It’s been a big year for Path of Exile. Developer Grinding Gear Games held the first-ever fan convention, ExileCon, in the developer’s home city of Auckland, New Zealand in November. At the show, the company made a series of big announcements, perhaps the most notable of which was the reveal of Path of Exile 2. Some of the other announcements included a Path of Exile mobile game, a 3.9.0 expansion for the base game, a Mac version and more. In a new interview, Grinding Gear founder Chris Wilson speaks to GameSpot about how the show went, if it will return for 2020, and lots more.
“I almost cried on the stage, it was such a strong set of emotions,” Wilson tells GameSpot about his reaction to announcing Path of Exile 2 to a crowd of millions of people on-site and online.
ExileCon may not return for 2020, Wilson says. The main driving decision will be if Grinding Gear has enough to show, and it’s too early to say.
Also in the interview, Wilson speaks about how Path of Exile 2 isn’t afraid to compete with Blizzard’s Diablo IV, a game that presumably has a bigger budget. He also discusses hot-button topics like cross-play, microtransactions, and how the studio has gone about avoiding crunch. Grinding Gear has been one of the most outspoken developers in the world regarding crunch, with Wilson saying in the past that he refuses to make his teams crunch. Wilson also talks about how he believes Grinding Gear has retained its identity in the past year following its acquisition by Chinese internet behemoth Tencent.
Editor’s Note: This interview has been edited for clarity and readability. Minor spoilers for Life is Strange and Life is Strange 2.
GameSpot: Now that it’s been a couple of weeks since ExileCon, when you look back and reflect, how do you think it all went and what were some of your personal highlights?
Chris Wilson: It went so much better than we ever hoped. There were a hundred moving pieces and everything came together perfectly. There was so much energy and engagement between players and developers. It was a really special weekend for our team, and they’re still buzzing from it a few weeks later.
There were many highlights for me, but the one that stands out is the feeling of announcing Path of Exile 2 to millions of people. I almost cried on the stage, it was such a strong set of emotions. Another big highlight of the convention was getting to meet so many fans and hear their stories. It was so cool to meet people who like Path of Exile enough to fly all the way out to New Zealand!
Do you think ExileCon will be back in 2020; what might you want to do differently?
We haven’t decided which year to bring the convention back, but it’s unlikely to be every single year. We’re thinking about whether 2021 or 2022 makes more sense for another event, and this honestly depends on when we’ll next have a big enough set of compelling announcements to make. Maybe there’s some scope for a smaller-scale fan meetup in the meantime?
In terms of what to do differently, there are some internal processes we could improve (an extra setup day for example) but otherwise we were really pleased with how the event itself went!
A lot has been said over the years about the approachability of Path of Exile. You’re obviously having a lot of success with the way things are, but do you have anything in mind to help improve the onboarding experience for new players?
We’re constantly trying to improve the onboarding experience for Path of Exile. The new campaign and skill system in Path of Exile 2 are both designed to remove early frustrations and to improve retention for new players. Having said that, though, in our experience, every change we have made in the past to improve onboarding has had little or no impact on overall player retention. This is something we have seen echoed by other free-to-play developers as well.
You’ve said from the beginning that Path of Exile is a hardcore game for hardcore gamers–but would you ever consider efforts to appeal to a broader player base?
If we can achieve to a broader player base without in any way hurting what makes Path of Exile great for hardcore players, then that’d be great. Path of Exile 2 is a good opportunity for this, but we certainly have to be careful to not water down any systems that players currently enjoy. Ideally we’d want Path of Exile to be more approachable while also being deeper than it currently is.
What is your response to Blizzard’s recent Diablo 4 reveal? How do you feel Path of Exile 2 stacks up against what Blizzard is trying to do with their game?
When other companies make a new Action RPG, they’re taking a gamble. The game design decisions they make could be great for their game, or could detract from it. Does simplifying itemisation help or hinder long-term player enjoyment? Does an open world solve more problems than it causes? It’s very hard to know the answers to these questions without playing the released game.
