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A Sense of Pride

Garrett Fuller Posted:
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MMORPG: Pathfinder is one of the top RPGs out right now in the tabletop world. What is it like for Goblinworks to bring this game into the online universe?

Ryan S. Dancey: I have such a sense of pride about Pathfinder.  A lot of people don't know this, but when Lisa Stevens (Paizo Publishing's CEO) and I were working at Wizards of the Coast, we wrote a lengthy 10-year plan for the Dungeons & Dragons business.  After we both left, Wizards decided to pursue a different path.  With Pathfinder, Lisa is following our original plan and having huge success.  So I feel like a happy uncle to everything that Paizo has accomplished - watching them make history has been one of the highlights of my life.

We approach Pathfinder with a deep sense of the love and community that Paizo has created.  Pathfinder isn't something that can be treated cavalierly.  Every decision we make about the game is debated and discussed with a panel of Paizo's top leadership, and we give the entire Paizo staff numerous opportunities to see what we're working on and give us comments and feedback.

The upside of course is that Pathfinder is awesome.  We get a huge library of content ready for our use; game objects like monsters, spells, magic items, character abilities, etc, thousands of pieces of artwork, and a rich and deep backstory that includes a coherent geography, cosmology, pantheons of gods, thousands of years of history, and more.

MMORPG: Paizo also has a great reputation as a company. Can you give us some insight on partnering with them to build this game?

Ryan S. Dancey: Paizo fires on all cylinders.  They have a successful publishing operation making Pathfinder and all its support products.  But they also have a well-respected organized play program called the Pathfinder Society (your readers can think of it as a massively multiplayer OFFLINE RPG.)  They run a huge e-commerce operation and handle logistics for thousands of products and a huge volume of orders.  They maintain an incredibly active on-line community portal featuring thousands of users and innumerable forum posts.  In the past they've published magazines, operated fan clubs, and of course they're a successful licensing company now with many deals in place from miniatures to comic books to the MMO.

Lisa Stevens, Paizo's CEO, has assembled an amazing team of people to execute on this armada of ventures.  I've known some of them for close to 15 years, and I love spending time with them and soaking up their creativity and high energy.  They're a great partner.

MMORPG: The word “Crowdforging” is a great addition to anyone’s vocabulary.  Tell us about Pathfinder Online’s Kickstarter and funding ideas. 

Ryan S. Dancey: Thanks!  We brainstormed for hours to find just the right term to match our vision.  Like a lot of what we do, a big part of the inspiration for the name came from our community.  We asked them to help us come up with great ideas for the term and a couple of our forum members are credited with having given us insights that we used in picking the final name.

Crowdforging is approach we're going to use to many aspects of the game including funding it and developing it.  We're committed fully to the idea that Pathfinder Online is going to be not just a product that we make and sell, but a collective endeavor where we can sit side-by-side with our community and engage them in all the critical decisions.  We think that will make a better game, a stronger community and a successful business in the long run.

MMORPG: What are the core aspects of the Pathfinder rule-set that you feel are critical to the online game? How are you implementing rules those we see with spells and combat?

Ryan S. Dancey: The most important aspect of any Sandbox MMO is persistence.  The idea that you, as a player, can have a real, lasting impact on the game world in ways that are visible to everyone else who plays is incredibly compelling.  So when you help to create a building, or wage war for territory, or craft supplies, you're intimately involved with telling the story shared by everyone else in the game.

The second most important thing is our bedrock design objective:  "Maximizing meaningful human interaction". Every part of the game is built with the intention that it should facilitate players engaging with one another.  Sometimes cooperatively, sometimes competitively.  In the Sandbox, the players ARE the content and the more we facilitate that the better the game will function.

When we look at the tabletop Pathfinder rules we see a lot of systems we'll be able to translate into the digital world with a lot of fidelity.  But because the tabletop game is built around a combat engine where players have a near-limitless amount of time to decide what they want to do and the online game will run in realtime, and the tabletop game is focused on small parties of heroic adventurers, whereas the online game will have a larger scope that is a superset of the tabletop game - a game that features lots of characters who aren't heroic adventurers, but who are diplomats, spies, teamsters, crafters, soldiers, etc. we know that we'll be making a lot of changes and adaptations to the game systems.  Tabletop and online are different enough that we can't make a direct translation of the game rules.

Our objective is to make a game that is familiar to tabletop players.  A game where they're going to feel comfortable with how things work and their intuitive grasp of the game will be aided by what they know about how the tabletop game works.

