Development Diary: Tales of our TestersEdit

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Earlier this year, we set up an online Path of Exile testing realm and invited some close friends to help test our game. We expected people to log in for a couple of hours a week at most - after all, the game is unfinished and they’re mostly playing out of obligation. No one expected that some testers would become hopelessly addicted and would play a pre-alpha game for 40+ hours per week. This development diary entry is about the testing realm and its testers.

The initial testersEdit

Our motivation for setting up the testing realm was so that we could get some practice running a real realm and providing support for it (next year we’re going to have to handle tens of thousands of concurrent players). We also figured that we could probably con people in to testing for free, in return for the exclusivity of being the world’s only pre-alpha testers for Path of Exile. Not that they’re allowed to talk about the game to anyone, of course.

Our first 15 or so testers weren’t heavy RPG players. At this stage, the playable online version of the game had about 90 minutes of content, so they’d generally just play a new character through those levels each time we made any changes. We were happy that people enjoyed the game, but kept having to feed new testers to it, to get feedback from people with different gaming backgrounds.

A growing addictionEdit

One night, I gave access to a friend and helped him set up the game before I went to sleep. In the morning, he was still awake. He had played all night and was very eager to show us the items he had found. Our game had its first grinder! I joined the realm on my level 17 character to check out his items and show him mine. He was level 19 and had better items in almost all slots. I never expected to be called a noob in my own game.

Soon, more RPG players joined the test and started to play worryingly large amounts of Path of Exile. We had put a lot of effort into replayability (randomly generated areas and items), but I began to question the sanity of people who could do runs of the same few levels for hours on end, hunting some elusive rare items that we had only hinted at in patch notes. We soon realised that they were competing with each other. We quickly added a ladder ranking web page, so that all the testers could see who had the most experience.

Intense competitionEdit

Once the ladder was in, it was a different game entirely. Some testers began to time their sleep schedules around each other so that they could get as much experience in as possible while the other person wasn’t looking. People’s collections of items began to border on obsessive. This was the game we were desperately trying to make and people were playing it in a much more hardcore way than we had imagined. Other casual testers asked if there were areas they didn’t have access to, because they didn’t understand how people were level 23 if they could only access the areas we had enabled so far.

Nerfing anything that movesEdit

Having testers like these guys makes it really easy to work out what needs fixing or rebalancing. I observed one of them casting a storm of 40 fireballs in one click with heavy abuse of our skill augmentation system. Another tester was able to chain about 10 ice novas together in under a second. As we fixed each issue, they quickly converged on the next most broken skill combination to abuse. Our in-house quality assurance guys do a great job, but there’s nothing like a player who wants to retain their ladder spot to help you find the most abusive strategies.

When we rebalance items on this test realm, we generally leave the old ones in place (as a practice for release, where we can’t go deleting people’s items when the balance is tweaked). Because of this, there are all sorts of strange legacy items floating around on the test realm, which are almost priceless in value. I saw an amulet that increases the overall damage reduction of a character by 30%. The correctly balanced value for this amulet should be around 6-8%.

Wraeclast's first tradersEdit

Watching what trades occur for items is also fascinating. It’s very much driven by what is currently imbalanced or boasted about by other players. For a while, the most powerful bow base type could only drop from bosses in the highest area. Once it was discovered that this bow could drop, some testers began to do specific runs looking for that bow. Even white-text non-augmented versions of the bow were worth a huge amount in trade, despite them being like any other base item in the game. Specific hot skill gems like “Multiple Projectiles” or “Multiple Attacks” commanded huge trade values until all the hardcore players eventually had their set.

Due to an oversight, we had some skill gems dropping that don’t yet have their skills enabled. Some of the players have found several instances of these gems and leveled them up substantially so that they’re worth a lot when those skills are enabled and very desirable in a week or two.

The calm before the stormEdit

The feedback we get from our testers is really useful and helps us shape Path of Exile with frequent updates. It’s quite an amazing experience running a little world that only a handful of people inhabit, trying to get it balanced and fun before the floodgates are opened and thousands of players join in.