Grinding Gear’s action-RPG Path of Exile enters open beta next week, taking the impressive-looking Diablo-alike into the real world. Catherine Cai quizzes lead programmer Jonathan Rogers in LA.
“Diablo III was obviously going for a huge number of sales and they really succeeded in doing that, but we really wanted to stress character customization and sort of interesting builds and that kind of stuff. Diablo III didn’t really deliver that for me, personally. I personally prefer our game, obviously.”
Diablo III and Torchlight II both came and went in 2012. Though they were both well-polished games, they left many Diablo II fans—who have long ached for a similar dark and gritty dungeon crawling action-RPG—in the dark.
Enter indie studio Grinding Gear Games. Hailing from New Zealand, the developer’s founders came together with the hopes of putting together the next great ARPG. Now, six years later, their lovechild Path of Exile, is on the verge of open beta. With registered accounts numbering in the hundreds of thousands, Grinding Gear has already garnered a large following. The company, independent of any publisher, isn’t afraid of experimenting with a genre that’s largely been locked into the same mechanics as Diablo II, which makes Path of Exile unique from the herd of Diablo clones.
VG247 had a chance to sit down with Jonathan Rogers, the lead programmer at Grinding Gear Games, to discuss the company’s inception, Path of Exile’s funding model, what’s to come to Path of Exile post its open beta launch on January 23, and more.
VG247: First off, I’m just a little curious about how Grinding Gear Games got started.
Jonathan Rogers: We’re actually like a completely independent company. Chris and I… well, I was the one fresh out of university… we just decided one day: “Hey, there haven’t been any action RPGs that we’ve liked for a long time. I think we can do it.” And initially we thought—you know, naïveté—it was going to take about two and a half years. It’s been six so far, so you know, it took a little bit longer than we thought. But, you know, we’ve eventually sort of managed to do it. And we were just self-funded. I just had some savings and Chris had a bit of money from a previous job. We did eventually have to raise some money and that kind of stuff, but we managed to keep control of the company so we’re completely independent of any publishers or anything like that.
What did you guys think about Torchlight II and Diablo III?
I mean, thankfully for us, they decided to go in a different direction, right? Diablo III was obviously going for a huge number of sales and they really succeeded in doing that, but we really wanted to stress character customization and sort of interesting builds and that kind of stuff. Diablo III didn’t really deliver that for me, personally. I personally prefer our game, obviously.
I agree. It was kind of a “one and done” deal for me.
Right. I know what you mean. That was something that we really weren’t trying to do. So we were really sort of happy that they decided to go a different route from us, so we get to sort of target that guys that really liked the hardcore nature of Diablo II with all sorts of customization and stuff. You know, that’s worked really well for us. We get a lot of players who—they played Diablo II and they’re looking for another sort of action RPG to satisfy that kind of need. And that’s where a lot of our players come from. And that’s why we’ve got such a sort of dedicated people that, you know, guys who pay like $1000 designing a unique kind of item.
Is that why you guys chose to go with a darker art style?
I think so, yeah. It’s sort of funny, because that cartoony style’s kind of come back around to be a dominant thing at the moment. A lot of it comes from… we just really like that kind of dark art style. Our art director [Erik Olofsson], he’s from Sweden, he’s like really into that kind of stuff. You know, Cthulu and that sort of thing. So, definitely, that’s something we really love.
In terms of the financial model, you guys are currently free-to-play?
We are free-to-play, but the thing that we always stress… I almost hate the word free-to-play, because it comes with baggage. Like people think pay-to-win and all that kind of stuff. We don’t sell EXP potions. We don’t sell swords or anything like that. We only sell stuff that’s cosmetic. So we’re sort of doing the whole separation of gameplay stuff from the stuff that we sell. And like, that’s really important to us, because as soon as you have EXP potions, it becomes really tempting as a game designer to make it too long to level just so that people have to buy them. So by avoiding that, we just sort of side stepped the whole issue. So you know, we sell things like pets and like dancers and like glowing swords…
I saw the kiwis.
