There's a new developer diary up on the official Path of Exile website, which outlines some of the sweeping changes the team at Grinding Gear Games will be making in the game's v0.9.3 patch. Among the tweaks are changes to attribute importance, passive skill layout, monster difficulty, critical hit design, socket combinations, and PvP balance:
Path of Exile's core attributes are Strength, Dexterity and Intelligence. Previously, these could only be obtained from the passive skill tree and provided no in-game benefit other than allowing you to meet the requirements of items.
In 0.9.3, attributes contribute to various aspects of your character's survivability and damage output. Strength grants you bonuses to physical damage and your life total. Dexterity grants you bonuses to evasion and accuracy. Intelligence grants you bonuses to energy shield and mana. These attributes can also now be found on items, in the form of mods like +10 Dexterity. These item mods can be used to chain-equip items that you do not currently meet the requirements for. There will be restrictions to prevent abuse of this functionality.
The results of this change are:
'¢ Characters have an incentive to invest more points in their class's portion of the passive tree once they have met the requirements of their items.
'¢ Players splashing in other areas of the tree receive additional related bonuses that they may require.
'¢ We now have more item mods, especially ones that directly impact character progression.
'¢ It's easier to meet requirements of certain items if you want to push your character in a certain direction by stacking the appropriate attribute mods.
'¢ If you find an item that requires 10 Strength more than you currently have, you can use another item from your stash (or buy one from the vendors) to gain the Strength required to equip it rather than being forced to wait two levels.
Relative monster difficulty is a very difficult thing to get right, and is absolutely crucial to the how fun the game is. Before 0.9.3, our tools for making higher difficulties hard were monster life and monster damage. Unfortunately, high-life monsters feel very grindy to play against, and high-damage monsters instantly kill you in some situations (which exacerbates the problem with evasion as a damage mitigation strategy).
In 0.9.3, we took a step back and tried a different balance philosophy:
'¢ Normal monsters are relatively easy to kill on any difficulty if you're at the right place on the player power curve. Single target skills should kill them in a few hits, and area of effect spells should be weaker but should feel pleasingly powerful. If the player is behind the curve, this takes a bit longer and if they're ahead of the curve they feel more powerful and kill the monsters quickly. The goal is that fighting normal monsters (when they are away from a boss) is generally a rewarding experience that helps the player feel powerful.
'¢ Groups of magic monsters are substantially more difficult and must be approached with caution. In 0.9.3, magic monsters can have at most one mod, and these mods are larger than they were previously (making them relatively impactful).
'¢ Rare monsters (which are now capped at 3 mods and do not always spawn with a pack of obligatory magic monsters) are extremely dangerous and are meant to be on par with a PvP fight in terms of difficulty. Certain combinations of rare monster mods are designed to be devastatingly synergistic and may require the player to decide not to engage the monster.
'¢ Monster auras have been introduced, which can spawn on rare monsters only. Other nearby monsters are granted a relatively powerful property which augments their damage, defense or adds a special property (such as reflecting elemental damage back to you, or giving them substantial life regeneration). In addition to making the rare monster encounters difficult, these auras can pose a large threat when there are other normal or magic monsters nearby. Players need to decide whether to focus on killing the rare monster (to end the aura) or to pick off the normal monsters that have been elevated in difficulty by the aura. Monster auras can of course stack to create very difficult fights.
This approach to difficulty gives us the best of both worlds. Against normal monsters, players don't feel that the high level areas are too grindy or overly dangerous, and can feel powerful as they destroy groups of foes. Against bosses, the difficulty spikes up suddenly (and can be extremely high if there are multiple bosses or dangerous combinations of mods/auras). This means that players need to be powerful to deal with the high level areas, but do not suffer the drawbacks of the artificial difficulty seen in 0.9.2.