Pathfinder Online finally ran off that inevitable cliff it has headed towards for the past year. I think it is a little too early to conduct a full post mortem but enough information is known that it warranted calling an audible on today’s column and discussing Pathfinder Online as opposed to the other indie RPGs I tested at PAX. If you haven’t read by now, Goblinworks, the studio behind Pathfinder Online, has been gutted. The team behind the game has been stripped down to three members and Lisa Stevens has been appointed interim CEO. In addition Ryan Dancey reportedly left the studio a two weeks ago but it was unrelated to the games performance, which I have a hard time believing. And while the game is currently on life support in the words of Jim Morrison, “this is the end my friend.”
The gaming industry is pretty volatile and doesn’t leave a lot of room to make mistakes. A decent game released a year later than it should be can make the difference between a blockbuster and a studio going bankrupt. At the end of the day Goblinworks just ran out of cash.
In the beginning with Ryan Dancey at the helm Goblinworks was exceedingly lucky. They were able to successfully fund two projects on Kickstarter. The first campaign was to create a tech demo of what the game could be. The second campaign was to actually fund the game. Goblinworks benefited from a few key things going on at the time. First Kickstarter was fresh and to fund an actual MMO on the platform was a novel concept. It came down to the wire but Pathfinder Online did get finished. Second Ryan and his team at Goblinworks beat some of the bigger names to the punch. Richard Garriott and Mark Jacobs would soon follow suit with their own successful Kickstarters to develop their games. Kickstarter fatigue was a long way off from starting to set in.
Another interesting aspect that Pathfinder Online had going for it was the concept of crowdforging. A concept I think most of us could say is better in theory than it is in practice. To a lesser extent Daybreak was crowd sourcing their community to create buildings and other structures based upon supplied racial motifs. So far that doesn’t seem to be working out to well for them either. I think it boils down to too many cooks in the kitchen. It also has to do with fatigue by the community. At the end of the day most players really just want to play games. That’s why they don’t fill out beta surveys. They may want to armchair develop a few times a year but they don’t really want to be a developer. That is actually work. We, I’m a gamer too, typically just want to play. A prime example of this was a platform that Goblinworks was using for player feedback. It was called Ideascape. It allowed members of the community to post ideas and others to provide feedback. Good or bad. It allowed users to upvote or downvote the idea as well, similar to what you see on reddit. When this was first introduced it was used by the hundreds, but probably not thousands, of the community members. It quickly dried up though and towards the end very few players were actually providing anything that could be construed as constructive.
The game did have some quality ideas but it was just too large of a scope for too little money. It also had some really terrible design decisions. Tying experience gains to the amount of time the account was active was a poor choice to say the least. They were also unable to get character movement to feel normal. Your characters could always jump too high and moved to odd. It was just a poor experience.
The biggest knock on the project is the game never reached a point that could be considered a minimum viable product in the community’s eyes. However the game was released to early access and the subscriptions began to be charged. It was evident from the start that the game was still too rough. This was a MMO that by design is heavily dependent on social interactions yet when it hit the minimum viable product stage it didn’t even have a friends list! By any reasonable measure the game is terrible. During our review process we even had to switch reviewers to make sure we were maintaining objectivity. In the end it still earned a 4.5. Why would the Goblinworks team expect anyone to pay a subscription for that? Goblinworks did attempt to grow the audience by lowering their subscription fees but only succeeded in reducing their revenues because they couldn’t convince new players to pay for the game even after they provided them a 15 day free trial.
Another problem with the project is it never really felt like Pathfinder. In its pen and paper form Pathfinder is about taking your characters on grand adventures. Typically this involves you engaging in player versus environment content that is run by the DM. Player versus player combat could occur but typically it’s not the focus. Too early in development it became apparent that PvP was going to play a big factor in Pathfinder Online and the core Pathfinder player didn’t want anything to do with this project. Again, can you PvP in Pathfinder? Sure. Should it have had such a heavy focus in this game? Absolutely not.
After reading Lisa’s note to the community she sent out on September 3rd and going over the FAQ it appears a foregone conclusion that Pathfinder Online is going to stop development before the end of the year and probably shut down shortly after that. I really don’t think that is a bad thing. In fact if I was Lisa, as the CEO of Paizo Publishing, I’d be pushing to pull the plug even sooner. Goblinworks is not a subsidiary of Paizo. They are a licensee. At this point Goblinworks is doing nothing but tarnishing the Pathfinder IP. Their should be a clause in the license that states Paizo retains a certain amount of control over their licensed products and if they are used in such a way as to cause harm to the brand the license can be terminated. If they have it available Paizo should hit the kill switch. They last thing that Paizo should let Goblinworks do with this game is stay the course.
For those of you that are mourning the loss of a Pathfinder video game, cheer up. Obsidian has picked up the licensing rights to develop video games based on the Pathfinder IP. While the first game is a card game, and by first reports pretty good, I suspect we are in store for a number of cRPGs that are as good as some of the classic Dungeons and Dragons games from the late 90s and early 2000s. Will we get another Pathfinder MMO? Probably not, but after a year into development it was clear this wasn’t really the Pathfinder MMO most of us were looking for anyway.