To me, Path of Exile is a solid 90%. The ongoing popularity of the game is a testament to this, as evidenced by the millions of people watching ExileCon coverage, and the 1400+ die-hard fans who flew to New Zealand see it in person. The changes we are making for Path of Exile 2 are very carefully made, with the goal of only increasing that number. I know the new campaign is far better than the old one.
I know the new skill system allows everything that was possible before, while being far easier to understand and solving many confusing problems. Therefore, I believe that Path of Exile 2 will be at least a 90% game as well, if not slightly more. We’re only changing stuff that makes the game better. Maybe our competitors will release a 100% game, but there are so many new and untested-on-a-global-scale decisions that it’s entirely possible that some may be the wrong call.
On a more positive note, I’m rooting for everyone to make great Action RPGs. A genre with popular games in it is good for everyone, and if someone can bring an extra 20 million players to this genre, everyone benefits.
A big theme today is cross-play and connecting communities–do you plan to offer cross-platform or cross-progression for content in Path of Exile 2?
We would like to. There’s still quite a lot of work needed to work out what that means and to what extent the different platforms are integrated (for example how to handle compatibility with updates deploying at different times on different platforms as that’s often out of our control), but we’re optimistic that we can work something out in 2020.
Being a free-to-play game that uses microtransactions, I think many would say that Path of Exile is an example of free-to-play done right. What is your approach to MTX and how do you avoid its pitfalls like pay-to-win and other icky situations?
Our philosophy is to not allow microtransactions to affect game systems. That way, there are never any game design considerations related to them, so the game development team don’t really need to think about the business case for how the game is monetised and can focus on just making it fun.
To this end, we only sell cosmetic microtransactions that let you dress your character up, and long-term stash storage space that doesn’t benefit you in the field and is equivalent to (but more convenient than) just registering more free accounts to mule the items over to.
The mobile version of Path of Exile that was announced at ExileCon was described as being “experimental.” How are you going to go about gathering feedback and what will you need to see or learn to decide to go forward with the project officially?
Our mobile team spent a lot of ExileCon chatting with players while they were playing the mobile project, and solicited feedback as people finished their sessions. This has yielded heaps of feedback on the current version that we’re still processing and making changes as a result of. We haven’t yet announced how we’re going to get the next iteration into the hands of players, but their feedback is really important to our process so we’ll certainly do more rounds of community playtesting.
In terms of going ahead with the project officially, we’ll release it if it’s a great game. So far it’s looking promising, but we have no financial requirement to rely on income from the mobile project so we’re able to take our time and make sure it’s what we need it to be before we release it.
Streaming seems like it could finally be taking off with Google Stadia and xCloud and other similar services; would you want to make Path of Exile available for streaming?
Certainly, it seems harmless to offer it as an alternative way to play and might help us bring the game to users whose PCs aren’t powerful enough to play the game. There’s just the question of manpower in terms of being able to commit to a project like that.
In 2018, Tencent came aboard as a majority investor. Now that it’s been about a year, can you reflect on that acquisition and how things have changed or stayed the same since then?
My goal was for things to stay the same, both for our staff and for our players. After a year and a half now, I feel that I can confidently say that we have achieved this. I do not believe that anything has changed either internally or externally at the studio as a result of the acquisition, other than a little more CEO work on my plate.
You’ve been very open and passionate about avoiding crunch at the studio. How have you been able to achieve this while still being active in releasing new content all the time, especially now as you take on more projects like Path of Exile 2 and the mobile game?
We have been actively expanding our studio over the last few years so that we have the capacity to deliver both our regular thirteen-week cycle and also work on other projects such as Path of Exile 2 and the mobile game. As we continue to ramp up the team size, we’ll be able to make even faster work on these side projects. Our core developers working on our regular expansions have a good idea of what they can achieve in thirteen weeks and unless some big design aspects of the expansion need to change, it’s usually quite comfortable.
Having said that, we completely underestimated the amount of effort required to arrange ExileCon, so I will be forever grateful for the hard work that many team members put in making sure that the convention went amazingly. We may have developed expertise in scheduling game development, but organising conventions was an area that was very new to us.
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