On a Grim Dawn After a Titan’s Death, Part II

The Dawn of. . .grimness?

After Iron Lore and Titan Quest had been put to sleep, lead developer Authur Bruno wasn’t done. He still wanted to keep working on the Action Role-Playing genera.

Because Iron Lore had approached THQ with a working engine, THQ owned all the titan quest intellectual property, along with all the graphics and assets. It turns out however, that Iron Lore still owned the rights to the underling engine.

Obviously there are fans of this type of game. But at the time, late 2007, Torchlight, Path of Exile, and the rumored Diablo 3, all stood on the horizon. What’s a small time developer to do?


Over 12,000 people and half a million dollars later, there was a budget to finish the game. And the work stands as an ode to what Titan Quest wasn’t. Now, when you swung your weapon at enemies, they visibly reacted, flying into the air or gibing when killed, sprays of blood arcing across the screen. They might have gone a bit overboard after all the restrictions from THQ.

It also positioned itself in the market, catering to what the other Action RPG’s didn’t. There was no competitive multiplayer. No streamlined simple builds for causal players. No endlessly running maps. There was just this impossibly large, single player, traditional three-difficulty, action RPG, with 15 different class combinations (28 after the expansion), and hundreds of different builds and options.

Then, the game went into early access on Steam, late in 2013. And although Grim Dawn has been out of early access since February of 2016, early access defines the way this game was made.

Grim Dawn


What is it about Grim Dawn? How is it so different from everything that came before?

The essential truth about it is that Grim Dawn isn’t about money. It’s a small team with expertise, doing a small do it yourself project, that is a thing they want to see in the world. If they wanted money, they wouldn’t be pouring their skills into this project. They would be selling their substantial technical skills to the highest bidder. 

Since early access and after release, every few weeks, there is an update. The updates constantly pour new free content in the game. They contain quality of life increases. They adjust things for better balance. In large part, they do this, because the employees at Crate love their game and are playing it. These are additions they make because they want to see them. This constant nearly decade long stream of constant development isn’t a thing that will last forever, but it is an amazing thing to be part of this process for as long as it lasts.

Secrets


Grim Dawn is a game for old people. Not a catchy sales pitch, I know, but it is a game designed in the old style, by people who miss the way games used to be. This doesn’t just mean that the game systems are complex, or that the game doesn’t hold your hand, or that the game has 80’s references. It’s more than that. Grim Dawn is an old game, built on a solid foundation and worked and worked into a masterpiece of what was. No global multiplayer. Local multiplayer. Personal servers. And secrets.

Lots and lots of secrets.

Speed runs of the Veteran Difficulty take somewhere around 40 minutes. A non-glitched run can be done in under a few hours. A significant and substantial part of the game involves hidden content. There’s a whole zone with a shrine and a golden chest behind a secret wall in an underground hive. There are dozens of zones with no integration to the main quest, but that provide useful and unique rewards. There are at least three completely hidden secret quest lines, two of which can only be completed on the ultimate difficulty. Finally, depending on which factions you choose, certain areas only become available after you’ve reached maximum reputation with the faction.

One update included the “Path of the Witch Gods”, 4 bosses, a secret mega-boss hidden within a secret area, a new dungeon, and a bonus skill point, and four areas completely hidden within the main game, with hardly any information on how to even begin the quest.


Complexity


Arthur has an extended post on the Grim Dawn forums where he talks about his design philosophy.

In his own words: “I think we’re probably unique . . . While most studios are redesigning their games to be more casual-player friendly, we’re busy making Grim Dawn more complex and probably casual-player hostile.

An example of this are the number of overlaying systems within Grim Dawn. On top of picking some combination of two classes and gear, there’s a separate overlaying devotion system. As you restore shrines around the world, you get a pool of up to 55 points that allow you to select benefits from constellations. Running a critical build? Work up to Unknown Solider and have a shadow double run around and attack things critically. Do you like being defensive? If you use a shield, get the obelisk and turn into living stone when you get hit. Any of these are available no matter what your base classes are, giving you entirely new options for character development.

He continues, “I think older, traditional PC games had a certain magic that has been lost in most modern games. . . Publishers and developers are increasingly looking to boost their sales by attracting more of the casual market and increase their revenue by getting this larger audience to make a lot of small purchases. . . We’ve come a long way from my childhood, where failure in most games caused you to start completely over from the beginning, to a point where it is impossible to fail in many games and in some you can just pull out your credit card when you decide it is time to win.

