Path of Exile: Finding the Perfect Spot on a Variable Difficulty Curve

I struggle to put into words why Path of Exile is so compelling to me.

From one perspective, it seems like everything I’d hate. A vertical progression system where your gear increases in numbers the higher in level you go, with an established and abrasive/dismissive hardcore community on the forums playing what appears to be a completely different endgame at a super rarefied level.

On the other hand, there’s something to be said for not being “forced” into playing that way or grouping up with others in order to have a good time or get your money’s worth for that month.

Path of Exile is perfectly playable at a more casual level, at one’s own pace, and there’s no feeling like a second class citizen if you don’t have to interact with those playing at different levels.

It rather reminds me of the original Guild Wars in that sense. I played GW1 happily solo, trundling along with my heroes taking the super scenic route, improving my skills at my own pace, not at all concerned that there was a group of players busy speedrunning extra-hardmode instances and earning high level currency way above my head, because I didn’t need to trade with, see or interact with them in order to continue my own progression.

I’m hooked and I can’t put it down.

Part of it is the depth of systems to learn, with the potential for a gazillion alts that are built and played differently, with so many skills to try  out and put through their paces.

Part of it is that it’s fun even when played at a low level, with the foreseeable future potential of high-level play to look forward to.

Part of it is that there’s a variety of different difficulties and game modes that even novices can dip a toe into and have partial success and rewards, while leaving the experts to mop up at the top.

Part of it is that it’s free or low cost for those who just want to dabble with it or play at a nonserious level, while asking for (but not forcing)  more monetary investment from those players who are more heavily invested into the game – which is one of the more philosophically ethical ways of making money, in my book.

Path of Exile has all the hallmarks of a good roguelike, keeping in line with its Diablo-graphical roguelike roots.

Every time I play it, I learn a little more about how the game works, and I get better at what I’m doing, even if the overall structure of the maps remain the same.

Each character is a learning experience that builds upon the previous one, and one can make a lot of them if one wishes. (I think it’s 25 before the game starts asking you to buy character slots.)

So how am I having fun, despite playing in ways that are anathema to an endgame PoE player?

First off, I’m playing solo and self-found by choice. (I just learned about the term “self-found” the other day. Apparently there’s a whole evolution in Diablo ARPG parlance I missed after not touching the genre since Diablo 2.)

I detest trading via chatting up players, and from reading reports, it hasn’t sounded like an auction house has helped Diablo 3 very much either, beyond making it super easy to twink out a character, effectively making in-game at-level loot drops worthless and unrewarding.

There’s an account stash though, and I’m not yet limiting myself to not-sharing-between-alts, since RNG is RNG, and I’ve already accepted it will take me much longer to impossible to get the best drops if I’m not crowdsourcing off the entire PoE playerbase to farm them for me.

I have no issues with time-consuming if the game isn’t charging me by the hour or month, and if it’s still perfectly fine to play and enjoy the game without said best drops.

The advantage of not immediately twinking is that the early game isn’t immediately invalidated into easy mode, and mid-level drops are still exciting for me. I see no need to rush myself towards boredom that quickly.

I’m also an altholic, which is a good defence against boredom and lack of variety. Any interesting drop becomes an “Oooh, that sounds like a good character to make so he/she c an wear that.”

I have, in fact, decided to play all six classes in relative sync with each other for now, so that each character can use good drops occurring within that level range.

You see, my first character was a Shadow and I played it as you’d expect, building what sounded good at the time and taking him as high up as I thought I could progress.

This turned into a dual dagger user focusing on dps, who started to feel significant mob attention pressure and then turned into a hybrid summoner to combat this with a minion blockade.

Which worked right up to the point where the damage from certain bosses and rare mobs started to decimate minions in a few seconds and one-shot gib me if I went too close.

Further reading revealed that I should maybe have not made the common newbie mistake on focusing on damage over any survability (though I did have minions, which is at least something).

Furthermore, my gear was distinctly underleveled by 20 levels, since I’d been hanging on to them for the nice mods off the low level rares I’d popped. Solution: Figure out how to get current level gear, which led to some interesting learning experiences experimenting with commonly used farming areas and crafting via vendor recipes.

My gem slotting also left something to be desired, since a) I had barely any currency to get good linked slots and b) no support gems to buff up my skills with, since I don’t trade, and a first character hasn’t had much time to build up a gem stash.


The difficulty curve of Path of Exile takes a bit of getting used to, but it’s an interesting design – even if by accident.


It looks a bit like this.

The game starts out easy to normal in Acts 1 and 2, and may have even been criticized for being a bit of a slow start.

In Act 3, the level of challenge suddenly jumps up a rather surprisingly astronomical amount, when more mobs start using crazy elemental damage and spells you might not be prepared for, and doing a lot more funky things like kiting you or having a bunch of tricks and mechanics up their sleeve.

