In a nondescript West Auckland building that shares a carpark with Pak'n'Save sits a less-visible Kiwi institution: Grinding Gear Games. New Zealand's largest game studio, it employs more than 100 people, and its sole product, action-RPG Path of Exile, is one of the most popular of that genre in the world.
The isometric title only stands to become more so, too: the number of hours players poured into it skyrocketed a staggering 44 percent in 2016, with more than a million players slashed their way through its dungeons last December alone. The average session time in Path of Exile is five hours. Not bad for a game that went into open beta in 2013.
Indeed, Path of Exile is a perfect example of the much-vaunted 'games as service', a title that has gained huge momentum thanks not only to its quality, but also its respect for players' bank accounts. (Players only pay for cosmetic items that have zero effect on gameplay.) That ethos has seen it cultivate a large, passionate community, and gather many more players every time Grinding Gear releases new content. Nevertheless, Path of Exile is pretty much unknown outside of PC gaming.
That is slowly changing. The game's next expansion, Fall of Oriath, is its largest yet by a substantial margin, the game is being launched into the massive and massively lucrative Chinese market with the help of publishing giant TenCent, and Path of Exile is also making its console debut on Xbox One.
All of these things will happen simultaneously in a couple of months, but it's the latter that has the local mainstream media paying attention. Xbox makes journalists take you more seriously because only the big studios do console, says Grinding Gear Games co-founder, producer and lead programmer Jonathan Rogers. "There's a perception that if you come out on console you're a 'real game'," he says with a grin. Somewhere, a million or so PC gamers shake their heads.
A console version of Path of Exile has been on the minds of Rogers and Grinding Gear co-founder and managing director Chris Wilson for three years or so, but the impetus to get rolling actually came from a big fan of the game who happened to work at Microsoft. He put Grinding Gear in touch with his bosses, and while Microsoft was keen, there was some scepticism from the Kiwi devs.
"I was a bit worried… was it going to work? I did have to be convinced," Rogers says. Hearing the success stories of other free to play games that moved into the console space eventually swayed Grinding Gear, and work began in earnest on the game's Xbox One version about 18 months ago. First, it had to acquire some staff with console expertise though, and while it usually picks the best and brightest uni grads, in this instance a disaster for others was a boon for the company.
"One thing that actually helped us – it feels a bit funny to say – was the collapse of Gameloft," says Rogers. "They effectively did the work of getting skilled staff into the country, and we just snapped them up afterwards… it was really useful when Gameloft collapsed." One former Gameloft employee brought with him a wealth of console experience, having worked on Quantic Dream's Heavy Rain, for example. He's now Grinding Gear's optimisation programmer, and one of "four or five" that joined specifically to work on the game's Xbox version. However, the studio's staff has expanded a huge amount in the interim anyway, thanks to its other ambitions.
Getting Path of Exile feeling great when played with a gamepad was the one thing Grinding Gear was super keen to nail first, but that turned out to be really tough – "harder than I originally thought", says Rogers. In fact, he says, it was the hardest part of the whole port process, "but if you ask someone else, they might say getting the game to run at 60fps on a console". It saw the Xbox team split in two: one to work on controls, one to suss the game's UI.
Keyboard and mouse control on Xbox was not something the studio was willing to consider, and unsurprisingly, just plugging a controller into the PC version "felt like complete garbage". But even after substantial tweaking, there were problems. For example, players would attack when they weren't quite close enough to do so. Other console action-RPGs solve that by creating different animations for a couple of attack distances – something Rogers was confident would work in Path of Exile, but also something that "seemed like a 'more work' solution". He decided the best workaround was to momentarily delay an attack by hundredths of a millisecond – provided the player was going to be within range soon – and simply execute the animation then.
That's a seemingly-small fix that feels perfectly natural when you play, but it's aided by other subtle changes to targeting that factor in whether you're moving or stationary. "It's quite an involved process," Rogers confesses. Another simple fix was to add target reticules for some skills, and to simply remove skills that didn't suit gamepad control from the game's gargantuan skill tree.
I didn't strike any problems in my time with the unfinished Xbox version, but on the user interface side of things, work is still underway. While Path of Exile's UI is quite scalable, it's also text-heavy, and Xbox has a lot of guidelines around things like minimum font size. Even the simplest rules can be a headache. For example, a load screen that's more than a few seconds long must contain a moving icon. "Those little details seem easy but aren't when you try and do it," says Rogers.
The game won't be cross-play compatible on Xbox One and PC, but Grinding Gear is keen to attain parity between the two versions wherever possible. The Xbox version will include The Fall of Oriath of course, and updates should arrive only a week or so later on console thanks to certification. "On PC we're a bit more fast and loose than we can be on console," says Roger. That isn't a bad thing, as it effectively allows PC players to test updates, and that allows Grinding Gear to hastily add any extra stuff to patches to the Xbox One version before they hit certification. Ladder races and events are planned for Xbox One, but they won't be there day one because the race community is centred around the game's website and forums, and Grinding Gear needs to figure out how to bring that information into the game in an unobtrusive yet accessible manner, becausae console players are less likely to play with a browser open.
It seems crazy to attempt three big moves – an expansion, a console project, and a China launch – all at once, but there is some method to Grinding Gear's madness. "We definitely knew we wanted to do [China and Xbox] when we had a big expansion to release, because the marketing effectively multiplies itself," says Rogers. Creating the Xbox version has also meant Grinding Gear has tightened the game up. "Xbox forced us to get the performance of the game much better and make everything a bit more polished, as is required by that platform," Rogers admits. On top of that, China publisher Tencent is a numbers-driven company that is always suggesting changes to the game. Not everything is implemented, but of concern was the ease with which new players could get into the game, for example.
It's not all upside. Tying all these projects together has made it harder to move the studio's schedule around, and the original internal plan was for The Fall of Oriath to come out earlier. The Chinese version also requires huge amount of work around censorship and localisation in general, and changing a game for that market is a very large endeavour.
Still, Grinding Gear is relaxed and on track. "They're all going to come out at the same time… in theory," Rogers laughs. And when they do, it could mean more massive growth for his company. "I would certainly like to see a million people try the game on console, that'd be great," he says with confidence. "It kind of needs to be that good to be… when I say 'worth the time', I don't just mean worth the time in terms of money spent on salaries – I mean worth the time in terms of distraction. So I'd like to see at least that, but I think we can do better than that, quite frankly."
◆ Matt travelled to Grinding Gear Games courtesy of Microsoft.