$1,000 custom weapons led to happy players: The uncommonly free Path of Exile is an indie success
“It’s so hard as an indie without a publisher in another country,” Chris Wilson, the managing director of Grinding Gear Games, tells me over tea at the Game Developers Conference. “When you call someone, the first words out of your mouth have to be ‘don’t hang up, I’m from New Zealand. I know the hobbits.’”
The team is doing something right. Their first game, free-to-play Action RPG Path of Exile has over 2 million registered users, and a heap of positive buzz online. This is even more impressive due to the fact the studio isn’t made of AAA veterans who have moved over to indie development, but action RPG fans with very little real-world experience in creating games.
“I’m surprised at how well it went, considering our lack of experience,” Wilson told me. This is especially true due to the fact that the game is purely free-to-play. You can play through the entire game, with an unlimited number of free accounts with 24 character slots each, without paying a dime. So how does the team make money?
The monetization strategy is based purely on cosmetic changes to the game. That’s it. You can only buy things that change the way things look. The good news is that Grinding Gears has been able to support the studio with this model, and it creates a fan base that’s fiercely loyal.
“Players appreciate that the game isn’t trying to screw them over in some way. What we hear from the players is 'Hey, I bought this cosmetic stuff that I don’t necessarily want, but I did it because I need you guys to still exist in a few years' time,'” Wilson said, stirring his tea. “It’s good to hear that, people giving us money just to make sure that we stay around, or to reward us. Our number one goal is to make the customer happy in regards to the monetization decisions that we make.”
This isn’t idle talk, as they work constantly to make sure nothing you buy can change the game for the player’s advantage. “We sell cosmetic skins for our skills, and they’re not meant to have any advantage at all. One of the skills in the game summons skeletons to fight for you,” Wilson said. “One of the skins changes the skeletons into statues.”
The team found that the statues could attack slightly faster than the skeletons, giving an in-game advantage to those that bought the skin. It was quickly removed. “We had to work very hard to fix that before anyone could purchase it,” Wilson said.
These are the things that the community is able to pick up on very quickly. “They’re very smart, they’re smarter than us. It’s apparent when I talk to the community that they know the game better than I do, and I helped design much of its systems,” Wilson explained. “They would respect the fact that we made a mistake, and we fixed it as soon as we can. But we earn that respect by not making those mistakes in the first place.”
This is how the system works: you can buy coins from the game’s shop, with the smallest bundle being 46 coins for $5 (around $0.11 per coin), and the highest being 2850 coins for $250 (around $0.09 per coin). Alternate skill effects begin at 10 coins, and go up from there. The most expensive pet I saw in the story cost 1,100 coins. The pets just kind of follow you around and look cool.
You can also pay $1,000 to create your own custom item to the game. “Add your personal touch to Path of Exile!” the page states. “Work with us to create the art, mechanics, and flavour of a unique item that will be added to the game.”
This isn’t bullshit, as the assets and powers for these items are high-quality.
What sort of items have the higher-tier players been asking for? An article in Venture Beat goes into detail.
“We’re getting requests like, ‘I will pay you to put a wolf in a certain area,’” said Rogers. “Though we were hoping people would be asking for something cooler.” Another wanted a talking sword. So Grinding Gear recorded some dialogue for the sword and gave it a history. The blade holds the soul of a whimsical but thoroughly mad wizard.
These top-notch items come with lots of embellishment and details (Path of Exile supports resolutions of 2,560-by-1,440 and sets its art for that standard). Gloves have brilliant embroidery. Armor shines and displays contours and filigree. Some of the designs come from the same person who created the concept art for Dobby the House Elf from Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.
Grinding Gears is basing their game on a crazy business model: They want to make the players happy. This isn’t EA, a company that shrugs off customer complaints by looking at the bottom line; Grinding Gears legitimately spends time and effort trying to track the happiness of the players of the game.
“It’s hard to quantify happiness looking at a spreadsheet. So you have to take a step back and ask yourself what would I as a player want from the game? That’s why we pledged to have no pay to win stuff,” Wilson said. “As action RPG fans the idea of a player being able to pay for advantage is such a horrible thing. We wouldn’t be interested in playing that game ourselves.”
They consider games that allow you to get XP or item faster to be pay to win. You can buy more character slots in Path of Exile, but you start with 24. Very few players will use that many.
“The only reason we put a limit is because there has to be some limit, and we may as well let you bypass it with money. Practically speaking, it’s not a revenue earner at all,” Wilson said. They considered a fee to remove effects from weapons before they could be traded, but the players rebelled and they removed it. This wasn’t how they planned the economy, but it made the players happy, and happy players pay for more stuff.
It’s really that simple. You listen to the audience. Charge them for things they want, but that don’t change the game. Remove fees that people complain about. Release new content every week, including new items and skills. This has a positive effect on your players.
“They do get happier, yes,” Wilson said with a smile. “It turns out that happy people are very good because they don’t complain on the forums. If everyone was happy, life would be much easier.”