Grinding Gear Games Path of Exile Interview Part 1
Grinding Gear Games was founded in 2006 by three long time friends united by their common love for action RPGs: Chris Wilson (Producer and Lead Designer), Jonathan Rogers (Lead Programmer), and Erik Olofsson (Art Director). Their favorite game in the early 2000s was Diablo 2, but after years of playing that click-fest, they were ready for something new. For another ARPG that would give them the same sort of gaming satisfaction. They couldn’t find one, though. Various “Diablo clones” came and went, but none had the fast paced combat or deep and addictive item slot machine the the GGG guys craved. So, eventually they realized what they had to do. Make their own. Thus was Path of Exile born.
The game has been under production since November of 2006, initially by just Chris, Jon, and Erik. Their team has grown since, and while they’re still a very small development studio with just twelve full time employees, Path of Exile is nearing completion. The game is currently in a friends and family alpha test, with a public beta planned for later this year, and a release in early 2011.
Path of Exile was designed from the start as a free to download and free to play MMORPG. The game’s financial model relies on “ethical” item sales. As described by the developers, their item shop will not sell game items, or anything (such as “potions of double experience”) that many other “free” RPGs offer to boost character performance. No one need spend cash money in the PoE item shop to enjoy the game, or to rise to the highest levels or to use the best equipment, all of which will be found from monster drops. The “items” sold will be fun things, such as armor dyes, “evil” pets, and special effects, such as a way to make all of your character’s kills extra gory. They’ll also charge nominal fees for more utilitarian services, such as character name changes and realm transfers.
While PoE is immediately playable by anyone familiar with isometric view RPGs such as Diablo 2, Titan Quest, or Torchlight, this is not just another Diablo-clone. Nor is it a WoW-clone, as the developers made clear during our interview. Their game is designed for fast play and speedy leveling up; despite the company name, there is no tedious grinding in PoE. New characters can be created quickly; one of GGG’s design goals for the game and website was to make it so simple that any visitor could be in the game, killing monsters less than five minutes after first loading the website.
While the gameplay is fast, it’s not shallow, with a very imaginative and intricate gem/skill system. It’s best if you read the conversations in the interview for a full explanation of this complex and powerful system.
The following lengthy transcript is condensed from that discussion.
Can you introduce yourselves and give your job titles?
Erik Olsen: I’m the Art Director.
Jonathon Rogers: I’m the lead Programmer.
Chris Wilson: I’m the producer and lead designer.
What’s the history of Grinding Gear Games? When and where did you guys get started?
Chris: We founded the company in November 2006. Initially it was just the three of us. We wanted to make an Action RPG, we thought we could do a good job of it. There weren’t any online at the time.
You were sick of Diablo 2 after 5 years?
Chris: There was a gap in the market. We knew Diablo 3 was coming, and we had our own ideas. We decided we’d found a company, and we got Erik over from Sweden. The conversation went something like, “Hey, we’re making an Action RPG. Where would we go to get an art director?” We knew Erik had an art background, and he said, “I’ll fly right over.”
You guys were friends from Diablo and other online games?
Jon: Chris and me were friends from high school, actually.
In New Zealand? Where are you guys located?
Chris: Auckland. That’s the big city.
Who did you play in Lord of the Rings? Since everyone in New Zealand was in the movie.
That joke would have worked better five years ago. No one remembers LotR at this point. So, who are you playing in The Hobbit?
Chris: We know people who are working on that, actually. One of our ex-artists. You’ll find art that he did on the game. Weta keeps stealing our artists. It’s easy to find good artists in New Zealand because of Weta, but it’s hard to find good game programmers.
So, to answer your question, we founded the company in late 2006. Just the 3 of us initially, for prototyping. Just to get something up. We could show you screenshots of what it looked like then, but it would be highly-embarassing.
In 2008 was the point when we got a proper office. Rather than working out of our garage. And we scaled up the team quite a lot. We now have 12 full time people, and a bunch of contractors here and there. It’s very easy to hire, for instance, high polygon modelers overseas. You can even give them concept art and they’ll send quality models back. We have some people in the States.
Jon: So we are a relatively small team.
Erik: It’s been a little over four years at this point.
