Grinding Gear Games can see into the future. How else can you explain Path of Exile’s success and its status as one of the most beloved free-to-play games on the market? Clearly, the GGG team has help from otherworldly sources.
Or maybe the company just has a dev team that’s good at figuring out what players want and is willing to adapt its methods to match those needs. That’s the impression I got when I had a lengthy talk earlier this week with Path of Exile Lead Developer Chris Wilson, who gave me a tour of the game’s imminent update 2.3.0: Prophecy. The update provides more of what every ARPG provides – more loot – but gives players a more satisfying, and less frustrating, way to collect it.
It is the future you see
As you’re probably already aware, PoE’s challenge leagues offer players the chance to start fresh every few months with a new character and incentives for powering up that character as quickly as possible. “Something like 60% of the players like the idea of restarting every three months,” Wilson told me. “It lets you take advantage of the content you have in the game, rather than just the endgame stuff.” It’s a great idea, popular with players, and one that I’m surprised more MMOs don’t adopt. In fact, one of PoE’s closest analogs, Diablo 3, has adopted a similar system, which Wilson told me he discussed with some of D3’s devs at GDC.
Prophecy’s challenge league revolves around – you guessed it – prophecies, specifically those given out by a soothsayer named Navali (and her charming pet monkey), whom players will encounter in every town. As you adventure, you’ll regularly come across silver coins that you can turn in to Navali for her to tell you a prophecy about your character. Prophecies range from “You will encounter [Character] and complete his mission” to “You will defeat [difficult boss] with [some handicap].”
At this point, you might be thinking the same thing I was – that “prophecy” is just a fancy word for “quest.” On some level, that’s correct, in that they do give you specific goals with specific rewards, and some prophecies are even parts of longer “prophecy chains” that have several steps to them. These chains teach players about individual mechanics as they go along, to prepare them for an epic encounter at the end of the chain.
Prophecies in Path of Exile do more than just grant random quests, though. In fact, reducing randomness is key. When you have a prophecy that says you will, for instance, encounter a specific character, the game makes it virtually automatic that you’ll encounter him soon, as opposed to searching for hours for him to randomly appear in a zone.
Wilson used the example of a prophecy related to Elreon, an NPC players like to aid so that he provides help for them later on in the game. He can be difficult to find in the base game, but when you have a prophecy to encounter him, the game will make sure Elreon can be encountered in virtually any area, as opposed to the limited space he used to occupy, to help avoid too much backtracking.
Other prophecies change the monsters in zones, such as the Feral Lord prophecy chain, which starts you off by dealing with corrupted versions of a zone’s normal animals. As you progress, you’ll happen upon other dangerous beasts to advance the chain. You don’t need to “go questing” and concern yourself with searching for quest goals; you’ll just happen upon them wherever you go, in a more organic nature than with a typical MMORPG quest. Some prophecies, such as Elreon’s, make use of old content, but several, such as the Feral Lord, are completely new content, sure to challenge even veteran players.
A flexible plan
If you’re not interested in the new mechanic and just want to play through the challenge league without worrying about prophecies, you can give Navali a few extra silver coins to get a “sealed prophecy” in the form of an item you can trade or sell. Alternatively, if you really want to complete Elreon’s quest multiple times, you can buy up all the Elreon prophecies and rescue the hapless chump over and over.
The potential value of a prophecy can be affected by both its rarity and difficulty, and no matter what you wind up with, you’ll have a use for it. “If you’re lucky enough to get [a difficult] one, but you don’t have enough play skill to actually complete it, you have the ability to itemize it and trade it to someone else,” Wilson said. “Likewise, another player who has the play skill and the character to complete these hard prophecies, but doesn’t have a supply of them, can trade items in the game in order to get the hard prophecies and turn a profit by completing them.”
It’s a core part of Path of Exile, that nearly everything in the game is tradeable, all the way from the silver coin drops up to the final reward for a prophecy offering players amazing flexibility to potentially be rewarded all along the chain of a prophecy, no matter what their skill level, time commitment, or resources.
I asked Wilson about this policy, which seems to run counter to most MMORPGs, which bind hard-to-get items to characters, so they can’t just buy and trade top-tier gear like a commodity and have to “earn” it by completing difficult content. “Those really-hard-to-achieve things generally command a high value in the game so the players have to trade a lot of other similarly-hard-to-get stuff for them,” he told me. “It’s just that the items that can be equipped by your character are tradeable because they could be very useful and valuable to other people. It helps motivate people to complete hard challenges when they get something that has trade utility as well as something that shows that they were the specific person to do it.” If it works for PoE, maybe it could work for other games.
A rewarding experience
Rewards for prophecy chains include new items, items that were briefly available in the past (and have since risen in value), and, in the case of the Feral Lord, a partial reward that opens the path to another difficult encounter.
Calling himself an “item geek,” Wilson is especially fond of The King and the Brambles prophecy, which states, “You will defeat Daresso while wearing Bramblejack.” Bramblejack is essentially a starter-level piece of armor, very ill-suited for taking on a difficult boss like Daresso, thus providing a kind of “challenge mode” for the encounter. If successful, Bramblejack transforms into the Wall of Brambles, made much more effective than the original gear by simply adding a ton of armor value. “We’ve gone through and found a lot of items in the game that are aimed at low-level players and made a high-level version by adding one property to them.” These “fated unique” pieces of gear will only be obtainable during the current challenge league, about three months, making them potentially hugely valuable down the line.
Want more stuff? There are 40 challenges you can complete, separate from the prophecies themselves, and completing 12 and 24 will net you a free item from the Path of Exile cash shop, something in the $15-$20 range; at 36, you get Navali’s pet monkey. Wilson told me that during testing, he played for about 30 hours and completed 19 challenges, which seems like an acceptable rate of completion. As he put it, “You can get the first one, but it requires more skill to get the second. The third is for the people who don’t have jobs.”
We briefly touched upon the Labyrinth, which was introduced in the last PoE expansion, Ascendancy. Prophecy brings a more brutal endgame version of the Labyrinth, filled with traps to make an adventurer’s life miserable (and short). Completing the Endgame Labyrinth gives players the opportunity to enchant their helms with an enchantment that’s new to this update, and they also get two additional Ascendancy Points the first time they complete it, bringing the total number of available Ascendancy Points up to eight.
Toss in new skills and new unique items, many of which have already been revealed on the Path of Exile site, and any way you slice and dice it, there’s roughly an expansion’s worth of content coming in the Prophecy update. A new challenge league with a major new mechanic is sure to get old players coming back, which Wilson told me is a larger percentage every time they release new content. It’s an outstanding achievement, and one that doesn’t look to be slowing down any time soon.
Path of Exile Update 2.3.0: Prophecy launches at 1:00 PDT on Friday, June 3.