Grinding Gear Games’ Chris Wilson discusses the challenges of developing the ARPG’s biggest free expansion yet.
While the rest of the world eagerly awaits the next Diablo, Grinding Gear Games has been working on what its faithful fan base considers to be even better. We’re talking about the free to play title Path of Exile, a complex, endearing, dark action RPG that allows you to customize to your heart’s content while exploring a horrifying world. While Path of Exile has been renowned for its free updates, it received perhaps its biggest free content drop till date with The Fall of Oriath. This brought several new acts, the new Harbinger League and much more for fans to devour eagerly.
GamingBolt had a chance to speak Grinding Gear Games producer and developer Chris Wilson about the free expansion, especially with regards to its development, the recent release on Xbox One and much more.
"Inspiration was taken from old historical European cities. We often used photo references or actual 3D scans of things like doors, statues and fountains to get a realistic feel."
The Internet has often praised your studio for delivering so many acts and content for free, especially compared to the competition. But what challenges did you face while developing The Fall of Oriath?
The biggest challenge was Scope Creep. Our plan was to add Act Five and then to remix the first five acts into a second set of five that feel reminiscent of the first but are unique and interesting to play through. Asset re-use is of course critical to this process, as creating six entirely new acts would take many years. The question was how much resources to put towards creating unique content for the second set of five acts.
From a business point of view, we wanted to do the minimum that would make them feel unique and allow us to release on time. The practical reality was that the team had so many ideas for cool things to do in the new acts that the process took a lot longer than we expected. We eventually created a set of acts that were far more unique than originally intended, but released them about four months after our initial internal projections! This was of course great for the quality of the game.
How did the community help to really shape and balance the free expansion, especially given the months of testing?
The community really helped. We received a lot of feedback and spent significant time acting on it. An example of content that they helped shape was the monster variety in the new acts. Our baseline level wasn’t quite good enough, so we looked at their feedback and really improved it for release. From a balance point of view, their feedback about our potential changes to how “Charges” work on players was very useful. Several changes related to this were rolled back for the full release so that we have more time to hone them before we make them again in a later expansion.
The overall art-style and aesthetic in the free expansion looks amazing. What did you look at for influences and in terms of breathing life into the world, how do you feel about the final result?
Inspiration was taken from old historical European cities. We often used photo references or actual 3D scans of things like doors, statues and fountains to get a realistic feel. Things worked out well so we are looking at doing more more areas in the same way and improving some older areas with the same techniques.
Till now, Path of Exile is still looked at as a very difficult game to get into. How has the new in-game Help section aided in this and how do you feel it can be further improved?
We’re aware of its reputation of being difficult to get into, though have worked hard to make sure that the base game is easy to play at face value. The controls and tropes are familiar to people who have played other Action RPGs. What is complex is the depth of character customisation under the surface, which can be daunting to players as they lift the lid and start to enumerate the different options available. The new Help system definitely assists in explaining these features to users in a clear way. I feel that while there are improvements to still make, a lot of the issue is a perception/reputation issue, and that can take time to mold.
"Overall, the end-game is in a great state with a lot of new content to explore. We plan to continue to add to it with future expansions, of course."
Path of Exile has had its share of networking and de-syncing issues through the years. How has the issue been dealt with, especially with the resources available?
In our 2015 2.0.0 expansion “The Awakening”, we dramatically improved our netcode and added a “Synchronous Lockstep” model which eliminated desync. Since then, we have worked to make sure that our networking experience is as good as it can be. The majority of issues that players run into are related to ISP connectivity issues, where certain countries or regions experience higher latency to the game servers. We work with providers all across the world to resolve these as they occur.
With the Harbinger League having been launched, what are your thoughts on the reception thus far? Furthermore, what is your philosophy when it comes to creating fresh new leagues for players?
Harbinger is a typical “small” league for us, because it is designed to co-exist alongside a significant expansion where we don’t want it to steal too much thunder. Players have provided some great feedback that has allowed us to tune it since its release with several changes. While there’s always a tendency for players to want each league to be more rewarding than the last, it’s sometimes important to reset expectations so that leagues feel especially impactful when we intend them to.
