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Grinding Gear Games Path of Exile Interview Part 2

1 Sep 2010  by   Paul Younger
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Following part one of our in-dpeth interview  we continue the discussion with new development studio Grinding Gear Games to find out more about their new action RPG Path of Exile.
WoW-Clone?
PoE isn’t a WoW-clone. You’re not going with grinding, etc.
Chris: The game is very different. We’re both RPGs and are online, but that’s about it. Our combat system is very different. Positioning matters in our combat.
Jon: We’re action-y. In some ways our servers are closer to an FPS game than an RPG like WoW
Chris: We have stun-locking. We have player blocking. You can get trapped by monsters in doorways. These are things you wouldn’t see in an RPG like WoW.
So there are technical skills required of the players. Are you worried about latency for that?
Chris: We have so much client-side protections.
Jon: We’ve put a lot of effort into that. We think ours will be a lot better than other games in that area.
Are the servers in New Zealand?
Chris: No, they’re in America. We’re planning an American realm and a European realm.
Jon: We’re in New Zealand. And we want to be able to play our game fast and for free.
Chris: Our testing is to an American server, and our ping is over 250ms, and we’ve built the game to be nicely playable at that. It plays fine for us from New Zealand now. All of our testers are in New Zealand and they think it’s fine. And it’ll only be better for other people. Technology has advanced a lot in the last ten years.
Good and Bad Grinding
There’s a new Guild Wars trailer out that’s got lots of exalted narration about how the world changes, and how it’s not just grinding for levels in WoW-like small missions that have no effect on the larger world, etc. You guys, despite your company name, you’re not going the grind path, the Asian RPG mode.
Chris: We feel there are multiple meanings for the word “grind.” There’s good grinding and bad grinding.  Good grinding is when you’re having fun playing the game; you’re technically repeating the same areas, since we can’t make a new area for every day of the week, but you’re doing the same randomized areas, and having fun playing it with friends and different random content each time. And then there’s the bad form of grinding, where you’re doing the same areas over and over again with pre-set monsters and predictable drops.  We feel that our random drop system goes a long way towards making the game an item lottery that’s fun to grind.
Jon: We also don’t want to make players grind along just to get to the next level or the next area. We want players to go through it and have fun. We don’t want the average player to have to redo areas just for the experience gain.
Chris: We want to even out the interesting content, and make it all fun to do. Though obviously there will be some areas that players prefer or want to do over and over again.
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PvP
There will be PvP as well as PvE. The leveling up comes from PvE, right?
Chris: You have to kill monsters to get gear and experience.
Are you planning on any special mechanisms to reward PvP? Items or other bonuses?
Chris: We’d love to give item rewards for PvP. But we want the items to be appropriate for PvP. We’ve talked to a lot of ARPG players who love playing PvP. It’s interesting in PvP, since there’s a lot of design space that other games haven’t explored. For instance, you can fight another player, but there haven’t been good examples of organized PvP tournaments.
Jon: This is in other ARPGs.
Chris: Yeah. We want to get players to use strategy, entering tournaments. We’d like to have tournaments running all the time that players can join into. It would be a bit like an online poker site, in that there would be games running constantly and you could just get in on and join in. That’s kind of our PvP dream. So once a player had their character set up as they wanted…
Low level dueling
Another thing we’d like to do is have low level dueling, like you see in some games. That sort of thing is very good for the economy, since it gives a value to items that aren’t super high quality for the end game. Items that are fantastic for level 20 or 30 or whatever, but aren’t useful for high level characters, have a big value in the economy. Hence a PvE player who finds an item that’s great for say, level 30 dueling, could trade that to a PvP player for a great item for PvE that he didn’t need.
Balancing
Your balancing will be crazy, though. Fans will find the DPS is .02% lower with one char and your forums will be just incandescent for a week.
GGG: *laughter* They’ll just have to get used to it. We’ll do tweaks all the time. We have a fast patching system and can make almost live changes to the game. It’s not going be a yearly thing. Changes constantly, and large content additions regularly.
Chris: We’re a free game. We’re not limited to just putting new stuff in the box. We’ll have regular expansions and new content very frequently. Along with fixing bugs and making tweaks. We plan for the company to become larger after release, so with more people working on the game we’ll be able to cover patching as well as new content.  We’re looking to grow the game gradually. Expansions have a lot of art as well as programming.
Character Design
The basic game design is that every character is a good DPS character. They can kill things playing solo.
