If you joined Path of Exile in the last half-decade, you're likely familiar with its end-game Map System. This system didn't always exist though, and came about as an effort to fix the various problems with the previous end-games that Path of Exile had during early development. In today's news post, Chris explains the history of Path of Exile's end-games and what led to the Map system being developed.

There are two key philosophies that guided our end-game design:

Random levels are critical

I doubt anyone in our community would disagree, but some Action RPG developers don't realise this and launch with a static world. Having random level layouts, random monsters and random events that occur within those levels means that players can repeat the same content over and over without feeling the same level of repetition that they would if the area was exactly the same each time.

Anywhere can be a functional end-game

This sounds crazy, but it's surprisingly true for Action RPGs. You can experimentally cut off progression at any arbitrary level, and players are still able to experience the end-game grind for better and better items and marginally higher experience as they play the last area or two of the game. We had a build of Path of Exile during the internal Alpha that went up to Brutus, and the Alpha community at the time (mostly friends of the developers) spent weeks doing Brutus runs looking for coveted level 12 rares (as Brutus was level 10 then) and trying to be the first to reach level 20. Every time we expanded the end of the game by adding content, a new end-game evolved that was just as entertaining as the last, but in a different place. This has also been seen in the various betas and stress tests of other Action RPGs in the past - players will compete to get the most out of whatever content is available.

Having said that, even though anywhere can be a functional end-game, it's still desirable to have as much content as possible at the end-game. If it's just one best area that players have to repeat over and over, then the game is relying entirely on the power of random level generation. It's certainly better to have more content available.

A standard trope of Action RPGs in the 2000s was that you were able to complete the game three times on the same character, each time harder than the last. These difficulty levels tapered upwards in area level until you hit some final end-game areas, which were typically the hardest content in the game. Path of Exile initially had four difficulty levels while it only had two acts during Beta. To try to avoid the repetition of playing just one highest area over and over, we made our final difficulty level completely flat in terms of area level, so you could play anywhere you wanted in the game. It was also very challenging in terms of monster difficulty. The goal was that players would have immense variety in where to farm, so they wouldn't become bored as quickly as if they were just repeating the end of Act Two over and over.

Unfortunately, with a completely flat final difficulty, we encountered two problems:
  • In order to be an end-game that you slowly improve your ability to play, it was very challenging and felt like a wall of difficulty to many players. They were concerned that they weren't able to kill monsters in it and they died repeatedly.
  • Those players that could kill monsters quickly worked out the best farming areas that had a combination of weak monster AI and linear layouts. The Ledge was a great example of this.

To address these two issues, we added a light tapering to Merciless difficulty so that players were encouraged to play in harder areas.

The big issue that we faced when the end-game was in this state was staleness of the final areas. Players who wanted to find the best items and earn the most experience were forced to repeat the same few areas over and over. While the random levels were doing a lot of work, we needed a lot more variety. In the 0.8.6 patch, we added a special end-game called the Maelstrom of Chaos. This was a set of consecutive areas that tapered upwards in difficulty level, with random monsters and random tilesets (from a selection of eight).

While this improved the boredom issue of people playing the same areas over and over, it created an entirely new problem that we hadn't seen before: content difficulty entitlement.

Players would finish the Merciless difficulty level and were excited to play in the Maelstrom of Chaos. Because the areas were connected together, they could easily skip the first ones by running through them to get to the harder content. This was fine when the players were able to handle the harder content, but it failed in reality. Players would watch streamers and get the impression that everyone was farming the hardest Maelstrom areas, so they'd rush there themselves and fail to kill anything. Many players expressed vocal concerns that the game was so unforgiving and difficult, despite the fact that there were easier areas to play while working up to the hard ones. For comparison, it'd be like players nowadays finishing Act Ten and expecting to immediately conquer red maps, being angry that the content killed them instantly.

I vividly remember the meeting we had where we first discussed this idea of content difficulty entitlement. The word "entitlement" usually has massively negative connotations, but it is a very accurate description of the situation that was occurring. It was quite frustrating, watching people intentionally sabotage their own progression and then getting angry about it. Eventually we realised the truth: the game design was at fault and needed to change. We needed to find a system that made players feel good about playing at the right level for their progression.

A topic that came up in this 2012 meeting was the idea of having there be a cost to enter a Maelstrom of Chaos area. We considered it almost like a wager - you pay a few Orbs of Chance and then if you can handle the area, you are able to get its rewards. This would ideally prevent people from trying to do areas that were too hard for them (as they'd experiment with easier ones to work out where their profitability lay). We iterated on this idea until we suggested paying actual items with mods. We considered having a machine that you put a rare weapon into, where it creates an area that has mods based on the mods of the weapon. For example, if the weapon has a lot of damage, then the area deals more damage but drops more items. We iterated on this plan for a few hours until we realised that it was a lot more understandable if we introduced a new item type that had mods that specifically described how the area would be modified. We called these items Maps, and arranged them in tiers that were harder and harder to achieve. If you were lucky and rolled your maps well, you would find higher-tier ones to challenge yourself on when you were ready. Their economic cost would mean that players would only play them when they had a reasonable chance of success.

In the 0.9.11 patch, we replaced the Maelstrom of Chaos with the Map System. It greatly improved all of the above problems and was welcomed by players. This was the point in time that Path of Exile started its popularity gain that continues to this day. We learnt a lot about game design from this process and have continued to apply these lessons going forward.
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Grinding Gear Games
first? hueheue

obligatory run of the mill comments: "wow" "nice" "cool"
I loved maps when they came out.
IGN: EmptyPalms
I've loved the map system since I started in early 2013 and, for the most part, it has only gotten better over the years.
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Obtaining maps this time around is a lot more difficult compared to last League. I hope this can be improved for the future.
☆ Store of Wraeclast ☆: http://www.pathofexile.com/forum/view-thread/612816
Interesting, thanks for the background!
So any ETA when you're going to be fixing the sextant/shaped meta that's been going on since forever and hasn't changed barely at all?
Bex_GGG wrote:
It was quite frustrating, watching people intentionally sabotage their own progression and then getting angry about it.

Bex_GGG wrote:
We needed to find a system that made players feel good about playing at the right level for their progression.

Didn’t you also have this problem with players feeling they “should” play Hardcore?

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