MMORPG: The class system in Pathfinder is very specific. From the demo video, we saw Valeros the fighter facing down some goblins. How will player classes work?

Ryan S. Dancey: This is one of the innovative aspects of the Pathfinder Online game design.  On the tabletop (and in most Theme Park MMOs) characters gain power by earning experience points and when they reach a defined threshold, they "level up" and get a package of additional abilities.

Pathfinder Online inverts this process.  Because we need to enable lots of different kinds of characters to fill that big world concept of lots of roles, we're using a skill-based system.  Like EVE Online, your characters will train skills in realtime, regardless of your on-line presence.  But unlike EVE, characters in Pathfinder Online also have to achieve various in-game objectives as perquisites before they gain a mechanical advantage.  They have to train, and they have to do.

In Pathfinder Online when you have gained a certain set of new character abilities, we recognize that by giving you an achievement of a "level" in a role like Fighter, Wizard, Cleric, etc.  These roles map to the tabletop classes, but they're more broadly generic.  You might specialize in being really good at fighting humanoids, and I might specialize at being really good at fighting monstrous creatures, but since we both worked on our character's martial prowess and fitness, at certain points the game recognizes that we're advancing as "Fighters".

Players who want to make characters that are similar to those in the tabletop game will have no problem in doing so.  And players who want to mix-and-match roles and experiment with the way various character abilities synergize with other parts of the game will be able to do that as well.

MMORPG: In Pathfinder, magic is very powerful. How are you balancing magic in the game against say, a fighter or thief character?

Ryan S. Dancey: The power curve for Pathfinder Online will be much shallower than the tabletop.  We are going to focus most of a character's lifecycle in the range of power equivalent to the tabletop's power level from 5th to about 12th level.  In this range, characters are not demi-gods but are very flexible and when they work together as a team they can be extremely effective.

All the magic in the game will reflect this power range.  There will be lots of magic, but it won't overwhelm the rest of the game design.  You'll be hurling Lighting bolts and Fireballs but not Wish.  You'll need characters of many diverse backgrounds to make successful forays into dark and dangerous places, and to protect and extend the territory you control.

MMORPG: Our readers are very excited to see the sandbox tag put onto Pathfinder Online. Can you tell us about this choice and how players can interact with the world?

Ryan S. Dancey: We think we're at the end of the AAA Theme Park MMO era.  After the Elder Scrolls Online project releases, there are no large AAA Theme Park MMOs under development at any significant publisher or studio.  The reason is that the business model for Theme Park MMOs doesn't work.  They cost too much to make, take too long to develop, and don't create sustainable long term businesses.

The industry looked at the outlier game (World of Warcraft) and assumed that was the baseline.  Since 2003 we've seen more than a dozen high profile MMO releases in the Theme Park category, and none of them have been able to sustain a paying player population over a million for more than 6 to 9 months.  The budgets have exploded - the average budget for those games was in excess of $100 million, and Star Wars: The Old Republic cost more than $300 million.  The economics just don't work.

Sandbox games have a different business model.  You can start them with much smaller player populations and much less content.  A Theme Park has to be nearly feature complete the day you ship it, but a Sandbox can begin with just a limited selection of functions and systems, and a small player population, and slowly iterate and grow over time.  This is what EVE Online has done, growing from 20,000 players to more than 350,000 over 10 years.

This focus on systems, rather than content, is at the heart of Pathfinder Online's plan.  We want to "maximize meaningful human interaction", and so we are focusing our efforts on interesting ways to facilitate that.  We envision a world where thousands of players are interacting constantly in economics, politics, and territorial conflict.  At the same time, thousands more players are busy exploring the world, seeking out the monsters and treasures that are hidden within it, and bringing the spoils of their adventures back home to enrich the whole ecosystem.

The longer the game runs, the more complex it will become.  The more options players will have.  The more content we'll be able to add in the form of monsters and the threats they pose to the player settlements.  Sandbox design is all about long-term thinking and constantly knitting more and more people into the story they're creating within the game world.

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Garrett Fuller

Garrett Fuller / Garrett Fuller has been playing MMOs since 1997 and writing about them since 2005. He joined MMORPG.com has a volunteer writer and now handles Industry Relations for the website. He has been gaming since 1979 when his cousin showed him a copy of Dungeons and Dragons. When not spending time with his family, Garrett also Larps and plays Airsoft in his spare time.