Grinding Gear Games have provided action RPG enthusiasts and fanatics with a hardcore alternative in an increasingly casualized genre. We had a talk with Chris Wilson - the man at Path of Exile's helm ever since its humble garage origins.
AltChar: What are your general expectations from Path of Exile's upcoming PlayStation 4 launch?
Chris Wilson: We’re very optimistic about the PlayStation launch. Both because there are a lot of PlayStation users looking forward to playing Path of Exile, but also because it helps us bring attention to the Xbox One version as well, as having two console versions lets us address far more console users.
Xbox is a platform we have already launched on, and are growing its community over time. We want to make sure we don’t miss any marketing opportunities by being on both console platforms, which allows us to promote console Path of Exile in general.
AC: Path of Exile has already launched on Xbox One. What benefits can that experience provide for the PlayStation 4 release?
CW: One of the things we’ve learned is how to design user interfaces that are better for consoles. Initially, some of the UI was a bit more suited for PC. While we were working on the Xbox version, we’ve learned to make a parallel version of the user interface for Xbox that is a bit easier to use with a controller, alongside the PC version. This is something we are now pretty good at doing. So, when new features are made, we can make an Xbox version of them immediately. Of course, because Path of Exile now has a generalized console version, this means that PlayStation players will be able to enjoy the same UI improvements.
The controls are different, and the deployment timelines are a bit different as well. Having to work around the platform certification periods and so on, we have to make sure we have those versions ready as early as possible.
AC: Path of Exile was supposed to hit PlayStation 4 in December. What are the particulars of delaying the release to February 2019?
CW: The Christmas Holiday in New Zealand is a quite long holiday. Because it’s the only significant holiday in the year, the staff members often take three or four weeks away. While that’s of course not the case for every developer on the PS4 version, there’s certainly enough disruption that we didn’t want to take the risk of launching into a period where people are away.
In addition, there are shutdowns for publishers over Christmas. We wanted to make sure that we’ve given them enough time to actually test the game fully. We can also use the additional time because we want to juice out every bit of performance on the platform that we can and fix every bug, so that time will be well spent polishing the product.
AC: What improvements can PS4 Pro and Xbox One X owners look forward to?
CW: One of the things that we’ve turned on for Xbox One X and PS4 Pro is global illumination, which is only possible on PC if you’ve got a decent graphics card. Of course, those consoles are powerful and that means that they can use those features. It makes the game look really nice, because every colored bright source basically casts the light of the appropriate color near it, and it really makes the world feel a lot more vibrant.
AC: Are there any plans to enable cross-platform play for Path of Exile?
CW: It’s something we’d like to achieve, but of course there are many factors in play. We haven’t spoken to the platform-holders about it recently, and their stances might have changed since we last did, so it’s something we’ll be investigating once we’ve got the PlayStation platform launched and running.
There’s some advantage to PlayStation having its own community before enabling cross-play. It means that PlayStation users can learn the game together, as opposed to being completely new compared to the other console community which has had the game for a while and knows exactly how everything works.
AC: Beyond consoles, are there any plans for launching a mobile version of Path of Exile?
CW: That’s something we don’t have a lot of experience in, and so we don’t really have many resources to throw in that direction at the moment. Of course, we want Path of Exile on as many platforms as possible eventually, but we also want to make sure to stick to what we’re good at. It was relatively easy to branch out from PC to console, because it’s still a powerful gaming device, so the game can run as-is.
We branched out onto console platforms because it was both easy and also tempting to do so. The performance gains that were received from doing that, for eg. support for DX11, which is necessary for Xbox, immediately paid off on the PC versions. We felt it worthwhile to invest resources in those console ports.
AC: Path of Exile inevitably draws comparisons to the Diablo franchise. What are your feelings about this?
CW: Path of Exile is a game that is heavily influenced by other action-RPGs, and you can’t talk about other ARPGs without mentioning Diablo. It’s flattering that comparisons are made, being mentioned in the same sentence or article as a great game like Diablo, for example, is very flattering. It’s really cool to have gone from a garage with three random kids to a studio which has made a game people compare in that way to such a great game.
Of course, there are differences between the games. We have a very hard-core slant, and people often call our game Path of Excel. That’s not something other studios could really afford to do, considering that they’d probably make more money targeting a mainstream audience.
AC: You are probably aware of the prankster who redirected the www.playdiablo4.com URL to Path of Exile's page. What are your thoughts on this?
CW: It’s not legal for them to do so, and that’s a case of trademark infringement. I mean, it’s funny, we laughed at it a little internally, but Blizzard’s lawyers soon contacted him and made him change it, which was kind of to be expected, and he probably shouldn’t have done it.
It’s cute that the community does that because they are passionate about our game, but it’s not so good to register domains that are using someone else’s trademark. It’s also flattering that people care to that degree. I think a lot of people got carried away with getting angry on the internet side of this whole debacle.
At the end of the day, Blizzard is making a game for people to play and they’re probably making other games in the background they aren’t ready to talk about yet. It’s disappointing for players to be angry about being given more games to play. Especially when whatever they are waiting for is probably also being developed. I don’t have any information about that, but from my point of view in the industry, I suspect those players will probably end up very happy with what’s eventually produced for them.
AC: What are some of your own experiences with angry Path of Exile players?
CW: Players are passionate and get angry about things on a daily basis. It’s often happy with Path of Exile, but sometimes they don’t like the decisions we make. Those are things we have to learn from and try to do better in the future.
It’s just a matter of allocating time to listen to the players' feedback and to act on it. It pays off of course because then players get to see their feedback directly represented in the game and we know that we’re not steering too far in the wrong direction. Most of our development cycles are 13 weeks or so, that helps us know that we aren’t spending multiple years on something that the players they don’t actually want.
