Path of Exile 2, a much-anticipated sequel to the original free-to-play ARPG, is gathering a lot of momentum particularly with the struggles that Diablo 4 has faced since launch. We had the opportunity to speak with developer Grinding Gear Games, specifically game director Jonathan Rogers and managing director Chris Wilson. After Rogers shared a short demo of the Druid, we interviewed the pair on what they think makes PoE2 different from Diablo 4, how they made the game more action-focused, and any information they might have on the upcoming closed beta that is slated to launch in June 2024. The game is expected to be released on PC, PS5, and Xbox Series X|S.
Author’s Note: This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
Shacknews: Diablo 4 has faced a lot of criticisms since launch. Many fans have said that they have quit Diablo 4 and are waiting for Path of Exile 2 instead. So for people who may not know much about this sequel, what would you say Path of Exile 2 has over Diablo 4 that ARPG fans will appreciate?
Rogers: I guess the main thing I would say about them is that they’re quite different due to the more MMO style and direction that Diablo 4 has gone down. They’re doing the whole shared world MMO type of thing and the combat system is even more MMO-like with cooldowns and things like that.
We’ve [gone in] more of the action game direction, and I hope that’s even more the case with PoE2 than PoE1. We’ve got those action game roots. We’ve also got, ideally, what I would like to think of as a really excellent combat system now, where you feel like you’re playing an action game. There’s a difference in the style of game at this point.
Wilson: Path of Exile 1 and 2 are free upfront as well.
Shacknews: Path of Exile 2 will be bringing six new classes to the fold: Warrior, Huntress, Sorceress, Mercenary, Monk, and Druid. What was your design approach in doubling the number of classes?
Rogers: The Druid is actually a really good example. Who of our existing classes is going to be the one who will turn into a bear and kill stuff? Like, it wants to be STR/INT because that is of course its obvious alignment. But it doesn’t seem like something a Templar is going to want to do.
At the same time, we also had some problems with existing PoE classes. Like, for example, the Ranger where it had this weird… the Ranger was technically a Dex melee fighter and a traditional Ranger with a bow. Almost nobody would pick the bow character on the character selection screen, and they would go play it as a sword character. Like, sure, advanced players do [play the bow character], but it’s not something that most players would do. So by actually having it so that we’ve got the two playstyles of each attribute as classes actually gave us something interesting, allowing us to play with more themes.
But just remember that since all of the skills can be used across classes, classes don’t actually bind you to what skills you can use. The only thing that is actually bound to the classes is the Ascendancy classes, which are the extra three classes that each class gets to add. So there’s nothing actually stopping you combining all that stuff into a big melting pot between different classes.
Shacknews: So we’ve seen some great gameplay footage of the new classes. Can you share anything about how you will be updating the old classes, like Duelist, Shadow, Marauder, Witch, Ranger, and Templar?
Rogers: Probably not yet. We’re really focusing on the new classes for the time being. There is pretty interesting stuff we’re doing with the old classes, and we’ll be announcing all of that before the beta release.
Shacknews: For character customization, do you have any plans on having different body types or gender options for each class? Will you be able to use dyes or other things for further customization?
Rogers: That kind of cosmetic stuff is always done in our releases through what we sell. Cosmetic stuff, we reserve for the shop. So there’s nothing we can announce there, but what I will say is in PoE2, given that our animation stuff is a lot easier to do now, that alternative body types for each character class will be a significantly easier thing for us to do than it would have been with PoE1. So that’s something that we’re differently interested in.
Shacknews: “Interested” as in part of the monetization?
Rogers: Monetization. We wouldn’t do, like for free, we wouldn’t do that type of character customization. For free, we’re all about the crazy build customization, as opposed to the visual customization.
Shacknews: Are you sharing anything about Ascendancy classes?
Rogers: We did show some stuff around ExileCon 1 about them, but that was actually before we solidified all of our plans around the classes. So a lot of that stuff is outdated now. We aren’t showing any of the Ascendancy classes. However, there are 36 of them, since that’s 12 [classes] x 3.
Shacknews: Can you say anything about whether we should expect similar Ascendancies of the original classes in PoE1?
Rogers: So, for the most part, all the old Ascendancies are going to come back. But now there will be double the number of them [as there are twice as many classes], so there are going to be a lot more. There are some that aren’t coming back, but most of them are. The mechanics will get adapted to the PoE2 format, so not every stat is going to be identical, but the themes of the old Ascendancies will be there.
Wilson: There are some cases where the new class on an attribute may borrow bits and pieces [of an old Ascendancy], leaving some space on the old class for us to come up with something new.
Shacknews: Path of Exile 2 will have co-operative play for up to six players. Will enemies scale with more players, and are there any particular mechanics or features that you have in mind for co-op play?
