Grinding Gear Games studio visit: Path of Exile going console

NB: I originally wrote this story for Fairfax NZ’s stuff.co.nz website but I’m re-publishing it here.

In an unassuming cream-coloured building in Auckland’s western suburb of Henderson (a relatively pleasant, if mostly silent, 37 minute Uber ride in lunchtime traffic from the city’s domestic airport environs),  nestled at the fringes of a car park that’s actually part of a Pak ‘n Save supermarket, something magical is happening.

And on the first floor of that cream-coloured, average looking building is Grinding Gear Games, a video game maker co-founded in 2006 by like-minded guys Chris Wilson and Jonathan Rogers in Wilson’s garage in the Auckland suburb of Newlands New Lynn that’s doing that magic.

One of the co-founders of Grinding Gear Games, Jonathan Rogers, at the company’s Henderson studio.

Wilson and Rogers met while studying computer science at the University of Auckland.  “He was significantly more talented, and I realised if I tethered my horse to this guy, anything he’s doing will be good from a programming point of view,” says Wilson, who also studied finance while at university.

The pair also had something else in common: A love of PC action RPG games like Diablo 2, but Wilson thought they could do better, especially if they focused on the online multiplayer RPG space, an area they felt was lacking. “We were missing a game that captured the feeling of something like Diablo 2 online,” he says.   “We wanted to build an online community.”

Wilson says looking back, it was never his intention to co-found a video game studio – his programming background was focused on the security side of things – but when they saw a gap in the market they felt they could do something about.

So they set to work on making the game they wanted to play themselves. That game was Path of Exile.

“We started out as hobbyists,” says Wilson as we sit on a comfortable couch that leads off the company’s lunch room/kitchen area.

Part of the open-plan office of Grinding Gear Games.

Staff wander about the open-plan office, posters of characters from the company’s game adorning a wall as you enter the studio.  A mountain bike rests against a couch  in a room off the kitchen. There’s a BBQ on a small balcony outside. You can see Pak ‘n Save from the room we’re in.

“We didn’t think it was that hard to make a game. We initially had dreams of finishing it in a year or two,” says Wilson as we chat about the company’s history.  “It was really hard to make a game, we found out,” he says.

Fast forward 10 years, though, and Grinding Gear Games employs a tad over 100 people, the garage in Newlands New Lynn is a distant memory (Wilson tells me that his wife put up with the arrangement until the company expanded to eight employees),  and its only released one game in that time: Path of Exile.

Launched in 2013, Path of Exile is free to play but makes its money through micro transactions for cosmetic stuff like character outfits that don’t affect the game play balance.  The game is incredibly popular in North America and Europe – and it’s coming to Xbox One later this year.

Action from the Xbox One version of Path of Exile.

The console version will feature all the content that features in the PC version of Path of Exile as well as all the released expansion packs.

I have a confession: Path of Exile is not normally the type of video game I’d play if I was at home and had some time to game. It’s online only, for starters, which is not normally something I’d play (I have old fingers so tend to suck at online games and stick with single player campaigns). I have played action RPGs like Dungeon Siege and Diablo but I’m not what you’d call a master.

Playing a build of the Xbox One version, I’m an archer, firing arrows at weird beasts and teleporting around the game map. At first glance, the game seems impossibly complex: There’s something like 1500 passive skills, which themselves can be upgraded using gems. That’s mind-boggling.

At times the battles are so chaotic and frantic, with explosions, spells and electricity punctuating the game world, that I’m not sure what’s going on.  One of the dev team (I think it was Jonathan Rogers, actually) comes over and using magical commands  he plops me into one of the game’s boss battles. He warns me I’m terribly underpowered and I’ll die. He was right: I did die. A lot. It gave me a taste of what to expect, though.

The PC version of Path of Exile has seen 40 per cent growth in the past few months and boasts a base of 16 million players. Grinding Gear has big plans for the game this year, planning to release the full version of the game in China later this year, something Rogers says will be big but also a little daunting.

“Early indications are it’s going to be a big success there. We were looking at some Chinese fan sites and they have rankings of upcoming games and gauge how keen people are on the game, based on posting in forums and that sort of thing. In one of them, we were No. 2 as one of the most anticipated games so that kind of thing is looking very positive.”

As Grinding Gears’ technical director, it was Rogers’  job to get Path of Exile working on Xbox. It wasn’t an easy task. Rogers says one of the biggest challenges was getting the game’s complex user interface working on a gamepad controller, rather than the traditional mouse and keyboard used for the PC version.

“I remember when I first hooked up a controller it played like absolute garbage so it took a long time of fiddling around, of play testing, of looking at other games to see what they did. I do think the game plays really well on a controller.”

“We didn’t want to compromise the console experience. We didn’t want to dumb it down, ” Rogers says, adding the performance improvements made to the Xbox One version have been carried over to the PC version.

More from Path of Exile.

Rogers believes that releasing Path of Exile on Xbox One will open up a new audience for Grinding Gear Games, something that is exciting.

“I definitely think there is going to be a good number of players on console. We want to get at least a million players on console. We want to try and get multiple millions if we can,” he says.

Thanks to Xbox New Zealand which provided flights for me to visit Grinding Gear Studios.

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