Editor’s note: At the tail end of January, you saw our beta preview coverage of Path of Exile, the upcoming MMORPG from New Zealand developer Grinding Gear Games, and a lucky few of you got your hands on beta keys to join in on the fun. As promised, our interview with Grinding Gear Games co-founder and Path of Exile Lead Designer Chris Wilson is now available in three transcribed parts. Below is the first part, and make sure to check back tomorrow and Thursday for the rest!
Chris Gravelle: Can you tell everyone about yourself, about Grinding Gear Games, how you started, and what made you do… this?
Chris Wilson: My name is Chris Wilson and I’m a programmer by training. Some friends and I got together in late 2006 and realized that we had some spare time and some talents in various areas and decided that we would make an action RPG that we would really enjoy playing. So the four of us (that’s myself and my co-founders, Jonathan, Eric and Brian) have a variety of specializations. We started work on Path of Exile, initially in my bedroom in New Zealand and eventually expanded down to my garage as we got a few more workers with us and eventually to an office space where we have 18 people working on the project just over 5 years later.
CG: Originally, you didn’t plan on this taking 5 years I take it.
CW: No, it’s our first game that most of us have worked on. It seems easier than it is. We’re very pleased with how it is at the moment.
CG: Now one of the things that really drove me to this game was the skill tree. It’s massive. Do you expect it to grow more, or will it ever be done?
CW: We definitely plan a lot of improvements to the tree. While it may not grow substantially in the number of nodes, though I expect it will, we have a lot of upcoming changes, some of which will be shown in the 0.96 patch that is coming on Tuesday (that is Tuesday New Zealand time), and some of which is scheduled for later patches. We have a lot of plans to address issues. Some players feel a little overwhelmed by the tree initially and we’re trying to simplify decisions that are made early on and we are trying to communicate the overall layout of the tree in a more clear way so people can see what way they want to go even if they haven’t planned out which 80-100 skills they’re actually going to pick for their character. So we do have some improvements coming quite soon that should improve the tree in our opinion. One of the examples is, we have these notable passives that have a specific name and now some specific art work and they generally do something a bit more interesting than normal passives. We have, I think, about 100 of those, I could be wrong, I think it’s around 100 coming in the patch on Tuesday so that will hopefully let people take a high level overview of the tree so they can see which notables they’re interested in. That gives a good indication of what kind of smaller passives there are in the areas around them.
CG: Do you have any goal to add active skills to the tree? I know everything comes from gems that you slot. Some of these abilities change how your character plays, is there an idea to put actual active skills that you can hotkey into the tree?
CW: It’s unlikely that we will, mostly because of the communication that we’ve called it a passive skill tree, but as you have identified a lot of the keystone ones dramatically change how you play your character. So, in many cases, those can unlock new opportunities and can be seen like new skills in that they provide new modes for existing skills.
CG: Now, we have five characters out right now, we have a 6th one coming and it’s obviously going to be an int and dex character. Each one of them is based on 1 or 2 of the skills. Is there a chance we will see a 7th one that would cover all three of the stats? Kind of be the jack-of-all-trades character?
CW: That’s definitely design space that’s available to be explored and it’s somewhat designed that way. But we aren’t quite sure at what point you’ll see that.
CG: Is there any room for additional stats to show up besides the main three?
CW: A lot of the systems are designed around these three, so, I’m not certain in what form additional classes beyond those combinations would take. I mean, there are a variety of options, such as alternate passive trees or different ratios between the three stats that aren’t 50/50 or 100%
CG: Are you able to give us any information about the 6th character yet, or are we still with just daggers, claws, int and dex?
CW: It’s pretty much what you can see in the passive tree, though there should be some interesting surprises coming when we announce it, ideally before we enter open beta, but we aren’t quite sure on the timing of that at this stage.
CG: What about the long term goal for the game?
CW: We want to add a lot of content to the game once it’s released. Partly, this is because we are a small indie studio and we can’t afford to make the game as large as we would eventually like it to be before it’s finished, so we’re going to continue just piling on the content until it’s a pretty large game in five years and we have a lot of plans for things we would like to get in there. If things go well, I don’t see why we could support this game for quite some time, just adding expansions and new modes for people to play.
