All the buzz on Steam right now is how Battlegrounds, a non-free-to-play game about shooting 100 dudes and dudettes on an island, has finally overtaken Dota 2 and CS:GO to become the most popular game on the service.
But it's not the only game surging in popularity. Ever since the release of the mammoth Fall of Oriath expansion, the New Zealand-born dungeon brawler Path of Exile has exploded, with its largest player base ever and one of the top 10 games on Steam.
If it feels like Path of Exile has been around forever, there's a good reason why. The official release date on Steam says October 24, 2013, but the genesis of the game started back in 2006.
Back then, the dev team was just a small group of friends playing a ton of Diablo 2 and Everquest. And ahead of the open beta launch five years ago, the then-producer Chris Wilson told Jason that along with those friends, he poured his life savings into making Path of Exile a reality.
In a year filled with addictive hack-n-slash games with names like Diablo, Borderlands, and Torchlight, it might seem insane for another contender to jump into the fray. But the people behind Path of Exile don't mind a little insanity.
Path of Exile was also one of the first major crowdfunding successes. After going through their own money, and leveraging the support of "rich" backers, the Kiwi developers ran a crowdfunding campaign through their own website.
The idea was twofold. Back then, running a Kickstarter as a studio outside of the United States was difficult. The crowdfunding platform was still in the process of expanding, and anyone using the service outside of the US had to either incorporate there, or use a proxy US company.
And then there's the question of fees. Grinding Gear Games told Idealog back in 2013 that running the campaign themselves saved the company around $US70,000.
Coupled with the generous free-to-play model, sometimes dubbed "ethical microtransactions", it's no wonder that Path of Exile was a success when it launched. The first month it hit Steam publicly, PoE had average concurrents of almost 20,000 players with a peak of just over 34,000 players, a massive result for any PC game made in Australia or New Zealand.
Even when the numbers started to peter off, the ARPG still maintained a healthy, resilient base of several thousand average concurrent players. And that was fine.
Then PoE 3.0 came out.
A look at the surge in PoE players. Image: Steam Charts
[Fall of Oriath] was almost fully focused on revamping the levelling and new player experience," Daniel "ZiggyD" Coutts-Smith explained. ZiggyD is one of the more prominent YouTubers and streamers in the Path of Exile community, as well as being a prominent influencer in the Australian community more generally.
"Instead of the one single new act we were expecting, Grinding Gear Games blew us away with the announcement of six new acts and a massive new story arc," he explained.
To date, Fall of Oriath marks the sixth expansion released for PoE. The patch notes alone totalled more than 14,000 words, making it perhaps the largest update released for a game in recent years.
One of the major changes went against the grain. Along with the new story chapters, Grinding Gear removed two difficulty levels. A full campaign playthrough previously consisted of the four acts, replayed three times on each of the difficulty levels. After Fall of Oriath, players only need to go through each of the acts once.
"ARPGs need a lot of content for people to bash monsters and collect loot in," ZiggyD said. "PoE is the first of its kind to provide it without needing to resort to the "New Game+" model. And it's free."
Mathew Lighty, who runs the Lighty Gaming YouTube channel, believes PoE's surge can be attributed to the rise of streaming, and a stronger marketing push from the developers.
"Once larger 'variety streamers' started to play it, the hype snowballed," Lighty explained. "GGG has done well partially due to there consistent interaction with the player-base via Reddit, Twitter etc. and the consistent influx of new mechanics, items and aspects of game-play," he added.
In a way, PoE exemplifies the idea of games as a service. Every quarter, the developers retire two "challenge leagues" and replace them with two more. The leagues offer players with a fresh economy, as well as giving Grinding Gear a platform to either introduce new items, or disable older ones to refresh the meta.
Challenge leagues have their own modifiers and objectives as well. The most recent league, dubbed Harbinger, comes with its own language.
According to a blog post from the developers, it took someone called "IPostStupidThings" on Reddit to first posit that the glyphs might have been a cipher.
"The language isn't a puzzle that Exiles need to solve to gain advantage in the game, but is a glimpse into another culture's life and history," the Kiwi developers wrote, before suggesting "hopefully together the secrets and objectives of the Harbingers can finally be deciphered, before it's too late".
That has prompted suggestions that the Harbingers leagues could have branching paths: one if the community deciphers the message in time, another if they don't, and both with wholly different in-game effects.
There's no confirmation of that, of course. But it's another aspect of PoE adding content in the form of rabbit holes that players continue to dive deeper and deeper into - which is part of the reason why its had such a resilient playerbase.
Another reason behind its success, as Lighty told me, was the high level mechanics. "The very items you can use to make your gear are the same items used to purchase upgrades, or pay other players for services or to kill bosses out of your comfort zone," he said. It's a system that means newer players can pick up incredibly lucrative items, with a good dose of luck. That's important for a game that revolves around loot, as all good ARPGs do.
And then there's the skill tree.
Count 'em and weep. Here's your options. Image: PoE Planner
From day one, opening up PoE's skill tree has been one of the most daunting prospects in modern games. It's ... it's huge. There's no other way around it. So there's no surprise there's a wealth of third-party online or offline tools to help people manage their builds.
When a game is fresh and new, overwhelming players can have a detrimental effect. But almost several years after its initial release, that amount of variety becomes a massive benefit for anyone who sticks around.
"Even for players like myself who have over 10,000 hours in the game there is still so much to see, with more being added faster than you can see it," ZiggyD said. Lighty concurred, saying the variety of builds and different styles available keeps him busy.
Path of Exile debuted on consoles this week as well
It's an impressive journey for any game, particularly given where PoE started. It was a small, hardcore-focused ARPG made in New Zealand that launched its beta in a year that had Diablo 3, the excellent Torchlight 2 and Borderlands 2, a game no stranger to attracting players with loot.
And yet, Path of Exile has maintained one of the most resilient player bases of any game over the last few years. It's since launched on the Xbox One - but not the PS4 - with all the same content and mechanics, albeit with a few concessions to controllers.
For something that spawned out of a bunch of late night Everquest and Diablo 2 LANs, and from New Zealand no less, that's not a bad result.
Update: Amended reference to the Harbinger's challenge leagues - there's four in total, or four versions of the one challenge league, to be precise - and removed an incorrect currency conversion. Thanks to those who pointed it out.