When creating new leagues, we want to both create fresh combat experiences and fresh rewards. We have a pretty large pool of ideas for both to pull from, so future leagues should be quite exciting.
What can you tell us about the current end-game scenario for Path of Exile, especially for those who have left and may be returning for Fall of Oriath?
Our massive “Atlas of Worlds” expansion last year bolstered the end-game with dozens of new maps and revamped the set of bosses found in most maps. It also added a new storyline for the end-game and a visual representation of players’ progress through it. This map end-game has been further improved in The Fall of Oriath with the introduction of the dozens of new monster types that inhabit Acts 6-10. The Harbinger league adds further challenge, with both Harbinger encounters and a new end-game “Beachhead” map. Overall, the end-game is in a great state with a lot of new content to explore. We plan to continue to add to it with future expansions, of course.
What future plans do you have for the franchise? How long do you feel it will be before another Fall of Oriath-style expansion releases?
We have a lot more expansions and leagues lined up. We’re currently working on a very interesting one for release in early December. I don’t know when the next one that is the size of The Fall of Oriath will release – depends how quickly our ambitions run away from us once again!
"The benefits of adding DirectX 11 support to Path of Exile (to facilitate and Xbox One launch) were immediately applicable to the existing Windows PC version of Path of Exile."
Path of Exile is often looked at as an example of how free to play titles should be made, especially with regards to microtransactions. What are your thoughts on the current free content models in the market, especially with regards to those that offer cosmetics over “pay to win” solutions?
There are pretty much two categories of free-to-play at the moment. Those with purely cosmetic options and those that sell gameplay advantage. We are trying to push the former of these forward and distance ourselves from the latter. Some popular free games recently have adopted the purely-cosmetic business model and are seeing great success there. For games with a competitive playing field,
Following the release of the base game, will you release the game on other platforms like PS4? And is there is a reason why you are not launching on the PS4 given its larger install base?
We haven’t made any plans at the moment. Our decision to launch on the Xbox One was because we have a great relationship with Microsoft and their platform is Windows-based, making the conversion straightforward. The benefits of adding DirectX 11 support to Path of Exile (to facilitate and Xbox One launch) were immediately applicable to the existing Windows PC version of Path of Exile. If we had chosen a different platform, then we wouldn’t have been able to improve the PC version in the same way for free.
The game will be receiving Xbox One X support. Is native 4K and 60 frames per second on the cards?
Yes, we have it running at 4k/60fps on an Xbox One X at the moment. It’ll be available at the launch of the console.
What is the resolution and frame rate of the base Xbox One version?
Xbox One X features a high end GPU. What kind of benefits does it give to developers compared to the Xbox One?
There are two types of benefits. The first is that games that ran at 1080p can now run at 4k without compromises. The second is that the additional graphics power can be used to make games look even better than they did before. This is something we’ll be looking at over time with Path of Exile – pushing the boundaries of the hardware.
"If you haven’t played Path of Exile before, now’s a great time to dive in. If you have played in the past, it’s an even better time to return."
The Xbox One X features plenty of RAM too. 9 out of 12GB is available to developers…which is undoubtedly more than the average found in gaming PCs. How has this helped you?
More RAM helps us cache art assets so that they are instantly available if later needed. This is important when players decide to visit areas they recently went to, or if they enter an area that contains art assets that are shared with another they have been to recently. The base Xbox One (and average gaming PC) has enough RAM for a few areas to remain in memory, but the 9gb available here pushes that by quite a lot.
Given that the Xbox One X is powerful in its specs, do you see a longer life cycle for it?
Yes, absolutely. I doubt games will be fully utilising its hardware for some time.
I just wanted to take you back to the earlier Xbox One days. The console’s eSRAM was painful to work with. Many developers had issues with it. Is it still that much of a problem in case of Path of Exile?
Our use of the eSRAM is very simple, so we didn’t really run into issues. We put our shadow maps and a few other surfaces into eSRAM and it sped up rendering those things.
Is there anything else you want to tell our readers before we let you go?
If you haven’t played Path of Exile before, now’s a great time to dive in. If you have played in the past, it’s an even better time to return. The game has never been better than its current state, and we’re really proud of that. Thank you for your feedback and support!