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Grinding Gear Games: the studio that prefers to go with its gut – and it’s working

Auckland based Grinding Gear Games will launch its blockbuster PC game Path of Exile on Xbox One later this year. It’s a big move for the company that has seen continuous growth in player numbers with every expansion and currently boasts a serious player base of 16 million. José Barbosa took a slow train to Henderson to talk to the company’s co-founder Jonathan Rogers  about where Exile goes next, why gamers don’t really want it easy and proof you should never double dip.

Charmingly, the building that houses Grinding Gear Games, the largest gaming company in New Zealand with a workforce of around 100, is part of the Henderson Pak ‘N Save car park. There’s no fence or tree line separating the two. It’s literally in the car park.

Which has its advantages, of course. The immaculate kitchen (I ask an employee if it’s always this clean. He responds that it usually is until midday) is kitted out with huge windowed refrigerators containing every kind of sugared drink. I can see pallets of the stuff through some glass doors leading into another room.

A investigation of game developer’s favourite desk side drinks

I and a group of other media are being shown around. We’re here at the behest of Xbox. Grinding Gears’ staunchly PC base game Path of Exile is going console some time in the middle of this year. It could be huge for the company, but possibly not as huge as the move to China. They’re making a version for those many, many players with the monolith media company Tencent. They are a company in lift off.

Both Jonathan and other founder Chris Wilson are to give interviews after we’ve been introduced to the console version of the game. It might be NZ’s biggest original IP export, but I’m ashamed to say I’ve never played Path of Exile. I might as well have never watched an All Blacks game or read The Luminaries. I’m running around a dungeon smashing enemies helpfully labelled as “heavily indoctrinated slave”. It’s a bit of a button masher, but once I figure out how to mix up my attacks it’s more fun. But really it’s all about the loot. Chests and trunks spill forth their contents onto the floor. Very soon I’m awash in coins and small swords. There’s a nifty inventory screen, and I can mix and match gems and weapons all day. The skills tree screen is like an industrial mandala – there’s something like 150 skills. Games like this the equivalent of adult colouring books or those tiny groceries promotions in the supermarkets: you have to collect everything and you’ll never be happy until you do.

Loot! Lovely lovely loot!

I don’t know if the game is for me, but it’s still impressive that this all coming out of a supermarket car park in bung old Henderson. I’m pretty keen to talk to the guys behind it all. Eventually Jonathan comes over and we move to the meeting room to talk.

José: With the new content, with everything that’s coming out, what are the key things that you think long term Path of Exile players will be looking forward to?

Jonathan: So the main thing with this expansion is just the huge amount of content, six new acts where we had four before. We’re extending the storyline, we’re extending a lot of different game mechanics. I think that when people boot the game for the first time after the expansion they’re going to be like “wow, this is a completely different game.” With a free-to-play game you’ve kind of got this whole thing where … put it this way: if it wasn’t a free to play game then people would look at this as a sequel. The amount of new content and new things and the way things feel and the level of polish make sit a total cut above what we had before.

What kind of things do you think the fans will be most pleased to hear has been changed or improved?

There was a thing called double dipping that all the players really hated and that’s a thing that’s taken a large amount of engineering to fix.

The basic idea of double dipping was that, let’s say you hit someone with fire damage and they take, say, 10 damage. You might also have a chance to set them on fire and then the burning damage of the fire was based on the amount of damage you did in the original hit. So basically if you had, say, plus 100 percent fire damage, then you got both the bonus damage to the damage you were doing initially and the bonus to the burning damage as well.

It was quite complicated because this was going on all over the show. There were tonnes of places where you’d get something and you’d get two things from it, effectively. It doesn’t sound like much because changing that mechanic is not the hard part. The hard part is re-balancing the rest of the game. It takes a huge amount of development time to fix that kind of thing. This is the kind of minutiae, I kind of slightly regret bringing it up …

No, no, I live for minutiae.

Also other kind of stuff that’s really important is performance. We only had DX 9 before, we’ve got a DX 11 client now which runs way faster. There’s just really simple stuff like, there’s some cutscenes in the game where we didn’t have any before. The flow is better, the tutorial is better at the beginning, the water looks really awesome now where before it looked kinda bad, there’s just a massive graphical upgrade; it’s both just the feel of the game client as well as all the nitty gritty behind the scenes things like the double dipping I was talking about.

Was double dipping the kind of thing your fan base were complaining about?

Yes, absolutely. So this is the kind of thing where anyone who is taking advantage of it is like “oh I hope they keep it in” and anyone who’s not taking advantage of it is like “oh I hope they take it out.”

But it had gotten to the point where even the people using it were “OK, this is abusive”. We had a video a week ago where someone was able to take out the second to hardest boss in one hit. And then at that point people were like “yeah, OK, this is out of control”. (laughs) 

So how do you work out which player grievances are valid and how do you work out which grievances are like the whole Star Wars: Galaxies thing?

