My initial runthrough of Path of Exile lasted for about a month. I beat the game on Normal difficulty, dipped my toes into the Cruel difficulty, got bored and left. A half-year later, I decided to revisit it on a whim. Soon afterwards, I had a half-dozen characters created, was participating in game events, and eagerly leveled a new character up to 30 when the new expansion was released yesterday. What had changed? Why was I spending so much more time playing Path of Exile on my second try?
Because they gave me a reason to keep starting over.
Resetting the Economy: The 4-Month Leagues
Path of Exile's standard & hardcore modes are several years old, filled with heavily-inflated prices, legacy items, and Level 90+ characters. It felt intimidating starting as a novice amidst all the veterans. I looked for an alternative; I found the leagues.
Each league is a new shard of the game with a few modifiers thrown in, like shrines that give bonuses or chests of loot that spawn monsters when opened. Each league starts out fresh; nobody can import equipment or characters into a league. It spices up the standard game, experiments with new items & mechanics, and starts everyone out fresh with a new economy. It gives the novices a chance to start on equal footing alongside the veterans who want a twist on the old game. Players are given several challenges to complete over the league's duration; once the league is over, their characters are deposited into the longterm standard & hardcore modes.
But I don't know if I'll touch my former league character in the standard mode again. I've already figured out a few mistakes in her build and created her twin in the new league. Each new league feels vibrant and active, compared to the comfortable, settled standard mode. It gives me a reason to renew my interest in the game every 4 months.
Speedrunning for Profit: The Races
I got into the Path of Exile races on a whim: I wanted to play for a bit and one of the one-hour races was going on the same time. I joined up, made a new character, and got a few points for reaching a certain level within the time limit. But while I played, notifications were popping across my chat about the milestones other players were hitting. The highest ones were three times my level at the end. I was astonished they could get that high; could I level that fast? And how would that improve my standard gameplay?
I joined a dozen more races over the course of a month and created a new character for each race. I steadily grew better, fixing and tightening builds, rebuilding the same character over and over for a few-hour rush. They were automatically deposited into the standard mode after the race, but I quickly stripped their gear off and deleted them; I was already figuring out how to make their next iteration better. As I raced, I earned points towards unique items I could use on my league characters. Improving my racing improved my other characters' gear.
I was going over the same hour-to-2-hour block of the game, trying to get through it ever faster, steadily pushing deeper & deeper into the game on the razor's edge of failure. I began looking at the game in a different light; no longer was it a leisurely trek of killing every monster I found & picking up as much loot as possible to sell, instead I started skipping some monsters & only picking up immediately-useful loot. Risky plays, like pulling large groups of monsters or entering an area underleveled, gave you XP faster, but if your character died you were out of the race. Death notifications announced when someone in the Top 10 rankings got a bit too reckless and bit the dust, removing a competitor from the race. I began to plot out skill advancements & memorize which quest rewards I wanted. A few weeks in, it hit me: I was learning to speedrun.
The developers had formalized speedrunning their game as a competition. As I thought about it, I realized how smart it was. Like Diablo, in Path of Exile you go through the same campaign 3 times while leveling up your character. Once you've played all the characters, you've exhausted everything the game has to offer, right? Most people would just leave after that, put the game away, until an expansion piques their interest. But speedrunners to play games years or even decades after their release, diving deeper and deeper into them in an effort to improve their times. What better way to encourage your community to keep playing your game than to encourage them to constantly speedrun it? Toss in racing modifiers like No Projectiles or Endless Ledge, keep the Random Loot Generator to vary the runs a bit, and you can keep people interested in your game with minimal new content.
It seems to be working. I finished Race Season 6 with 28 points, enough for 3 items I plan to use in the new league once they're unlocked in 2 weeks. Yet I was only ranked 6434th. That's a lot of active customers.
Why Respec When You Can Restart?
I used to wonder why Path of Exile didn't let you respec your characters, but after playing in the leagues and races, I think it's because they don't want you constantly playing your old characters. They want you starting from scratch over and over again, in new leagues, in new races, getting better and better at the content they've provided, tightening your gameplay until you can level up an optimized character from 1 to 30 in less than two hours. Like the Dead Rising series, the constant repetition and restarting makes for a unique, polarizing style that drives some players away, but encourages others to stay for years.
I used to be in favor of letting players respec their characters. But participating in the leagues and races, constantly starting from scratch just to advance better and faster than the last time, has given me a level of appreciation and enjoyment in the game I didn't get from Diablo 3 or Torchlight 2. Rather than constantly tweaking and playing my old character, I've enjoyed playing dozens of characters over a variety of modes. Variety is the spice of this game.
Most of my old characters are deleted now, their equipment stored for future characters to wear once they get sent to the standard mode. I'm leveling up a scion for the new league; she's my 3rd support scion so far. I think I've nailed down the optimal build & skills for her... and then a Burning Arrow skill gem drops.
"...Well, this is interesting. Let's try it out."
Now I'm considering making a few tweaks to my build for my newest useful skill. Every new character has the potential to surprise you...