Path of Exile dalla prospettiva degli sviluppatori
Abbiamo avuto l’occasione di intervistare Brian Weissman, produttore della software house neozelandese Grinding Gear Games. L’intervista è disponibile in italiano e in inglese. Ringraziamo anche Chris Wilson per la collaborazione e la disponibilità.di Antonio Rauccio pubblicato il 12 Febbraio 2013 nel canale Videogames
Gamemag: Since Grinding Gear Games is a new name in the gaming scene, introduce yourself to the Italian audience.
Brian Weissman: Hello! Grinding Gear Games is a small, independent game studio located in Titirangi in Auckland, New Zealand. The company was founded by four people back in 2006, with our first "studio" consisting of Chris Wilson's garage. Over the last six years we've grown our staff in tandem with the scale and ambition of Path of Exile, to the point where we now employ over 25 full-time people. Path of Exile is our first project as a company, we intend to maintain and improve the game for at least the next decade.
Gamemag: Path of Exile is a very ambitious project. How the idea of the game was born?
Brian Weissman: All of the company's founders are lifelong RPG fans, with a play experience spanning more than 20 years. There was a big creative gap in the action RPG genre in the mid 2000s, so we began to ask ourselves "Could we do an RPG game ourselves?". We gradually realized that the answer was yes, we had the financial capital to get started, and so we founded Grinding Gear Games and began work.
Our initial plan was to focus mainly on story and playability, with less of an emphasis on graphics. We planned to incorporate game elements from some of our favorite RPGs to help with design. As time went by, and our team grew, so did our ambitions. Path of Exile now has graphics and artistic design to more than match its deep, complex game elements. We're very happy with how it's currently looking.
Gamemag: The Closed Beta has just finished, and has just begun the Open Beta. What kind of feedback are you receiving from the public and which numbers are you managing?
Brian Weissman: Overall, the response has been tremendously positive! Things got off to a great start on Wednesday the 23rd of January, with tens of thousands of people patching to the 0.10.0 client, many trying the game for the first time. Our number of concurrent players steadily increased through the week, and we hit a peak concurrency of just under 70,000 players that Sunday. At these levels, which were about 40% higher than our highest tested projections, the servers had some issues, which the public soldiered through. Fortunately we were able to roll out a series of patches and server updates that addressed the stability, and since the following Monday, the realms have been mostly crash-free.
Feedback for the game itself has been very positive. People are loving all the innovations that Path of Exile offers, including its skill system, its dark gritty look, its claustrophobic environments, its incredible item depth, its unique crafting and currency systems, and of course, its dazzling, 1350+ node passive skill tree. Some of the game's mechanics require deeper understanding to take full advantage of, but our community has been instrumental in helping to guide beginners.
Gamemag: With the availability of the new Open Beta client, there were some delays, which you well responded by increasing the capacity of the server and solving the problem within a short time. Path of Exile is a totally free game, and the only support system that you'll receive are the optional microtransactions. Do you think this type of support will be sufficient to support the costs of maintaining the server, even with (as we wish you) millions of users?
Brian Weissman: Absolutely. We sold nothing but a tiny range of ethical microtransactions prior to our Open Beta transition, and still raised over $2.5 million dollars in crowdfunding. Since Open Beta launch, we've massively increased the purchase options from our shop, and our players have been very eager to buy. Assuming that purchases will scale smoothly with our player base, we're confident that we can more than fund an expansion into millions of players.
Gamemag: Let's go back to the game. The latest beta version released adds the Act III to the game. It's already known how many Acts will be available in the 1.0 release? Do you already have an idea of the approximate number of hours of play that the live version will be able to offer to users?
Brian Weissman: Well, the numbers vary tremendously for players, based on their goals, their degree of social play, their ability to handle the rapidly increasing difficulty, and their overall experience with the game. We've put numerous systems into Path of Exile that reward savvy players, so people who have done their homework will enjoy a pretty big advantage over those just starting out.
We estimate that it will take most players between 8-12 hours to complete the first playthrough of the game on Normal difficulty. From there, with the ramping challenge, it may take more than double that time to complete the game on Cruel difficulty. When players reach Merciless difficulty, they may find that their progress slows considerably, especially if they are heavily undergeared, or, more commonly, they've designed their character in a sub-optimal manner. We fully intend for players to reroll multiple characters, it's all part of the learning process.
Once a player completes the game on Merciless difficulty, or even before they've done that, they can start in on our customizable end-game Map system. These maps are found items that a player can augment using currency, in order to increase their challenge and reward. Using a map opens up a portal to a special, unique instance with its own rules. The map system is open-ended and is almost limitless. There is more than enough challenge and loot available through our maps to keep someone occupied for months. On top of the map system, we have a hard level cap of 100, which will take months or years for players to attain. We set the cap at 100 to give the most dedicated players something to strive for in the very long term.
