Last week the development team for the online action RPG Path Of Exile, Grinding Gear Games, held one-on-one sessions with a handful of media outlets to talk about the next Path Of Exile league. Luckily mmorpg.com was one of the few that had the opportunity to sit down with producer and developer Chris Wilson. Chris went through a presentation of an almost hours’ worth of packed information. We managed to get a few questions in as we could. We had no hands-on playtime but from everything we were shown we are quite excited by this new league. The June expansion is called Harvest and contains the Harvest challenge league, some new uniques, a few new skills, and revamps to many areas of Path of Exile (PoE) content. If you are a fan of farming sims and crafting, then you’ll absolutely love what Harvest has to offer!
Development During the Pandemic
We started off somewhat light-heartedly by discussing how the pandemic has affected the development team.
In late March, New Zealand, the home of Grinding Gear Games (GGG), entered an extremely strict lockdown. The lockdown mandated everyone to work from home and not leave their homes except for essential shopping. There were a few takeaways from this experience as Chris mentions. The slide above shows some photos of actual GGG developers' work-from-home setups.
In the lower right is Blake's chair, which “died”. He ordered a new one right before lockdown and it got stuck in transit, as a result he was stuck with the abomination in this photo for seven weeks. On the far right, Jared discovered that having children around could be distracting.
Overall, GGG found that teamwide communication became much more difficult. This affected development speed a lot. In fact, they had to completely swap out their original league idea for one that was a better fit for “development at home”. Communication suffered as Chris tells us, since the team is used to working in person, crowded around a monitor. Things like not being able to communicate with body language, playing the game and demonstrating stuff, and working from home at different times of day are all example of things that just did not really work very well for them.
As a result, they fell behind schedule with this expansion, which is rare for them. They try to hit deadlines like clockwork, as they have done with so many releases now. So, they ended up a week behind on this one. They will keep trying to recoup that lost time during the rest of the year.
On a positive note, the pandemic situation in New Zealand has gotten better. They are down to eight cases left in the whole country, and there hasn't been a case of community transmission in several months.
The lockdown could not stop Path of Exile (PoE) from winning a British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA) award for "Best Evolving Game". The lockdown mandated that the team had to film the acceptance speech in selfie mode on a phone.
Thankfully, their lockdown is over now and 90% of the staff are back in the office. New Zealand has almost entirely eradicated the virus, so things are returning to normal for them.
The Importance Of “Leagues” In Path of Exile’s “Landscape”
Chris asked about my experience with Path of Exile. Chris wanted to make sure I understood the importance of understanding the concept of the league cycle. As Chris states, “Like that's more important than knowing exactly how certain end game maps work or something because to us the league cycle is kind of everything. It's the magic that keeps people coming back to the game and keeps giving us an excuse to develop interesting new content like Harvest.”
Chris went on to say, “Trying this [leagues] has worked for us. So, we're gonna keep doing it. And with Path of Exile 2 on the horizon, maybe the slightly more distant horizons, you know, like things like the border being closed here, so we can't hire anyone and various other problems. At least Path Of Exile in the meantime is growing like our most recent release, Delirium was our biggest yet. And it's great to be hitting records, you know, coming up on a decade after the game was initially released.”
To that point in popularity I brought up the point how the first few days of the last several leagues, have been a bit “hectic”. Chris agreed,
“Yeah, for sure. There, it's funny, because it's a different thing each time, right? Like there we had some new infrastructure problem, or recently DDoS, those have been really bad, like, we'll just, you know, release that everything's very fine. And then half our servers are taken offline, and we have half the capacity we thought we had, you know, just because of someone being overly active with a botnet.”
Oshabi, Keeper of the Sacred Grove
In Harvest, players meet a new NPC called Oshabi who was cast out by the Azmeri - a simple people who condemn superstitious activity. Oshabi's interest in the powerful potential of the land makes her lose touch with the practices of the Azmeri and begin a quest to find her own identity.
