Pathfinder MMO on Kickstarter

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Back in 2009 Paizo Publishing released Pathfinder, a table-top roleplaying game that extended the Dungeons & Dragons 3.5 ruleset. Pathfinder has gained considerable popularity in the ensuing years, and now the team at Paizo is embarking on a new project, Pathfinder Online. By means of Kickstarter fundraising, Chief Executive Officer Ryan Dancey and his team at Goblinworks plan to develop a technology demonstration of a MMO version of Pathfinder. Adams was good enough to talk to us about their new Kickstarter campaign and the forthcoming project.

Adams: What made you want to take this project on?

Dancey: I have been interested in migrating from the tabletop to the digital RPG business for many years. In 2007 I had the chance to join CCP, publishers of the EVE Online MMO as Chief Marketing Officer, and that was my first formal position in the videogame industry. My 3 years at CCP reinforced my belief that MMO is the most exciting new storytelling medium in my lifetime, and I am committed to staying active in MMO projects.

Lisa [Lisa Stevens, CEO of Paizo] and I worked closely at Wizards of the Coast and after leaving CCP. She was one of the first people I approached to talk about taking a tabletop property to the MMO market. There are extremely important aspects to the Pathfinder property that will make for a successful MMO – the most important (to me) is the large and engaged community of support that Pathfinder has already generated. Having a large base of potential customers is a leading indicator of success in the MMO field. Pathfinder has that box thoroughly checked. 🙂

Adams: You’re a week into your Kickstarter campaign and you’ve already raised $30k more than your original goal of $50k. Can you tell us what stretch goals you’re considering for the next few weeks?

Dancey: We’re focusing on ideas that add value to the pledges people have already made to create incentives for backers to become evangelists for the project. We’re as interested in the number of supporters the project has as we are of the funds it has raised. So we’re going to be doing things that reinforce the community aspect; we want to create incentives for people to get their friends involved with the Kickstarter by giving them goals that trigger enhancements to the value of the rewards they’ve already been promised when we hit various supporter milestones.

Our first stretch goal has been announced. When we hit 2,000 supporters, the Thornkeep product will gain additional value by having more content added than the original reward indicated.

Adams: What age levels will the Pathfinder MMO eventually target?

Dancey: Like all Paizo/Pathfinder products, it will not have the kind of content that would be considered overtly sexual or excessively violent. You can expect the content of the MMO to be similar to that found in the Pathfinder tabletop RPG materials.

The systems of a sandbox MMO can be complex. There’s no real “age range” that we’re targeting, but we do expect players to have an interest in the way a large number of game systems connect and interact – just like a mainstream tabletop RPG or CCG does.
Adams: You mentioned that the players will build kingdoms and will be the storytellers. That’s pretty exciting and quite challenging. Are you going to have the players actions change the world in real-time, for other players to experience? What details can you go into?

Dancey: Yes – that’s the heart of our design objective.
Much of what the characters do in the world will be persistent. When they build a structure, all the other characters will be able to see and interact with it. When they tear a structure down, the other characters will see that too. When they clear out a dungeon, that area will become somewhat safer, and if they let an infestation of monstrous creatures grow unchecked, that area will become more dangerous.

Most of the objects in the world will be crafted by characters. Characters will harvest the resources, process them into intermediate components, and finish them by crafting arms, armor, clothes, magic items, building materials, food, and a wide range of other types of item. The tools they need to do this harvesting, processing and crafting will also all be created by player characters.

There will be some over-arching storylines that are seeded by the development team. How those storylines resolve will be extremely driven by player activities. We’ll use many of the same techniques pioneered by Legend of the Five Rings – the developers will create branch points in the story, and take their cues as to how those branches unfold based on the actions of the players. Sometimes the players will surprise us by creating outcomes we didn’t even envision and that’s when the best combination of community and developer storytelling happens!

But the biggest and most important stories will be those created by the player-run Kingdoms. Taking and holding areas of the map, developing them, protecting them against invasion and monsters, and engaging in diplomacy, trade, and warfare with other Kingdoms will create an amazing and epic tale.

Our most important design guideline is that we want to always work to maximize player interaction.

Adams: Have you had any conversations with potential investors? Are there any targets (people subscribed or funding raised) that they’re looking for to prove this MMO viable?