Rogers: So the multiplayer scales just like in PoE1.
Wilson: It’s approximately 50% harder per additional player. If you and I were playing together, the monsters would be at 150% power roughly. If there were three of us, they would be at 200% power. That’s a ratio that has worked for us over time.
Shacknews: So is that mainly attack strength or HP, or both?
Rogers: It’s HP. The reason the attack strength isn’t higher is…
Shacknews: That would obliterate the players.
Rogers: Yeah, they have 50% more life and 50% more drops [with two players].
Shacknews: How does Dual Specialization work with the skill books? Can you explain this in more detail?
Rogers: You get 100 regular passive points from just playing through the game to Level 100. And then any skill book you get in the game - there are approximately 15 - will give you a Weapon Specialization point. And what those do is allow you to allocate them as many times as you have weapon sets on your character.
Characters start with two weapon sets, but there are ways to get others. One of the ways you get them is having an animal form. Whenever you change to another weapon set, you automatically change the passives over as well. That effectively means your passive skill tree reconfigures automatically as you change between which skills you’re using to have passives that are most useful for that skill.
Shacknews: One of the most significant changes in direction in PoE 2 is the emphasis on making visual feedback clear. That means not having so many projectiles or particle effects on the screen. Some players have said that this makes the game look “slower”, yet it would seem like this would be better for pacing and graphics. Are those the reasons for the change?
Rogers: There are a few reasons. If we want players to actually engage with boss mechanics, then you need to not be melting the boss with a thousand projectiles a second. This has to happen so that you can respond to something.
But at the same time, as I just showed in the demo, there are different things you can do to create a lot of projectiles on the screen. The volcano combo [with the Druid] does a huge amount of damage. I think you will still get the feelings that you had in PoE1, of like I’m breaking things and melting stuff, without it being impossible to see anything that’s going on.
It’s actually a really bad look when new players look at a Twitch streamer in PoE1, and they can’t even see what the hell is going on. That’s especially not approachable, so the ability to see what is happening is very important. I guess if you were to turn this into a slogan, it would be that “You need to feel like you’re breaking the game without actually breaking the game.” That is what we are trying to achieve here.
Shacknews: So Path of Exile has a lot of experience with expansions and leagues over the last decade. What should we expect in terms of this with Path of Exile 2, especially since you will be updating both games at the same time moving forward?
Rogers: So we’re absolutely going to a three-month cycle that we did with PoE1. I see no reason why we couldn’t have the same ten-year lifespan with PoE2 with what we already have with PoE1. We’ve really proven that that ten-year cycle is something that the players really like. So yeah, we’re just going to keep doing it.
And as you said, we have huge amounts of experience with that. I believe we have 44 expansions for PoE1 at this point. That’s a crazy number, because I don’t remember working on 44 expansions, but that’s apparently the number.
Shacknews: That’s like once every quarter.
Rogers: Yeah, that’s like once every quarter for ten years. We’re going to keep doing that. And the PoE1 and PoE 2 expansions will be offset from each other, so effectively they both will appear every three months but they’ll be offset by half of that time (so one and a half months). So if you do want to play both games, they’ll work with each other.
Shacknews: So, going back on a prior point you made, you wanted to put more action in the ARPG with Path of Exile 2. I saw a lot of dodge rolls and dodge-canceling in the demo. Can you explain your philosophy behind that?
Rogers: So the main thing is that it feels like an action game. But all of [the new mechanics] have a purpose. For example, the dodge cancel - if you don’t have a dodge cancel or some way to cancel in a game, that means you can’t have long attacks and cast times, because as soon as you do and the player feels locked in, that feels terrible. So basically in PoE1, all cast times normalized around a certain amount of time; we couldn’t go lower than that because the amount of casting you’d get would be very high and we couldn’t go higher than that because that would feel terrible.
Just adding the dodge-canceling immediately made it so that this was balanced around cast time now. We can have some things that take a second to cast and some things that take three seconds to cast, and it’s actually something that would work.
As soon as you give everyone a dodge roll as well, suddenly we can make boss mechanics avoidable. Every boss in PoE2, all of the mechanics are completely avoidable. Mark, who is our game director that does bosses, he can kill every boss without taking any damage. He’s extremely good at it. Like I can’t do that, but he’s able to do that. So making everything telegraphed, that kind of stuff really improves combat. So all of these little changes just really make huge improvements in how combat feels.
Shacknews: One of the strengths of Path of Exile 1 and even more so in Path of Exile 2 looks to be the wealth of options you can have, particularly the 1500 passives skill nodes and all of the active skills. At the same time, when I was playing Path of Exile 1 way back when, there’s a bit of analysis paralysis that can happen when it comes to making a build. So what are your thoughts on finding a good balance point between those two things?
