Grinding Gear Games is a small company with a big mission: to put out an action-RPG that will stand out against a field of new and existing titles, the likes of which includes Diablo 3. Their entry, Path of Exile (currently in semi-open beta), seeks to recapture some of the atmosphere and tension of earlier genre titles while adding some of their own, unique twists.
We had a chance to ask Brian Weissman, co-founder of Grinding Gear Games, about his company, his ambitions, and the challenges POE faces in the PC gaming market.
T3: Can you tell us about the history of Grinding Gear Games? How big is the team, who is the founder(s), etc?
Brian: The company was founded back in 2007, by four main partners. The co-founders are Chris Wilson, Jonathan Rogers, Erik Olofsson, and me, Brian Weissman. Jonathan and Chris are native New Zealanders, Erik moved from Sweden to help start the company, and I reside in Seattle, Washington. The team is comprised of around 18 workers, with a few external contractors. Our studio in Titirangi has gotten pretty crowded!
T3: Has GGG developed titles prior to POE? What projects, if any, are on the horizon?
Brian: Path of Exile is our first project, and it’s the reason the company was formed. The game not only takes up the full time attention of our entire team, but it’s what we plan to work on for the forseeable future. We honestly hope to make expansions and additions to the game for a decade or more. We’ve really only just gotten started with the storyline in the first three acts.
T3: You are releasing POE into a marketplace that will probably include Guild Wars 2, Torchlight 2, and of course Diablo 3. How are you looking to differentiate yourself from these high-profile titles?
Brian: Definitely a good question. Well, for starters, we’ve gone in a distinctly different art direction from both Torchlight 2 and Diablo 3. Both of those games have a more pastel, more stylized art aesthetic, especially Torchlight. We’ve gone with a more “gritty”, realistic palette of colors, and overall our game is just darker and grimier. We definitely have lots of beautiful areas of course, but only when it’s appropriate.
Another huge distinction between POE and those other titles is that our game is 100% free to play and download. There is literally *no* barrier to entry for POE, outside of a computer made in the last four years and an internet connection. We don’t have to convince someone to put up $15 on Steam or whatever to give our game a try.
Guild Wars 2 is, in nearly every sense of the word, a classic MMO. Because of that, we feel it’s much more competition to a game like World of Warcraft than a game like Path of Exile.
In the end, we are big fans of Blizzard, ArenaNet and Runic, and we’re confident that there is room in the market for all four of our titles. Gamers, by and large, enjoy playing multiple games at once, so we believe Path of Exile will be something that people will be playing for many years to come, alongside anything released now or down the road.
T3: Are you seeking a retail release for POE? If so, is a publisher set? If the game is direct download, will it see distribution on Steam, GOG, or any other similar service?
Brian: Path of Exile will enter its Open Beta phase in a few months, and when it does, that will mark the near “official” release of the game. We’ll continue to make many improvements to the game with regular patches, but at that point we’ll no longer be wiping characters, and the economy will be under way. Our game will be completely 100% free to download and play, and someone who buys nothing from our microtransaction shop will still have access to the entire game’s content, and will never be at a power disadvantage to paying customers.
Because we’re free to play and download, we’re forgoing the use of Steam and GoG, at least upon release.
T3: Diablo 1 had a very organic (but narrow) progression experience, whereas Diablo 2 lends itself to more choice, but min/maxing easily. What kind of system is POE aiming for?
Brian: Haha, well, all you need to do to see the direction we’re headed is to open up the the passive skill tree. Here is a screenshot that shows about 30% of it:
Basically, in Path of Exile, customization and free choice of character development are two huge themes. Our game will launch with six classes, and though each class has single attribute, or set of attributes it prefers, no class in constrained to any one specific set of skills or to a specific playstyle. You can make a Marauder(our pure strength class) who casts summons, and uses wands to fight. You can make a Witch (our pure intelligence class) who wears heavy plate armor, and fights with a bow. Our passive tree allows for nearly infinite builds, and because skills in our game are itemized and interchangeable, you really can never run out of choices.
Of course, all this variety makes pure min/maxing quite tricky, but that’s where the community comes in. There are thousands of players experimenting with the tree every day, and we allow people to import and post their builds in our forums. It’s almost a social media approach to character building, and so far, it’s been a really big success.
T3: The atmosphere is definitely very compelling in POE. Can you tell us about how it was developed?
