In 2006, a group of friends from the University of Auckland and dedicated Diablo 2 fans founded Grinding Gear Games in New Zealand to make a particular kind of game. It's called Path of Exile, it's an action role-playing game, and it's the only game the studio has ever made.
It's the only game they ever wanted to make.
Grinding Gear believed that there was a market for a hardcore, free-to-play action RPG, and the original plan was to develop it over two or three years. That didn't happen, and they lived for years on slowly depleting savings and investments from friends and family.
"So, we worked on Path of Exile the entire time," producer and lead designer Chris Wilson told Polygon in a recent interview. "It was basically the reason we created the studio, and it just took a long time to make it. And this is partly because we chose a game that was a bit larger than we could chew, so our intention of getting it out in two or three years was little of an underestimate."
In April 2012, as they were running out of money and considering asking investors for more money, they became inspired by the Kickstarter success of Double Fine Productions' Double Fine Adventure and InXile Entertainment's Wasteland 2. So Grinding Gear launched a homegrown crowdfunding campaign through the game's official website.
By the time it was done, Wilson said, it generated over $2.5 million USD.
As was the plan, that carried the game into an open beta that started this January. But this week, Grinding Gear will launch a second round of homemade crowdfunding for Path of Exile. Polygon spoke with Chris Wilson recently about the game, the studio and why Grinding Gear decided to launch a second crowdfunding campaign for an unfinished game.
'It was basically the reason we created the studio'
To raise millions, you've got to build interest in your product. Wilson acknowledges that Kickstarter is good for shining attention on a relatively unknown game. But by the time that Grinding Gear sought public funds, it had been working on Path of Exile for nearly six years. The developers had already built up a following through periodic visits to the U.S. and elsewhere, which allowed the developers to make their game known and clear their own crowdfunding path.
When Grinding Gear decided on homebrewed crowdfunding, it could do so in part because it had already been communicating with the hardcore crowd of players it hoped to attract.
Grinding Gear also set out to ensure that they weren't offering in-game advantages for large donors, which Wilson characterized as "respecting the users." So Grinding Gear created crowdfunding tiers that netted backers goods like physical items from the developers.
"The people are incentivized to buy a piece the game's history," he said, "and that's more than just the individual microtransaction they want to purchase on that kind of day.
"The thing that they're missing out on that they say in emails is that they want to feel like they contributed, and by spending $3 on a cosmetic effect in the game, they don't really feel like they're funding anything. Whereas receiving a package in the mail is something that they can put in their game collection ... they'll feel good about it a few years down the track."
'We solicited a lot of feedback from the community'
Grinding Gear retired its crowdfunding campaign to coincide with its Path of Exile open beta earlier this year and began earning income through microtransactions. The game continued to gain new players, and some of them surprised the developers with a complaint of sorts: They wanted the same opportunities to buy into the game that backers had. Thats's how the idea for a second crowdfunding campaign was born.
"We solicited a lot of feedback from the community, and we looked at what worked and what didn't work from the various aspects of the first packs," he said. "And one of the things that we feel we could improve — something that is entirely transparent to the user in some way — was how we handled making the packs on our end."
Over the last year, Grinding Gear has shipped thousands of supporter packs — enough to devote full-time employees to the task. This time around, the developer is in talks to partner with Jinx, an American company that specializes in video game clothing and accessories. It's more efficient, provides faster shipping and higher quality merchandise that doesn't have to be shipped halfway around the world.
All of this — the game, the crowdfunding, the supporter packs, the engagement with fans — is a way to connect directly with fans. It's not exactly easy for an independent studio based in New Zealand to do, but technology makes it possible.
That's how Grinding Gear hopes to continue making the only game it's ever made.
"At this stage, we can't improve the game fast enough," Wilson said. "We have attention on the game, there's a lot of players. If we can dump millions of dollars into making it amazing, that dramatically increases the chances that, in four years, it's still really big. Getting more content in sooner while people are still playing a lot is much better than having to do it the slow way.
"We'll happily sink any money that we can make into making this game bigger, faster at the moment."
For more on the game, check out the official Path of Exile website.