Path of Exile’s Chris Wilson on Microtransactions and Pay-to-Win

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I tried to write an article about Path of Exile (PoE), the upcoming action RPG from New Zealand’s Grinding Gear Games (GGG), without immediately comparing it to Diablo III. But my personal history with both games is deeply interwoven and the timing is right between the console launch of the latter and the full release of the former. So, perhaps the ARPG stars are aligned or something.

I first heard about Path of Exile while I was at the peak of my disappointment and frustration with Diablo III. As a longtime fan of the franchise, I tried to like Blizzard’s title, but in the end I just had to give up. I had never felt more misunderstood by a game studio.

Then I started seeing forum posts and articles about PoE; it seemed as though GGG had taken my list of disappointments and designed a game that directly countered them. Gone were the unlimited respecs that made creating new characters a pointless endeavor, gone were the restrictions on which classes could use which items, and gone was the Real Money Auction House where players could directly purchase the best in-game items.

My helmet and wand were looking a little boring (left) until I spiced them up with some microtransactions.

My helmet and wand were looking a little boring (left) until I spiced them up with some microtransactions.

Path of Exile is a free-to-play game that has been funded in part by a very successful crowdfunding campaign, and has continued to gain funding by cosmetic microtransactions. PoE‘s lead developer and GGG managing director Chris Wilson has taken a pretty firm stance on allowing real world money to buy in-game power.

We don’t want to sell anything that affects the game economy or provides a competitive advantage for one player over another. We try to completely divorce our microtransactions from the game balance. Selling items that affect a player’s stats, or can be traded, or provide some type of gameplay boost (e.g. experience potions) are examples of things that we feel would be pay-to-win.

The free-to-play model of game publication is still fairly new, creating a sort of Wild West atmosphere without firmly established norms. Games like Riot’s League of Legends have garnered huge fanbases with their model, but Wilson says that GGG are set on finding their own path.

We’ve been really careful to try to design our microtransaction model ourselves and haven’t investigated how other popular games are handling their microtransactions (because they’re generally pay-to-win, which we don’t want).

A few players have charged that some of the account features offered, namely stash space for storing items, violate this stance. Wilson disagrees.

The reason that we sell storage space is because players are able to create additional free accounts that come with a reasonable amount of space each. If players want additional space but don’t want to pay, they can create more free accounts.

It’s worth noting here that Blizzard has limited players to one account per copy; if you want more than the allotted storage space or character slots, you’ll have to purchase another account at the cost of the full game. That said, even Blizzard has reversed its policy on buying in-game items, announcing recently that Diablo III‘s much decried Auction House(s) will be removed from the game next March. I asked Chris why GGG has such a firm stance on “Pay to Win,” and his answer confirmed just how well he understands gamers like me.

We’ve designed Path of Exile as the game that we want to play, and we don’t want to play a game where players can buy advantage. In an Action RPG, it’s very important that players can only acquire levels and items as a direct result of their hard work so that the integrity of the game is kept intact. Players play for the feeling of finding and having an amazing item, and that feeling is substantially reduced if other players can get it for less effort.

Even your skill animations can be given new effects, transforming descending fireballs (left) into spiked bombs (right) and many more.

Even your skill animations can be given new effects, transforming descending fireballs (left) into spiked bombs (right) and many more.

One of the most exciting and creative offerings that Path of Exile has is the option to directly work with the design team to create unique in-game items that are added to the pool of possible loot drops. Of course, in keeping with their policy, paying to co-design an item doesn’t mean that you get one without finding it the same way everyone else does. Another exciting co-design feature in the works is the option to create custom leagues. In PoE, leagues are variations on the standard ARPG modes of hardcore (where character death is permanent) and standard (where they aren’t). GGG has introduced a number of different leagues of their own and still has plans to open the option for players, but that will have to wait until after they have the full release out of the way.

We’re still planning to allow players to pay to create custom leagues. This is an area that we’re focusing on once we have the October release out of the way. Our focus on release is content rather than monetization, so we haven’t created many new microtransactions to release at the same time. There’s a whole lot of content and new features though.

Path of Exile is currently in open beta, with a full release slated for what some fans are referring to as ‘Rocktober’. You can create an account and download the game at the official website.