Path of Exile is the best dungeon crawler in the world right now.
In part one we’ll talk about the economics of Path of Exile, both in and out of the game.
Path of Exile is 100% free, with not even a single quest, encounter, system, class, item, or core gameplay element stuck behind a paywall. The business model is so generous that I don’t even understand how it works, except that I know people like myself have purchased pricey Supporter Packs out of sheer appreciation. This game is Free-To-Play done correctly. They don’t monetize your activity. You won’t be shown ads along the way; your account isn’t tied to some weird storefront service that hassles you about buying stuff; there are no tiers or divisions separating you from the people who support the game with money; you don’t have to sign up to a mailing list or subscribe; you can very easily and efficiently download the game, log in, and play without hassle from Level 1 to the very end of the endgame, without ever thinking about a wallet. It’s astounding that this can exist in today’s gaming industry.
Supporter Packs are exactly what they sound like: a way of showing your love for the team. You get a bundle of harmless DLC that still doesn’t give you any in-game advantage or new gameplay content. As you can see below, they include stuff like forum decorations, skins for your armor, cosmetic pets, and glowing effects that make your character stand out in a crowded town square where you’ll meet other players. The “Points” listed there are for cosmetic microtransactions too, not advantages. The closest thing to buying advantages in this game are the Stash Tabs that expand your inventory for hoarding items as you play, but eventually you’ll learn that hoarding isn’t the winning strategy. At first you may feel like the number of Stash Tabs you start with is extremely limited, but as somebody who has purchased dozens of them and played over the course of 3 years at least, I can tell you that I only use a small handful of them and that wise inventory management means you won’t need to buy any. The the default amount is adequate if you aren’t a hoarder and can know when to let go of that old pair of boots that your character has outgrown (immediately).
Why emphasize Grinding Gear Games’ business model? Because the game has been out since 2013 and it has only gotten exponentially better over time. Just think about how ridiculous that statement is. What online game truly becomes better over the course of 4 years? Even the best MMORPG’s struggle to maintain a streamlined, user-friendly experience as they expand content; and for those types of games you’ll be paying monthly. A totally free game that adds tons of new content every year, including entirely new Acts, story arcs, bosses, monster types, levels, skills, features, voice acted dialogue with new NPCs, and proper quality-of-life features requested by the community? This is madness.
As somebody who has followed the developer’s design manifestos since Day One, I can tell you that there is a staggering level of genius behind the Grinding Gear Games philosophy. They knew that they were embarking on an uphill battle against some of the greatest games ever designed, so they played their cards carefully. They knew that they had to start humble, small, and friendly in order to get people to try out their systems and collect feedback from the diehard corners of the dungeon crawler community. Chris Wilson, the owner of GGG and lead designer of Path of Exile, knew that the modding community surrounding Diablo had done more to keep that game alive than Blizzard themselves had, so he sought out their talents. He hired some of the best Diablo II modders to craft items and balance his own game, and then allowed supporters to pay for the privilege of designing their own unique items with the help of the team. If you paid enough money you could do this, but even then you’d have to discover the item in the game properly or trade with other players to obtain it fair and square. Leveraging the community and monetizing aspects of design is a leap of brilliance, as many dungeon crawler fanatics love to fantasize about a special piece of gear that would enable crazy builds.
For myself, I took a gamble on Path of Exile very early on (during Alpha development) and purchased the $1,000 Supporter Pack before the game was even fully released, which entitled me to design a unique personally. That’s how strongly I trusted in the design of this game and their business model. At the time I figured I would be one of only a handful of people who would ever be crazy enough to do this, but if you look at their forums you’ll find that dozens of others have felt the same level of appreciation. My hidden strategy for doing so was to force them to implement a new subsystem into the gameplay that I wanted to see. Instead of begging for the feature to be included like a normal user, I designed my unique item (a shield that activates certain skills whenever you block) to demand such a system exist, and hoped the $1,000 pledge would pressure them into playing along. Of course, being a student of game design, I knew that my subsystem would be a great addition to the game overall and that they would see the potential for it to be expanded and applied to many other things. That’s creating value. My concept was accepted, and then became the basis for the “trigger” subsystem where character skills can get activated automatically in reaction to certain conditions rather than being manually used. In the years since, I’ve still never bothered to find or purchase my own unique item, because that wasn’t the point. I have, however, used the “trigger” system it necessitated plenty!
