Last Epoch feels almost like a long-form thought experiment. In the era of live-service games, where communities and fandoms can instantly voice their opinion – positive or otherwise – regarding any and all changes made by developers, what would happen if you gave those same players almost total creative control? From its very beginnings, Last Epoch has been crafted through Reddit, starting with the first staffers at Eleventh Hour Games, who met through r/gamedev, and continuing to this day, where additional classes and new features like trading are regularly put to a community vote. Diablo 4, Path of Exile, and the rest of the action RPG game world could maybe learn from Last Epoch. As it heads towards the launch of its full 1.0 version, Eleventh Hour CEO Judd Cobbler speaks to PCGamesN from the show floor at Gamescom.
In its earliest days, Last Epoch was an after-hours passion project by a small team of developers, working and talking through Reddit. The goal, according to Cobbler, is to create a game that combines the best elements of all the biggest ARPGs.
Similarly, it’s to directly challenge the behemoth of Diablo. Eleventh Hour has put together a handy “competitive checklist,” comparing the features of Last Epoch to Activision Blizzard’s market leader. Diablo 4 has five character classes, Last Epoch has 15. Diablo 4 contains 50 unique items, Last Epoch boasts more than 250. Last Epoch is the ARPG that Cobbler, and the earliest members of Eleventh Hour, wanted to play themselves.
“I love all these games and that’s the reason I’ve pursued making one, because this is the genre that is the most compelling to me,” Cobbler says. “But I always found that there were things that some would do better than others, or things that would keep me from wanting it to be my full-time hobby. And I felt like if you took the best elements of all these games and pushed the bar in certain other areas, you could really create a game for me and other people that we wanted to be our hobby.
“I set out to Reddit to find other diehard action RPG players. We banded together to form this group, and we had this after-hours passion project. We just got together and we would start late nights after we came home from our day jobs and our families would go to sleep, and we would just jam on the game, working with the community and each other to ideate on the perfect systems for these types of games.
“There were about eight of us in the beginning. We were all unpaid, and there was a lot of rotation in and out. But we still have eight people from the very, very early days that are in leadership positions, shaping Last Epoch.”
Before embarking on Last Epoch full-time, Cobbler ran a web agency in Texas. With no official game development experience, he used Reddit to find other ARPG fans who could “fill in the skill gaps.”
“Some of them had experience in indie game development but none of them were from large studios,” Cobbler says. “I cared less about their backgrounds and their professional experience. What I cared about most was that I found people who were deeply, deeply passionate about what we were doing, and were smart. Our lead developer didn’t know C Sharp. They learned C Sharp in a couple of months because they were just so excited to make it happen.”
From its humble r/gamedev beginnings, Last Epoch has continued to expand. After a successful Kickstarter campaign, the game secured a top-selling spot on Steam back in 2019. Eleventh Hour now employs around 90 people, and is building towards the landmark 1.0 release. A new character class, the Runemaster, has just been announced, and Cobbler plans to update the game for the next decade. Among all of this, the community remains vital.
“It only made sense to involve our community in all aspects of the game, because that’s who we’re making it for,” Cobber explains. “For years with ARPGs, I was the community, and I always wanted to feel like I was part of the conversation with where these games were going. These players who put a huge amount of time into the game, they know the game better than most of the developers do – even being on the developer side right now, we don’t get to play the game as much as the players get to, so they know it in certain regards better than even we do.
“On things that are more divisive, we will push those out to the community to get feedback. The trade system for example. Trade in these games is extremely divisive, so we’ve polled our Reddit to death. Out of thousands and thousands of players, it’s almost a literal fifty-fifty split, where 50% think trade is necessary, and 50% think it’s a terrible thing. If we didn’t go to our community first, and just pushed something out, half our players would be upset.”
Player-to-player trading in Last Epoch is optional – you can opt in or opt out. Like everything else on the ‘competitive checklist,’ it’s another example of where Last Epoch tries to differentiate from the rest of the ARPG genre. More items. More classes. More freedom. It seems simple – just give the community what it wants. But Cobbler and Eleventh Hour are also mindful of finding a balance.
“It’s an ongoing – I won’t say challenge – but it’s a balance for sure,” Cobbler says. “It’s kind of like the Henry Ford quote: ‘if I gave people what they wanted, we would have made faster horses, instead of cars.’ When people voice a frustration with something, it’s always legitimate. There’s always a true reason behind it. It’s absolutely in your best interest to listen and dig into what is causing that frustration.
“But it’s not always a community vote. Oftentimes, it’s listening to what the community is directly asking for, and also just the sentiment of what they’re speaking to, and then balancing that with pushing forward. But again, I love to just go on Reddit and be like ‘hey guys, we still have design space for X, what do you guys want to see?’ If I was on the other side of that, I would be so jazzed to be like ‘oh my gosh, the CEO is out here asking for my ideas.’”
In such a competitive era, when games can launch one month and disappear the next, there’s certainly an argument for constant communication and a kind of cooperative development with your community – if you aren’t giving fans what they want, someone else certainly will.
But even Cobbler admits this isn’t a way to work for every single game. Interaction, conversation, and regular visibility make Last Epoch stand out among some of its rivals – if Diablo fans feel frustrated when the game seemingly shifts around them, like with Diablo 4 Season 1, an ARPG where major decisions always involve the community is an appealing alternative. But it’s not a universal model.
“There’s something to be said for the old days where someone had a really strong vision and they had the funding, and they could just push it through from start to finish,” Cobbler says. “But looking at a game like Last Epoch, we’re not just trying to provide a one-off experience where someone enjoys it for 20 or 40 hours. We want it to be something that they feel invested in and we feel invested in. 1.0 is just the kick off. I hope we’re developing this game for at least a decade, and I want to see Last Epoch as a frontrunner in this genre.”