Path of Exile: Synthesis Thoughts

With Path of Exile: Sythesis coming on March 8th, I wanted to do an overview of the next expansion along with how Betrayal will be making it into core as per the developer notes released today.

First off, Synthesis league will be a mixture of the Delve experience along with board games that Chris Wilson himself said he was inspired by in coming up with the next generation league mechanics. Basically, the player will encounter Cavas who will send you into his mind to recover memories and unlock the puzzle that connects him to Wraeclast.

From what we’ve seen in the previews, the game mechanic is similar to Delve in that you enter a zone and face an encroaching death mechanic that represents Cavas’ decaying memories. You need to clear a path to stabilizers which allow you to access other sections in his mind. In addition, no drops are provided until you reach the stabilizer, thus allowing you to focus on combat.

Right now, this mechanic sounds mostly like a quick XP n loot scenario where you push through waves of mobs. It doesn’t seem like an unlimited dungeon experience the way Delve was designed but you can push to more segments, which means that you can still challenge yourself. But it’s not yet clear to what extent you’re able to do this.

As you clear zones, you can connect them to other zones. Also, certain zones will disappear after a period which means you need to be strategic in your design of the layout. This aspect is similar in the way Incursion and Betrayal works in that you’re customizing the experience of how the connections work; it’s basically a kind of mapping system that probably will have its share of difficulties with your typical modifiers and zone loot.

One of the big things in terms of loot will be Fractured Items. They described Fractured Items as those with not very useful capabilities. However, the Synthesiser provides the ability to combine these Fractured Items in producing a new base  item that turns certain mods into an implicit. On top of that, the implicit will not replace nor be replaced by Lab enchantments.

Now, this is possibly one of the more exciting aspects of the coming league. Basically, you’re looking at more controllable crafts that will compliment the existing crafting system. I can easily see something like taking a highly desired implicit then using fossil crafting and possibly some veiled crafting to create some interesting rares.

Next, the patch intends to (hopefully) rebalance spell casting. Namely in “hand casting” type of spells. The main issue with the current spell casting meta is that things like totems, traps or even triggers are more appealing than usual hand casting. In addition, one of the largest issues with non-automated casting is how one must kite and target. In boss fights, this mechanic can be challenging compared to allowing say a totem handling the bulk of the work.

Right now, I’m at a wait-and-see stage with how they’ll implement improvements in spell casting. The thing is that in the more hectic fights, the delay time caused by standing around to cast a spell can mean life or death. Also, not all spells are created equal in damage with regard to situation.

The real three problems that need to be solved on a whole are: 1) figuring out a method for elegantly balancing damage skills between single target and aoe; 2) figuring out how to balance self cast vs autocast; 3) figuring out better defensive mechanics to make self cast not as heinous.

What I mean by 1) is that just adding new support gems shouldn’t be the mechanic alone. It’s basically a hack. Similarly, identifying the fact that swapping between gems and/or gear sets is pretty painful. I get that there’s some gritty mechanics but from a UX point of view, it’s an atrocious mechanism.

2) should be obvious. But 3) is something that I feel is an implicit issue that needs to be addressed. Think about a high movement fight like Uber Elder. Depending on the skill, that fight can be very rough. Like totems are good here since it would be just about placement and ensuring that you can last long enough to place new ones. Something like fireball (yeah extreme example) would be a nuisance since you also have to aim and spam cast while avoiding damage.

Of course, the real question is whether you want to allow the game to be designed to allow skills to be multi purposed. It’s a fine line that needs to be drawn here in determining the level of flexibility without making everything too similar.  Probably, the best solution here is to divide skills into those 3-4 categories (single target, aoe, defense and utility). You could probably add a few more since you have auras and curses too.

Moving on, Synthesis league will introduce two more archetypes with chaos and holy skills becoming more of a thing. We’ve already seen Smite, Herald of Purity with Delve being introduced. And Chaos really hasn’t been a huge thing until now. For myself, I’m curious how the skill tree will be augmented to incorporate these two new archetypes. There are certain basic passives but nothing as focused.

There are other “improvements” as well, but let’s talk about the elephant in the room: Betrayal going to core. It will be placed into Act 9 with the typical introduction by Jun as with the other masters and occurring with three possible encounters within a zone. These encounters won’t “overlap” meaning that an Intervention encounter won’t happen next to a Fortress (let’s see if this is true!) and that the overall masters encounter will be buffed from 33-40%.

Now, the main reason I’m calling this the elephant in the room is just on how the new Master system works. Before it was just a random encounter that you could optionally do. The new Master system almost forces you into the encounter. Like Intervention is horrible, especially if you’re already mixed up with say Einhar. Or Fortress can just stick out like a sore thumb.