Chris: We have no publisher. The game is entirely self-published. We’re doing it all. We run the servers people can play on. Part of the motivation for this is we look at the online games available. And there are these publisher portals, typically for the Asian MMOs, and they have 9 or 10 different games listed. When you get one you’re encouraged to get the others. They’re all tied together, they have a common microtransaction currency between them all. We feel the drawback of getting a publisher like that is that we’d just get slotted in as game #13 on some site. We’d get localized all over the place.
Jon: They’ll force you to get something like potions that give double experience, or some other crap like that.
Those are like a dollar a shot?
Jon: Yeah, something like that.
Chris: We can’t run a game like that. We’re doing a micro transaction thing, and we’ve got funding and self-financing to get the project done, but we’re running a small studio and it takes longer to make the game.
Very small team. Blizzard has hundreds of developers, but even something like Torchlight, they say they’re doing it with 30 people, and turning out a game a year. Although it’s not a MMO, and they don’t have that much content.
Jon: It’ll take us a little longer, but we’re close now. Maybe six months away from beta. We didn’t want to announce too early. We wanted to wait until we were nearly ready.
IncGamers.com: You guys were all Diablo 2 fans. Can you list some of your other gaming influences?
Chris: We enjoyed Titan Quest.
Jon: It had very good combat. It was about the first ARPG after D2 that had the good combat feeling. But they didn’t have an online multiplayer, and no random level generator.
*to Jon* So you only played it once, right?
Jon: *laughs* Exactly.
Chris: I enjoyed Guild Wars a lot. We liked that game’s structure, the architecture, for how many players are in the game or in an area.
Getting Started Quickly
Are you guys excited to finally be showing this off? You’ve been working on it forever.
Jon: Yes. We’re very interested to see what people think.
Chris: It’s been hard operating in stealth mode for so long. We’ve wanted to announce it and get input. We’re hoping to build a community on our website. That’s the main reason for announcing. To get the interested players chatting about the game.
Jon: All the accounts are connected. If you have a forum account you have a game account. We wanted to keep it very simple to join. You just need a user name, email, password, and you’re ready to go.
Erik: One of our goals right from the start of the project was that a new reader could get into the game and kill their first monster within five minutes.
Chris: That’s five minutes from the moment they first viewed the website. It’s very fast and easy to start having fun.
When we picked a game name; which took weeks of debate and discussion; we picked Path of Exile, since that reflects the character’s journey in the game. But mainly it’s something that can be remembered very easily. If you see a friend playing and ask what it’s called, it’s memorable. Anyone can just type pathofexile.com and they’re in. Or Google it and find it very quickly.
You’ve got a good acronym too. PoE is nice.
Chris: When they go to the site they can download the game without signing up. Ideally the game download is small, with patches as needed. And they get right into the gameplay without delay. And as you saw playing, you’re right on a beach and ready to fight.
Jon: Some games they dump you into a giant town and you’ve got to run around and talk to NPCs and try to find your way to an exit to do anything.
Yours is much simpler and more involving. You’re lying on a beach, you get up, and you start killing zombies.
Chris: Our first town is intentionally tiny and limited. There are just a few traders and NPCs to talk to, so the action isn’t interrupted.
Jon: The later towns are much larger and more interesting.
So high level characters will be in a different town?
Jon: Your starting point is wherever you exited from last.
Game and Mission Length
You kind of mentioned Torchlight earlier. One of the big selling points of Torchlight is that you can jump in and play for ten minutes and have fun. It’s not WoW where you need hours and a whole big group to play the end game content. How are you modeling your game for the time spent vs. play fun and rewards?
Chris: We’re making our game just like that. That players can join up for a quick PvP and quit. Or do one level, or find a new waypoint, and get out. We don’t want to tie them in for hours.
Jon: We also want to promote the whole “pick up group” theory. So being able to play with random other people and it’s fun. You don’t need big organized guilds and special roles for each character in the party. You can just jump in and play for fun, with friends or strangers, etc.
Erik: One comment we’ve received from testers is that they’re impressed how well the game runs in a window, with other applications at the same time. You can have the game open while you’re doing your work, for example. When you open our game, it loads within seconds. We don’t have six or seven game logos that you have to watch for five seconds each. It’s relatively light on resources. It can coexist with other stuff you’re doing in Windows.
Are there larger scale missions in the game that would take longer to complete? Multi-stage boss battles or the like?