If you get past it, by whatever means necessary – eg. getting better at the game, getting a group to get you through it, checkpoint rezzing and brute forcing through it, the next difficulty level ramps down a little by sheer virtue of being back in Act 1… until you hit Act 3 again.

Each time, the overall difficulty ramps up ever so subtly, as in Cruel, 5% of your experience is removed on death, and one apparently gets -20% to all elemental/chaos resistances (something I just noticed in the past day or so) and in Merciless, 10% of your experience is removed on death, and one apparently will get -60% to all resistances then (OH GOD.)

Levels apparently follow this exponential curve, as it appears to be commonly accepted that level 100 is a grind of the highest insanity to attempt to achieve, and that 80 or 90 is a more practically achievable goal.

Which is an interesting bit of trickery reminiscent of the Guild Wars Hall of Monuments.

For those who are compelled to reach the very end, they will do so and spend a lot of gameplay time in the process, hopefully enjoying themselves along the way (or at least relishing their end goal when they get there.)

Whereas it is absolutely possible to stop at an optimal point under maximum level/difficulty and consider oneself effectively ‘done’ without losing too much in the process, and also fine (if not commonly advertised by the hardcore, whose mindset is predicated on everyone buying into the endless ladder climb) to stop at any level under that by choice, and suffice oneself with whatever has been obtained.

I honestly didn’t think I had reached the commonly described ‘wall’ at level 51 with my first character, as I still felt it was possible to get further with a bit more effort, but there was certainly a distinct bogged and slowed down feeling.

So by choice, I decided to shelf him for the moment and start trying out other characters.

It also so happened that I was poking around the Path of Exile website and found an interesting page on Events – Seasonal Races.

What is this? A game that actually has events scheduled at all hours of the day, catering for all timezones?!

Reading up on them revealed something even more interesting.

As a non-competitive individual fully cognizant of the fact that one will never compete at the same level as the experts willing to devote their lives to mastering one tiny aspect of one game, it was still worth it to participate in Path of Exile races because there were points awarded for goals that sounded reachable on a personal scale.

Go ahead and click on any of the 1 hour races. (I’ll add a random link here to an Endless Ledge event, but it’s probably time-sensitive.)

Yes, it’s a race. You get more points for being the top experience gainer of any class, up to the top 20 in decreasing points order.

But what is this? Every class is in its own league, so to speak, and a single player can only play one class at a time. So you could very well stand a better chance if you pick a less popular class and master it well. And balance between classes is a little less important if each is competing with only members of its kind.

Ok, what if you’re like me and doubt you’d even see top 500 for any class, let alone top 20?

You go for the participation points! Points are awarded if you can attain certain levels within the time limit.

Bingo! A goal that is only contingent on your own skills (or lack thereof.)

And of course, you set your sights on something really modest. Like the minimum level for a single point, and see how much further you can take it up from that as you get more experience with races.

It’s sometimes a bit easier said than done, as you’ll find out. Some races require you to be alive at the end of the race, which can be quite a personal challenge to balance with trying to go as fast as you can.

I’m personally failing to reach the minimum level for points 2 out of 3 times with the 12 minute solo burst races because those are so tight on time and micro and knowing what the hell you’re doing and how quickly you can make good judgements/guesses and not waste a second. But they’re quick enough to enjoy repeated iterated tries with.

How about rewards and prizes?

Well, there’s a random lucky draw for participation, with the more points you get adding up to more chances. So you get that luck and RNG factor to make some fortunate people happy.

And there’s also personal point total prizes, which are again reminiscent of the Guild Wars Hall of Monuments. You can get a few easy prizes almost right away, with minimum effort and participation so even the most casual has something to play with. There’s a more modest average goal to set one’s sights on, if you’re an average sort of player. With super crazy exponential hardcore prizes at the very top if you have no life but the ones being spent in Wraeclast.

Such a system also encourages participation and attendance for as many events as possible, so that you can build up to a higher total points score.

Which is probably a desirable thing in terms of both game longevity and always having players to compete with/against.

Learning to race at an ultra-beginner level also taught me a couple things:

  • about the value of AoE and ignoring individual or small groups of mobs in favor of gunning down the big packs
  • about how to manipulate xp gain by going to a level range that is appropriate or higher level than yours (as opposed to the common situation in the regular game of being overleveled for that area)
  • about how not to obsess over fully clearing an area or attacking every mob you see and move to another zone if that’s your goal (something I also have personal problems doing in traditional roguelikes – if I see it, I want to kill it, which can and often does lead to Yet Another Stupid Death)
  • about the basic strengths and weaknesses of the various classes I tried and their starting skills and weaponry, including what turned out surprisingly well when ad-libbed in the middle of a race just because a particular skill gem or item dropped

See a big nasty immobile totem, producing lots of lightning shocks?

