From the mobile game to the sequel announcement and everything in between, Path of Exile fans were deliriously happy with all the announcements that came out of ExileCon. All the work and energy that Grinding Gear Games put into the show didn’t disrupt its normal expansion cycle, which continues apace in March with Delirium.
As usual (when there’s not a convention to save all the big announcements for), I got the top-level overview of the the new update’s features from GGG’s Chris Wilson, who started me off with a recap of 2019 – which, as is the case every year, was very good for the company. There were 500 million play hours in 2019 on Western servers alone, up about 30% from 2018, and continuing the steady growth of the game through the years. In addition, PoE landed in the top tier of players but only the second tier of monetization on Steam’s Best of 2019 lists, a pairing that Wilson is proud of. He said that about half of PoE’s players use Steam, so you could roughly double the numbers on Steam Charts to get a count of how many people are playing the game overall.
I got a look at some screenshots of the upcoming mobile version of Path of Exile. “I deeply want to make sure that’s the right place for the game,” said Wilson, who’s currently listening to feedback from testers to determine what the balance should be between emulating the PC version of the game and making it more mobile-friendly. “We might want a broader audience” than the PoE PC players, Wilson said, thinking that if it was a straight port, it would only appeal to the existing audience rather than newer, more mobile-inclined, players. “But we don’t want to dumb things down.”
We also talked briefly about Path of Exile 2, which he was hoping to have images for, but the coronavirus issues in China foiled those plans. GGG has “about 30 workers” in various outsourcing jobs, and their inability to get to work (similar to what’s happened with other games) meant that the assets weren’t ready in time for this interview. Wilson aims for PoE 2 to to be “the biggest sequel we can make within Path of Exile” and compared the approach to Overwatch 2, which was coincidentally announced at BlizzCon just a few weeks prior to ExileCon. (Less coincidental was ExileCon’s timing, which Wilson said was planned to be a couple weeks after BlizzCon and the likely announcement of Diablo 4.)
The unfairest of them all
Now, on to the new stuff that we can actually share! Well, mostly. Unlike with our other previews, Wilson didn’t want to go into detail about the exact story of the expansion and its important NPCs. “We want the players to play through and experience it and work it out themselves. If we explained it, then it would kind of ruin it.”
All right, now we can talk. “This expansion ended up focusing on two things Path of Exile is known for,” said Wilson. “The first one is action combat with an emphasis on the player choosing the degree of risk and reward.”
In each area, you’ll encounter the ghostly Mirror of Delirium, and when you enter – because why wouldn’t you? – you’ll trigger a mist, which “manifests your greatest fears.” In addition to normal monsters, which will be beefed up, you’ll also encounter horror delirium monsters, which get worse and worse the farther you venture from the Mirror, which is the option to “choose your difficulty” that Wilson pointed out. Additionally, “they start splitting open with demons coming out of them,” which is just the kind of nightmare fuel I didn’t need to hear.
The Mirrors can appear virtually anywhere on a map, which means you might wind up fighting Delirium-infested boss monsters, even the kinds you’d normally face at the end of an Act. You might also encounter them while clearing rooms from an Incursion temple or fighting a Syndicate member. It’s basically a “hard mode overlay,” as Wilson described it.
And what kind of rewards do you get for that self-torture? Apart from the usual slew of items, you’ll receive Orbs of Delirium that you can use in the Atlas of Worlds to make maps permanently shrouded in mist, upping the difficulty and upping the chances of finding certain rewards, like unique items or divination cards. You can spread these out around various maps or concentrate them on a single map for greater difficulty and also greater rewards.
As if all that wasn’t enough, “somehow the team found time for a little bit more,” and that’s Simulacrums. You’ll sometimes find Simulacrum Splinters from endgame maps. Combine a full hundred of them you’ll be able to open a portal to a “special endgame encounter” that’s related to that plot we can’t talk about. I’ll again stress that I didn’t receive any spoilers about that encounter, but seeing as how the expansion focuses around a mirror and the concept of facing your innnermost fears, I’m having thoughts of the final counter of Zelda II: The Adventure of Link, only in Path of Exile form.
The second classic Path of Exile element in this expansion is character customization. Sure, every PoE character is different, but Wilson said Delirium offers “the largest amount of change in more than three years in terms of character customization.”
When playing Delirium content, you can find Cluster Jewels, which are placed in sockets on the outer edges of the passive skill tree. These jewels add nodes to the outside of the skill tree, themed around a certain trait, such as Fire Resistance, and including one of about 280 notable skills that’s a part of the jewel’s description. The Cluster Jewels come in three sizes – large, medium, and small – and can “chain” together: a large jewel will produce a cluster that lets you fit a medium jewel, while a medium jewel will spawn a cluster that lets you fit a small jewel.