(Galaxies was a massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG) that famously collapsed when the developers gave the players what they wanted by making it easy to become a Jedi (among other changes))

It is very difficult. One of the issues is the player will always say that they want the game to be easier when that isn’t really what they want.

I think the really important thing to remember is that at the root of every complaint is a real problem that someone has. You have to make sure you are not dismissing someone’s concerns, but at the same time you have to realise that people come to you not with problems, but with solutions. They don’t tell you that they’ve got a problem with this thing, they just say “I want you to do X”. What you have to do is look at the solution they’re giving you, reverse engineer the problem that they actually have and then work out how you would solve that problem. And that’s what we actually do. So I think that’s my approach and I try to instill that in other designers as well; that we try to make sure we are doing things that we think are good, while still trying to fix the core concerns the community have.

Jonathan Rogers shows the press the shop floor

Presumably you’re collecting data as well? Not in terms of personal details, but how people play the game?

I actually have some strong opinions about that stuff that I think go against the grain of the industry at the moment. I know a lot of companies are starting to get a lot more data driven but I think it’s very important that you don’t let the data drive you.

We collect data, obviously. But rather than saying “let’s look at the data and see what jumps out at us”, I prefer to say “I want you to have a question about the data and then to know what you would do given what the data says afterwards”.

The problem is when you start looking at data just by itself stuff will jump out at you that’s not really there. Let’s say you’re 95 percent sure of something, then if you look at 20 different things then one thing’s definitely going to be wrong. That’s what happens when you just look at data, the things that jump out at you are just the things that are the aberrations in the data, rather than the things you need to respond to. I’d much rather prefer to start with a question and then answer that question.

So we don’t actually have any data analysts in our company whose fulltime job is to just look at stuff. Instead what we do is that game designers will come to, like, a server guy with a question and they try to work out what needs to be looked at. I would say overall we’re not a particularly data driven company, we go with the gut more than a lot of free to play companies do.

So a lot of companies similar to Grinding Gear would be more data driven?

I would say that’s true, yes. Especially on mobile, the free to play games there are entirely about it. They’re doing a lot of A/B testing all the time, they’re eeking out if the button should be this colour or that colour or whatever, where as we say we want this to look good and we’ll make it look however we want.

I think that leads to a better experience overall rather than just A/B testing it to death and ending up with something that’s not even designed by committee. It’s like some new kind of thing which is even worse in my opinion, it’s kind of designed by this weird kind of wisdom of crowds thing which I don’t think is positive.

The studio’s got a number of years under its belt, what’s been the real learning curves for you guys?

We do things a lot differently to other companies and I think that’s because we started with no experience. I was straight out of university, I had no idea what I was doing and I think people still look at us a little bit differently.

I think we have very light management compared to other companies. That can make it feel a bit chaotic at times, especially when we interact with other companies like Microsoft. They’re all about schedules and things like that, they want to know when everything’s going to happen and we’ve very different from that, more chaotic. But I think it works well, I think the product is more creative for that.

Agile is the big buzzword.  

It is a big buzzword but I think that has got to the point where now where it is just a buzzword and people aren’t even doing it. I hear people say “we have to get this feature in by this day and this time” and that’s not exactly what it should be. The thing with what “agile” was supposed to be was that you work until the point where you need to ship and then you ship what is complete. You don’t necessarily have to get every little thing into that particular release.

So to that end we don’t have a lot of production staff. When I was on the studio tour earlier I was mentioning that typically our designers are responsible for pulling together their individual features. And I think that works because each person is invested in the thing they’re making and they have to, I’m not going to say fight for resources, but they do have to cooperate. It’s like “hey, if your animator is working on this guys boss then he can’t work on the other guys boss”. They have to negotiate with each other to work that stuff through.

You were talking about finding skilled talent before, has that been an issue?

It’s always a challenge, but on the other hand we’re not the kind of company … put it this way: we don’t really have openings, we have people that walk in the door who pass our test of being good. Those are the people that we hire.

So if we need five programmers, we don’t find the five best we can find out of the people we can find right now, instead programmers are continuously applying. What we’ve found is that as we’ve got more and more popular, more and more people apply, especially from overseas where we really didn’t have access before. So that has been very useful.

But it’s still challenging to find good people, as I’m sure any company faces. Although one nice thing about being the biggest game company in New Zealand is we’ve kind of got first pick of the graduates. So hiring new graduates is not very hard for us. It’s getting the experience from overseas that’s very tough. For example when we needed we needed to do the Xbox One project here – there isn’t anyone else in New Zealand that has Xbox One game experience or even just console experience –  so the collapse of Gameloft really helped with that because they’d done all the work of getting these people from overseas. So when they collapsed we were able to hire the best people from that studio. That came right around the time that we needed to expand more for the Xbox project.

We actually don’t have too much trouble [with immigration] because usually the people we’re hiring are quite skilled. So generally speaking we are able to meet the minimum requirements. The part where it’s hard is when the skills people have are not what the government would see as skills. An example of that is if there’s a guy that’s got five thousand hours of playtime in Path of Exiles, he would make an excellent QA tester. And as far as we’re concerned he’s more skilled than anyone in New Zealand at that task, but hours of playing a game is not something you can put on a form (laughs) So that’s kind of been an issue a few times.

