Path of Exile and Game Design Islands
I wrote about the game Path of Exile (PoE) briefly in my newsletter a few weeks ago, calling it “the collective fever dream of an army of mad systems designers”. Sometimes when my friends are together on Discord, we idly wonder why certain things work the way they do in PoE.
Why is the experience for new players so bad that you basically can’t learn it on your own? Why do you need multiple pieces of third party software to really play the game? This includes a “loot filter” whose sole purpose is to limit the number of items that are shown on the ground from killing enemies. The vast majority of loot is pointless to pick up, and just slows you down by taking up valuable inventory space, so it’s better to hide it. But then… why drop this loot at all? And so on.
Obviously Grinding Gear Games (the company that makes Path of Exile) employs some talented designers. The game not only has some of the deepest and interesting crafting and equipment systems out there, but is also pretty successful, raking in ~$113M in revenue in 2020. So what’s with all the rough edges?
Perhaps it's only possible to build a game like Path of Exile – a game singularly focused on deep systems – in an environment that is tilted so much towards systems design as to be inhospitable to any other designers. In theory you could have a team that operates perfectly across all design spectrums; one that could incorporate the best of systems design, creative and narrative design, and clear, visceral moment-to-moment gameplay in one beautifully polished product. But the environment that enables the boundary-pushing systems design of PoE may be deadly to everything else.
I imagine the opposite is true at studios like Naughty Dog. To build a team and culture capable of creating The Last of Us Part II almost by definition means excluding people who value systems over narrative. This doesn’t make The Last of Us Part II better or worse than Path of Exile – it just means our games can’t have it all. Strategy is, after all, as much what we choose not to do as what we choose to do. Most of the time we don’t notice the choice because few popular games are as, uh, dedicated... in their pursuit of a particular aspect of game design as Path of Exile.
It’s like the Hawaiian honeycreepers that have evolved to suck the nectar of particular flowers. Despite being closely related, the beak of each species of honeycreeper has evolved over centuries to adapt to the local food it eats. The environment that supports honeycreepers that feed on nectar would be a wasteland for those who eat seeds.
Somewhat ironically, Grinding Gear Games is based out of New Zealand – another island home to unique animals not found anywhere else. Likewise, Path of Exile is the outcome of growing up on an island of game systems design. A place where weird and wonderful game systems emerge, but also maybe one that is unaccommodating of anything else.