She discovers the Sacred Grove, an ancient garden created by an ancient people. She begins to learn of new possibilities for power and enlists Exiles to help her explore them. There are some plot bits and pieces that Chris did not particularly want to spoil, but she is the main character that you would talk to in this league about your progress.
As players play through the game, they encounter magical roots indicating the direction to Seed Caches. There is a Seed Cache somewhere in each area.
The Seed Cache drops a handful of special seeds, you pick them up and then you typically plant them in the “Sacred Grove” at that point. As you open the cache, Oshabi appears through a portal, providing easy access to the Sacred Grove, at that point in time.
Chris talked about the garden mechanics functionality. For example, a passage of time occurs when you click on the seed cache. This means that as you're playing through the game, even if you don't want to go into your garden in every single area to do some “gardening”, e.g. because you're busy playing with friends, etc., time will still pass in the garden as you click the seed caches and pick up the seeds. That is important to remember because time passing is never a negative thing. It lets your plants grow and do not die or cause anything negative.
An applicable example of this is if a player goes and stands in the garden, waits an hour or two, and nothing happens. Whereas if you do not play the game for awhile stuff happens. So, the premise is all centered around playing PoE versus watching your plants all day. Following is a practical example of how this plays out.
A Typical Encounter in The Sacred Grove
Upon finding a Seed Cache and gathering its seeds, you enter the Sacred Grove instance through Oshabi's portal. You should first build what is called a “Collector”. The collector is used to harvest the gatherable “Life Force” of seeds once they “bloom”. In this case “bloom” means, spawning mobs for you to fight.
After building a collector you then you plant some seeds. In this example, it is some wild seeds, which means they are purple colored ones. There are a few different types of seeds. A full “bloom” means they are ready to harvest. At that point you then click a collector to trigger all fully-grown plants to hatch, i.e. spawn, their monsters. In a gameplay video we saw the character was fighting some wolves, which are quite simple monsters. But of course, you start to get significantly more complicated fights later on.
Once you have killed the monsters, you will pick-up their Life Force which can then be used to perform crafting actions on your items. For example, you can craft a physical damage property onto your bow, and it gets a lot more complicated as we will see.
The basic cycle as you play through Harvest is, find a seed cache, go to your garden, plant some seeds, see if there are any fights ready, which there probably will be. Do a fight, do some crafting, maintain your garden, repeat. Chris stated that there is going to be a fair amount of detail in the crafting, it is also his favorite part of this league as well as mine.
Tier 1 Seeds: Collectors & Life Force
Tier one seeds are considered easy. You plant them in the ground, especially in their collector, because that way you can harvest them later. And that is all there is to it. They just grow as time passes, and there is no complexity. And honestly, most seeds, you find are that simple.
The only requirement for Tier 1 seeds is that you plant them near a collector of the same type. There are currently three types - Wild, Primal and Vivid.
Remember, each Seed Cache you open in the world marks a Growth Cycle, which causes all your seeds in the Sacred Grove to grow slightly. Once ready for harvest, you fight the monsters that are spawned and if you are successful, their life force is gathered. This unprocessed life force can be used to craft powerful items. After crafting, any leftover life force will be processed and stored, for later irrigation of higher-tier seeds.
The development team’s goal behind all this was that if a person does not particularly want to engage with the garden, they have truly little to engage with. The development team understands that people chose to download an action RPG game, not a gardening game. And minimally players expect to fight monsters and craft items.
In Harvest there's way more emphasis on “action” than there is on actual garden management. So much so, that you can do a bad job of laying a garden out, and it still works fine. So, the only thing someone gets by really caring about or investing more time into this activity is a prettier garden or a slightly more efficient one.