Chris: No. Everything’s broken up into manageable chunks. We haven’t planned or even discussed any content that’s that long. It’s a typical action RPG in the length of missions.
World Tone and Chain Mail Bikinis
Can you talk about the plot a bit? Is there a world lore and story?
Erik: The story is more of a personal journey the palyer has. We tell much of the story with visuals and art. Atmospheric.
Jon: One issue with MMORPGs is that you can’t really save the world, since then the next guy comes along and saves it the same way. Inevitably, we have to go with more of a personal journey than one bent on saving the world. Also it fits with the theme of the world.
You start the game exiled from your homeland. You’ve been thrown off a ship and washed up on a beach, and you’re immediately attacked by monsters. The initial challenge is just survival. Over the course of the game you want to find out more about what’s happened.
Erik: You’ll find small clues here and there about what’s happened. And why this is a post-apocalyptic world. The continent.
Chris: We’ve planned out the vibe we want to get from the game, with certain design goals. We want there to be a lot of horror elements. We want the player to feel stalked by the monsters. We want there to be lonely parts and scary parts.
Erik: It’s a very cut-throat world.
Chris: For example, when monsters drop items it’s first to get them gets them. It’s a harsh, difficult world. You have to be prepared for it. We’re not babying the players.
Erik: The equipment reflects the dark, gritty world. For example, we don’t have oversized shoulder pads. Armor is actually functional.
No women in chain mail bikinis?
GGG: *laughter* We’d never heard that, but twice now it’s been asked about.
Chris: I thought Erik was smart for coming up with that term, but I guess it’s in common usage.
Erik: We will not have chain mail bikinis. The females in the game aren’t meant to be sexy models.
Are there sexy men in the game, then?
Erik: Actually, they are more scantily-clad than the women. *laughter*
Chris: Our female characters are not overly sexulized. They are strong, powerful women, rather than scantily clad.
You can believe they can actually pick up a weapon and do something with it?
Jon: Sure. We can show you some art from the character classes. They’re normal people who are fighting for their survival. Not people who look like they should be on Baywatch.
Dates and Release Schedule
Chris: We’re aiming for closed beta starting very early next year.
Jon: There may be delays. If our testers think something’s not working and needs to be reworked, we’ll do it. But otherwise, we’re moving along quickly. Adding more content, etc.
Ethical Item Shop
Item Sales. You want to do it ethically?
Jon: Many of the Asian games 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: Dyes for armor. Pets for fun. Change your armor in form. There are more functional things; you can pay to change your characters name. We’ll have multiple realms, geographically located. Mostly for local language issues, and for lag/latency. We can have as many players on a realm as necessary, but we might have to add more if they get too busy.
Chris: So if someone wants to change realms, we’ll do that and charge them a small fee. The thing with the item sales, is that players want to look unique, and many are willing to pay for that. Sure, some of them also want to buy higher level characters and powers, but we’re not going to sell those. We think that there’s such a negative taint to that sort of thing that players won’t play if it’s there.
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.
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.
The other players in the game would see that too?
Chris: Yes. Almost everything that we sell we want other people to see. That’s why people buy that stuff.
Another example: you’ve just killed someone in PvP, and all the onlookers are really cheering. You use your taunt animation and stomp them. And only you have that since you’ve spent the money to buy it. There’s a lot of aesthetic stuff you can do. Coloring your equipment and such.
You guys were planning these right from the start?
Chris: Yes. We had this model all along. We’d never even considered selling +experience potions. That’s a fairly recent development in games, isn’t it?
Jon: Yeah. Designers were just getting desperate for money, and they wanted to find a way to sell stuff in the game.
Chris: I think Everquest just started selling items in the game recently. Tons of random games are putting in RMT sales. I feel it’s damaging to the games. I like the integrity of our players knowing they’ve achieved what they have. To me the whole reason for playing a game online is that you can look at a sword and know you’ve earned it.
Jon: Especially since we’re promoting trading in the game and gathering wealth.
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.
We were asked today in another interview if we would allow additional stash space to be sold. We’re actually debating that one intently. On one hand it’s relatively harmless. Players can always make more free accounts to get more space. So enlarging the stash would just be a convenience. And all characters on the same account share a stash.
Gems and skills
Can you give me a run down on the gems and skills?
