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It’s no surprise to Chris Wilson that Path of Exile players flocked to the online action-RPG during the pandemic. Grinding Gear Games keeps setting records for player hours, with the Echoes of the Atlas expansion bringing in more than any before it.
Grinding Gear’s general manager delivered these nuggets and more on Tuesday while showing off Path of Exile 2 and the upcoming Ultimatum expansion, which launches April 16. Path of Exile is a popular online game, with 35 expansions or updates and millions of players across the globe.
Path of Exile saw a 17% increase in player hours in 2020, cresting with Echoes of the Atlas. Wilson said that players preferred the expansion’s emphasis on core Path mechanics, that traditional grind of killing monsters and getting better loot, than experiments like gardening or Pokémon-like monster collecting.
“It could be the case. Yeah, we tried to mix it up occasionally. We had the Delirium league about a year ago, which was one of these combat-focused ones. And I suspect that the big picture expansions are great for variety and do attract a different type of gamer,” Wilson said in an interview with GamesBeat on Discord. [No relation to the writer — Ed.] “First, we have to make sure that [expansions] have really strong core combat and rewarding stuff in order for all the players to enjoy them.”
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Because New Zealand has sealed its borders, and its citizens and government heeded COVID-19 protocols, the virus is almost nonexistent there. So Wilson said Grinding Gear’s staff has been able to work on both Path of Exile and its sequel in the office.
“We’ve been back in the office for 80% of the last 12 months basically, so during the times when the government recommends that people work from home, we work from home. And during the other times, we come to the office unless there’s extenuating circumstances, like people who live with very vulnerable family members and so on,” Wilson said. “But the country is sitting there at a zero case rate, so it’s pretty safe for them to come in, because there aren’t [lingering] plague cases that haven’t been discovered, as far as we’re aware.”
Grinding Gear hasn’t experienced the same problems other studios have had with delays that come from working-at-home.
“It would just be a nightmare to have the entire team working from home. Our game has evolved to involve development that takes place in the same room. There are developers crowded around each other’s computers, pointing at stuff and having discussions … and they get their information that way. We’re not a very documentation-heavy company. We don’t sit there making a spec document for something; we just discuss it in person, and they go and make it.”
Grinding Gear has found itself struggling with a different COVID-related problem — hiring. New Zealand, while having a land mass that rivals California, doesn’t have a lot of people (5.1 million as of April, making it the 121st most populous country on Earth). So it doesn’t have a lot of game developers. New Zealand hasn’t let new people into the country during the pandemic, either, so you can’t hire workers. Wilson said they just got the OK to bring in folks from Australia (which has a growing game development scene), but that’s it.
So, how many hires has Grinding Gear made?
“We’ve hired one person, who is a New Zealander and has come back to New Zealand because of the pandemic, which was helpful,” Wilson said.
A number of publishers and studios have created local ecosystems to train new game developers over the years. Ubisoft in particular has a reputation for this, partnering with area universities and colleges when it opens new studios. Grinding Gear has tried this, but again, you have a limited pool when you’re dealing with a country of only 5-plus million people.
The first half of Wilson’s presentation (you can see the entire shindig above) shows off Path of Exile 2 (which doesn’t have a release date yet). The video revealed a couple of different weapon-styles as the player mowed down wave after wave of enemies.
The first wielded a spear, a new weapon for Path of Exile. It’s flexible. By this, I don’t mean it flops around. You can either use it as a melee or missile weapon. This flexibility is something Grinding Gear is going for.
And I also had to ask why Grinding Gear is using spears over other pole arms, because, well, polearms are just the best, you know.
“There may be a variety of pointy polearms used. I understand that there are halberds and stuff that don’t use exactly the same attacks, but there will hopefully be more than just spears in that weapon class,” Wilson said. “It’s partly because we wanted to have these have a consistent set of skills, and this evolved into poking them into enemies and being thrown and so on. The spears alternate between being ranged, melee, or both. And so, there is surprisingly diverse selection of weapons that work like this, though it does mean we miss out on bardiches and halberds and other types of polearms, which maybe we introduce later.”
The crossbow looks quite different from how bows play in Path of Exile. The archer went from piercing shots that blasted through armor to elemental shots that threw out bolts in wide cones. The crossbow has a satisfying “thunk” with each shot. I asked how Grinding Gear made that “thunk” so splendid.
“Sometimes, we do foley work, and sometimes we do premade sounds effects,” Wilson said, not sure how the audio folks made this sound. Community manager Bex had a more in-depth answer.
“The audio team designed the sounds for the crossbow ammo skill with layers of different sounds from a variety of soundpacks. So it’s part-audio artistry and part-sound library effects,” Bex said.
One of the neat aspects of Path of Exile 2 is that it will live in the same client as the original game. They’ll both share the same endgame, and your purchases from Path of Exile will carry over to the sequel, as it’s all tied to the same account.
Path of Exile feels like a game ripe for local co-op. You can play with others online, but not at the same machine. This is because you’re playing in a client. Now, with Diablo III on console, you can play in your account and with a guest. Could the same happen with Path of Exile, or is this a problem because of the nature of the account and the client?
“That would have to change, and this is something we’re looking into, but [local co-op] is also something we don’t want to commit to until we can get it working,” Wilson said. “But certainly, it would help this kind of game. And it’d be lovely to support couch co-op on PC as well, like a combination of mouse, keyboard, and controller. It’s just a matter of changing the game and the necessary ways to support it.”
Wilson said Grinding Gear is trying to make crossplay happen between console and PC as well.
Path of Exile debuted back in 2013. When Ultimatum launches April 16, it will have almost 40 expansions and updates. That’s a lot of names for maps, monsters, characters, gear, and powers. Is it getting difficult for Grinding Gear to come up with new names for things?
“It is actually getting really hard to name stuff, because with these new skills and stuff, when naming, it’s like, ‘I want to call it, “such-and-such slash,” but it’s not a slash, because there’s 18 things called slash. And they’re like, ‘OK, well, what about a strike, then?’ Well, no, technically, it’s not a strike, and you can’t use “bloody” because that means this thing. So it’s not “blood strike” or “blood slash,” it’s, you know, “sanguine” … and technically, “sanguine” is used over here, so we can’t use that one either. And it’s hard to be consistent,” Wilson said.
So, is it getting harder to name new skills, which have requirements based on the types of actions they are, than it is new characters, areas, and lore?
“That’s surprisingly difficult as well, to be honest. Yes, there is a bit more flexibility with those because you can just come up with cool arbitrary sounding, foreign language names for for more things,” Wilson said.
And it’s been a problem for some time.
“I think it was definitely becoming a problem about five years ago, but it’s only getting worse,” Wilson said. “There’s a joke that says that in computer science, there are two problems: caches and naming things. And the same thing is kind of true with game development, once you start to get complex with names.”
No wonder Grinding Gear is keeping it simple with the sequel’s name: just Path of Exile 2.
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