Yeah, the kiwis and that kind of stuff. And our players really appreciate that, because we’re appealing to a sort of hardcore audience and they really don’t like the idea that someone else can just pay to get advantage over them. Especially because we’re doing things like competitions and that kind of stuff and it doesn’t really… having like a leveling competition doesn’t really work if you can just pay to get more experience.
Do you think you run into a risk where players end up completely going the free-to-play route and they don’t pay into the game?
Well, that’s true of any free-to-play game. 95% of your players will never pay a dime, and that’s okay. The thing is, is that you get a lot more players, so that’s totally fine. And the other thing is as well, our company is like—because we’re in New Zealand and we’re small and we don’t have a big publisher—we don’t actually need as much money as like a lot of… [developers] to fund ourselves. The total development cost of the game is not nearly as high as the other huge titles.
Do you guys have a specific figure?
It’s sort of like… $3 to $4 million or something like that. It’s probably on the upper end now ’cause we’ve been going on a year now without funding. I think if we developed in America it probably would’ve cost three times as much—just ’cause people are paid higher salaries and that kind of stuff here. So yeah, because of that we don’t need as much as those companies. And that’s okay. We’re fine. You know, we’re doing well. But like having a game that we really like, you know? Having a game we sort of really respect ourselves. We probably would not have respected our own game if we had decided to go the other way. It’s a big thing for us.
You guys also have a crowdfunding thing going on for Path of Exiles, right?
Yeah, so basically, we’re doing like a sort of—like Kickstarter, but it’s not on Kickstarter—we basically have sort of different tiers. And each time you go up there’s more stuff included—we have like game DVDs. The top tier’s $1000 and you get to design a unique item. That’s actually kind of cool because the players actually get to contribute to the game design itself. It’s really fun working with them because—they’ve got really crazy ideas and you’ve got to tone them down so they’re not totally broken. It’s all fun to work with them. We might even expand that kind of stuff in the future to do other kind of things like designing skills for the tree or a monster for the game or something like that. That would be sort of interesting for us to do. And that’s great because people directly fund more content for the game, which is like, kind of a nice model. It’d be nice if you can make an entire game like that, right? Players pay directly for the things that they want to be in the game. It’s kind of an interesting concept I think.
What do you think is going to happen to the [Early Access] supporter packs when you go into open beta? Are you going to keep them?
So, what we’ll probably do is, when we go into open beta, we will have different packs. Like, we’ll sort of being moving more towards the sort of thing where you buy like, points to buy things. We still want to have, in like the upper tiers, all those things like where you get a specific title and a specific thing. And that’s because the players really like… like the people who got diamond packs, they’re like, “I’m a diamond supporter. I’ve got the forum title,” and all that stuff. So we may intend to do that kind of thing. Yeah, at the low end, it’ll be like the, you know, “buy 1000 points and spend them on spend them on individual things.”
How many people actually bought the diamond pack?
176. Yeah, there’s quite a few. We were really surprised. When we sort of did it, we were like, “Aw… how many people will do this? Maybe a few will…” but it turned out to be really popular. And the other interesting thing with those is that those players are really dedicated. They turn into people that we can kind of turn to, to kind of… to sort of understand what’s going on in the community. ‘Cause like, they kind of—they’re sort of obviously talking to them a lot—and we look to them as people who we sort of have a line of communication with. We can sort of understand what’s going on, which is quite nice.
What are your thoughts on the traditional publishing model? Where do you think it’s going to go in the future? Now, we’re seeing a lot of games that are starting to do what you’re doing.