Dancey: Yes, we’ve talked with a range of potential investors. So far we haven’t found the right fit. Because MMOs are larger and more expensive projects than most other kinds of digital game they require a high degree of sophistication on the part of outside investors. We need funding from a source that is as committed to the goal of delivering an MMO like no other as we are. Luckily, things like the Kickstarter project are letting us raise awareness of what we’re trying to do in ways that would have been impossible just a few years ago. I’m confident that we’ll find the right partners to make the project a success, in large measure due to this kind of heightened exposure.

Adams: Will there be any connectivity between the MMO and tabletop games? Character crossover, modules for tabletop play represented in the MMO, things like that?

Dancey: It is much more likely that materials that originate in the tabletop game will regularly appear in the MMO. Since the MMO will be so focused on the actions of players and their characters, it will be hard to take content from the MMO and make it generally useful to players of the tabletop game.

However the sheer size and scope of the MMO also means that we’re going to be producing content that could have a universal application. Thornkeep is an example of that kind of cross-pollination. I could see future supplements like Thornkeep being a regular feature for the tabletop game, just not a high-frequency feature.

Adams: You believe you can develop the Pathfinder MMO with a fraction of the time and resources of traditional MMOs. What will you be doing differently to realize these savings?

Dancey: The first big savings comes from the middleware revolution. This effect has not really been felt yet in the MMO space; even the games that have shipped that used a middleware layer did so before the middleware was really mature. Star Wars: The Old Republic, for example, uses a version of the Hero Engine that is several iterations removed from the software made available today to new games.

In the past, a substantial part of the time and cost of making an MMO was just making the tools and the support system. Building a billing system, for example, isn’t sexy, but it has to be done right, and it has to be able to perform under tremendous load. Getting it right is critical. Luckily, most of the problems in that domain have been solved, and have been reduced to off-the-shelf solutions. Today, we have the luxury of comparing many solutions that are being used in real-world environments and we can compare features and costs without having worry if they fundamentally will work at all.

The same goes for the server-side technology like databases, account management, logging, customer service, and networks. These were areas of tremendous challenge for MMOs – many games that might otherwise have been successful foundered on the sheer technical challenge of these aspects of live game operation. But again, the problems are well understood, and the solutions available are now battle-tested so that our confidence in them is quite high.

And of course the client-side tools are just amazing. This is an area where the MMO middleware has benefited from parallel evolution with other kinds of game. Advances in rendering engines for graphics, sound engines for music and effects, UI tools and a wealth of other aspects of client-side software have been improving rapidly and those advancements are making their way into the kinds of middleware that we’ll be using for the game. Not having to spend time and money developing those systems is a huge advantage.

The second big change is making a sandbox rather than a theme park game. With a theme park, you have to deliver a nearly feature-complete product on day one. The speed that some players will consume that content is breathtaking. It is possible, for example, to hit the level cap in most theme park MMOs released in the past couple of years in less than a month.

That means that before you can ship, you have to have completed development and test on thousands of hours of content, hundreds of locations, dozens of game systems, and the individual material needed for many different race/class combinations.

It creates what I call the “development mortgage.” The more content you want in the theme park, the bigger the mortgage becomes. That creates a tough feedback loop, because in order to recoup the development mortgage, you have to attract more and more paying customers. The more customers you need, the larger the theme park must be to satisfy them. At some point it just becomes impossible to justify the budget on the basis of a realistic projection of revenue. That’s why a lot of MMOs never see the light of day.

Sandboxes are totally different. If we do our game design job right, the players will have an unlimited source of new material to challenge them: each other. Instead of having to design, test, and deliver a series of self-contained theme park experiences that players experience in sequence, we have the ability to focus on a “system” level approach, and each system that we deliver expands the way the players can interact exponentially. A much, much smaller number of systems can thus generate a vastly larger potential series of experiences for players.

The team needed to develop sandbox features is much smaller than that needed to develop every part of a theme park game. We can keep our overhead reasonably small, in comparison to the number of players we’re supporting, and that strips a lot of the cost out of the equation.

And last, but certainly not least, is that we’re going to move fast. We just don’t think it’s right to let an MMO incubate for many years of development. We’ve got the opportunity to hire people who have already worked on several MMO (or other large-scale open-world style) projects. They bring with them lessons learned and techniques mastered that we don’t have to spend time re-inventing. We can focus, from day one, on the critical path that leads to releasing our game, cutting out the detours that derailed a lot of previous MMO efforts.

The quicker we get the game into the hands of the players, the smaller the budget we need to raise to fund the project.

Adams: What target date are you talking for release of the MMO?

Dancey: It’s too soon to announce a specific date, but it will be much, much sooner than most traditional MMO development schedules.

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