Sega CEO Hajime Satomi says he wants to improve the quality of their games moving forward. That could mean a lot of things. It's nice to hear, but what they do next with their games is the real answer.
Path of Exile Race Leagues: A Different Kind of Endgame
Path of Exile is a fairly new action MMORPG from Grinding Gear Games, currently in an extended open beta period. This innovative title from a self-professed small team of hardcore gamers takes the action RPG genre to new depths with unique character progression systems that allow for virtually limitless combinations of character builds to accommodate nearly any play style.
I could write quite a bit on the game’s tight controls, impressive visuals, or compelling story and lore, but I want to focus on something even more unique that takes Path of Exile to another level: race leagues.
Path of Exile Race Leagues
Race leagues completely break the mold of MMORPG endgame content. Rather than grinding repetitive raids for hundreds of hours after hitting max level, race leagues pit players against each other with brand new characters on temporary servers. Events take place on servers dedicated to each race, and all players begin with a new character at level 1 when the race begins. Race leagues force experienced players to compete on skill alone as they literally race to reach certain competitive goals.
Several races run each day, ranging anywhere from one hour to one month, but the one hour and three hour durations are the most common right now. Grinding Gear Games has set up seasons for the race leagues, allowing players to earn cumulative points to earn unique and powerful in-game items, as well as exclusive real-world gear.
There are many competitive goals for players to achieve, and each race provides opportunities for everyone to “win.” There are goals that are purely competitive, such as being the first person to reach certain areas, clear certain maps, finish certain quests, reach certain character levels, or kill certain bosses. However, there are also individual goals that players can aim for to stack points towards earning exclusive gear for their account. I admit that I’m not the best PoE player, but I have a great time shooting for certain character levels in race leagues to stack up season points. More elite players find a thrill in having their competitive accomplishments broadcast in general chat, which also earns them massive amounts of season points.
Hardcore Mode and Modifiers
Hardcore mode and server modifiers make race leagues truly high-level endgame events, rather than just a fun gimmick. All race leagues are on “hardcore servers,” which means you’re done after a single death. When your character dies, the server instantly transfers it to the permanent standard server and eliminates you from the race. This means that racers must make zero mistakes to even earn a single point.
Hardcore mode might not seem like such a big deal, until you introduce server modifiers to the equation. A race-league server almost never hosts the normal game; instead, they have challenging (and sometimes brutal) modifiers attached to them to drastically increase the difficulty of staying alive. Here are just a few modifiers that I’ve personally run across:
Blood Magic – All combat abilities deplete health instead of mana.
Famine – Health potions are no longer refilled when taking a portal to town. They can only be filled by killing enemies.
Immolation – All attacks deal fire damage, and enemies explode with area-of-effect fire damage on death.
Cutthroat – Players can enter other players’ instances and PvP at will.
Turbo – Monsters move and attack 60% faster than normal.
Any of these modifiers is challenging on its own, but many races combine several modifiers into one. You might find all the modifiers I listed above in a single race event, for example.
Race leagues introduce a vibrant new kind of endgame community. I’ve become disheartened by what I see as a lack of endgame community in modern MMO’s. In the games I play, max level players are often so exhausted with their daily grinds that they have no time to associate with anyone who does not have perfect gear, perfect class play, and intricate knowledge of every fight in every raid. I was delightfully surprised the first time I participated in a Path of Exile race league, because the dedicated servers create a friendly and active community on a single server, albeit temporarily. Players log in to race leagues about 10 minutes before a race starts, and all character movement is locked until the race begins. In that time, an entire server’s worth of people chat and interact with other, spurring each other on for the upcoming competition, sharing tips and advice, forming groups with other players, and of course doing a bit of hilarious trolling and drunken spamming. The community feeling continues as the server constantly broadcasts players’ accomplishments, such as “DenverDave is the first player to reach level 7!” A player’s death is always followed by a handful of people saying “R.I.P.,” and a hundred GG’s flood general chat when a race ends. The point is that all players on the server are united in a single competitive scenario, and everyone can relate to everyone else. This is something I may have never experienced in an MMO before, and it is quite refreshing to see an MMO developer find a unique way to create a true community feeling.
Path of Exile and eSports
I’m always on the lookout for potential new eSports franchises, and always seeking to learn more about the design elements that characterize successful eSports games. Path of Exile race leagues have many of the elements needed for a solid eSports experience, and the game already has a solid presence on Twitch.tv before its official launch. The following elements scream “eSports” to me:
Emergent Strategy – the limitless possible combinations of character builds, gear, and abilities allows players to form their own personal strategies for success.
Skill-Based Competition – Grinding, paying real money, and having strong guild connections mean nothing in a race league. All players compete on skill and ingenuity alone.
Fixed Time Periods – Race leagues have a fixed time limit, and the one-hour races are perfectly timed for an eSports event.
Community – Even though they are challenging, any player can jump into a race league and experience it for themselves, which could make it more compelling to watch events live.