Chris: It’s well covered in the video we did on gems, which we’ll be posting in a couple of weeks, along with some blog entries on the exact rules and details. But here’s an abbreviated version for you.
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. Not in belts, which are more like rings in our game.
The maximum number of sockets, roughly. 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.
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 it’s much harder.
Chris: So, looking at the overview. 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.
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. They 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.
Can you put multiple augmentations of the same kind in the same item?
Jon: Yes, but it’s not useful. When you have two of the same skill in your equipment, then you just use the higher level one. You can not stack them.
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.
What is the mechanism for removing gems?
Chris: Nothing what so ever. Just taking them out and putting them back in.
Jon: We want people to experiment with different combinations. So we’re against too much penalty. If anything at all.
Chris: One thing we do want to prevent is exploiting the system. We don’t want players to create macros or external programs that would let them instantly take out and put back in multiple gems. To switch between skills in some exploitive way. So we’ll have to put in a cool down timer or something like that, perhaps.
Do the gems change in appearance as you level them up?
Erik: Not currently. We’re adding art to other areas. But we could add some there, at some point. The issue is if the higher level gem is too good looking, it might make the normal one seem crappy.
But it is crappy!
Chris: We have the same issue with like, plate armor. We have to make sure that the highest level one looks great, but that the lowest level one still looks useful and interesting to the player, when they find it lying on the beach.
But hopefully by the time they find the lowest plate they’ve gone through various types of cloth and leather and chain and such. So players will just be happy to have a higher level of protection.
Chris: We’ve spread the various types of armor out, in terms of the sockets and properties. So the plate would be mostly for strength, and the chain would be strength/dexterity. Cloth armor is more on intelligence. There are quite a few different types of armor and properties.
Jon: We have a huge number of item types, by the way. The management of the items is just terrifying. The spread sheets are enormous.
Erik: You know you have a lot of items when just getting into the files takes you like a day to do any serious balancing or changing.
Chris: I think our current count is like 500 base item types. And we’re still adding more.
Is that like, ten kind of spears and ten kinds of bows?
Chris: We don’t have spears in the game now, but yes, we have lots of everything else. I think 8 is the number we went for on our initial item pass. Eight claws, 8 daggers, 8 staves, but these are the ones we’ve made so far.
Jon: And armor’s even more numerous.
Erik: And we will keep adding.
Do you have something like the exceptional and elite items, as in Diablo 2?
Chris: Not really. We’ve got enough base types that we have covered the entire spectrum.
Jon: We have a lot of items. I think rather than just taking the short sword and calling it the “awesome sword” we’ll do something better. Maybe do a texture variation.
Chris: I’m not even sure we’ll need that. We’ve got so many items already in the game.
Diablo Runes vs. PoE Gems
Chris: Although the comparison will be made between our system and the runestones in Diablo 3, we thought of ours and had it working in the game long before they revealed theirs. So we want to be sure people understand our gems/skills system since it’s one of the more unique features in the game.
Players are so used to skills being inherent to characters. It’s natural to think about modifying those, as in Diablo 3. Your system of skills coming from gems that are socketed into items seems very different. I don’t think there’s any more than a superficial similarity, which people will understand once they hear the explanation.
Chris: You’ve played D2 online. Having stuff like that in the economy is good for the game. If some player finds an amazingly-awesome skill gem in the game and then they level it up and improve it; even if they spend a year grinding it to some high level, that’s awesome.
So once you get the gem, that enables the skill. And as you have that gem socketed in something your character is wearing, the gem levels up.
Jon: The gem gains 10% of the experience your character gets. Leveling up the gem, the amount of exp it takes to level them up at high levels is even more than what your character gets. So you can trade great gems between your characters and keep leveling up the same gem for a long time.
The gem holds the experience, and you can trade it around as it gets perpetually more valuable and higher level?
Chris: Exactly. For example, there’s a unique item with a property that gems in that item gain double experience. So it becomes an incubator item that you’d use just to level up gems, rather than because it’s useful for your character. You might wind up with a character who just runs around leveling up gems instead of leveling up the character.
And then selling or trading or using those high level gems on his other characters?
Chris: Right. Where possible we want to itemize stuff.
Jon: We’re trying really hard to make sure the economy is very vibrant. We want players to really value their items. We want trading to be a really big part of the game.