As I walked through the Aotea Centre in Auckland, New Zealand a few weeks back during ExileCon 2019, I noticed something weird. The line for the merchandise shop, usually long for any convention, was unusually short. Meanwhile, a queue extended across the main hall and at the beginning was a game developer, being mobbed for the cards he held.
During ExileCon 2019, many great announcements were made. Path of Exile 2 was revealed and players could go hands on with the upcoming update hitting the game next year. Also a Mobile version of the ARPG was shown and playable at the show floor. Neither one of those queues ever got as long as the queues for the Card Game going on during ExileCon, though.
It's all rather interesting, really. Each attendee received an entry pack of cards and essentially the developers of Path would walk around the convention center wearing the t-shirt of a specific monster. On that shirt listed the stats of the monster and players would need to come up with the right combination of equipment to match or exceed the stats on the devs shirt to beat them, win loot and move on. Items could be crafted at a crafting bench on the top floor - something that became so popular they had to open a second bench the next day - all with the promise that if they completed the quests and got powerful enough they could take on the Shaper - Grinding Gears Games' very own Chris Wilson.
The card game was something I personally was interested in, but the queues kept me from being able to do anything reasonable with the game. However, many players weathered the long lines to get the chance to take down Shaper the next day - and most came out of the experience incredibly happy with the result.
"The card game kept myself and many others busy between panels, and it was a great way to meet other players," ExileCon attendee Cody Johnson told me via Discord after ExileCon had ended. This was a sentiment shared by almost everyone I spoke to at the event. Grinding Gears Games brilliantly used the card game as a way to break the ice between players and developers, giving them a reason to interact and meet each other.
At many conventions I've been to, player and dev interaction is always there, but there are plenty of players who keep to themselves or maybe find themselves unable to work up the nerve to talk to the developers who make some of their favorite experiences. Truthfully, I find myself feeling that way sometimes even when I interview developers for this job. It can be nerve wracking. The card game at ExileCon broke the ice for you - in order to progress you had to interact with the developers on the floor.
It wasn't without its issues, though.
"Day one was chaos as both players and the staff [were still] learning the game mechanics and getting into the rhythm of things," Cody also mentioned. This was something I witnessed while working in the media room, as developers were constantly streaming in to replenish their card stocks. Some time later, one developer came in saying they needed another zombie - the line to battle the zombie had become so large it dwarfed the line at the merchandise booth. It was also easy to see how a developer might get overwhelmed if their monster was the catch of the day so to speak.
But in the end, the card game felt to many players as simply playing another version of Path of Exile. You would battle monsters to get loot. You can upgrade the loot at the crafting bench, trade it with other players, earn maps to get even better loot (Cody mentions he got a Rise of the Phoenix shield from a map which enabled him to fight the Phoenix much earlier than he should have). Unfortunately, some players felt the drive to play the card game to its fullest meant missing out on the actual show.
"In order to get world first you basically had to skip the major keynote speeches," attendee JamminBreeze also told me via Discord. "I didn't know if I'd enjoy it until I really started getting gear - much like real Path of Exile."
Like traditional Path though, you had to hope your RNG was good.
"I came in with no real expectations, but the card game drew me in with its simple design," another player, Kyle Gordon, told me via Discord. "Match the numbers on the shirts and hope your RNG was good. GGG did a really good job of translating the Path experience to cardboard, and also managed to seamlessly integrate a meet and greet with the staff."
This is something that everyone seemed to agree on - the similarities between the TCG and the actual Path game were striking to some.
"The parallels between the video game and the card game were striking!," Jammin told me. "I.e, having to trade, slow starts, easier to kill with a group, etc. Shaper was actually quite difficult. The Guardians were "hard," but we were really lucky with cards at that point."
Claiming a world first kill on Shaper was what many wanted to do (fun fact, the World First was obtained by a user named Gwaer, but 49 total Shaper kills came out of ExileCon). So much so that some players worked in teams. JamminBreeze worked with another player, Ionass, to assemble the correct items needed in order to take down Shaper themselves. Everyone, however, kept going back to the player - developer interaction. Ionass praised this actually, saying that he saw things he would otherwise have likely ignored.
"It moved you around the con, you had to interact with devs as well as others on the floor. We quickly started trading with others and making new friends along the way. It was great! I got to talk to one of the concept artists that showed me some cool things he'd been working on, things that I might otherwise have ignored."
The card game even facilitated taking down bosses a second time - something you might find yourself doing in real Path. All in the name for better RNG.
"I even considered killing Hydra again just because I got bad loot," Ionass told me.
And while there was a path on the back of the box GGG suggested players should take, it was never really forced. Players could get really lucky with the RNG - much like Cody getting an item that let him take on Phoenix earlier than he should have been able to. This let players who enjoyed the game to progress their way, opening up more avenues for players to enjoy their experience.
At the end of the day, the card game itself is contained just at the con, a shared experience that ExileCon attendees are still continuing to talk about to this day in the Discord channels since the con ended. Many players kept their cards to frame, some had developers and GGG big-wigs sign their cards as souvenirs. I still have my box of cards in my office next to my ExileCon shirt, waiting to be frames alongside my Magic: The Gathering cards displayed in my office.
While Path of Exile 2 might have been the major announcement and update that got players excited for Path's future, the card game on the show floor is what got players talking. My only hope is if Grinding Gear Games decides to host another ExileCon in the future this is continued. These interactions are intensely important not only for developers who are gleaning feedback from players, but those attendees themselves can walk away from a conversation with a game dev hero with a memory that will last a lifetime. Also bragging rights if they managed to take down the developer in the process.