Jon: Yes.
You don’t have healers or clerics or the like.
Chris: We believe in the same things that Arena Net has so nicely stated. We’re happy for someone to play a support character, but they’ve got to find that on their own. They’ve got to get support skills and figure a way to play in that style. We’re not forcing anyone into that role via their character choice.
Are there classes that are well-paired?
Chris: It’s good to have a tank in front and the ranged attacker behind, certainly.
Jon: The natural tactic is that. We’re expecting people to come up with spell-caster tanks, since that’s possible with the variety of equipment and skill gems we’re putting into the game.
Chris: There’s a lot of stuff in our skill system that’s designed to allow you to help other players. One of the things we have are support gems. There are ways to buff party members. You could put a Buff skill into an item linked to something like a War Cry. And when you cast the War Cry it would affect all of your party members. Not just you. And you can add other effects like Increased Radius, or Increased Duration, so the effect would last really long.
Are you planning on guild features?
Chris: We’d love to support guilds. Whether or not it makes it into the first release, we don’t know yet.
But there are benefits to being in guilds? Other than just companionship?
Chris: Yes. Probably. There are some other unannounced itemization systems that have guild type items that we’re not talking about yet.  Those will hopefully make guilds more interesting.
Guilds are something we know we want to support, but we haven’t worked out quite how just yet. We’d rather get the core game ready and spend time on guilds that most players won’t be using. But we’ll quickly add it once players are interested.
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Character Differences
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.
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: We don’t have genders for the classes. For instance, the Marauder is a male character. There’s no female version of the Marauder. We’ve done that for personality reasons.
Erik: Personality, and also the art.
Chris: Yes, it would literally double the amount of art for each character. We’d rather spend that time and money on making more monsters.
Do the monsters come in both sexes?
GGG: *laughter*
Jon: Some of them do, actually. Male and female scavengers. And most of the humanoids, at least.
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.
How many classes will there be in the final game?
Chris: Six. And they’re sorted by their stat type. See this 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.
There’s room for one more right in the middle. Whose 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. So 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.
Ongoing content:
What are you planning for ongoing content? If the game is popular, a year or two after launch, what will have changed?
Chris: We have a schedule, yes. We want to release regular featured expansions.  With new content.
Jon: By content we mean new areas. Like new acts. An expansion that adds a new act is very art heavy. An expansion that adds new features is very code heavy. So we’ll probably alternate them for the sake of our design team.
Chris: We’ll be basing this largely on what players want. If there’s a huge rally for say, player housing, then we’d be responsive.  In two years from release, the game will be much better. We’re releasing next year since we need to start getting feedback from more people. And there’s no reason once it’s playable to release it, even if it’s not as complete as it will be. We have a long road map planned out. If people are still playing D2 after ten years, we want them to still be playing our game after ten years.
That’s cool. At the same time, you don’t want to launch with too little content, and get a rush of people who play for a week and get bored, thinking they’ve exhausted the game.
Chris: that’s why we’ve waited so long to start the beta. To get enough content built up in advance.  It’s important to us that there’s enough content at launch. 
We also want to promote long term PvP play. We’d love for it to become an e-sport, but that’s out of our control. We’ll be supporting PvP with ladder rankings of all sorts, at least. We want people to be able to compete in different aspects of the game.
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End Game Variety
On that issue, have you planned end game stuff? When people get to very high levels, will the just do something like the Secret Cow Level or Baal runs over and over again?
GGG: *some debate about what they can reveal yet. They agree to just let it fly*
Chris: Okay. Our current plan, and this could change, but right now we want the final difficulty level of the game to be flat. So that you can play anywhere in there and get roughly the same challenge and rewards. It’s very hard difficulty. But at this point when you’re very high level and you’ve got the best equipment, you’re not just restricted to the last level of the last act.
You can play anywhere, and we’re going to put unique and exciting things all over. We could even mix it up so that it changes over time. But we want players to play as many different areas in the end. We’ve spent so much effort on every aspect of the game that we don’t want players to just wind up in the same small place forever.
So there are multiple difficulty levels.
Chris: Yes. It’s very similar to other ARPGs. It’s designed so that any player can get through the weak difficulty level with a modicum of skill and make it through. To get through the higher difficulty levels, players will need to think about their builds, collect quality equipment, and really play carefully, since it will be very challenging.