Yeah, so the thing that free-to-play really adds that games didn’t have very much before is price differentiation, so the ability for some people to pay more than others, and it’s something that other software has all the time. But games have never really gotten into it. They kind of do it a little bit with like collector’s editions and stuff, but I mean what it really just comes down to is a lot of people—like you want to be able to charge people the amount that they’re wanting to spend on any given game, so that’s what free-to-play really unlocks. That’s what it’s all about. And you don’t necessarily have to do it in the way that all of the other free-to-play games are doing now. But I think that any model that has price differentiation now is like… is a good future. Kickstarter’s obviously another way that you can do differential pricing without just like, you know, without just selling power or whatever. We’re doing our sort of experiment where you know, there’s cosmetic stuff, but there are probably other models where people pay for content and that kind of thing. And I think there’s some other ways. So I mean the big publisher model… I think it works for some things, like there are some games that it’ll still work for and probably continue to work for, for a long time. But free-to-play is just a good… great way to fund a game if you get the sort of mix of game versus business model correct, which can be quite hard for a lot of people.
With the traditional publishing model, they’re [publishers] really hitting on marketing. What do you guys do to get the word out?
It’s really hard. We’ve kind of… we’ve been trying as hard as we can to get in contact with journalists and that kind of stuff, but it’s really hard because a lot of them are not interested in hearing about free-to-play games. It’s a bit of a poison pill in a way, with regards to that sort of marketing. It’s a shame, because we’re trying to be actually ethical with our microtransactions and that kind of stuff. I mean, that’ll hopefully change. But, you know, in terms of what we’re doing, we’re—we haven’t actually been doing a lot of PR—we’ll be doing more traditional advertising soon… not like TV or anything like that. We’re probably going to specific niche websites and that kind of thing. There are a lot of game sites for action RPGs that we’ll be specifically targeting. But all we’ve done so far has just been reasonably organic with some journalists’ help. We’ve got up to about 650,000 players registered at the moment. So it’s sort of done okay. But yeah, we’ll see what we’ll do. We’ll probably look into actual advertising and that kind of stuff. There’s something like Twitch.tv that are actually really good as well. The streaming thing has been really big, especially because we run these kind of competitions and people like to tune into those. So that’s been another nice thing.
Are you guys maybe going to support players that stream? Maybe give them something on the monetary end?
They actually do get money from Twitch for advertising already on the channel. We do a few things with giveaways and stuff like that. We’re looking into doing other things soon. The other thing is on that on our front page we do actually advertise Twitch streamers… just to give them more incentive to try and get to the front page to get more people. Yeah, it’s definitely something that we can look into more, because promoting that stuff is really nice. And like other competitions, potentially, doing more of that stuff to really get streamers involved and if we do competitions for other prizes.
In terms of gameplay, where did you guys get the idea to go with something completely passive in terms of the skill tree?
For the skill tree? I mean, that really just comes from the fact that we wanted to have the active skill system that was pulled out [into items]. We still wanted to have character development… like passives was the way to do it. But we really wanted to make sure that it still felt impactful, so we still had big keystones like that in there. So you have big changes in your character. Yeah, it just happened because we pulled out the active skill system from the skill tree where it’d normally be.
In terms of how players play Diablo II and Torchlight, they would get character builds off of websites. What would you encourage for Path of Exile players? Would you want them to go with character builds or go with experimentation?
I personally think that in your first few play throughs you should just do experimenting. The problem with builds you get off the Internet kind of suck until you get to the point with all the exact little bits lined up and they’re kind of okay. They also require a lot of items that kind of can be hard to get, especially with our game where the item system is so random… that like, actually getting all the exact items to a specific build is quite difficult. You know, the thing is like, builds always happen though, because there is obviously some things that are just slightly better than others and that’s cool. But we try to do those to keep the meta-game interesting. Like, we definitely try to keep the game kind of changing all the time, so that like, the current “thing” always changes. If like literally half your player base is doing one thing, you definitely want to try and shake people out of it. Not like just nerfing it, but changing it or making some other interesting interactions so that they want to go somewhere else, ’cause we want as much variation as possible in the community as possible. So every guy has a different or interesting thing that they’re doing, so that’s why we try to do the whole customization thing. But, builds are something that we have to understand and support them. We do actually like this “build of the week” thing—we haven’t been doing them as much recently, because [laughs] we’re so busy. But, we kind of wanted to showcase like “Here’s what the stuff the community has been coming up with.”
