The Rise of the Fantasy Sandbox MMO - An Exclusive Pathfinder Online Q&A

We recently had the opportunity to discuss many of the design concepts behind Goblinworks' Pathfinder Online with CEO Ryan Dancey. Learn more about what makes this fantasy sandbox MMO tick in this exclusive Q&A.

Pathfinder Online Interview

We recently had the opportunity to discuss many of the design concepts behind Goblinworks' Pathfinder Online with CEO Ryan Dancey. Learn more about what makes this fantasy sandbox MMO tick, including how character advancement works, how open world PvP will be handled to add depth to the game, and lots more in this exclusive Q&A.

Most online roleplaying games tend to use heavily modified rule sets based on tabletop gaming. How will Pathfinder Online leverage the core strengths of the Pathfinder RPG?

With Pathfinder we get a huge library of "objects" that we can immediately use, many of which have been extensively playtested in the tabletop game. There are thousands of monsters, magic items, spells, and character abilities in that library, and we'll use them as the baseline for our design.

While the game mechanics will be different between the tabletop game and the online game, the tabletop game is a very good testbed for the online game. There will of course need to be lots of balancing and tweaking to bring something from the tabletop game into the online game but we don't have to start from a blank sheet of paper.

Will there be any major concessions made to help translate the Pathfinder RPG into a massive, online gaming environment, or is the goal to remain as true as possible to the original IP?

The rules of the online game will be different than the tabletop game. The tabletop game is designed to focus on small parties of heroic adventurers. The online game is a bigger game in scope - it's a superset of the tabletop experience.

The tabletop game is built around each player having an essentially unlimited amount of real time to make decisions but the online game will operate in real time so players will not have that luxury. The tabletop game assumes there's rarely more than 10 people at a table and often less, whereas the online game will enable hundreds and eventually thousands of people to be interacting directly - and that has huge implications. These things make the tabletop rules unsuitable for online play.

The tabletop game is built around a combat engine. The online game is built around an economic engine - combat is a part of that but a subset of the whole. In the tabletop game you have lots of rules for combat and things that happen during combat like spellcasting. In the online game combat is a much smaller portion of the rules - we need rules for crafting, and exploration, and social interaction, and logistics and operating markets, etc. Since the tabletop doesn't have to worry too much about those kinds of systems we have to create much of those rules from scratch.

In the end, I expect that folks who come over from the tabletop will find so much that is similar that they'll have an intuitive grasp on how to play a fighter type character or a wizard type character and they'll intuitively understand how the rules for those kinds of characters work, because of the familiarity they have with the tabletop experience.

The concept of “Crowdforging” intrigues us. Could you expand on how this process will help players determine what features are implemented in the game?

Every software project has three variables: Time, money and resources. You start with a big list of things you would like to build, and then you start prioritizing that list and the factors that dictate the priorities are those three variables.

Pathfinder Online is going to enable the players to have an active voice in how those variables are manipulated. They'll know what the priority list is for the development team, and they'll be able to give input on how that list is built and how it is restructured from time to time.

They'll also be involved in helping set game design policies that will have deep and significant effects on the overall game. They'll be helping decide things like how powerful a character should be at various parts of its lifecycle, how much the economy should be affected by NPCs and how long it should take to achieve various in-game objectives across a wide variety of character types.

To do this we'll have a variety of tools. Sometimes we'll run polls or votes. Sometimes we'll have a system where folks can submit ideas that are peer reviewed and then reviewed by the designers. We'll likely have a Player Council similar to what EVE Online has with the Council of Stellar Management - a formal relationship with elected leaders of the community who will represent the interests of that community directly.

To make this work we need a level of transparency that is rare in the gaming industry. We can't have a lot of "secrets" or "surprises". And people will need to educate themselves on what can be done with the resources available; some of the best ideas are unfortunately impractical despite their merits.