One thing we think about most ARPGs is that they become relatively easy once you’ve got good items. We want to provide a long term challenge to players. We want it to be twice as hard as most games so players will have to work, rather than just slaughtering through monsters. On the highest difficulty level.
Hardcore Mode
Will you have Hardcore mode? One death and you’re out?
Jon: Yep. We were actually going to make it so that when you die with a hardcore character, they become softcore.
Chris: People are more likely to try Hardcore if they know they won’t lose their stuff when they die. But as far as Hardcore players are concerned, as soon as a character goes to Softcore they’re dead. They’re gone forever. They leave the economy, at least.
We thought about expanding that with Hardcore-only items. So that would be a way for players to play Hardcore and get special items that aren’t in Softcore. But if they wanted to move those items to Softcore, they could do so, but it would require sacrificing one of their characters.
But they could just pass the items down through their shared stash and then have a low level character die with them, right?
Jon: Yes. You could get items from hardcore to softcore, but not the other way around.
Chris: We have announcements in the future about other game modes similar to hardcore as well. Which should be interesting to hear.
Auction House and Economy
Are you going to have an Auction House sort of feature?
Chris: Can we talk about that yet? *quick team consultation* Okay, its’ very unlikely we’ll have an Auction House per se, like the World of Warcraft one. It won’t be like that. We will have another system.
Something better than just walking around town spamming trades?
Chris: Definitely. We’ll have a nice trading system. The reason why we have no auction house is related to the fact that you didn’t see any gold on your little play through earlier. There is actually gold in the game, but it’s very limited. We can’t go into too many details yet, but we want gold to be useful. The gold in Diablo 2 is relatively useless…
“Relatively?” Completely!
GGG: *laughter*
Chris: We’ve played a lot of these games, like Diablo 2, Mythos, Torchlight, Titan’s Quest; you accumulate the gold, and spend it on consumables. All of the consumables can be removed from the system.  Who wants to spend gold buying arrows, or repairing items?
Jon: Potions were one thing we thought about. They were one thing everyone had to buy, in other games. That’s why we made ours refillable.
Chris: When possible, we removed all things that gold was used for in other games, in the past. And then it comes down to, what else is gold used for? Things like gambling.
Where it’s purely a gold sink.
Chris: Right. So we designed the system so the things that are dropping are not gold. We have what we call “currency items.” There are many tiers of them. There are ten of them at this point and we’ve designed for more than thirty. For example, the Scroll of Wisdom (ID scroll) is the lowest tier currency items.  For instance there’s a higher level one that adds mods to a magical item. Or turns a white item into a rare item. Or rerolls the properties on a rare item. Or rerolls the socket. So there are tiers that get higher and higher, so for example there might be an item that drops once a week that’s very useful for augmenting your items. This is basically our pseudo-crafting system. You create your items using these random rolls, a lot like how other RPGs work. We don’t like the idea of specifically adding targeted mods to our items, like augmenting a particular property on to one. We feel that when there’s a lottery system for finding items, it adds a lot more fun to the game in terms of perfecting the builds.
Jon: Looking at other games, when they try to have gold-based economies, they almost always fail. Inflation is just a real problem in so many games. So we decided that instead of trying to make gold valuable, we’d remove it entirely. Gold is obsolete. The gold that we have is like Diablo 1 gold. It takes up inventory space, so it’s inconvenient to carry.
Chris: It also appears in very small amounts. By the time you find the first town, you’ve picked up like 3 gold coins. By the time you’ve finished Act One (out of 3 acts, upon release) you’ve found maybe 25 gold.
Gold, NPCs
So what do you get when you sell items to NPCs?
Chris: A token small amount of gold. There’s quite a complicated NPC system that we can’t talk about in detail yet, but needless to say you’ll get some interesting stuff.  Some of it sort of related to crafting. Let’s just say that NPCs on our continent value other things than gold. So you might find a guy who’s collecting rare daggers, and would have some interesting things to give you for items he wants, rather than just taking all your trash off of you as in other RPGs.
He only wants daggers?
Chris: In addition to the other things he’s collecting, if you bring him a set of rare daggers, or one of each type of bow found in each area, then he would give you some specific thing. Think of it as a mini-quest. So we have gold as a very low currency item. Useful for getting simple things, like flasks from a shop, or blue (magical) gloves. Or perhaps ID Scrolls.