CG: Is there any chance that we will ever get off the island of exile we are on currently?
CW: [Laughs] It’s quite a large one, but the players get exiled from somewhere and there has been concepting about that area. So whether or not it’s explored in the near future is a good question.
CG: [Laughs] Well, okay, we’ll leave it there. Over five years, and I’ve heard you in previous interviews state that you would like this to go on for 10 years, regardless of how long it is, does the engine give you the room to enhance the graphics as it goes, so in five or six years it doesn’t look like a seven to eight year old game?
CW: We made the engine ourselves, so we have quite a lot of control there. If we were using some kind of middle-ware then we wouldn’t have as much control, though of course middle-ware improves over time as it’s upgraded, but this means we have the ability to take the graphics in the direction that we would like to and of course as the game ages we will definitely look into revamping the existing graphics.
CG: As the game expands, I know right now the focus is to let us group OR to let us play through the whole thing solo, is there a consideration or is it a possibility that we’ll get the equivalent of an MMOS raid, where you need to go in with a group where you fight bigger mobs for bigger loot, or is it pretty much sticking with single-player all the way through if you want?
CW: We would like to be able to stick by the claim that everything is playable solo, if the player would like to, but it’s likely that to provide challenge for groups we’ll probably add some areas that are possible for extremely good solo players to make progress in but they’re a lot easier if you group up with friends, so that you can get some synergy and teamwork going. You know, you can have characters that work together to make it easier as they have complimentary abilities, but it’s unlikely that we’ll have areas that are only possible if you max out an entire party, or at least if we do, they’re not going to be parts that we promote as part of the core game, because we want to make sure the players that play by themselves don’t feel alienated by this type of game.
CG: Now, as the game grows, the community is going to be huge, is there going to be support for guilds, or PVP teams?
CW: Yes, these are features; guilds are scheduled for after release and PVP is something we are looking into quite closely at the moment. So, we understand the community really wants these things, especially PVP and we’re going to make sure we deliver on that.
CG: Okay, then I might be asking this too soon, but I’m sure you guys have considered this. The skill tree is huge, there’s a lot of different ways you can go, but, you know, with any game, there’s going to be the min/max guys who are going to find as close to the best set up… how hard is it going to be to keep that balance so there’s not one or two particular builds that are just dominating PVP?
CW: There are several ways of addressing it. One of the ways is by simply balancing it and while everyone hates balance changes that undo the current best build there is a certain amount of that that is necessary to keep the meta game relatively dynamic. I don’t mean just step in and nerf things. If we change stuff up, perhaps, adding additional skills that provide people with outs against those dominate strategies then it means that people can reevaluate how they play their characters every few weeks rather than being stuck in a situation where there is one type of character that is dominate for several years. In addition, we can also introduce unique items that work quite well as a counter to a certain strategy. In fact, there are a few unique items so far that people have identified will be quite powerful in PVP such as ones that prevent you from being frozen, or ones that prevent you from being stunned. These are the type of things that we make sure are available so if there is one really overpowered min/max class that is really good at stunning for example, then there is an item that people can equip that can hedge against encountering that person in PVP.
CG: Over the first year, after release, do you have a goal for how many active skills will be in the game for players to use?
CW: We’ve stated in the past that we would like to get 100 active skills in by release and I don’t have the exact number off the top of my head but I think it’s pretty close to 50 at the moment and we have a lot of plans for the rest. This is something that we can continue to add throughout time, I mean the skills are itemized, so once we have a really good core set of skills in there then the remaining ones can be pushed to be difficult to find world drops so that it’s rare to see someone using that skill, but if they do have it then it’s something that’s highly sought after and coveted. It will also make PVP quite interesting because if there is a “cookie cutter build” that uses a certain skill then the acquisition of the skill is actually quite a challenging part in building that character, you can’t just copy and paste someone’s passive skill tree and be done with it.
(Return tomorrow for part 2 of the interview)