Game Design Spotlight #14: Skill Gems In Path Of Exile Makes Player Experimentation Actually Fun
As someone who loves to try out different abilities, skill gems are very build-friendly.
Welcome to the 14th installment of the Game Design Spotlight! This column is your weekly dose of my analysis of game design elements across many multiplayer titles, such as Warhammer 40K: Darktide's versatile combat system and the archaic decorating feature in Final Fantasy XIV in need of some significant updates. Last week, I depicted how The Cycle: Frontier's environments and sound effects instigates player anxiety that never truly goes away due to the game's high stakes. Today, I'll discuss the highly-accessible skill gems in Path of Exile that makes mix-and-matching abilities actually fun.
The straightforward nature of skill gems makes progressing through POE's intricate systems more bearable and equally satisfying. Understanding how to level them, the nuances of elemental/physical scaling via tooltips, and socketing them in weapons/armor also feels like a great precursor to the game's gigantic passive skill tree. By extension, skill gems serve as an unspoken tutorial into the ARPG models in place.
However, the main thing I understood about them as someone who plays POE every other three months is that they can be so fun to play around with. Early in with a new character, I never lose the excitement of mix-and-matching skill gems to mold my Exile into what I envision them to become. I could make one of the creatable characters, Templar, into a totem summoner with supportive buffs, or make the Shadow character an ice-slinging assassin sporting a bow and arrow.
Grinding Gear Games’ decision to tie in skills to slot-able gems feels ingenious to me. It makes players like myself who like to switch things up pretty often a way to do so. The freeform nature of skill gems reinforces POE’s commitment to player experimentation, as seen in its other systems.
This core theme of the game runs on the creativity of its players as they challenge difficult encounters and test their builds against waves of enemies. The element of player choice for skill gems makes banging out a playstyle gratifying because players will feel no friction to their enjoyment of trying something new.
It's Like A Recipe
Collecting skill gems to make a compelling character build is like putting together food ingredients to produce a meal. The main dish will be active skill gems, ranging from lightning spells to teleport dashes to leaping jump attacks in POE. That dish will not feel complete without the complimentary support skill gems (a la sides) boosting your elemental warfare or making one arrow from an ability magically increase to five.
Just like in real life, these “meals” go hand-in-hand with many other dishes worldwide. In that sense, skill gems function as item modifications that can enhance your palette bizarrely or harmoniously. Assembling certain skill gems can be a recipe for success or disaster in conjunction with your passive skill tree choices and equipment.
Understandably, players may get turned off by the hike in understanding necessary to make their build come together. But on the contrary, trying to concoct something centered around your treasured skill gems is totally viable. All you need are the right gems to make it closer to that reality.
Finding A Rhythm
The catch is that gems come in three colors - blue for Intelligence, green for Dexterity, and red for Strength - and equipment will have randomized item sockets for those chromatic hues. Depending on your character choice, your stats will exceed in one or possibly all gem colors to some degree and will determine which gems you can use. As much freedom as the skill gems give players, there are still requirements.
Yet, in those requirements, there's a ton of flexibility on what you can do starting out and what will be possible much later. Without getting too deep into surpassing the level cap of skill gems and the superior gem types, the model of how the entire system works maintains its accessibility and rewards players willing to double down on their method of play.
Throughout your progression, you will gain a rhythm of what resources you want, what passive talents you desire for certain skill gems, and fish for particular gear item socket combinations to see it all come together. This journey of discovery can become complex as you dive deeper into Path of Exile but keeps you building to the apex of what you thought was possible.
The Importance Of Choice
The unrestricted essence of compiling together skill gems of different types to fulfill your idea of a fantastic build reflects that player choice definitely matters in POE. So much so that your favorite string of abilities and passives may not succeed in the endgame. Despite that, much of the allure of skill gems is to experiment for your benefit, even if they may not be the most broken gems for cleaning house.
Being content with the abilities that look crazy flashy or have a rule of cool but perform questionably later is all subjective. Objectively, you can play what you want. ARPGs like Path of Exile shine best when players enjoy the kit they put together rather than shoehorned into a limited skillset.
And luckily for POE, the varied skill gems are the perfect starting steps for players to choose how their builds will shape up in the long term. That, coupled with the jigsaw-level customization necessary to bring it all together, makes for a stimulating experience when designing your chosen Exile.
That concludes another week of the Game Design Spotlight! Do you have any particular skill gems you love the most? What's your go-to build for certain characters? Let us know below! Also, feel free to comment on games or features you would like me to cover for future stories if you have any suggestions!
About the Author
Anthony Jones is a gaming journalist and late 90s kid in love with retro games and the evolution of modern gaming. He started at Mega Visions as a news reporter covering the latest announcements, rumors, and fan-made projects. FFXIV has his heart in the MMORPGs scene, but he's always excited to analyze and lose hours to ambitious and ambiguous MMOs that gamers follow.
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