You mean Scrolls of Wisdom. *laughter*
Chris: Yes, we don’t have Identity scrolls. *laughter*
Jon: The propaganda department had renamed them.
Chris: The thing is that players will quickly discover that there’s no reason to carry a large amount of gold. It’s okay to have say, 20 of it in your stash to use when you need it, because you have other tiers of currency items. This is useful also since there’s a barter system in PoE. You get other online games that don’t have gold as a currency, where making trades is a perfectly valid way to play the game. In Diablo 2 for example, I know people who spend their entire time trading and rarely went on monsters runs. They had more fun doing that than playing. Their skill was in knowing what items were trading for what other items at the moment, rather than which items or builds were best for killing monsters.  So we’re trying to build a barter-based economy, as much as possible.
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Death Penalties
Another use of gold is in death penalties. You die, you lose gold. So what are you guys doing for a death penalty since you don’t have gold as a loss variable?
Chris: We’ve got a lot of things currently on the table. We’ve considered having people lose some of their current level’s experience, but many players dislike that. There’s also the penalty of the time it takes to run back to where you were playing. We need to find a better system, but we don’t have a good implementation yet. We do have ideas we’re going to test out, though.
How many people do you have testing?
Chris: Just about 30 now have accounts on our little private realm server.
Those are just friends and family?
Chris: Yes.
Our intention is to continually add more friends and family testers for the rest of this year, and then early next year we start our first public closed beta. People who have sign up on our site, as soon as it goes live on Wednesday, will be added gradually, over time. Our site is integrated. People who create forum accounts are also creating a game account. Once you can log into the forum, you’re in the game with the same info. We’ll periodically give people beta access; randomly or to people who have contributed on the forums. We want to keep scaling that up in number until eventually everyone who is interested has it. We’d like to get good access from at least a thousand people.  And at that point the game is essentially released.
Huh. I guess yeah, since the game’s free, there’s essentially no transition between the end of the beta and the start of the final.
Chris: The main transition is when we open up the micro-transactions shop. We liken it to Gmail, where it was initially only open to limited invites, and people were selling them for $200 on eBay.  Eventually there were more, and everyone had a bunch of invites until finally the program was essentially released, even though it still said “beta testing.”
Jon: We need to get enough testers on there to make sure our servers are bullet proof, and to fix technical issues.
You’d need to wipe characters as well, wouldn’t you?
Chris: Um, well… we’ll see what happens. It kind of depends on how it goes. We have the technical ability to keep it going all throughout the beta and into the final.  We haven’t decided yet. If the balance changes a lot, we might have to wipe.
Grinding
I’m not sure if it even really matters. There are people who are going to play the game twenty hours a day when it launches, who will very quickly have very high level characters anyway.
Chris: Our characters are not that hard to level. It’s pretty fast.
No one’s going to be paying Chinese companies to level them up?
Jon: *laughs* No, no. Now obviously we’re from a Western Culture, and so we don’t have the sort of Asian sensibilities when it comes to creating online games. We did play a lot of online games from Asia, and they generally have a much more ridiculous grinding required.
What’s your company’s name?
Jon: Grinding Gear Games.
That’s not an indication of the intended play style, right?
Jon: *laughter* No no. There are different types of grinding.
Chris: There’s having fun playing, and there’s having to do the same thing forever to progress.
Jon: We played a popular Asian MMORPG recently, I honestly can’t remember the name, I’m not just hiding it. But we could easily see the plan they had of how many hours you were going to spend at each level, and how they were trying to get you into their item shop since it makes for faster leveling. That wasn’t interesting to me. It just seemed like a complete waste of time. I played a couple of hours and saw that the game was boring, walking around the same patch of land, killing the same respawning monsters, and I quit.  I want to play an action online RPG and have fun playing it. Rather than just to get a higher level number.
You guys have seen ProgressWars.com, right? Where you just click a button to make a progress bar fill up. Forever?
GGG: *laughter* Yeah.
Chris: We’ve designed Path of Exile to play like a single player game, where you’re going through interesting areas and you’re killing things. Except it’s online, and you can play it with groups.
Jon: For myself, I hate grinding. I couldn’t keep playing WoW. I got to level 30 or so and lost interest; it was just so slow to level up.  I definitely wouldn’t want to make a game where I couldn’t have fun killing monsters.
You still enjoy playing your own game?
Jon: Definitely.
Chris: Jon is the type of Diablo player who plays the game through on Normal, then Nightmare, then Hell, and once he’s killed Diablo there he’s finished.