Not All That Glitters Is Gold
In the game world everything you do revolves around loot. Items, gear, and currency are the heart of the game. They’re proud of their ability to “itemise” everything:
Getting rid of gold as a currency and replacing it with a myriad of collectible item-currencies remains one of the most controversial, bold decisions in gaming history if you ask me. It’s unthinkable to reinvent the idea of a dungeon crawler’s basic foundation to this extent. Collecting endless little piles of gold is universally accepted as the Skinner Box reward for good behavior, and the players embrace it. We love the sound gold makes, the visual splendor of seeing it fly out of corpses, and that all-important number that keeps growing as you progress… How can you function without such a clear metric for success? Path of Exile explores a post-gold world with aplomb.
In fact, the game mocks the idea of gold having value because the lands you explore are destitute and broken — there is no government or banking system to support such an economy. In the world of Wraeclast, which is populated sparsely by other “exiles” who roam the land hoping for stability some day, only practical things have value. And so your currency has practical applications and gets consumed on use.
The most basic currency type is the Scroll of Wisdom; they let you find out what magically imbued items do. You can also use them as currency to buy stuff like belts, rings, flasks, and other more valuable currencies. Orbs of Transmutation are more valuable because they can turn a normal item into a magic one with random properties. Depending on what you’re looking for, you might want to use Orbs of Alteration afterward to repeatedly reroll the magic mods until you find one that suits your needs more specifically. Orbs of Scouring remove all magical properties, which is great for when you find (or craft) an otherwise great piece of gear that has the sockets you want, but not the right mods.
Sockets are strange. You’ll find them in every weapon or wearable piece of armor in the game. The sockets have colors (red, blue, or green) and are compatible with Skill Gems of the same color, so what you wear determines what you can do. Skill Gems can be removed, replaced, and reconfigured endlessly without a penalty, which means real flexibility. The sockets themselves can be added, subtracted, recolored, and interlinked in many combinations using various orb currencies. This is how Path of Exile removes the need for traditional RPG “classes”. Picking a class at the start of the game only effects your starting position in the “Skill Forest” (a massive interlinked network of synergistic perks), a few starting stat points, and the Ascendancy classes you can become after a certain milestone in the game. I’ll explain the brilliance of the skill system another time. For now, just realize that the idea of sockets + Skill Gems is a radical departure from any other dungeon crawler, and has paid dividends as they continue to add and re-balance Skill Gems on a continual basis. It’s far-thinking game design at its finest, because most RPGs with class systems end up botching the balance and forcing characters into restrictive “roles” (hence, Role Playing Game you could argue) that get boring over time. They can’t easily add skills because everything is so rigid and directly comparable — giving the Beastmaster a new attack move might clearly put him ahead of the Barbarian in the role of DPS, for instance. Every class has to be specialized, only partly flexible, and certainly can’t be radically altered in the middle of your game. Not so in Path of Exile, where completely swapping your character’s skills is just a few clicks away. But don’t worry, there are plenty of good reasons to commit to your build once its working. You’re just free to explore what works and what doesn’t pretty easily.
Loot can be called the blood of dungeon crawlers, and I’d say this makes difficulty the beating heart that pumps it through every organ. The more powerful the heart beats (the more “spikey” the difficulty becomes) the more loot circulation and rearrangement is needed to survive. The “difficulty curve” is not about the average enemy encounter, but the rate and severity of those spikes that test your character’s survivability. Boss fights are the most spikey parts of the game, of course. Having the right equipment, flasks, and accessories to compliment your skillset becomes the constant treasure hunt.