Rogers: It is hard. Because if you’re the kind of player who must play something optimal, and we present a lot of options, then you’re going to go, “Well, how do I know what’s the most optimal thing?” The way that most people solve this for themselves is by looking at build guides and things like that, so a lot of players will often ask us, “Oh, why don’t you have build guides in the game?”
But I’m really against that kind of thing because I don’t really like blessing certain builds and things like that. I worry that games that do have these sort of “Oh, you’re a newbie player, here are some instructions you can do.” I don’t think that’s actually a good thing to have in a game. If you’re the kind of player that feels like you need to build something optimal, I’d much rather you go to the ridiculous number of community tools that people have built over the years. And I’m sure that stuff will persist for Path of Exile 2 as well.
At the same time, I would say that we’ve actually simplified things in certain ways. Like you saw the ridiculous amount of options in the giant skill tree; we’ve simplified things in ways technically to be able to achieve what you want and experiment more. We’re being a lot more, maybe “generous” is the wrong word. But for skill gems, there are ways to experiment with those without having to screw around with your gear. It’s easier to try all of the active skills, because now when the game drops uncut skill gems, they can be cut into any skill gem you want and they all come pre-leveled.
It’s stuff like that, that we have, that makes it easier to play around. So I’m hoping that stuff will mean that you don’t necessarily feel like you have to go and find the optimal build online, you can just experiment on your own and that will be cool. And with the more action-game focus, even if you’re not necessarily good with stats, the fact that you can dodge roll [means that] you don’t necessarily have to beat a boss by overwhelming it with stats. You can beat a boss just by practicing it enough that you are able to kill it, even though you’re not as good with your output of damage as you would otherwise be.
As a side-note in PoE1, there were definitely bosses that you couldn’t really do without dying. But also in PoE1, you can just slam your face into a boss over and over again using a town portal. You can’t do that anymore in PoE2, because we now actually have checkpoints, so if you die during a boss, you have to restart. That’s actually one of the changes as well.
Shacknews: The closed beta is expected to arrive on June 7, 2024. It is expected to include all six acts, some endgame, and a few league mechanics. What would you say will be your main focus of development before the closed beta is ready?
Rogers: So what we’re showing here is what has been polished. Now we have to polish all the rest of the content. We almost have everything first-pass playable, as it were. But we actually need to make everything to the same standard that you’ve seen.
Wilson: And I’m hitting up that Path of Exile 1 team, live operations and stuff, so it’s a matter of keeping the company solvent. My team earns the money, and your team [he looks at Rogers] spends the money.
Rogers: *laughing* Hopefully that changes at some point.
Shacknews: How long do you plan or hope the closed beta to last before you’re ready for the official release? Can we use prior betas with PoE as a guide post?
Rogers: I would say the minimum time is three months. That’s the amount of time it takes for an entire economy to form, as it were. But it could be longer if we’re not feeling confident in what we’re doing. We could even have an extra, like “We’re not happy with this economy. We’re going to make some changes and do another one, right?” We really don’t know for sure.
Ideally, we get it right the first time and then in three months we’re out.
Shacknews: In prior statements, you have noted that crossplay is something that you are keen to explore. So for some people who might not know about the behind-the-scenes work it takes to get crossplay and cross-progression to work, can you describe the process of how to get those features in the game?
Wilson: So the platforms don’t like us talking about the specifics. We have to sign some heavy NDAs on a lot of it. Some of it, we can talk about.
Rogers: What we can tell you about OUR challenges, not challenges related to them, one of those is just, we can no longer get some extra time… like it was nice when we didn’t have crossplay to be like “We’re going up to the very last minute for the PC version, because there’s certification and all of that other stuff we can get sorted after the PC version is out to see what goes wrong.” And that was nice, [but] of course if you’re doing crossplay, you have to be ready earlier than you would be otherwise, and that is a challenge. It means we have to be a lot more certain with our releases, like we can’t just patch it on the fly.
Like [if the game was only] on PC, we can get in five minutes a new version of the client up, assuming that’s how long it takes to fix a bug. From someone noticing a bug, typing up the thing, building the executable quickly, and then putting it on the servers — it’s very, very fast. But that’s not the case anymore if you have crossplay — it’s a bit of a thing.
This interview was conducted behind closed doors at a private media event. Path of Exile 2's closed beta is set to launch on June 7, 2024. The game will release for PC, PS5, and Xbox Series X|S.
Nick Tan posted a new article, Path of Exile 2 devs explain how this sequel is different from Diablo 4
"feel(s) like you’re playing an action game." Whelp I'm sold!
Can't wait for this