Jon: I’m not a grinder.
Chris: Where as Erik and I are grinders. Erik you were very high level on the original Diablo 2 ladders, right? Just under GerBarb?
Erik: I was. Well actually, I was second, so there was a display bug so I was third.  *laughter from Chris and Jon*  I have a screenshot showing me in second on the ladder.
You still remember. How many years ago was this?
Chris: D2 came out in 2000. It’s ten years ago.
Real Money Trading.
Have you guys considered what you’ll do about players selling items for cash money? Will you try to ban it? Facilitate it and take a cut of the sales? Turn a blind eye?
Chris: There’s a big legal mindfield there. We don’t really want to set up the infrastructure to try to take a cut of it. Our policy is probably going to be similar to other online games, where we tolerate but do not facilitate. As long as they’re not doing behavior that’s bad. As long as they’re not running bots in the game, or advertising in the game.
Jon: We’re definitely taking the steps in the game to stop exploiting. No one’s duplicating items in the game. They will get shut down. We have logging and we will find them.  However, if someone’s playing the game a lot and he wants to sell some items to a friend when he’s quitting the game, we can’t do anything about that transaction. But it’s a problem when the actions players take to obtain the items are destroying the game for others. If they’re commoditizing things to that point.
You get gem-farmers and bots and such.
Jon: We don’t mind a guy spending some time on the weekend leveling up some gems and making some cash. It’s a big problem when it affects the entire game. We’ll make sure we stamp out botting when it occurs.
But you understand the economic realities, and that might encourage people to play more of the game.
Chris: It’s extremely difficult to fight this fight. We’ve seen other companies try. We don’t have the resources to stop everyone from doing everything. Nor would we want to.
Jon: We’ll stop people from doing advertising or running bots. We have good technology to track that and find out who is doing what.  Modern technology is really much better at dealing with this sort of thing. We can track the origin of an item back to where and how it was dropped. So if some guy suddenly has a bunch of items that are being sold, we can work out where they came from and how.
It’s just a question of manpower, though.  If the game takes off and there are ten thousand people farming items or duping things, can your small team deal with it?
Chris: As we discussed with “how do you make an indy game on the cheap” part of that is mitigating manpower with technology. If we design it well, as we believe we have done, with adequate security, then systems are in place that do a lot of manpower work for us. So all we’re doing is clicking a button and things are fixed.
Jon: Ban hammer!
You all enjoy it. There are actual high fives in the office. We enjoy that on the Diablo site; we get people spamming comments on the main page news items, and the news script lets us sort every comment ever made by IP#, and it’s very easy to see twenty by the same person, all spamming the same crap. One click, “buh-bye!”
Chris: If we make it difficult enough to cheat our game, the hackers will move on to an easier target.
Unless yours is the one that’s really lucrative. Blizzard’s got a thousand people in customer support, but there are still countless gold farmers since there’s a market for that gold.
Chris: Well another thing is in a game that’s got gold, it’s very easy for farmers to gather it up. Our game though has a more barter-based economy, which means the people trying to cheat it have to know what’s worth something. They have to actually program some logic into a bot to find items, which will wax and wane in value over time. Obviously it can still be done, but it’s more difficult than just picking up gold in WoW.  You don’t hear about gold farming, in terms of sweat shop workers playing the game, in Diablo 2.
It’s all bots, these days. I haven’t played much on Battle.net recently, but I’ve heard that most of the games are literally 8 bots playing together. It seems amazing that the programs can be smart enough to do Baal runs; you’d think players could find a way to join the game and get ahead of them and PK them all.
Guys: *laughter*
Chris: We want our game to be a lot cleaner. The technology has come a long way since Diablo 2. It’s ten years.
Jon: I don’t think the developers could have even imagined the sorts of bots and other exploits that are being used against the game these days.
Probably not, but they did repeatedly say it would be cheat proof and that there’d be enforcement against dupers and hackers.
Chris: They were going from peer to peer to client server architecture. We use the same client-server paradigm as all modern games. And even just our database knows to check for dupes. If you make 2 copies of an item and you save your character, one of them will not save. We’re cutting off all duping at the knees just like that.
Just don’t get overconfident, since hackers will find a way.
Jon: I’m sure. One day there will be some duping method, and we will descend upon it and fix it at once. There are always exploits.
If you missed part one of our in-depth interview, start from here.
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