Some of what a Cluster Jewel offers will be determined upon its creation and you can see in its description, while some elements will be random. If you don’t like what you got with yours, you can trade it, reroll it, do “all the usual Path of Exile stuff to make it fit your build.”
There are also unique (orange) Cluster Jewels that add just a single keystone passive node. Wilson showed me one that was called Hollow Palm Technique, which gave out tremendous bonuses if your character had no gloves or weapons equipped – in other words, it turned you into a barehanded martial arts expert. Another was a large node that simply had the capacity to socket three medium jewels, for maximum forking.
Probably the craziest new jewel I saw wasn’t even a Cluster Jewel, though it worked well with the new system. It offered a very low bonus to two stats – +5 each to Dexterity and Maximum Mana – but those bonuses increased by 20% for each allocated node that separated its location and your character’s starting location. In the image I saw, it was 25 slots from the character’s start, indicating a +500% bonus – and if you slotted it at the end of a long chain of clusters, that could go even higher!
These additional options add a kind of challenge in building characters that Wilson hopes will lead to more diversity among top-tier builds. “We want to avoid people Googling ‘How to Path of Exile character’ and then copying exactly that,” he said. “It’s fine for beginners, but this system is very much about ‘you get what you get,’ but then you have tools like rerolling and trading to improve it. It’s not trivial to just follow the recipe to get what someone else has. Maybe it causes you to take a completely different branch with your character development than what the guide on the internet said.”
I brought up the point that all the build-altering power introduced with Delirium might make it so that players wanted to redo their builds more often than they do now and that the pain of getting enough refund points to rework everything could be a significant hassle. Wilson said that his team was experimenting with the notion of allowing free refunds for minor nodes, while still requiring some expenditure for larger nodes, but it wasn’t something they were ready to commit to just yet.
Delirium also cleans up a few issues players had from the last expansion. The UI for the Atlas of Worlds will be a little more clear and Conqueror spawning will be less random and more deterministic, so you can more easily predict when you’ll have that big battle. Vaal side areas will also spawn in endgame maps, and temple rooms (from Incursion) will be more dense and rewarding.
The Metamorph League will also be added to the core game with Delirium’s launch. With all the other big announcements at ExileCon, the popularity of the “somewhat unfinished” Metamorph League, with its “trailer that was done three hours before the event started,” surprised Wilson.
In a break from previous expansions, the dev team isn’t tuning specific archetypes or skill types (melee, bows, spells, etc.) this time around. Instead, Wilson instructed his team to come up with some “cool skills you want to add because they’re good.” That has resulted in the skill Blade Blast, which explodes blades that are left behind in the environment by skills like Bladefall or Blade Vortex. More explosions are always cool.
There’s also a new wand skill, Kinetic Bolt, meant to appease players who want to use the base damage of their wand, as opposed to using it to cast fireballs and the like. The skill produces an arcing barrage of energy, which can be modified by support gems, so wand-users can “use their wands like Harry Potter,” who would have totally kicked ass in Wraeclast.
There are 30 new unique items arriving with Delirium, most of which are unique jewels that work with the new system, but there are a few pieces of regular equipment. Perfidy is a piece of plate armour that lets you use plant two banners at once, and gloves that increases lightning damage to chilled enemies. These two items cater to niche builds, and that’s intentional, as Wilson explained: “With 900 [unique items] in the game, we target specific builds, rather than just saying, ‘This is power,’ because we don’t need more of that.”
Breaking the Christmas Curse
To close out our talk, Wilson talked a little bit about the design process at Grinding Gear Games for expansions that are worked on over the Christmas season – which also coincides with summers in New Zealand, making it doubly hard to keep people in the office. “In the past, with Bestiary and Synthesis leagues, we did the best we could, but had very overcomplicated leagues over the Christmas period, which resulted in some quality issues. The community is full aware of the ‘Christmas curse.’
“So our goal with this expansion was to come up with something that just had action-packed combat, played right into the whole risk-and-reward thing, and had cool character customization. We were able to add so much more to it because we had such a consolidated view of what we wanted to achieve. I’m not saying people didn’t take their holidays, but there were people around to make it this time because it was such a pure Path of Exile experience. It wasn’t overcomplicated.”
And then there was the small matter of ExileCon in November, which also added some work and stress to the latter part of the year. “We’re used to doing a 13-week cycle, but real-life event management was not something we had to do before,” said Wilson. He vowed to “get more help next time.”
Next time? Wilson told me that ExileCon “probably won’t be yearly.” He instead wanted to make it happen maybe once every other year, when there was something meaty to announce, because just having the expected new league to announce, as well as a hang-out with the devs might not be seen as enough. “The longer we wait for the next one, the more the magic will be back.” This being Path of Exile, that “magic” will probably eviscerate convention-goers and reanimate their corpses.
Path of Exile: Delirium goes live on PC March 13 – a Friday, of course – and on PlayStation 4 and Xbox One the week of March 16.