Path of Exile 4.0/2 Initial Thoughts

GGG/Path of Exile just had its first ever Exilecon and there’s a lot of information to disseminate. I was pretty hyped up as I had zero expectations going in outside of the much rumored Path of Exile 4.0 patch that GGG has been discussing for some time. While there are other pieces of content such as the mobile game and next challenge league, I really wanted to focus on this big expansion for this blog post.

I’m not going to go feature-by-feature in terms of re-examining all the highlights and talks from Exilecon 2019. Instead, I want to talk about my overall impression of what this mega expansion entails.

First, I am highly disappointed that this expansion is not a ground up re-write of their aging game engine. While there are technical improvements to the core, the overall game pretty much remains the same from what they showed. The thing I’ve been saying for quite a while is that the core game needs a serious rewrite from ground up. There’s a lot of issues from UX to UI that needs a great deal of rework. Things such as the buff bar, keybindings, the claustrophobic hud, the clunky movement system and headache inducing colors need a massive re-examination. Instead, we have a piecemeal situation where it feels as though there’s a great deal of techdebt that keeps piling up that might cause future issues.

The only real overhaul that represents a major paradigm shift in the game philosophy that’s worthy of note is the revamped gem skill system. Quite frankly, I feel that this system really is the patch itself since in reality it’s mostly a monstrous quality of life improvement. Judging from the panels though, it’s hard to see how much this will impact the game since it really is meant more for the end game where 6 linking items has historically been the limiting factor.

For myself, I felt that this overhaul wasn’t really necessary if they simply made 6-linking items easier. And honestly, it shouldn’t be an impossible thing to handle since the quality system does supposedly have a large impact on the odds for 6-linking items. It’s this type of design decision that makes me believe that GGG really needs to hire far superior UX people to augment the designers with their choices.

The rest of the presentation felt more cosmetic than something meaningful. The decision to split this new expansion into a separate campaign mode truly mystifies me. I know Chris Wilson gave his side of the rationale behind this but I still don’t understand. Is this expansion just a complimentary method to get into maps? Does it exist outside of a challenge league’s trading? Outside of a new storymode, what other motivation is there to play it?

By this reasoning, the new campaign feels more like something for long time players to do during the start of a new league. But unless the mapping system is separate from the original campaign, it honestly feels like just a one time distraction. I mean, you’re not apparently gaining more power than what you currently have. And it sounds as though the features for this new campaign mode will be folded into the original campaign too. So again, what’s the point?

Now, the designers talk quite a bit about the emphasis on improving early boss fights. I really didn’t understand this notion at all. The demos shown make low level boss fights appear like end game bosses. Also, the designers bragged that they thought they understood how to make good end game bosses. Since Delve, I would argue that the end game bosses suck because getting to them is impossible for many and doing them is worse because of lack of practice.

I think the designers really do not have a clue about designing an ARPG at times because of the way they described their thought process for fights like Uber Elder. The real problem I see with the way this new vision is going is that there’s no notable feeling of progression. Instead, it’s just designer masturbation clusterfuck one after another.

What I mean by that is it’s like making a hamburger and stuffing everything in your kitchen onto it while believing you’ve made the greatest burger alive. But instead you just created a dog shit burger where you cannot taste the meat and it’s just slop without any reasoning.

Good RPGs show a natural progress in difficulty that matches the gear, the ability of the character and the growing understanding of a player. The game’s story mode goes through the motion of showing your progress from a pleb to a god by upgrading you slowly along the way, using the content and story to pave the way towards increasingly more difficult slopes.

The three fights shown in Exilecon for the new bosses reminded me more of end game raid bosses. The designers talked about regressing to the original state of the game in terms of difficulty. But having long fights where a player just dodges things for 10 minutes is not really a good design in the early game, especially where you’re training a new player to face harder content along the way. These bosses just are bosses and will eventually become trivialized once the player base master the mechanics.

