Path of Exile‘s last release, Synthesis, didn’t go over all that well with the community. It got to the point that Grinding Gear Games’ Chris Wilson felt obligated to make a long post on Reddit explaining how his team created the expansion and the difficulties that troubled its development.
Time marches on, however, and here we are looking at another update, coming along like clockwork on the schedule that GGG has set for itself. In my call last week with Wilson, we talked about that update and also touched upon the issues that his company faces now, with its jam-packed 2019 schedule.
Legions of doom
First things first: The new update is called Legion, because there aren’t enough games using that title these days. The five large armies that have existed through Wraeclast’s history are all coming back to re-ignite their age-long conflict. More specifically, “their souls are trapped in the Domain of Timeless Conflict,” Wilson told me, which sounds to me like they’re stuck playing PvP forever.
As you travel around the world, you’ll discover monoliths, and when you touch them, two armies will appear, frozen in time. You’ll have a few seconds to tag as many or as few of the motionless soldiers as you like, and when that time expires, the ones you touched will activate and the slaughter commences. In later zones, some of the baddies will sport icons that give you an idea of what kinds of items they’ll drop, so you can customize your killing spree to your liking.
Similar to the Breach League, you’ll acquire splinters, which you can merge into an emblem when you have 50 of them. Each of the five emblems represents one of the armies in the conflict, and the ones you put into the Map Device determines which ones will be present when you visit the Domain of Timeless Conflict yourself. The fights will be challenging, Wilson said, with full-on five-army battles reserved for the most skilled players.
(Speaking of the Map Device, it’s increased from four slots to five to accommodate the five armies. It originally had four “to troll the players,” Wilson said, because there was just one thing to put in them, and players were continually wondering what the other three slots were for.)
In terms of the battle mechanics for the Legion League, that’s pretty much it. It’s a much simpler league than was offered in previous updates, which had maps to build or intricate connections between NPCs. This was an intentional choice from Wilson and GGG, which we’ll discuss in greater detail at the end of our piece.
Treasure for treasure
“But what about the loot?” you might be asking. (If you’re not, why do you even play Path of Exile?) Well, dawg, I hope you like loot because now your loot can drop loot.
The new loot type is an incubator, which you apply to an item you’re using. When you get enough kills while using that item – 2,000 level 35+ monsters in the one Wilson showed me – another item will drop. Different incubators provide different items, from divination cards to gear, from the fairly common to unique weapons.
I asked Wilson the simple question of “Why?” Why give out loot that can turn into loot later instead of just giving out the end loot in the first place? “By deferring the item drop and making the player work for it, we get to drop a better item than we otherwise would. We’re very concerned about power creep.”
Equippable items aren’t the only notable things you’ll find in Legion. There are also jewels related to all five armies that you can put into jewel slots in your passive skill tree. These “radiate” out an aura that changes the skills on your tree. The Vaal gem he showed me randomly changes the “named” skills in your tree, while one from another army “turns off” the small passive skills while doubling the big ones.
Given their wide-ranging effects, Wilson sees these jewels as “aspirational content” for endgame players. “You don’t just get them handed out like candy.” They’re also limited to just one per character build. He thinks that these “crazy jewels” are going to be the loot people remember from Legion, even more so than item incubators or new uniques.
The other big thing happening with this update is Path of Exile’s big melee revamp. “Clunky” is how Wilson said many players describe melee combat, and changing that was no simple task. “We basically took melee combat out of the game and put it back in properly, with a lot of improvements,” he said.
Those improvements constitute a lengthy list: animation canceling, instant-triggering movement skills for all classes starting at level 2, AoE damage for all melee attacks, overhauled animations so that you can tell exactly what’s hitting, animation chaining for multi-part attacks, dynamic speed changes, improved targeting “so you don’t have to individually click on each target,” numerical changes (such as accuracy no longer being capped at 95%), and a complete rebalance of melee skills, similar to the changes spellcasting skills received in Synthesis.
“We just spent three months changing everything to do with melee to make it feel really good,” Wilson said about the changes, which were initially planned to be released in the 4.0.0 mega-update, but since it was ready now, “Why stall it for a year, just for marketing reasons?”
Because melee is better now, Wilson said, the beginning areas of the game felt too easy. Those areas also got reworked, with bosses having more visible “tells” that would inform you of when you needed to get out of the way using your new movement skills. While the changes generally apply to Act I, “We’re working on extending that as far out as we can before the release deadline,” Wilson said.
On the other end of the content spectrum, Wilson said there were “eight or nine maps” that had issues with their layouts and boss fights and that needed attention. His team “applied 2019 polish to parts of the game that were the most noticeably old.”
The con game
All of this development is continuing apace while Grinding Gear Games prepares its first convention, ExileCon, which will take place in Auckland, New Zealand, on Nov. 16-17, 2019. Of note is that the original Diablo I and II creators, Max Schaefer, Erich Schaefer, and David Brevik, will be in attendance. Brevik has worked with GGG in the past, while Max Schaefer has been busy developing Torchlight Frontiers for Echtra Games and Perfect World Entertainment.
We joked a little while back about ticket availability for the convention, and Wilson told us that there were still a few hundred of the basic tickets for sale. He also let us know that there had been VIP tickets (“sold out in five minutes”), which included dinner with the developers, and “ultra-VIP” tickets, limited to 15, that included a barbecue at the home of PoE’s technical director. They went for $1,000 apiece and “sold out in 30 seconds, which is absolutely terrifying.”
After he had finished telling me about everything that was coming for the game, I had to ask Wilson about what was coming for his company. I asked him about GGG’s performance on the last expansion, Synthesis, which wasn’t received as well as the company (and players) would have liked, which led to that Reddit thread explaining how it came about and what his company would – and wouldn’t – do in the future.
Some of the responses to that post were from players who suggested GGG might have bitten off more than it could chew this year – with the usual slate of regular expansions, planning for a mega-expansion, console launches, Korea launch, and ExileCon – and that the quality of content was suffering as a result.
As mentioned previously, Legion is a mechanically simpler expansion than previous updates, such as Synthesis, Delve, or Betrayal, and that made development go a lot smoother this time around. There’s no subscreen or intricate new mechanics that players need to master. It’s possible that the most hardcore players will bemoan that, but it’s understandable that GGG wanted to scale things back a bit, considering what’s to come for the rest of the year.
“It’s honestly less than half the work,” Wilson said. “As far as I’m concerned, this cycle has gone pretty well in terms of letting us get stuff done in the background.”
And is crunch a concern? “The team haven’t done an hour of overtime that I’m aware of,” Wilson said, while commenting that work-life balance for his employees was very important to him. Obviously, as the guy in charge, you can always take that with a grain of salt, but we haven’t heard the kinds of horror stories coming out of his company like we have coming from others over the past few months. It’s almost enough to make you want to move to New Zealand – as if Christmas in the summertime wasn’t a good enough reason.