Most dungeon crawlers follow the traditional route of ever-inflating gold storage and ever more draining money sinks to counter that problem. Various contrivances are created to drain your money and tax your efforts, such as expensive repairs for your armor and weapons. Perhaps your horse has an expensive diet. Your health and magic bottles are consumable items that get disposed of and need to be replaced constantly, and perhaps there are a dozen charms, trinkets, and temporary buffs that need to be juggled in order to stay effective. Constantly selling gear is so monotonous that Torchlight added a pet system into the game so you don’t even have to visit the store; the pet will just go and do your shopping for you. Path of Exile‘s currency system ingeniously sidesteps all of these problems by removing inflation from the beginning. You’ll feel lost as you figure out the math for a while, but once you understand the beauty of the economic system you’ll never want to go back to the gold standard again.
The price of anything — whether buying or selling — remains remarkably constant and low. You’ll receive (or pay, if you’re buying from a vendor) the same small amount for a starting item as you would for a Level 100 version of the same thing. Of course you won’t be able to find or even use the high level items until you level up enough, so it makes no difference. Only selling things that are more rare and special (not higher level) will get you better currencies, but the numbers never really inflate much. The most expensive thing to buy is other currencies because they all do different important things when you want to craft the perfect item:
Obviating money sinks is a miracle of design. Without lame taxes and penalties muddling the economy, loot becomes easy to balance from a design perspective. Durability isn’t a property of your items, so you don’t need to weigh the cost-effectiveness of a fragile piece of armor that’s otherwise great. Enchantments and oils and embroidery and etchings and other silliness is eschewed in favor of a more robust crafting system that we’ll discuss some other time.
That Carrot, Optimization
The most importantly design function of this kind of economy is that it allows GGG to emphasize the two factors that really can boost your wealth at a more optimized rate: increased rarity and quantity of items found.
Players have some control over the risk-reward ratio in Path of Exile. Those currency orbs you find aren’t just applied to items, but also things like ambush-triggering treasure boxes or the end game mechanic of Maps. Turning an ambush treasure box into a rare one will mean the ambush gets way more difficult, but defeating the ambush will reward you with better/more treasure than normally. Maps, on the other hand, are about customizing what an entire battlefield is going to be like. Maps are isolated areas you can visit and conquer, so using your orbs to make them magic or rare has a direct impact on the quality and quantity of loot you’ll gain from killing monsters. The perks are offset by the increased difficulty of the monsters themselves, who may suddenly be resistant to certain kinds of damage or have a bonus to their stats. Surviving the increasingly “spikey” and complex mobs of enemies gets tough, which means that being greedy requires a lot more skill and planning — the heart pumps the blood.
Building a strong character will allow you to persist through the most rewarding areas. Since most items won’t be useful to you, why not sell the nice stuff to other players who may want it? Trading with other players is a great way to quickly find something that covers your weaknesses, but the value is purely determined by the free market; it’s a bartering system, and auctions aren’t a thing in Path of Exile. You need to personally meet up with others and make use of trade discussion channels to stay in the loop, or use a “Premium Stash Tab” to turn part of your inventory into a storefront, setting prices for things in your stash. Whether this is genius or lazy is up for debate, but it certainly helps keep players active and responsive in the game instead of hanging around auction houses all day like depressing stock brokers. I’m not an expert on the trading of Path of Exile, but I am aware of how its nuances have built up a fascinating following and a quasi-science of determining value. Every once in a while new currencies get added which grant new effects, allowing you to craft in bigger and better ways. Nothing is stagnant about the greed game here.
There’s a big learning curve in Path of Exile when it comes to the economy, but not a steep one. Gradual learning and mastery of the game’s many systems will teach you the value of items — not the other way around. Most games put a big fat price tag on an item to let you know that it’s better, but in Path of Exile you’ll have to actually master the game to know which stats and mods are precious. Customizing your gear to find those stats and mods will keep you hunting and trading for years, and better yet, the developers will keep releasing new expansions and “Leagues” every few months to keep things fresh if you ever feel like things are too familiar.
And that’s what always gets me: Grinding Gear Games keeps adding more exponential value to this game, but they never demand money in return. This most recent expansion (named “Fall of Oriath”) has completely overhauled and multiplied the story content of the main campaign, but it has also added major gameplay systems that perfectly compliment the already existing ones to encourage more obsessive hunting of Maps and monsters to improve your game. How does this even add up? How can a game this good still be given away for free?
I say there’s no better value in gaming than Path of Exile.