kickstarter. So they came up with their own crowdfunding site on pathofexile.com to fund the game initially, with their own funding-tiers in the form of Supporter Packs, basically the same models that you see on Kickstarter with each paid tier offering better rewards the more you spend on them. These sold incredibly well for Path of Exile, to the point that other games have started modeling their Founder’s Packs on them. Since then, Grinding Gear have run three more Supporter sets, with their fifth one arriving soon for the expansion.
The new Supporter Packs will come with a bunch of microtransaction points and merchandise only available through the purchase of a Pack, as well as physical merchandise for the higher tiers in the form of a T-shirt featuring the Awakening logo and a copy of Path of Exile’s four-part graphic novel which sets the scene for The Awakening. Where possible, these will be signed. Chris stated on Path of Exile’s Supporter Packs:
“These are built in the core way to make the community feel special for giving us the support, but they also help the community support us with amounts that are larger than the traditional microtransaction purchases they’d make. So if someone really wants to give us $200 to make more content, then this is a vehicle to reward them for doing so. They’ve sold very well. My metric is whenever we sell a Supporter Pack at $200 or more, I’ll sign a note to the Supporter with my signature thanking them for supporting us. And the stack of paper they put on my desk a few months ago was 8,000 pieces of paper high, just like, ‘Oh by the way, these are letters that we need to send out.’ It’s an awful lot of people buying the expensive Supporter Packs to show support for our game, and this is partly because of the way we try to treat them well with the monetization. We don’t want to be the bad guy penny-pinching or trying to sell advantages in the game.”
The Awakening: Origins and Beta
The Awakening goes all the way back to when Path of Exile launched in 2013. The team knew they wanted to do a really big expansion right from the game’s launch — one that added a lot to the storyline with lots of new areas — but they realized at the time that it would take around two years to make. They didn’t want to leave the game to go without new updates for too long so they set a separate team to work on the expansion while the rest of the team continued pushing out the smaller updates, including the three small expansions they have released since launch. None of those expansions compare to The Awakening, though.
Grinding Gear Games have completely rebalanced Path of Exile around this vast expansion. Such a large undertaking, in fact, that the company’s internal resources just aren’t big enough to properly test the new content so they’re having to open it up to Closed Beta testing which will begin on April 20th and should last for around 6-8 weeks. Chris told me that he is hoping for 6 weeks, but they’ve stated 6-8 to give them a bit of leeway incase they need to throw in any last minute changes, placing the release date of this expansion at sometime in June. But how do you get into this Beta?
There are two methods you can take advantage of. The first one is to simply sign up via the link on the Path of Exile: The Awakening website. Once you’ve signed up, you’ll be put in a queue from which participants will be randomly selected once Beta begins. Initially, people will be selected relatively slowly, maybe one person every five or ten minutes, allowing them to get people in the game and get some solid feedback. The selection process will increase week by week as they receive more detailed feedback. Then the second way in which you can gain access to The Awakening’s Closed Beta test is to keep an eye out. There will likely be giveaways on fan sites and news sites over the coming weeks, and valued community members who’ve given great feedback in the past will likely receive invites after a time, and the team will basically be giving out access at the speed they feel is reasonable as it’s needed. After all, a Beta test is not an early look at content, but a means to test content and help the dev team improve on their game.
Content, Skill Trees, and Improvements
What exactly will The Awakening bring to Path of Exile though? Chris divides it into three sections. The first section contains a tonne of new content. Now.. consider that this is the game’s fourth Act. Acts one, two, and three contained plenty of content and due to the nature of action RPGs, you will tend to play through each level several times, and with random level generation this means there are many ways to experience the current content. The fourth Act adds in a third more stuff to do in terms of levels and monsters. Players can expect nine new major boss fights which Chris described as “going overboard” but we disagree — you can never have too many boss fights! There will also be a bunch of new skills and things to do.
“By itself, we would be very happy with that as a large expansion but we managed to fit in a major systems change, which is the second section,” Chris goes on to say, “And that’s related to the passive skill tree. We basically made it a lot more user customizable, so there are items you can socket into it that can modify its behavior and so you can change sections of passives to work quite differently than they did before. This change is called the Jewel system.”
Now, if you’ve seen Path of Exile’s skill tree before, you’ll understand how large an undertaking it truly is to change this system in such a huge way. This image shows the new skill system.
The third section is pretty much everything else. All of the improvements — which are fairly substantial in themselves — and fixes. Grinding Gear have taken the opportunity to fix any issues that have been bugging them for a while, and he specifically mentioned the “laundry list of customer-requested quality of life” things, saying that, “We basically asked the players: ‘Hey, if you could have designed the ultimate list of patch notes, what would you do?’ And they came up with some interesting changes.” A lot of things that the Path of Exile team might have seen as minor, the playerbase saw as being quite major. For example, having a clock on the user interface. In many MMOs, you might be able to mod this but of course, Path of Exile doesn’t have this option because that would allow for players to modify the game in such a way that it would give them an advantage over other players. Therefore, Grinding Gear have to give their own support for these kinds of features which means asking users what they’d like and then working on adding it in game.
By the end of the call, I was giddy with excitement and just wanted to load up Path of Exile and play. It’s clear that Grinding Gear Games are passionate about their game and The Awakening will change Path of Exile for the better. The re-balances will make the game more accessible for new players, but give current players a whole bunch of new stuff to experience — and trust me when I say that we’ve only touched the tip of the Path of Exile shaped iceberg.Related: Article, Expansion, F2P, Features, Interview, Path of Exile