I think one thing that would gear people towards doing the builds is the fact that the passive skill tree is so huge.
Yeah, exactly. There are differently… So we have this thing on the website to plan a build and you can capture it in a link, and then you can link that to someone to show them. But once again, you still need to do the items and that makes them so… it’s not quite so easy, so we still have to customize a little bit. Some of these people have the right amount of DEX in their character build and it just won’t quite translate over to someone else, who has slightly different items.
Is there any possibility for you [as a player] to dig yourself into a hole if you select the “wrong” things on the tree?
That can happen. The thing is, is that we do have, like ah… individual respec points, so you can find items that can respec your character a little bit. We didn’t want to have full respecs, because it’s kind of like a thing where… I’ve often found in games that have full respecs… after you do them, your character kind of doesn’t feel like yours anymore. There’s… part of the development of your character’s the history of where you went in the tree. On the other hand, changing your character slowly into something else is okay because it’s part of the history. It doesn’t suddenly feel like “Oh suddenly my character’s not who it was before.”
Would you encourage characters to work with one character and build them up to level 100, which I heard is very, very difficult or impossible…
That’s impossible. [Laugh] We definitely would like you to have a lot of characters. We give people 24 character slots by default, because we’d thought they’d make a lot. The other thing as well, is that… you’ve got your stash, which you can put a bunch of items… We want you to always be thinking, “Oh, I just found an item and that’s… it’s not good for my character, but I’ve got this other character who can definitely use it.” So we definitely like to have this meta-strategy of lots of different characters who you’re always working for. So we try to encourage that as well by making the events interesting, because when you run one, you get left with this character that’s like around level 20 or something. So a lot of people just go, “Oh okay, I’ve got this character to level 20. I might as well sort of continue on, but now I’m going to go a couple at once.” But definitely, multiple characters… The game having so much customization is all geared towards that, right?
I heard that you guys are using currency items as opposed to a gold system.
Yeah, so we don’t have gold. It’s kind of interesting, actually. The reason why we did that is because we like removed all of the things that gold was used for in action RPGs one at a time. And then we eventually got to the point like… hang on. Why do we even need this stuff anymore? What is it good for, really? A lot of games… it [gold] just inflates to the point where there’s like no value. So we actually realized, if we make all the stuff people trade its own sink, then we don’t have to worry about the economy inflation going out of control. There’s no vendor trash and nothing that’s a part of it that you can’t use. When you find items… a lot of the time people would immediately go and use it to upgrade their things… and that’s really nice. That sort of means that the economy is always in flux. It’s kind of interesting. Trading is always like sort of interesting, because there’s always a new going rate for everything. If you want to be really good at trading… like for some people, the only thing they really want to do is trade—they’re not really interested in the game at all, all they want to do is trade—so having an economy where the prices of everything is kind of shifting around is actually very interesting for those people. It adds like a new game for those guys.
Are there any advantages/disadvantages of the currency item system?
To the gold? Yeah, it’s mainly the economy that kind of like has no inflation. A lot of games have gold as well, but they’ve got fixed prices of certain things so you get like this weird effect where the economy is inflating but yet the stuff at the bottom is really cheap. And, of course, the whole auction house thing in D3 where the gold kind of became more and more valueless. It’s hard to make enough gold sinks for all the gold out there. But when you put in items, it’s just like… a lot of those problems just go away. And another thing as well is that the players don’t seem to miss it. We kind of thought removing gold from an ARPG is like crazy… right? Everyone would just find that so alien. But yet, for some reason the players just didn’t… it just didn’t really bother them! Like a barter economy has actually worked quite well.
Have there been any problems where someone’s broken the system?
Um… not that I know of. [laughs] But we’re keeping an eye out for those things. We have like, you know, internal metrics to keep tabs on what people are doing. To make sure that we… no one’s getting too much currency or something like that… too many currency items. It seems to be going well. And the other thing is that the economy doesn’t really… like, the amount of currency in the system doesn’t really grow too much over time because people are always consuming it. It scales to the number of players more than it does the number of… the amount of time.
