Path of Exile keeps getting bigger. There were over one million active players in December, playing 44% more than the player base did in December 2015. And with its next update, coming this summer, Grinding Gear Games will double the playable parts of the game.
Yeah, yeah, you’ve heard that from game companies before – “biggest update EVAR!” but this time is seems fitting, even if there are a few cunning tricks GGG is using to implement its bold new plan for Path of Exile. While it’s still a ways off, Lead Developer Chris Wilson took me on a tour of the new content last week, and it’s a lot to absorb.
Lather, slay, repeat
In Act V of Path of Exile, you’ll return to Oriath, the place you were exiled from, to find that it’s undergoing a rebellion. Naturally, you’ll join the slaves to overthrow their oppressors, who were responsible for your banishment to Wraeclast. You’ll fight not in dark caverns and abandoned ruins but in palatial estates. It’s a nice change of pace, and a sharp departure from what PoE players are used to. “Our artists found it a bit different,” Wilson said. Please try not to bleed on the furniture. It’s expensive.
But we’ve seen new acts in Path of Exile before. What makes this expansion remarkable is how it changes how you progress through the game. Currently, in order to get to the “endgame,” namely the Atlas of Worlds maps that we covered last year, you have to play through the first four acts of the game three times, in three different difficulty levels. Although some things can change during those playthroughs, it’s easy to see how it could become tedious.
Once the expansion hits, all that changes. After running roughshod through your oppressors, including the High Templar Avarius in a devilishly complicated battle in Act V (above), you’ll head back to Wraeclast, where Acts VI through IX take place, and then back to Oriath for Act X. These acts “mirror” Acts I-V, where the NPCs and the general areas are the same, but with some visual differences, such as to lighting and vegetation, and totally new quests and monsters. As Wilson told me in our Atlas of Worlds interview, “Content re-use is baked into the DNA of our studio,” and nowhere is that more evident than in the repurposing of these areas to create five “new” acts.
“It’s kind of a ‘fan service’ thing, where there are constant reminders of the situations you encountered in your first playthrough and how they were resolved”
“You can see the results of your actions and how the continent has changed after you’ve been there,” said Wilson. As an example, he described a passage that you opened up during the first four acts that you’ll need to use in the later acts. “It’s kind of a ‘fan service’ thing, where there are constant reminders of the situations you encountered in your first playthrough and how they were resolved.” In one of the side-by-side comparison videos he showed me, he pointed out that “The Fetid Pools aren’t fetid any more.” Glad someone finally cleaned that place up. It was really beginning to reek.
It should come as no surprise that the new system, with less repetitive content, should be a boon to player retention. Difficulty levels are no more, with the single 10-act playthrough comprising everything you’ll need to do before heading off to the Atlas of Worlds. “This means that a player can see unique, original content until they get to the endgame,” said Wilson.
Remember that corrupted god we talked about in the last section? Seems he’s not the only one exerting influence on Wraeclast these days. Wilson explained to me that, despite having plenty of worshipers, the gods had no visible effect on the world. Their powers were being suppressed by The Beast – who the players killed in Act IV. Well, it seemed like a good idea at the time …
As such, you’ll contend not only with the denizens of Wraeclast and Oriath, but also their divine overlords. When you slay a god, you’ll claim a part of its power that you can equip like a passive trait. They’re relatively small effects but they have the advantage of being specialized and are easy to switch out of combat. This lets you custom-build your advantages for the content you’re about to experience, like equipping extra fire resistance to take on a fire boss. You can even “buff” these abilities by killing certain bosses in the Atlas of Worlds. The new content also includes all the usual new items, new skills, rebalancing, and so on PoE players expect from a big update.
So what’s going to come after you complete Act X and murder all the gods? Is that the culmination of the story and maybe the end of Path of Exile’s … path? Not so. Wilson said that GGG will definitely add more acts to the game and still plans “several expansions a year for the indefinite future.” Good to know.
Stairway to heaven
In other news, there’s also a new challenge league, the Legacy Challenge League, launching at noon PST on Friday, March 3. Wilson labels it “one last chance to celebrate Path of Exile as it was in the past” before the sweeping changes from Fall of Oriath kick in. “You’ll get to pick and choose between the 17 different league mechanics we’ve run in the past, and choose up to three that affect your character.” Players will have a shot at old, famous items that no longer drop in the regular game, such as Headhunter and Shavronne’s Revelation.
Apart from the challenge league, all of this cool stuff – six new acts, godslaying, as well as the Xbox One launch and open beta in China – is still a ways out. “We’re targeting the middle of the year,” Wilson said. “We’re getting word out early because there’s a lot to communicate. We’ve found that if we try to compress such a huge thing in just a few weeks of announcements, it just confuses people because we’re piling on so much information. So we want to get the template out there, and then we can gradually fill it in over time.”
Grinding Gear Games isn’t shying away from the workload, especially considering the new influx of players that China and the XB1 might provide. In fact, that’s a major reason why everything is moving so rapidly now. “We figured it was as good a time as any to put our crazy plan into action and release six new acts in this expansion, rather than just one,” Wilson said. “There’s very much a focus on trying to both make the game better than ever but also to fix problems for new players so that the game is as perfect as it can be when we get millions, or even tens of millions, of new players from these two new markets.”
“There’s very much a focus on trying to both make the game better than ever but also to fix problems for new players”
The old players shouldn’t feel left out, though – not with the large details, like the new content, or the small ones. As our call wrapped up, Wilson left me with a humorous anecdote:
“A while ago, they [the community] said, ‘You need to add some stairs to the Act I town. We just need some stairs so we can get up this ramp more easily.’ And so we said, ‘Yeah, maybe, whatever.’ (Well, we didn’t phrase it like that!) Because we were redoing the town for Act VI, we added the stairs. It was just kind of a joke, to get the stairs in like they asked for. We announced the stairs as kind of a teaser about upcoming content. But it’s now the most popular post ever on the Path of Exile subreddit. It’s already on the top 50 on Reddit for today, beating out a whole lot of political crap. People are saying, ‘We don’t know what the expansion is going to be, but if it’s just this, I’m happy.’”
So why did I waste my time writing a thousand-plus words on all the new content? Guys, there are stairs. That’s all you need to get hyped, right?