Brian: Ah, thank you for that compliment! Everyone on the team has played most of the popular ARPGS of the past, and we pretty much agreed that the genre “feels” best when it’s dark, gritty and scary. It’s really exciting to make your way down a dark tunnel, hearing noises shrouded off in the dark, waiting for something nasty to pounce on you from the shadows.
To that end, we’ve designed our game environments to evoke that feeling, especially our dungeons. Path of Exile takes place in a bleak place, a ruined, savage wasteland where the inhabitants are struggling for survival. There are no comfortable places to rest, no inns or really any built up settlements. It’s rugged and dangerous. But it’s also fun, and very rewarding.
The music in our game does wonders for really advancing this intended mood. It’s an element of our design that’s received a ton of compliments. From the moment you stand up on the beach in the rain, you know you’re in for a bleak struggle.
T3: How story-centric is POE intended to be? Can you share any details about the story/premise for the uninitiated?
Brian: When people write about Path of Exile, they often say similar things. They praise the game’s overall feel and atmosphere. They commend its massive skill tree, and the creativity of its skill gem system. They have great things to say about the artwork, and about the unique currency system. They also often ask “But where is the story?”
In modern games, players are accustomed to getting their story delivered through one primary medium: voiceover. Path of Exile actually has quite a bit of lore in-game already, but it’s nearly all communicated to the player through written dialogue. A few people might take the time to talk to each NPC, to read and absorb what they say. But the vast majority are just going to click right through, eager to get to their next quest or quest reward.
This is totally understandable of course, and the good news is that voice overs are coming soon! We have pages and pages of dialogue already written, and a huge document that completely fleshes out the larger story. We absolutely intend for Path of Exile to be heavily story driven, not only on release, but in the years to come.
Until our production schedule makes the voice overs a top priority, interested people can learn quite a bit of the game’s lore by reading up on the website. There are detailed descriptions of many of the game’s first act monsters, as well as a (somewhat dated) first-person narrative of a journey through Act 1. We also have a ton of lore splashed around in the flavor text of the game’s unique items, but you need to look those up to read it :)
In short though, Path of Exile begins on the desolate continent of Wraeclast (pronounced Ray-Clast), an ancient abode of fallen kingdoms, ruined cities, and a terrible, mysterious past calamity. The players are “Exiles”, prisoners brought on a slave ship from a nearby island called “Oriath”. They have been exiled for different reasons, but share a common struggle.
Very little is known about Wraeclast at the start of the game, and that’s intentional. The desolation of the beach, the immediate imminent danger of the environment, the rain and lightning and somber music. All these things add to the tone we’re trying to communicate, and unfortunately this can be construed as a “lack of story” to someone expecting cut scenes and voice overs. We completely understand that spoken words add to the immersion, and we’re not releasing the game until we feel that the story is done justice. It’s going to be great :)
T3: The default difficulty level of the game is fairly easy for action RPG veterans who have grinded out thousands of hell-level loot runs. Is it representative of where you’d like the game to land? If so, is the team considering making the harder difficulties available from the get-go?
Brian: The difficulty of “Normal” is definitely tuned to be pretty easy, at least through the first half. This is entirely intentional. Certainly, there are lots of cagey ARPG veterans who, as you say, have “grinded out thousands of hell-level loot runs”. But there are also thousands of players who have never even played a game of this type, and we really do want to appeal to everyone.
The thing is, Path of Exile introduces a lot of brand new systems to the ARPG genre, so even that veteran player is going to have plenty to learn as they travel through the first difficulty level. Their experience should help them avoid dying, and should help them optimize their skills and items, which means that they’ll be in “Cruel” difficulty and beyond in short order. We are allowing people to play Hardcore right off the bat, so if someone wants an initial challenge in Normal, there is always that option.
The difficulty of the game ramps up substantially once the player reaches Act 3 of Normal, and by the time they’re in Cruel, things start to get hairy. Monsters will behave smarter, they’ll have more abilities and more resistances. You’re going to need tactics to survive, not just wading through with one skill.
T3:Can you tell us a little bit about your philosophy on Hardcore mode and your decision to offer the new drop-out style hardcore progression?
Brian: We’re very big fans of the concept of Hardcore, and all of us have leveled and lost many Hardcore characters in games past. However, we understand that while lots of players may like the “hardcore” game experience, and the excitement it brings, a lot of people REALLY hate the idea of permanently losing stuff. Our current take on Hardcore offers players the chance to play with real consequences, but without the risk of losing all progress and items due to a single mistake or a disconnect.
