Path of Exile has undergone a long journey towards its final release. On January 23, the action RPG is about to take a big step forward when Grinding Gear Games sends their debut game into open beta.
The free-to-play Path of Exile plays similarly to many online action RPGs. Characters are moved with the left mouse button, while combat involves clicking on enemies or hitting keys like Q or W to unleash spells or other special attacks. Where the game begins to set itself apart from its contemporaries is with the sheer enormity of customization options.
Producer and lead designer Chris Wilson took me on a brief tour of Path of Exile's upcoming third act. His witch, one of PoE's six available classes, was armed to the teeth with fire spells. On top of demonstrating a normal fireball attack and some area of effect spells, Wilson showed off his inventory, which contained a number of different gems. He equipped his level 15 fireball with one gem that allowed his witch to shoot a triple fireball. Later, he equipped his fireball with a fork gem, which split his fireball upon impact with an enemy, taking down surrounding foes. Customization possibilities are nearly limitless and can be applied to both weapons and flasks, which are refillable containers that replace the traditional potion system.
"When we started the project, we'd been playing an awful lot of action RPGs, like Diablo and Titan Quest and, also, games like Magic: The Gathering," said Wilson. "What impressed us about Magic the Gathering was the players were coming up with interesting deck combinations and interesting combos that really surprised the developers. We wanted to try to apply that kind of customization to a Diablo-like game."
Where Path of Exile takes a bold experimental step is with its economy. The game relies on a bartering system, doing away with gold and currency entirely. Players can trade weapons, stat-boosting items, and other trinkets--a system that's surprisingly deep, given the gargantuan passive skill tree system and the numerous ways to upgrade and modify weapons.
A common practice in an MMO is to search for dungeons to raid with friends. Path of Exile takes a unique approach to this system by having dungeon quests appear as random drops. Players can pick up maps as a rare drop and recruit a group of friends to warp to the dungeon's location. Those that don't wish to run through the dungeon can trade the map to eager questers, just like any other item in the game. Also like other items, players can use upgrades on the maps to manipulate its stats, such as increasing the number of rare monsters and increasing loot drop frequency.
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Those that have partaken in Path of Exile's closed beta have expressed some displeasure with the game's opening hours, criticizing the slow pace. Wilson has heard these complaints, but notes that it's an intentional design choice meant to create a sense of progress. "We want to make sure the player feels a progression of power as they play through the game," Wilson added. "While I agree that it probably feels too slow at the beginning, we have to be very careful about changing this. If we change it haphazardly, it could larger consequences elsewhere. We want the player to feel a progression of power so that it is rewarding to make progress in the game. Some action RPG's start you feeling like a god and this means there's nowhere to go--after a while, you're still a god."
Path of Exile's long development cycle is attributable to the small size of the 20-person development team. As an indie developer, Grinding Gears can also take as much time as they need to focus on refining the game without worry about pressure from a publisher. Wilson hopes to polish the trade system, address community complaints, balance out character skills, and add some more PvP modes before PoE's final release, which he hopes will come after a six-month open beta period. One thing to note, however, is that open beta players won't have to worry about losing their characters on that day. "There's no reason not to play after this one," said Wilson.