Obviously, the only real off putting encounter of them all is Intervention since you cannot escape from it until it’s over and that has been done by design. The thing is that I think all these encounters should just occur similar to how the old masters were done: you talk to the Master and that starts it off. I don’t see how this should be difficult to implement. It’s just far more elegant too. You zone in, you see the Master right off the bat (and don’t even have to hunt for them) then after talking to them, it signals the feature to be switched on. In that manner, the experience isn’t disruptive.

Now, that’s just to solve the basic problem where currently the experience is very annoying. Alva is the least offensive of the bunch and should be the signal for GGG to understand that not everyone may want to do the key content at that moment in time.

Of course, the other issue is that things like Sulphite Scarabs are getting nerfed along with things like Pure Breachstones. So why introduce them in the game? It’s just really stupid to have things like this when the actual mechanics of finding these things are terrible.

So that brings me to my solution for these issues: just allow the Master content to be triggerable options once you get into maps. Make them all modifiers you can add via Zana. For instance, rather than having a quality modifier as a freebie, just allow that to be swapped for a Master option. That way, if people just want to focus on Temple farming for Corruptions, they can do so. Or if people just want Delve, they have it rather than having a silly currency item that will end up having zero value.

See here’s where I have a lot of issues with RNG design philosophy. RNG is good for some basic things like finding good items, monster encounters, map layouts even certain types of modifiers. But RNG should NOT be built into every single aspect of the game; it’s unnecessary and does not truly prolong the life of a game. Instead, key features should be targetable since you want people to be accustomed to their design. Avoiding key features by implementing RNG just creates distance and disillusionment.

I suppose with all the levels of content now implemented in the game, you need some way to break up the rhythm. Part of that has been RNG. But I hate when it’s so random and without context.

If I have a major issue with Path of Exile, it’s that older content just gets lost to the wayside. The newest feature is forced in your face by having it in every zone you enter. It feels like such a clusterfuck design. Also, every new feature I’ve seen ends up being overwhelming from the beginning. Like Betrayal right from the start is painful because the Syndicate members have too much health and do too much damage. It feels like the game designers don’t have any notion of implementing scale correctly into the game.

Next, I dislike how there’s no layering between major content patches/leagues. For instance, where does Harbinger belong in comparison to Abyssal? With WoW, by comparison, you have expansion zones. Maybe with story mode leveling, they started to make Masters have some sense of difficulty by making Masters appear in specific acts.

But it still feels pretty crappy. Take Abyssals as an example. You enter an Act 6 zone and see this farting earth graphic. As a new player, you have zero idea what it’s supposed to do nor how the encounter works. So you may accidentally walk over it and trigger this chaotic mess. Or what about seeing a Breach for the first time?

I get that PoE is targeted to the so-called “hardcore” gamer but it’s more targeted to the insider of PoE. The moment you fall off the track, you just lose out because the game’s UX just prefers to dump you on your head. Maybe the game designers think that’s a plus but I think it feels sloppy and stitched together.

Also, in looking at the new Synthesis league, I have a feeling that it’s just going to be more of the same. The new feature is cool but it’s a variation on what they have.  People in chat were comparing the mechanics to Delve and Incursion without the actual acknowledgment from Chris Wilson. If GGG’s intent is to continue iterating over these core ideas that already exist, why not just take one of them and improve upon it rather than continuing to belt out “new” features that are just repackaged variants of existing ones?

I’m not saying that for a game like PoE they’re not doing a great job. What I am saying though is that their approach is becoming very….identical between leagues. Toss in more monsters, add new currency type, add new end game meta grind, modify crafts to perfect our imperfect crafting system while still forcing RNG.

The real thing that needs to be focused on is the UX. The game is in a far better state than when I first started to play. But GGG’s weakest aspect by far (outside of crashes) has been their unpolished UX. I’m not a huge fan of companies that are exclusively feature factory focused. A lot of core critical elements often get left by the wayside like basic stability, performance and ensuring that the user feels that they can figure out the game on their own.

I hate that for this game, I have to rely too much on outside resources to really experience the game fully. I wasn’t a fan of World of Warcraft’s raid and dungeon system because you had to watch videos. Here, the game becomes path of building or some other 3rd party utility.

I know that GGG plans on the so-called 4.0 mega expansion for 2020 with the announcement coming at the end of this year. What I am hoping for is a new engine designed from bottom up with an emphasis on the polish and the other intangibles that make me really believe in a company’s ability to execute. While Synthesis looks like a decent mechanic, what I truly am desiring is just these other improvements.

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