Gamemag: What are the most successful features of your creation?
Brian Weissman: We're really proud of many of Path of Exile's innovations, but I'll try to just give you a top three. I'd list them order as:
1. Our Passive Skill tree. We implemented this feature in order to offer characters the greatest level of customization. When we envisioned the long-term play of Path of Exile, we imagined people making many characters, even multiple characters of the same class, all with totally different gear sets and ways for tackling the content. We're very happy with how things have turned out, it's a real joy to read pages and pages of people theorycrafting their builds online. A few people have found the Passive Tree initially intimidating, but they quickly change their tune once they get further along. We feel that Path of Exile's skill tree captures one of the game's core philosophies: simple execution, tremendous depth.
2. Our unique currency system. Grinding Gear Games took a big risk when we decided to remove a "gold"-type currency from our game. After all, ARPG-style fantasy games always have gold, right? We decided early on that we wanted to go in a different direction, and we couldn't be more happy with the result. Instead of a bland, generic currency, our Orb system has created a true barter economy. Trade chat and forums are flooded with people posting their gear and working out deals, like a giant virtual bazaar. Numerous sites have popped up devoted specifically to the current exchange rates for stuff in the Open Beta. People post rare or unique items and get pages of debate of their value. The fact that our currencies are in-game consumables does a great job of keeping inflation in check.
3. Our Ethical Microtransactions. When we announced Path of Exile to the world back in September of 2010, we included a bold promise. We told our future players that not only would our game be 100% free to play and download, but that we would never, under any conditions, sell "power" to players. By this we meant there would be no chance to purchase a direct advantage over other players using any GGG-supported shop.
Instead of the usual "pay to win" perks like speed boosts, XP boosts, and in-game items that are normally offered by "free to play" titles, we promised to only sell cosmetic and quality-of-life things to our players. This was met with some skepticism in the gaming community, who believed we wouldn't be able to get nearly enough support to continue our game development. Fortunately, our player base disagrees. We started selling shop credit and closed Beta access in April of 2012, and we raised $250,000 in just the first week. We continued to grow our membership throughout the rest of the year, comprised of people who were more than happy to pre-purchase microtransactions. By the time went to Open Beta we had raised almost 2.5 million dollars. With Open Beta came a wide range of cosmetic-only options, and players have been happily buying those up as well. We're very confident that our business model has succeeded, and we'll continue to expand on it in the months ahead.
Gamemag: The passive skill tree is one of the best feature of the game and probably the most successful realization of its kind. How did you get this result?
Brian Weissman: Thank you for the compliment, we're really proud of it too. The skill tree was conceived through our efforts to make the task of attribute assignment interesting. In traditional RPGs, players are given a certain number of attribute points every time they gain a level. Then, they mindlessly plunk them into one attribute, usually because their class prefers it, or because they have a particular gear piece they're working towards. This is a boring and uninspiring mechanic that everyone just sort of tolerates.
We also wanted to give players complete control over how they develop their character. Rather than be forced to develop your pure strength Marauder as a melee combatant, our tree allows you to dabble in spells, bows, or even wands, if you see fit. You might suffer a small penalty for doing something your class isn't "designed" to do, but you have that option. We went through a ton of different iterations with the Passive Skill Tree, and ultimately went with a version that gives tremendous options, while still preserving a good sense of class identity.
Gamemag: There are features that you would like to improve as soon as possible?
Brian Weissman: There definitely are, an extensive list . We can always improve on server issues like stability and sync, so I'll leave those off the list for now. Instead, I'll focus on actual gameplay elements.
Our number one gameplay element for immediate improvement is a big increase in the number of active skills and supports in the game. There are already a ton of skills, more than 130, but the impact that each additional skill brings is tremendous. Because there are so many ways to synergize and augment skills, even a few new ones enable a ton of new builds. New builds are the heart and soul of keeping an ARPG fresh, so you literally cannot have enough skills. To this end, we hope to add at least one skill per week, on average, for the next year. This will mean we'll conclude 2013 boasting close to 200 skills. We're never going to stop making them, but getting a bunch of new ones in is a top priority.
To this end, we hope to add at least one skill per week, on average, for the next year. This will mean we'll conclude 2013 boasting close to 200 skills. We're never going to stop making them, but getting a bunch of new ones in is a top priority.
The next big element for polish are the game's animations. For a sizable portion of Path of Exile's development, the game was animated by a single person. Yes, you read that right: one lone guy. Honestly, given the amount of work that he's had to do the quality of the animations is astonishing, but they can still use a lot of improvement. We're in the process of acquiring a third animator, and once he's on board, the overall animation polish in the game should increase dramatically. There are many mechanics that are held back by animations, so having more in will really enhance the entire game.