Tier 2 Seeds: Introducing Adjacency and Dispersers
Occasionally, a Tier 1 monster will drop a Tier 2 seed, which has harder requirements that must be met for it to grow. These upper tier seeds start to encourage more complex garden designs. Tier 2 seeds often require there to be specific colours of seeds nearby, this is known as an “adjacency requirement”. Tier 2 seeds also require irrigation, where you must build a disperser nearby and connect it to your storage of processed life force via illuminated “pipes”. Monsters hatched from Tier 2 plants occasionally drop valuable Tier 3 seeds, which are even harder to grow.
In the screenshot above, we see a tier two seed and it has two sets of requirements for it to grow. Looking at the purple lines of text you will notice the bottom line says one requirement is you must have some other similar seeds nearby. So, in this example, it is for other primal seeds or primal of the current blue ones. So that seems easy enough to do. The other requirement is it must be irrigated with 10 units of purple life force, that is the “wild” life force, per growth cycle. What “irrigated” means is you must have a disperser which sprays it out, like, irrigation or fertilizer.
You also have these purple pipes that connect to your condenser which is connected up to your collector that's next to your power plants. It's a bit of a process but that's what it takes to grow because they are special seeds.
Thankfully, you do not run into very many of these. Most of the time, even if your garden is laid out in a confusing way you can just use pipes to solve situations. Mostly it is like an electronics project where you have things that are separate and disjoint but might need to be connected.
Other than that, you want to place plots near each other, so you can just run a pipe across. So, it's relatively easy to connect even messy gardens together.
Next are some more examples of how things work.
Collectors can only store a small amount of processed life force, but you can also build Condensers. Condensers are like storage tanks, and you connect them to your network with pipes.
The picture above shows yellow seeds, which are the final type of the “vivid” type seeds as well as some condensers, which are those storage tanks.
Chris wanted to make a point about life forces’ usage. That being, when you kill monsters and get some life force, you can choose to immediately use it for crafting. But it can only be used for crafting right then and there. If you choose to click the condense button that pops up instead, it gets put into the plant network for irrigation use. Now it is committed to only be used for irrigation. The life force goes into the storage tanks and there are no more crafting opportunities with that life force.
You can then only do more crafting after the next fight. So, it is kind of a two-stage thing. And this means you create some tension between “how much do I craft” versus “how much do I expand my garden”.
Now thankfully, the answer to that can be simple. If the crafting gives you good mods that you want for your character, you should do it and if you do not like the mods, then pass on crafting at this time. In that case, just expand the garden with the remainder.
Chris said that this should internally be two different resource systems. But they combined it into one to make it simple and to add more tension between its use. This results in more choices to be made by the player.
Complex Garden Planning
You can keep your garden simple or create a sprawling factory-like jungle, your choice.
The following screenshots show what a more complete garden looks like where there's little areas for each thing. You’ll also see the different types of plants and the various irrigation working as it should across the plots.
It is the kind of thing you would work towards if you were trying to be particularly tidy, but of course, it can be messy. It is another option for players who enjoy planning this type of thing out. Harvest represents a type of fun that has not been present in Path of Exile before.
If you are a player who is less concerned about micromanagement and don't really want to build a complex farm, the developers have made that possible as well. Harvest incorporates a relatively simple process that can be done each time you visit the farm, and the majority of seeds you harvest have no special requirements.
You do not have to maintain your farm every single day you play - it is easy to stockpile some seeds and do it when you have time. Plain and simple!
Ooh Technical Shiny!
Chris admitted they went for a “Tron vibe” graphically in the Sacred Grove with the electro-luminescent kind of technology. This is partly because they have this global illumination technology that they have been using which they are immensely proud of. They hired a graphics engineer with a PhD from a good Russian University. The engineer has a PhD in math, and he does experimental graphical stuff for GGG. This resulted in their screen space global illumination technique. It is kind of designed around the pixel’s camera angle, meaning it operates in screen space rather than the world space. So, for example, if something is slightly off screen, you do not see its global illumination because it only considers pixels that are bright on the current screen.
GGG is taking advantage of this global illumination as much as possible in this league because it's a good opportunity to have “glowy” things in relatively dark areas like this cave-like garden.