Our sister company Paizo Publishing has operated in this manner for quite some time, subjecting a lot of their core rule design process to public scrutiny. And my experiences at CCP put me in direct contact with the Council of Stellar Management so I was able to see up close how that kind of body can have a dramatic and positive impact.

It will be a wild, exciting, interesting and entertaining ride for everyone involved.

Pathfinder Online Tech Demo

Pathfinder won’t have traditional MMO classes. Could you discuss how players will be able to shape and advance their character’s skill set? Will there be any major limitations on how you choose to pursue different roles?

This is a critical part of our design concept. We want to encapsulate the idea of classes from the tabletop game but we also don't want to limit players to the kind of rigidity that comes from class-based systems. Sandboxes work best when players are able to make a very diverse range of characters and they often come up with ways to advance a character that are not anticipated by the developers but make perfect sense within the logic of the game world.

We think we have a pretty innovative solution. In the tabletop world, characters gain power by earning experience points. When a level threshold is reached, the character is given a number of new benefits as a result of "leveling up".

In Pathfinder Online, we stood that paradigm on its head. Instead, as your character gains benefits, it moves closer to being recognized as having "earned a level". The process of earning those levels involves a character doing things that are meaningful to that "role". So a character that is becoming more skilled with weapons and becoming stronger and tougher will be recognized by earning a "level" of Fighter, rather than vice-versa.

This makes it possible for us to anticipate a wide range of character development options that we would be very challenged to make if we had to pre-plot all the benefits of a traditional level-based system. In Pathfinder Online, you might find that you've specialized as a character who is really effective fighting other humanoids, whereas I might have specialized as a character good against monstrous creatures and aberrations. We might both have earned recognition with "levels" of Fighter, but we'll be very different characters with very different histories.

Folks who want to pursue the traditional roles in traditional ways will have no problem doing that and they'll end up with characters that are very similar to those you might find in a tabletop Pathfinder game. But the system is broad enough that it enables players to explore a fractal space of options and there will be a near-infinite combination of character development options so that those "traditional" characters will be joined by hundreds (or thousands) of other character types as the players mix-and-match the system to suit their own needs.

Pathfinder Online will feature open world PvP; something that can often be a deterrent for more casual gamers. Could you shed some insight on how the PvP system will work, or how it will appeal to gamers outside of the hardcore crowd?

"We've raised a generation of MMO players who have a visceral negative reaction to the idea of PvP."

I think that PvP is the original sin of the MMO genre. It is the most obvious place where the games have failed to match expectation and potential with implementation. As a result we've raised a generation of MMO players who have a visceral negative reaction to the idea of PvP. If we were a supermarket, it would be like not having a dairy section because some people got sick from drinking the milk. Rather than abandoning dairy, you'd fix the supply chain to protect people's health, and reward them with cheese, eggs, milk, etc. to make their lives more interesting. The MMO industry mostly just shut down the dairy section and walked away.

But I look at the successes and failures over the last 10 years and I see PvP being a component of the successes, not the failures. I see EVE Online growing from 20,000 to 350,000 subscribers in that timeframe. I see World of Tanks exploding in popularity. I see League of Legends become a titan in the online gaming space. Call of Duty and Battlefield are billion-dollar franchises. Halo effectively defined XBox. I can't name an multiplayer online gaming success in those 10 years that didn't have a strong PvP component. (OK, I can maybe put Minecraft in that category - props to Mojang!)

Human conflict is fascinating. It drives the narrative of much of our lives and much of our storytelling. When two people disagree about something or compete for something, it introduces meaning to the experience. The fundamental design goal of Pathfinder Online is "maximize meaningful human interaction", and PvP is one facet of how we intend to do that.

We look at the kind of PvP that exists in MMOs and in previous MMOs, and we listen to what people say about those systems. We see some patterns and hear some standard complaints. PvP brings out the very worst in some folks - it's a license to act badly. PvP often has a terribly unbalanced risk vs reward; you can get more out of attacking other players than they get from defending against you or running away.