The sad reality though, is that this isn’t some evil corporate executives have perpetrated upon humanity, it’s what people want. At least, some people. Well, as it stands, it appears to be quite a lot of people and that is why the industry and gaming is largely trending in this direction. This is all anathema to what I love about games and is much of the reason that I’ve forgone earning an income the past couple years and instead slave away, with a few other dedicated souls, to create a game that we hope will embody some of what we loved about the games of yesteryear.

Which is why I say, Grim Dawn is a game for old people. No seasons to keep up with. Pause and quit anytime. You are able to play and make progress in short bursts. You can play with people you know or your family, without worrying about lag or online competition. It’s huge and complicated and there’s always something new or interesting to find or do. You buy the game once and never pay again. If you want more, there are expansion packs to buy with more content. All things done in the old style.

Gameplay

When other games in the genera are long dead, Grim Dawn will remain. It is a monument. Not because of the updates. But because of the systems, gameplay design and refinement.

All the systems in the game are designed with the end-user experience in mind. For example, the reputation system. Each faction, both friendly and hostile, tracks your relationship. Rather then this being a grindy annoyance, it’s well designed. Friendly factions, once you reach your maximum reputation, offer a scroll that gives a 100% to faction relationships to any character that reads it. So while your first time you have to put in the work to reach revered with a faction, subsequent characters can do the same though just regularly playing the game.

This also provided them with the opportunity to create rewards for your actions in game. the more you slaughter a faction, the more the faction hates you. The more they hate you, the more heroes they spawn. The more heroes that spawn, the better loot you get.

The level system is another example. The recently released Ashes of Malmouth expansion raised the level cap to 100. Doesn’t that sound grindy? Only, once you get a good relationship with the Malmouth factions, you get access to a potion that grants 100% bonus experience. Now you can level up even faster, if you want to.

That’s another thing that’s nice about Grim Dawn. There is no endgame. There’s no rushing through the leveling process, because although you can farm, after you finish the game on ultimate, the game is basically done for that character. It’s time to try a new build and take on the challenges again. The endgame is the game.

That’s really the core of the game play design. The way the game is structured, is it’s always most rewarding to actually play the fun part of the game, rather then farm or grind. Moving forward means new shrines, new one-time chests, new quest rewards. You’re never encouraged to just farm and farm and farm. All systems are most efficiently maximized by simply exploring and playing the game. 

2 comments:

  1. Well, you should NEVER be encouraged to Farm and farm and farm. It was the thing that turned me against MMOs super crazy quickly, and I just never got the point of any system that did that.

    Alright, I get that grinding can be a legitimate way to traverse through a difficult area (unless the enemies level up with the player character or lower level mobs start giving 0 xp, in which case so much for self-balancing RPGs!), but whenever I played an RPG where I couldn't gain the levels I needed to have a chance against the level boss just from exploring the dungeon and fighting the enemies I randomly encountered on my way to the boss, so that I HAD to go back and spend an hour or two gaining levels so that I finally can beat the boss if I understand its fighting style (or even worse, that the Boss HAS no tricks up its sleeve, its just a walking braindead brick wall that offers NO CHALLENGE and is NOTHING without its stat superiority), I called that a poorly balanced RPG. I'm looking at you, Evolution 2. But, in an MMO, they want you to spend half a day to gain one level! And then they don't really give you a story until you reach max level? EVERYTHING is behind a grinding wall in these games! Want to rent transportation? Equip this cool piece of armor you found? Learn a crafting skill? Buy a mount? Buy a flying mount? Play the fun part of the game? HAVE AN ACTUAL DESTINY AND POINT TO YOUR CHARACTER'S LIFE(...and only then for about what should be thirty minutes worth of content, but we'll water it down and stretch it out over several weeks of reorganized guild raids for you...)? Grind over the Level Wall!

    The real reason that the MMO model has taken off is because of Free-to-pay. The consumer gets suckered in by the game being free and easy to try, and the company...well, the company USED to get monthly fees to motivate the skinner box sheenagens, but now the company just gets Microtransactions. And now that the Execs have seen how much more money the lonely and stupid are willing to set on FIRE, they don't even want to hear about single player games anymore, let alone good ones that take time and effort to make, when they can just charge people for goddamn virtual hats.

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  2. Now, there ARE legitimate, slow-paced, long-term games that are mostly about watching your numbers slowly increase. They are called Turn-based strategy games. You are not grinding, you are simulating an empire being built and actively threatened by hostile neighbors and other disasters. The story still has a pulse.

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