Close in on it to melee and get gibbed, or in a world of hurt and have to run away?

Well, there’s this bow nearby. And hey, I have a second weapon swap set. What if I just used it and sniped from range?

GOSH DARN, IT DOESN’T MOVE, my hp is barely dropping, AND IT’S DEAD.

No shit, Sherlock. Can you now recognize that boss and use the optimal strategy for it, instead of insisting on meleeing -everything-?


Yesterday, I went back to my level 52 Shadow. (He snuck up a level by very persistently grinding his way through certain areas and getting to a safer area to farm in, getting set back every so often by 5-10% via a couple of deaths, and making up for the xp lost by grinding yet again.)

I got by the next two or three areas with a minimum of fighting by hugging the walls of the map and going slowly, engaging only in fights when I aggroed something, and getting to the next exit as quickly as possible.

Why I never thought of this earlier, I don’t know.

I discovered by sheer random chance that running around in a big circle to kite some exploding mobs while getting in the occasional poison stab on the exploding mob generating mob (which also shoots projectiles in a frontal cone) is a far more effective strategy than trying to use a movement skill to get behind the mob and melee it (which leaves one open to getting gibbed by the frontal cone projectiles and exploding mobs racing towards you), than trying to range it from afar (because my range skills are sucky at this point in my build), than trying to overwhelm it with minions (sorta kinda works but is hell on my mana, which I’m built to replenish via killing things), than charging in gung-ho (because I’m not built as a tank, duh.)

Why I never thought of this earlier, I don’t know either. But a map that I never looked forward to traversing suddenly just became more palatable.

I devised another strategy of fighting mobs I didn’t dare to stand and fight by spamming minions around a corner and a doorway, which again made some encounters doable where I might have once rushed in and instantly exploded in a shower of blood.

I figured out it was ok to swallow my pride and avoid certain rare mobs with really horrific modifiers (life regen, life leech AND extra damage and attack speed) after they’ve already destroyed you once, since they were standing around in a side room, rather than insisting that I eventually kill them after 4-5 more deaths (and experience penalty) if I had another goal, such as getting to another zone or keeping what xp I had for the next level.

That it was ok to play the game smart and strategically like a roguelike, rather than just rushing forwards and holding down left mouse button to get showers of loot.

That it was also possible to control one’s difficulty level and go to an area that you outlevel, AND rush forwards, holding down left mouse button to get some drops of loot (if at a lower level range, and only useful for alts or vendoring, but I always need currency anyway and there’s the possibility of finding a good linked white item for my 101 alts, while having mindless ez-killing fun.)

And you know, I’m happy.

I’m happy that I’m always learning a little bit more about the game, getting a teensy bit more clever each time, that I’m making slow and steady progress while having fun.

If I don’t have fun playing this way, I also have the choice of taking a shortcut through it all, by following an already made build, by trading with people for specific items to deck out the build further, by partying up with other players to grind at increased xp and loot rates, by rushing ahead to endgame as fast and effortlessly as one can possibly make it via good strategy and preparation and through any and all means available to me.

And I’m sure people who choose to play this way are happy too, in their own way. (At least, I hope they are. It would be sad if they are miserable at the end of it.)

It’s nice to play a game that supports a range of varied playstyles and preferred difficulty levels.

7 thoughts on “Path of Exile: Finding the Perfect Spot on a Variable Difficulty Curve

  1. You’ve inspired me to jump back into PoE. I was in Alpha and Beta but didn’t get too far along due to wipes. I played a little after release, my highest character is only in the 20s. What region are you playing in?


    1. I signed up for an NA account and bounce between the Australia and Singapore gateway. Apparently one can access a GGG server in Singapore by manually typing it into the Gateway options. It’s a toss-up to which is better for me.

      I run at an unbelievable reported 15 latency on the Singapore server, until it decides to de-sync with great frequency and bounce to 150-330ms and up to 480+ when it gets really bad, causing massive hair-pulling irritation… or I run at 140-180ms on the Australian server, which behaves on average, much longer, but also spikes to 300-400ms+ when de-syncing decides to happen.

      Luckily I only play softcore most of the time, so it’s not a ragequit moment when desync deaths happen. Hardcore-wise, I’ve been creeping through the level 20s with the absolute tankiest Marauder I can put together. He’s got 60% armor reduction, and 50% elemental resistances, and has so far managed to hold up through several heartstopping desyncs. I’m sure it’s a matter of time though. I was just trying to compare the rate of loot drops in either league.


      1. Ok, I’m on NA, not sure on gateway. Obviously being in NA I don’t think it’s one of those 😀

        I found that I preferred the ranged classes to begin with, but I can see where the Shadow would be fun. Was thinking of trying the Templar for the tanky melee. I have yet to go back and run some stuff on my Witch, might go back to playing that. Sigh. Too many games too little time.


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