AC: What is developing a game alongside a strong community like for your team?
CW: We play the game a lot, and know a lot of people who play the game, so a lot of the feedback comes from just experiencing it. That’s one of the advantages of being gamers ourselves. We don’t have to say "I know nothing, help! Who’s going to tell me about my game?" Instead, we can play the game, we can talk to people as we play it, see what they say live in the community and chat in-game as it’s happening.
Of course, we read the forums and Reddit and so on, but a lot of what we fix comes from our own experiences.
AC: What is your perspective on the more casual Path of Exile players?
CW: A number of our developers who don’t have time to play at a core level are still playing casually, and that means that such players are also represented in our office. For example, I personally, would get up to the high 80s in a hardcore league but not reach the 90s. I haven't killed The Shaper, I haven't managed to get deep into Red maps on the live server. That’s a casual player by the definitions of our community, so I make sure that casual players like that are represented in any decisions going forward.
AC: Have you noted any significant differences between your Western and Chinese players?
CW: It’s been pretty similar, we’ve honestly found that gamers are gamers, especially Path of Exile gamers. Because there are hardcore people who want a very replayable complex RPG in any country, it’s just a matter of tapping into them as a market.
We found that the profile of the Chinese Path of Exile gamer is relatively similar to that of a Western Path of Exile gamer. There are new players who struggle to learn the fine points of the game, and there are pros that are incredibly good at the content. The same is true for both regions. It also monetizes similarly regardless of which region it is being sold in.
AC: What did the Chinese player base look like before Grinding Gear joined Tencent?
CW: There were plenty of people who played from China, that could read English, were familiar with the genre, and have played Path of Exile on our servers prior to the Chinese launch. It was very useful having them around because when we launched in China they could help Chinese players understand how to play and write guides for them, how to value items and that kind of thing.
AC: What were your experiences with adjusting content for the Chinese market?
CW: Tencent has helped us with recommendations on what content changes should be made to localize and cultural the game for that audience. Because they are the most experienced publisher in the region, they have good expertise on what works well with their players, and what changes are necessary to be able to launch the game legally in the country. That’s been incredibly helpful because it meant we can just do as we were advised by our publisher and not have to try to work it all out for ourselves.
AC: Were there any specific changes necessary that caught you off guard?
CW: I don’t think there was anything surprising honestly, as we did a lot of research beforehand. A lot of what you read online is correct about the various rules for different content. I mean, of course, it took a lot of work to adapt, because Path of Exile is an especially gory game, so there’s quite a lot of stuff to make appropriate.
One goal we had was not to tone down the goriness of the game for future content, because obviously, the cheap way of developing in the future would be to make content that isn’t censorable since that way saves a lot of money and time required to make a special “China version”.
We are very much intending to keep the game dark, gritty and gory, and to put the effort in to then make an appropriate version for China alongside it so that we can retain our atmosphere.
It’s also very unlikely that we could sell some of our cosmetics without modification. If we wanted to sell a gory type of firework, we would have to re-theme it around something appropriate.
AC: What does the future for Path of Exile's monetization methods look like?
CW: We’re trying very hard not to introduce anything that has any actual power impact on gameplay. One could argue that the stash tabs we sell provide a slight convenience in terms of more long-term storage, but we’re trying very hard not to push that boundary in a way that damages the game. We have a lot more cool cosmetic stuff lined up over the years, we’re just getting into selling hideout tilesets, so people can get really good at customizing where their character hangs out. We’re basically expecting more of the same in the future.
AC: Are there any plans for Grinding Gear Games to work on projects beyond Path of Exile?
CW: At the moment we are working 100% on Path of Exile. I’d love to create some new IP in the future, but realistically we already have a lot of work to do with getting our development cycle to the point where we’re making content to the pace we want to. Any new project would be quite far in the future.
AC: Are there any game genres other than ARPGs that you would be interested in developing?
CW: That’s a tough question. I strongly believe that we do ARPGs well, and that’s the area of expertise we have, it’s the games that we play, it’s the games that we talk about, and we don’t have as much cultural expertise with other game genres at our studio. So honestly, I can only imagine us working on ARPG titles in the foreseeable future.
I think that if we made a real-time strategy game, it would probably be a bad one. We’ve discussed bits and pieces of ideas, but they’re always just fantasisations about random ideas we have for stuff. We never got seriously talking about making something that isn’t Path of Exile.
Everything that we do on something that isn’t Path of Exile, would possibly draw attention away from Path of Exile during a period where we are growing at an unprecedented rate. For example, our player numbers for the launch of Betrayal were the highest we’ve ever had, even though the game has been out for six years. That is not a time for us to start becoming distracted by other projects. We want to make sure our attention is on Path of Exile and that we do the best we can while it’s as hot as possible.
AC: What do you feel could be the most significant events for Path of Exile in 2019?
CW: In November 2019 we have ExileCon, which is an event in Auckland where we’ll be announcing several products. We will be announcing the 3.9.0 expansion, which is the December expansion for 2019 (a regular-sized one).
We then also have the massive 4.0.0. mega-expansion which is coming out in 2020 and we’ll be letting players see some early bits and pieces of that, and hopefully allow for a chance to play it at the event.
AC: What would be some general expectations for 2019?
CW: I’d love to have grown from this point, but that, of course, depends on a number of factors. I expect that our record player numbers right now are at least partly due to the recent influx of new players we have had.
Next year we're hoping for modest expansion-on-expansion growth in-line with what we normally see (5-10% per release).
AC: If you had to identify the biggest challenge for Grinding Gear Games in 2019, what would that be?
CW: I think our biggest challenge is getting our development cycle so that we can develop for high-quality expansions for the next year while also making good headway on the big 4.0.0 expansion that’s due the year after.