Gamemag: The gems of skills are an original idea and very well implemented. We have only one doubt for the moment: there are no unique skills for each class, don't you think there is a risk, on long-term, of the flattening by the users on a particular skill gem set and then a substantial equivalence of classes?
Brian Weissman: This is an issue that's been discussed and debated quite a bit among the developers. The game used to have a much bigger issue with class identity, because every class started at the same origin point in the center. We eventually gave each class its own place in the tree, but it was still too easy to leapfrog around.
Our current implementation of the skill tree solves most of these problems. It takes an extreme commitment for say, the Templar, to go over and appropriate a bunch of nodes from the Shadow or Ranger section of the tree. Sure, you can do it, but the cost to the development of your character will be extreme. For the most part, classes as different from one another as the Str/Int Templar and the pure Dex Ranger wind up being built in vastly different ways.
We're pretty happy with build and class diversity right now, but if the "flattening" you're describing starts to be a big problem, we'll definitely implement some changes. We're also planning on constantly adding new skills, and adjusting the ones that already exist, so it's unlikely that any one build will remain on top for an extended period of time.
Gamemag: We absolutely loved the graphic look of the game, dark and grim (especially in dungeons), very different from the recent games of this genre. It's just a case or you made a deliberate choice against this trend?
Brian Weissman: Path of Exile's dark, gritty art style and atmosphere were present in the very early concept art that Lead artist Erik Olofsson produced back in 2007. Even before the game had an official name, well before the engine was written, long before the first employee was hired, we knew how the game was going to look. All of the founders of Grinding Gear Games have played RPGs since there were RPGs to play, and we all were critical of the trend we were seeing in the genre towards lighter, more pastel color palettes.
To us, fantasy action RPG games are all about the gritty, gory, realistic experience. They're about wandering dark hallways, with things shuffling and clattering and snarling somewhere out in the distance, unseen. They're about that heart-racing moment when you find yourself trapped in the corner of a pitch black dungeon room, surrounded by 20 murderous enemies who block the only exit. None of the games we played after the release of Diablo 2 really conjured up this feeling, so we made it a goal to do it ourselves. I think that Act 3's later areas do an amazing job of conveying the sense of dread and anxiety were were looking for.
Gamemag: The narrative is one of the important aspects of a game like this, and one of the best expressions of a plot can be cgi cinematic sequences. The final release of Path of Exile will contain movies in cgi or it will all be made with in-game graphics?
Brian Weissman: I don't want to commit to anything officially, but I suspect that any movies we make will be similar to the Open Beta trailer. That trailer got an incredible public reception, spreading far and wide through every avenue of social media. People linked it on Youtube, liked it on Facebook, complimented it endlessly on Twitter. It was officially released on Gametrailers.com, and it quickly rose to their top video of the month.
The reason I mention this is that the broad critical acclaim of our Open Beta trailer proves that we can produce a really powerful cinematic without straying away from in-game footage. We don't need high budget, rendered movies to somewhat dishonestly portray what Path of Exile is like. The game's look speaks for itself. I would like to see some cinematics eventually added that use the game engine. I think a cinematic for each zone transition would help to create a sense of progress through the game, as well as hit on some key plot points. The NPCS in the game do a pretty good job of expanding on the plot, but a lot of people just skip the dialogue.
Gamemag: What are the strong points of Path of Exile in terms of multiplayer and PvP?
Brian Weissman: We modeled quite a few of the multiplayer mechanics of Path of Exile after other Action RPGs. We capped the number of players in a party at six, which means that each player has a more important role to play than if we allowed larger parties. Our passive skill tree's complexity lets players assume whatever role they'd like in group play, with few restrictions..
One player might be a tanky melee character up in the front lines, taking the brunt of the punishment, drawing enemies in, helping to coordinate the general flow of combat. Another player might choose to be an evasive combatant, darting in and out of the packs of monsters, laying remote mines or traps. Another might opt to stand far back, bombarding their foes from afar with Firestorms and bolts of ice, or summoning huge undead hordes. No matter what role someone takes, they will feel like they're contributing to the overall success of the group.
We've balanced the difficulty of Path of Exile so that it scales quite well from solo play to full multiplayer. Enemies will gain hit points steadily as more players join the game, and the loot they drop will scale accordingly. Because Path of Exile has timer-based "Free For All" looting, a player with quick reactions will be able to acquire substantially more loot in a group game than they will playing solo.
As it currently stands, PvP in Path of Exile is available and has decent player engagement. You can participate in Arena combat either in 1 v 1 or 3 v 3 formats. There are no rewards for Arena PvP currently, as it's still very much in the test phase. We plan to offer numerous PvP "Leagues" eventually, but the only current one we have is called "Cutthroat".