We think these are addressable issues. People behaving badly is fixable. People exploiting a game system is fixable. It will take time, a lot of iteration, and a lot of careful development and community input, but I am convinced we can get PvP into the game in a way that adds value rather than removes it.

PvP should be considered no more "hard core" than any other aspect of a successful MMO that requires attention and effort to master.

In a recent blog post you noted that the end of the theme park era for MMOs is nearly over. How will PFO help usher in the next era, and what do you feel will be the major gameplay hooks that make it possible?

The problem with Theme Park MMOs is that they cost too much to make, take too long to develop, and don't sustain large communities over the long term. Everyone looked at the exception - World of Warcraft - and assumed it was the average. But we look at the history of the MMO market since Warcraft released and we see the same pattern repeat itself over and over: A big spike of interest on release, followed in six to nine months by a collapse of player interest, followed by server consolidations and staff downsizing, followed by a game that loses development momentum and stagnates. Every major MMO release since Warcraft has followed this pattern.

Along the way budgets have gone crazy. I would guess the baseline budget for the games you've seen released in the past 2-3 years is $100 million. Star Wars: The Old Republic cost more than $300 million. Yet none of these games - not one - has managed to attract a paying player community of more than a million people and hold it for more than 6 months. The economics of these games don't work. And that's why after The Elder Scrolls Online, there are no announced, high profile, big budget AAA MMOs from any credible studio.

But MMOs as a business are doing really well. Millions of people are playing them. In Asia, they're rapidly becoming as dominant an entertainment format as TV or motion pictures. In the West, whole generations of people are growing up with a virtual identity - nurtured in venues like Club Penguin and Habbo. MMOs as a concept are not going away and the demand for quality virtual worlds is growing, not declining.

"Theme Parks require that development teams keep churning out more content to keep players engaged. Sandbox games can be built around the idea that the players ARE the content."

The answer seems to be Sandbox. Theme Parks require that the game be nearly feature complete before the first dollar of revenue can be earned. Sandbox games can ship with limited features and add more through iteration while still maintaining a high level of customer satisfaction. Theme Parks require that development teams keep churning out more content to keep players engaged. Sandbox games can be built around the idea that the players ARE the content; give them tools to interact with one another and they will happily do so. Theme Parks have a business model that rewards short-term thinking, boom & bust cycles, hiring binges and deep layoffs. Sandbox games have a business model that rewards long-term thinking. You need to scale a Sandbox carefully so that the population doesn't overwhelm the game, and the staff needs to have a good coherence and continuity so that the game can leverage its institutional knowledge.

To me the core defining virtue is persistence. Players being able to make a mark on a game world shared by thousands of other humans is a big deal. Sandbox is all about persistence. You build it, I see it, use it, and maybe try to tear it down. That's a dynamic as old as human civilization. Pathfinder Online is packed full of persistence. Most of the objects in the game, from consumables to weapons and armor to buildings will be created by player characters. Everywhere you go, everything you do, everything you see, will have some aspect of persistence.

I hope Pathfinder Online is a trendsetter. We think we can make a compelling game with a smaller budget and a shorter timeline than the industry has seen with Theme Park MMOs. We think we can get to positive cashflow quickly, and that makes the business self-sustaining. We think there's a nice market segment looking for a fantasy Sandbox MMO and that we have a first-mover advantage. It will be nice to look back in 10 years and see how accurate these predictions are, but I have a pretty high confidence we're on the right track.

We'd like to thank Ryan Dancey and the Pathfinder Online team for taking the time to talk to us about the game. There are a lot of great design concepts behind PFO, and we'll certainly be paying close attention to the game throughout development.

If you want to get involved more directly, be sure to visit the current Pathfinder Online Kickstarter project by Monday, January 14 at 9:00pm EST where you can become a backer and snag a pretty awesome variety of perks in the process.

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