Welcome to the 23rd 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 the janky house decorating system in Final Fantasy XIV and the grappling hook in Naraka: Bladepoint.
Last week, I talked a bit about the old-school way of boat travel in MMORPGs and how the communal feature needs a comeback in upcoming titles. For today, I'm returning to Path of Exile to discuss the recently released "Ruthless" mode. It's an "extreme item scarcity" challenge mode that effectively sends PoE back to its beginning days, and I'd argue it's perfect content for casual players.
In a game where experimentation and flexibility are at the forefront of a player's enjoyment, Grinding Gear Games has introduced a mode that upends those aspects in favor of raising the stakes. Not in a "boated health bars on enemies" kind of way, but rather through constricting players to certain styles of play depending on RNG drops.
In their words, "Ruthless is a mode about friction, tension, and anticipation." The number of items dropped got massively reduced, skill and support gems are no longer purchasable from vendors, and crafting is limited in scope to serve as a "powerful luxury" for potent items. Every player-led feature from regular Path of Exile is more challenging because of these changes, and why the developers explained Ruthless would click "for a specific type of player."
Considering its focus on extreme item scarcity and how the developers compared the mode to Hardcore or Solo Self-Found, casual players dabbling in Path of Exile might believe Ruthless is for the most hardcore fans, but actually, I'd argue casual players would likely get the most enjoyment out of playing Ruthless.
Making Headway Over Time
In the regular iteration, PoE thrives through its intricate character building and how it stacks up next to end-game content. Leagues like "The Forbidden Sanctum" and "Lake of Kalandra" see their fair share of hardcore fans sprinting through content to reach that apex, but many of those who want to enjoy playing the game here and there aren't willing to tackle PoE in that way.
Their two to three-hour sessions across a few days over the week will see more trekking through campaign acts when hardcore fans are already experiencing peak content. Before long, the momentum of that league shifts through patches, and soon another is on its way.
Ruthless is the remedy for casual players seeking a stabilized PoE experience with dopamine hits. It "re-imagines" the traditional understanding of the game, spreading the end-game through the entire player experience. Older maps are now brimming with potential rare drops of gems and equipment, making players into scavengers that mix and match what works best to survive encounters.
That shifting uneasiness of adjusting to a weapon that doesn't fit your build or stumbling across an unlikely pair of gems is exciting despite how constraining it can be. More than ever, choosing your pathway through the massive passive tree and molding your character through many variations - thanks to meager drops - gives the casual experience substance.
As casual players make headway over time through Ruthless, the core experience of the mode stays consistently engaging and only ramps up further when they're ready to push the envelope.
A Challenge You Can Come Back To
An excellent thing about this new way of playing Path of Exile is that going slow and steady is not an issue. You play Ruthless for the limitations and to feel the hype that comes with finally landing a rare weapon. This challenge is one you can return to and not see a drastic change in your experience, only tweaks from the developers that they believe best capture its intentions.
Sure, you'll miss out on movement skill gems and encounter character experience penalties starting at level 68, but there's a deliberate and rewarding system for those who stick around. You earn what you have at a slower, methodical pace, trudging through content with possibly a lopsided helmet with no mods and a magic sword dropped from a boss that froze you to death a few times.
Those items keeping your Exile trucking along are the glue maintaining your eventual ascension to higher campaign maps and the things inspiring you to fish for better rewards. I believe a casual audience would appreciate what this pet project of a mode attempts to provide the PoE community. Without being deeply ingrained into the regular PoE like hardcore fans, Ruthless is an intriguing mode for them to try for another take on the game that rewards playing over time.
That concludes another week of the Game Design Spotlight! Have you tried the Ruthless mode? Do you believe challenging modes in multiplayer games should cater to hardcore, casual, or both groups of players? Let us know below! Also, feel free to comment on games 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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