And presumably that takes up a lot of time trying to explain to someone in the higher echelons of bureaucracy …

We’ve had to get immigration advisors in and talk about the best ways to try and do that and that can be a bit annoying sometimes. Whereas on the other hand getting a skilled 3D artist is actually fairly easy especially with the movie industry petitioning for that stuff to be on the skills shortage list.

The move to console, what does that mean for the company?

So there’s several aspects here. I think that even still people don’t take games seriously or game companies seriously if they don’t have a presence on console. So I definitely feel that there’s an aspect of that where the press will take us more seriously, players will take us more seriously and so on. Suddenly it appears larger.

Also our company has had to expand … and that’s been good. Obviously there’s always teething issues when you grow, but I definitely think it’s putting the company in a really good place.

The other thing we’re doing is expanding to China. We haven’t officially launched in China yet, it’s still in closed beta at the moment, but things are looking very good. The best way we can see that is by looking on community fansites. For example there was one of the larger Chinese game websites that had us at number two as the most “looking forward to” list which was rated by people voting in their forums. Minecraft was below us. We’re convinced it’s going to be a big success in China, so that will help our company a lot as well.

That must be really exciting.

The other thing is our partner in China is Tencent. It’s the largest game company in the world, they’re absolutely massive. And they say our game is very important to them, so we think they’re going to be pushing it very well.

You were talking earlier about microtransactions. That’s obviously where your revenue comes from where players are paying for cosmetic changes and items in the game rather gameplay advantages. I was talking to a friend who works for a mobile game company and they just make people pay out the arse for everything.

How do you balance the need to make coin with the need to make sure your players don’t feel they’re reamed by monetisation?

I would say we very much have a separation of church and state mentality. We try to make sure all of the gameplay guys don’t have to worry about that stuff.

Our monetisation per user is a bit lower than games that ratchet that stuff up. But we have a huge amount of goodwill from the community for that. We’re not in your face at all. Generally speaking people are supporting us because they want to support us.

We always put gameplay first, probably to our detriment. When the game is good people will give us money because they want to. So you can see that in terms of how we market our monetisation; we sell supporter packs which builds the mentality that you’re supporting the game to keep the company going. So certainly there’s opportunities to make more money there, but instead it means that people are always positive when they talk about our game. When people are talking about a lot of mobile games, even though they are playing them and are addicted to them, I feel like they’re not positive about them. That must be very disheartening if you’re going to work on a game like that. I like to see the players happy, so just from a psychological view it helps a lot with the development and the developers.

But we make it up in volume because this goodwill has given very good rankings and we get more players. That means even though they monetise individually less we are still doing very well from it.

What percentage of your user base is monetised?

It’s about 10 percent.

Is that high or low?

It’s about average, actually. It should tell you that the cosmetic strategy does work. The amount per user is a bit low I think than they really good, if what you mean by good is the highly monetising games, but I think we’re in the middle of the pack when it comes to how well we’re doing per user.

Are you constantly looking at that?   

I wouldn’t say so. As I said we’re more focused on the game itself.

My only concern here is that sometime people use us as an example of how cosmetic can work. ”You don’t have to be all evil” and that kind of thing. I don’t know if it’s just lightning in a bottle, this wouldn’t have been successful on average and we just happened to capture something. I like to think that you can be successful with this kind of stuff.

The other example people use is Valve. All their games are cosmetic only, but then they also have this giant Steam revenue. So people are like “oh they’ve got steam it’s OK” But I can tell you that those games selling cosmetics do ridiculous amounts of money.

So obviously Path of Exile is the company’s main concern. Can you see a point where you’re branching out and putting out other games, side projects etc?

I think that in order for us to do that we’d have to see a downturn in player numbers in an expansion. While we’re growing with every expansion we should absolutely put all of our energy into this. If we started to go down you’d have to say should we start making other games?

Honestly, we’re a little bit in uncharted territory in terms of the games industry. You’ve got these games like DOTA 2 and League of Legends that are still growing. We don’t really know yet as an industry whether that keeps going or is a parabolic arc? In the past boxed games were always a parabolic arc, you go up and then you go down. But we can’t say if our type of game … do we just keep doing this forever? I don’t know.

Well, growth can’t continue forever can it?

I suppose not, but what I mean is it going to get to the point where the game is too old, people get sick of it and no one will play anymore or is it just going to keep on going as a thing people do into the future? People don’t get tired of rugby, you know what I’m saying? Is it like that or is it more like traditional games and we just haven’t seen the end of the parabola yet? We can’t really tell.

Last question, favourite game of the last year or so?

Definitely Zelda. It’s real good. Super polished and a super streamlined experience. I really liked the fact they didn’t talk down to me like they did in previous Zelda titles. It felt like here’s a world, go explore, do stuff rather than “we’re going to give you a tutorial to the nth degree on every little thing”.


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