Have you guys had any problems yet with hacking or botting?
I suspect this will become a much bigger issue with open beta… and more people just attack the game. We’ve tried really hard to secure the game. Obviously, there were problems with games in the past, like Diablo II especially had major hacking problems. It’s something we’re trying hard against. We do actually have a guy who we’ve gotten to have sort of penetration test the game, you know… try to look at the protocol and see if there are any problems with us. So far he’s found a few problems and we’ve fixed them, but like… It’s kind of like security is very much like a layered thing. We’ve got all these different safeguards in place and that kind of stuff… but someone probably one day will find some sort of thing and that point we’ll have to go, “Okay. Now let’s just switch to damage control mode.” We try to… we got a system to track where all the items come from, so if we find out that someone’s been duping or something, then we can track all of the items to where they went and delete them all. You have to sort of assume that stuff like that can happen one day and have a solution in place to deal with it. So yeah, we do have that kind of stuff in place. It’s a very difficult problem and we’ll definitely have to work one at a time. So far, luckily, we haven’t really had any major issues.
You guys are going into open beta very, very soon…
Yeah. It’s in nine days.
You guys excited?
Oh. Very much so and scared. [Laughs] It’s like… a big deal. We’re sort of… one of the things I kind of worry about… With a retail game, you kind of know how many copies of the game that you put onto shelves, right? You kind of know how many players you have to worry about. With a free-to-play game, you can just download it. We have no idea how many players are going to try the game on day one, so we kind of have an estimate of how many people we think might turn up. But what if it’s more? Then we have to frantically buy servers and you know… it’s probably going to be pretty rough. I hope not.
So hopefully, it won’t be like the launch of Diablo III.
[Laughs] It’s a bit easier if you know how many copies you’ve sold. Um… but if you don’t know, then yeah. I guess we’ll see? We’ve designed the game to scale pretty well, I hope. And we’re ready to buy servers. We got our system administrator standing by, so hopefully, you won’t have any launch issues. As the lead programmer, that’s kind of my main concern… keeping the servers going.
After you guys have open beta, you’re also releasing Act III…
Yeah, so, Act III and open beta are coming at the same time. A lot of that is… it adds about 50% more content to the game than what was there before. That’ll hopefully bring a lot of players back. Right now it’s also the final character wipe. All the stuff before now is getting wiped away because in closed beta there’s also some broken stuff. From now on, we’re in the main economy. This is there forever. Hopefully we’ll get all the players back. There’s a ton of people… we get so many people who say, “Oh, I would play the game more, but you’re going to wipe all the items, so I’m going to come back later when you’re not doing that anymore.” A lot of those players will come back. And we’ve got about 650,000 registered accounts as I’ve said before and we’re hoping that a large percentage of them will turn up within the first week and try the game again, experience the new content and that kind of stuff.
After people have burned through Act III content, what do you guys have planned?
First of all, we’ve got what we’re calling Act III Ex [Expansion], which is like… there’s a bit of stuff at the end of Act III that we haven’t quite done. In the next few months after that we’ll be pushing that stuff out. The game will just continue to add more content: new skills and new items… all kinds of stuff. So you know, the team will probably get bigger rather than smaller after that. We want to add a new Act after. We’ll get there eventually. You know, just keep going. But also all the event stuff that we do keeps the game fresh for the players who have played a lot of stuff… that’ll keep them going. New modes are actually quite easy to add to something. So we go, “Okay, what will it be called if we did like a one day race where… oh… the ground is on fire.” Everyone has to deal with that. Something like that, right? You just come up with ideas and they’re fairly easy to kind of do. Just keeping more interesting modes and things like that coming out.
Do you guys have any other games planned maybe?
We don’t have any other games, no. We’re full steam here on this one and nothing else at the moment.