And this is a massive design flaw I see in so many games. I feel that game designers are so scared that their content becomes trivialized that they’ll continuously add more and more abilities to make arbitrary gates. But the raw fact is that players will repeat the content so spending resources on early game boss design feels like an absolute waste.

The real key to good boss design is ramping up difficulty that the player faces as they progress upward with improvements in gear, levels and skills. So how do you handle this if adding thousands of mechanics is an anti-pattern? It’s all about layering.

Your low level content is meant to be trivialized because you do not want to intimidate the player too badly in the beginning and make them jaded. Instead, you teach the player about effects in an encounter that build up into combinations that they’ll face as they increase in power. So the player learns how to counter act these effects. The draw of a good game is sucking players into believing they know how to handle situations then pull the rug when they’re least expecting it but at the same time make them think that getting this piece of power over here would counter act that situation in the future.

The reason I’m going on about this is that POE really becomes a static game towards the end and I strongly feel that ramping up the difficulty in the beginning does nothing to improve the end game. The only thing that maps offers is a variety of randomized mods. Most of your gear by Act 10 will be decided and there are very few improvements you can make. At that point, the only thing you really improve upon is experience to solidify your build but the actual efficacy doesn’t feel as impactful compared to the first 7-8 acts.

And that’s where this expansion doesn’t have an incredible appeal to me. In fact, most of it feels cheap. Like for instance, Chris Wilson emphasized things like new grass or arrows sticking into the wall. So what? What meaningful impact do those have in terms of game play? A player in this scenario is far too focused on killing things and loot that visual effects really aren’t that huge of a deal.

The only other things that they talked about were the new Ascendancies with a whopping 19 new ones, shape shifting and a vague new mechanism for ascending. Of these three things, the only real meaningful thing to me was the new mechanism for ascending. Let’s face it: Lab sucks. So I’m really happy that they’re talking about something new, but I don’t want anything like that. It’s just a painful mechanism that feels trivial but is necessary for the end game. But my analogy for lab is like having sex with a hot woman using twenty plastic trash bags as a condom. You just keep asking yourself, “What’s the point?”

Shape shifting isn’t anything in my book. It’s an RPG element that has a visual hook. But from a real impact on game play, it’s just another random ability. Maybe it’ll become meta one day and other days it’ll get nerfed into the ground. So how is it better than other abilities?

And the 19 ascendancies just tell me that GGG will have more internal nightmares trying to balance classes and skills. In reality, they should never have to worry about balancing these things because this isn’t a team specific game nor does it have an emphasis on PVP. However, this game goes through so many iterations on abilities that it almost feels as though most of the designers are on this aspect rather than other pieces of what I feel could be more important types of content.

I think though the amount of content one can play in a combinatoric fashion is where the expansion will show its true strength. What I mean by that is the new ascendancies and skill gem rework will allow one to try new skills out without worrying about grinding for a 6L piece of gear (and again, I really don’t think they needed to go this route but whatever). The main weakness POE has faced is just being able to do end game content because of lacking currency to create a 6L. For instance, I have this spectre build sitting around waiting for me to 6L a +1 raise spectre chest. I’ve become utterly demotivated to play despite having a reasonably decent chest. Similar, I only look for 6L bare bones chests because it’s all I can afford whenever I get a new character towards the end game. I can’t imagine how new players feel if they ever manage to get to this point.

I’m hoping though that the new acts are just a different way for getting to maps and that you can reach the same path by doing the original story mode. In addition, I hope they leave the current story mode unmolested as messing with such things is similar to George Lucas having Greedo shooting first. I think it’s an utter waste of time revamping old content as opposed to creating new content, similar to how Blizzard destroyed pre-Burning Crusade zones during Cataclysm.

At any rate, I’m going to hold out for this 4.0 patch. It really just feels like a patch rather than the big reveal people had been hyping up. I don’t feel at this point it’ll exceed Diablo 4 because Diablo 4’s new engine looks quite good so far.

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