However, we also are offering a tier of challenge in addition to Hardcore, which we’re calling “Cutthroat”. In Cutthroat, you drop your items on death. Not only that, but it’s open season PVP, where players can enter your instances and hunt you down. There is huge incentive to seek people out and slay them. Cutthroat is the most intense, hardcore experience you can imagine in an ARPG. People are going to love it.
T3: Finally, can you tell us about your decision to make the game “curency” free? What do you envision the long-term in game economy to look like?
Brian: Our primary reason for making Path of Exile free of the standard, mineral-based currency you see in fantasy RPG is continuity. Wraeclast is a desolate, ancient place, without established cities or any type of infrastructure. The enemies you encounter early in the game drop the kind of stuff you’d expect on a beach. They drop rusted swords, driftwood shields, corroded and splintered armor.
When you get right down to it, it just makes no sense that the inhabitants would either carry some sort of mineral currency, or even care about mineral currency. The NPCs that barter with you in town want stuff that might help an Exile survive. They want stuff like Scrolls of Wisdom and weaponry. They want flasks and skill gems and rare armor. You can’t eat gold, nor fight with it.
One huge consequence of a standard currency-based game is inflation. Invariably, there are people who spend vast amounts of time “farming” gold or whatever, and in time, it grows abundant. You can introduce various gold sinks like durability or whatever, but generally you’re just creating solutions to a problem that doesn’t need to exist. We circumvent that issue entirely with our unique “currency” system.
In Path of Exile, there are many, many items that are meant for barter, but all of these items universally have in-game utlity. Most of the items are called “Orbs”, and they not only serve as currency, but they form the foundation of POE’s elaborate crafting system. Our Orbs allow you to manipulate items you find to create your own gear, an incredibly useful and fun feature.
Because Orbs and other currency items are consumed when they’re used, and because many of them confer an unpredictable effect, they are naturally self-regulating. You’re not going to see massive inflation of “Blacksmith’s Whetstones”, for example, because they’re a currency item that’s useful to everyone, from a level 5 noob all the way up to a level 95 veteran. Also, because you can find currency items in nearly any stage of the game, it’s possible for that level 5 guy to find something that the level 95 veteran cares about. Normally, that veteran player can find more gold or whatever in 30 seconds than that level 5 character could find in 10 years.
I’ll relate a personal anecdote of some currency-based crafting I did on my Duelist recently. I was at around level 30, starting up in Cruel difficulty and having a really hard time killing stuff quickly. I was using a Rare (yellow text) 2-handed sword I found 12 levels prior, and it just wasn’t getting the job done. However, I had been hoarding a bunch of currency items, and I decided that it was time to make something better.
I searched through the NPCs, scoured the beaches on Cruel Act 1, and eventually located the perfect template: a non-magical Spectral Sword, with 6% extra quality. It did 60-123 base damage, which, while already an improvement, wasn’t massively better than my current 47-89. I took the sword to town, opened my stash up, pulled out three Blacksmith’s Whetstones, and improved the quality of the sword up to 20%, which is the maximum. It was now at 68-142. Then, I crossed my fingers, and applied a precious Orb of Alchemy (which turns a base non-magic item into a Rare) to the sword, hoping hoping hoping for a good enhanced damage result.
Sadly, my new sword, called “Foe Butcher” had a bunch of interesting mods on it, but no enhanced damage. Still, I had three Chaos Orbs (which reroll all the mods on a Rare item) in my stash, which meant I had three more shots at something good. The first reforge of the sword produced another piece of junk. I tried again, getting a tiny bit of enhanced damage, but not nearly what I was looking for. Finally, I closed my eyes, and applied my last Chaos Orb. I heard the sound of the Orb taking effect, and when I finally peeked, I could scarce believe what I saw. I had rolled TWO stacking enhanced damage mods, giving the sword a combined 134% enhanced damage, for a total of 159-332! I was nearly shaking as I equipped this monster sword, and I watched with amazement as my Duelist’s dps went up by almost 400%! It was an absolutely incredible feeling, something I haven’t felt in nearly a decade of gaming.
Try doing that with some mundane gold-based currency :)
Thank you again for the great questions!
We’d like to thank Brian and everyone at Grinding Gear Games for responding to our request and answering our questions! If you’re looking to learn more about the game, check out our Path of Exile beta impressions or download the client at the official POE site.