In a Cutthroat League, everyone makes a new character, and begins a race of sorts. You're on your own through the very first map zone, but once you step out of town, you're in an instanced version of the game world with special rules. Unlike a regular instance in Path of Exile, which is limited to a max of six players, the zones in a Cutthroat League are limited to 12 players. Players in the same zone as you will be perma-flagged for PvP, and here's the best part. When you kill someone in Cutthroat, you get to swipe almost everything they're carrying . Cutthroat is a super exciting, super competitive PvP format that had tremendous popularity when we ran short events for it on the Closed Beta. We'll have it enabled and running in Open Beta very soon. It's completely optional and although it only appeals to a dedicated portion of the player base, they absolutely love it.
Cutthroat is just one of many PvP league formats slated for release during Closed Beta. We plan to make PvP combat one of the cornerstones of Path of Exile's longevity, with many incentives and special rewards available to people who excel at it.
Gamemag: For a winning action RPG, one of the features to take care of is the end game, the incentives to play the game even when it is over. You have already addressed this matter?
Brian Weissman: Absolutely! As I mentioned in an earlier answer, Path of Exile already has one of the most innovative, unique end game systems ever seen in an action RPG. I'm talking, of course, about our famous "Map" system. As a player progresses through the game's third tier of difficulty, called "Merciless", they start to find ancient pieces of broken stone tablets called "Maps". Like any base items in Path of Exile, the maps can be modified with currency into Magic, Rare, or even Unique quality. The more mods the maps acquire, the greater challenge they pose to the player, and the greater reward.
The highest regular zones in the game top out around level 64, so players hoping to climb higher on our ladders generally choose to do maps. Fortunately, the maps offer incredible variety and nearly infinite replayability, as well as the route to the best loot available in the game.
On top of our map system, we also have a whole variety of "League" events designed. Leagues are basically temporary versions of the games that players can participate in, that have their own unique rules and rewards. Some of the Leagues we offer are available to the general population. We'll periodically have wide-scale races, where everyone in the League makes a new character, and then they race for a week to get to the highest level. At the end of the week, special, League-only prizes are awarded to the top finishers in the league, and then all the characters are sent to the general "Default League" population.
Players can also purchase their own special leagues in our microtransaction store, which they can host for friends they invite. We won't offer prize support for purchased leagues, but we'll enable players to put up their own stakes. This will let people compete against each other using all sorts of wacky rules, and for whatever rewards they want to provide. The final point to add is that the "End Game" of Path of Exile is a bit of a misnomer. We never will have a true end game, only "current" content that players tackle while we make new stuff. We have every intention of augmenting the Path of Exile world for many years to come, so the end game is constantly going to change.
Gamemag: A question from veteran players of Action RPG. The first two chapters of Diablo defined the canons of Action RPG, and it is evident in some aspects of your creation, that they were an important reference of yours. Diablo III has rejected some of the audience's expectations, that we consider instead fully satisfied by your title (RPG depth, skill customization, attention to hardcore gamers, no auction house, graphic look...). How the release of Diablo III influenced your project?
Brian Weissman: The truth of the matter is, we knew that Diablo 3 was inevitable when we set out making Path of Exile. It was much less a matter of "will they make it?" and much more "when will they make it?" Diablo 3 was formally announced about two years into our development, back when we just had the bare bones of Path of Exile in place.
Rather than be scared by the looming prospect of such a daunting competitor, we instead focused on the things that set our own game apart. From the early game play videos, we could tell that Blizzard had gone for a very different aesthetic with Diablo 3. This meant that Path of Exile's dark, Gothic, adult fantasy style would set it apart. As the months passed, and more and more details of Diablo 3 leaked to the public, we could tell that the game was going to disappoint a lot of fans of the genre. Our predictions proved to be true, and we've inherited many refugee players from that game. They are players who caught the ARPG itch, and are looking for a better game to scratch it.
Ultimately, we feel that Diablo 3 was a boon to Path of Exile. There was a gap of more than a decade between the releases of Diablo 2 and 3, and during that time, millions of gamers came of age, so to speak. Many of them had probably never played an ARPG before Diablo 3, but the renown of its predecessor was enough to bring them to the genre. When those players grew weary of playing Diablo 3, we were waiting as a free-to-play alternative. Other than that, Diablo 3 hasn't had a direct influence on Path of Exile. We have stayed true to our vision for the game and we find that people respect this, even if it means that we aren't including mechanics that they're used to.
Gamemag: Can we expect to be released, on future, an italian version of the game?
Brian Weissman: We do expect to localize Path of Exile into as many languages as possible in the future, so I'd say it's likely there will be an Italian version!
Gamemag: Thank you very much for the interview. We wish you good work and good luck for Path of Exile, that seems to have all what it takes to win the audience!
Brian Weissman: You're very welcome, and thanks so much for the great questions! It was a real pleasure doing this interview, I look forward to reading what you guys report.