How and why the developers of Grinding Gear Games constantly limit players.
Journalist Alex Wiltshire spoke with one of the creators of the multiplayer action-RPG Path of Exile as part of his author’s column “Mechanics” on the Rock Paper Shotgun website. Co-founder of the studio Grinding Gear Games and CTO Jonathan Rogers shared the details of the work on the game and told how Path of Exile restricts players for their own good.
Every three months, the creators of Path of Exile add a new “league” to the game – a separate game world that obeys special rules. The developer talked about how the league was created under the name “Descent”, released in August 2018. This game world is an infinitely deep mine, immersed in darkness. The darkness is so thick that it inflicts damage to a character in it; in addition, in the dark monsters become immortal.
According to the developers, they had long been going to make an infinite dungeon, but could not figure out how to “restrict access to infinity.” The fact is that in five years of supporting Path of Exile in the studio a certain philosophy has been formed – the player must always be somehow limited.
The developers explain that if you give the players too much freedom in this matter, they begin to harm themselves by setting very heavy goals for themselves. For example, Rogers argues that often players watch streamer broadcasts, which usually play on the highest difficulty, and then turn on this mode themselves, lose and start complaining that the game is “unfair”. So the endless dungeon also needed to be somehow limited – otherwise the players could get carried away too much.
Rogers’ first idea was to get players to dig their way through. He was inspired by the game Motherload, in which you need to spend resources to upgrade your miner to move further down. However, the team soon realized that such a mechanic would slow down the players too much – and Grinding Gear Games is usually avoided.
The fact is that for the long years of Path of Exile existence, players have always found the fastest way to go through the location and since then have only used it and created characters specially tailored specifically for this method. Because of this particular behavior of the players, over the years, the Path of Exile accelerated and accelerated – when the developers tried to do something with optimally fast ways, this caused terrible discontent in the community. Since then, the developers are trying not to reduce the speed of the players, and if they do, they must “very slowly, so that no one will notice.”
By the time the main team completed work on the Intervention League and was ready to start working on Spusk, the leadership had already refused the idea of digging a path: Rogers had a new way of restricting players. He pushed away from the idea of limiting the time to kill monsters, which was implemented in “Intervention”, and wondered – what if to limit something else? Like the distance? As a result, he came up with an idea that, as a result, formed the basis of the “Descent” gameplay – limiting the distance with light. But over the search for the desired formula, developers still had to suffer.
The first idea sounded like this: when moving, the player automatically puts on the ground light bulbs connected by an electric wire. On paper, it sounded interesting, but when the developers tried to implement the idea in the game, it turned out that it simply did not work. Because of the light bulbs, the darkness no longer felt dangerous – after all, wherever the player went, there was always light, and if his light bulb ran out, it still meant that it was time to return to the surface. In such a situation, the character had practically no chance to face the darkness.
They decided to transform the mechanics: now the player had to place the bulbs manually. But it was expectedly slowed down the gameplay – and in fact it was at Grinding Gear Games that they were trying to avoid initially. Next in line was the idea: the light lights up automatically in certain places, at the moment when the player is near. But this meant that between these points he would have to move in darkness.
Finally, it occurred to Rogers that they were moving in the wrong direction. Perhaps all problems will be solved if the light sources are scattered not by the character, but by something else. Thus, the idea of the “Slider” was born – a small vehicle on tracks that moved along the tracks and left behind light sources.
Implementing this mechanic, the developers once again faced with the fact that their idea does not work. Because of the “Slider” lost a sense of haste and tension: the player could simply stand on the spot next to the installed light source and relax. Then the developers finally got to the idea, which entered the final version of the game: the cart no longer scattered light sources, but was the light source itself.
It worked great, because if you stop, you’ll take damage. Constantly spent any resource: if you are in the light, then you need to run to maintain a certain pace of battle with monsters. If you find yourself in darkness, you will begin to take damage and be forced to heal or use other resources. You’re in constant tension, and it brings great sensations. As soon as we realized this, the gameplay immediately became interesting.
Only at this moment, “Descent” finally came out of the prototyping stage, and the developers began to work on the dungeon itself. According to Rogers, unforeseen difficulties caused shadows – the system of shadows had to be completely reworked due to the fact that now they have acquired importance for the gameplay: after all, in the dark the hero received damage.
Rogers and other game designers, meanwhile, were working on a system of resources that were supposed to limit the progression of players. The items needed to move through the mine could be bought for a resource called “azurite”, and for each trip to the mine, players had to spend sulphate – this resource was used as fuel for the “Crawler”. Sulfate could be extracted in all other locations.
In the end, it all comes down to what you do in Excel. Such is the life of a game designer. We model everything in Excel.
After the “Descent” saw the light, the developers realized that they had made a big mistake. Sulfate could be mined in both ordinary and end-game zones – it was assumed that experienced players would search for this resource in the zones intended for them, because it was there that the most interesting gameplay was waiting for them.
However, as it turned out, Rogers and his colleagues radically underestimated the speed at which goal-oriented players could “farm” sulphate from normal zones: in one of these zones, players found a way to spend no more than 15 seconds on raids for a valuable resource. According to Rogers, this incident reflected the fundamental problem of game design associated with the behavior of players.
The problem with the players is that if there is the most effective way, then they will use it, they will say that they were forced to use it, and then they will complain that they were bored.
The developers of Grindning Gear Games in a hurry tried to deal with this situation, increasing the price for entering the mine and the amount of sulfate in the end-game zones 30 times, but this only led to new problems. The players entered the game, looked at the cost that had increased several dozen times and simply turned it off. In addition, thanks to the increase in prices, inexperienced players actually lost access to the mine, since now it was only possible to extract sulfate effectively in the end-game zones.
If you change something in this way, you will lose the trust of the community, and you will have to win it back. Yes, it was very painful, but now, thank God, everything is in order.
According to Rogers, the whole Path of Exile is built on constraints, but they allow players to get the most out of it. For example, the descent into the mine could be free – but then the developers would have to balance the rewards contained within it and make them less valuable, and this would have a negative effect on the fun of the gameplay.
If the game rewards more, players will throw it faster – even if it seems to them that spending time in it has become more pleasant.