A Deeper Look into the Pathfinder MMO

A Deeper Look into the Pathfinder MMO

By Andrew Greenberg



Paizo’s announcement that Goblinworks is developing a Pathfinder MMO has been tearing through the Gamingverse like a Red Mantis Assassin going through a room of Lastwall guardsmen. Innumerable posts have popped up on all manner of forums, boards and mailing lists, usually revolving around the question, “How the heck is it going to work?”


Pathfinder MMO at SIEGE


So far Paizo has not released many details beyond this week’s press release, but at the Southern Interactive Entertainment and Game Expo’s Investor Conference in Atlanta (www.siegecon.net) this October, Goblinwork’s CEO Ryan Dancey offered a unique sneak peek into their plans.   https://goblinworks.com/


Dancey went to great lengths to differentiate the Pathfinder MMO from most other existing MMOs – especially World of Warcraft, which he terms a “theme park” MMO. He rightly anticipated that this would be one of the main investor concerns. Dancey repeatedly emphasized that Pathfinder would be a sandbox MMO, allowing significant player direction. “Players interacting with each other provide the actual content,” said Dancey at SIEGE. “The players are their own content.”


While the SIEGE presentation is a very early look into the Pathfinder MMO, and almost anything can change, it does offer a number of details not otherwise available. A few of the key ones include:


  • The goal is to have you playing the game in 2013. Dancey describes a “soft” prelaunch and launch, which means the company opens the game first to dedicated players as the team continues to add more content, stress testing the game and its servers to ensure both can handle massive numbers of players. Dancey hopes to add 4,500 players per month until the game reaches around 250,000 total users.
  • The game utilizes a hybrid subscription/micro-transaction model. In other words, players who want the most out of the game will pay a monthly fee to access most of its content. Other users can play for free and buy specific items or options that they want for their characters. The game creators hope that each paying customer will average around $15/month.
  • Paizo has committed $250,000 dollars to the game and was looking for $2.5 million more to complete the development. The team may have already generated some of this money – I have gotten calls from investors looking to contact the team – but the Goblinworks web site is soliciting more.




One of the key tasks for anyone seeking investors is to show how this project is not only different from but better than alternatives. In the presentation, Dancey does a good job of highlighting these strengths:


  • The key one for Pathfinder players is the Pathfinder setting. “Access to the Pathfinder IP gives us a huge library of art, characters, magic items, stories, villains and NPCs,” said Dancey.
  • A key one for investors is the existing audience. Dancey said Pathfinder has now surpassed D&D as the most popular tabletop RPG, with 200,000 players and a core book that has sold more than 100,000 copies.
  • If the Pathfinder MMO is truly a sandbox MMO, then its main competition is EVE and Darkfall. Since fantasy is still the most popular MMO genre, Pathfinder’s very nature gives it access to an audience EVE does not attract. Dancey also made it clear that Paizo was working to learn from Darkfall’s release, and he highlighted the problems that MMO had with its launch. He emphasized that the Pathfinder soft launch plan would help them avoid the technical issues Darkfall suffered early on.
  • The development process will rely on MMO middleware that has been developed over the past few years. While Dancey does not specify which middleware they plan to use, he does note that paying $100,000 for proven technology allows the game to go quickly into development and not lose time wrestling with the basic technology.


Path to Success


Let me start this by saying that I am indeed a Pathfinder fanboy, and that I have had great fun developing my halfling wizard from an innocent diviner to a screaming, destructive paranoid who would fit in perfectly with this year’s GOP presidential aspirants. I’ll probably play the game whether it’s great or a steaming pile of dragon fewmets. Thus I may well be one of the 4,500 playing it the first month of its release. The question becomes, how does it keep me and the other first adopters while gaining another 4,500 each month?


The first issue, as Dancey noted, is technical. MMOs rarely recover from a bad launch or significant technical problems. Pathfinder is by no means the first MMO to go with a soft launch, and more and more companies are utilizing this for all on-line games. They start with a quiet rollout to a limited audience and slowly ramp up as they ensure the game can handle more and more players. Relying on middleware is another way to avoid technical problems. While middleware means the developer is limited to the functionality the middleware allows, it also means the developers do not have to spend months tracking down basic bugs to ensure the game even runs.


The second issue is effectively creating a sandbox MMO. I’m a big fan of sandbox games that allow players to shape the games in the ways they like. Tycoon games, financial sims and so on give free rein to player imagination. Problems arise in how effectively games allow players to actually create their visions within the game. EVE Online does an excellent job of inspiring player goals that can actually be created – upgrading ships, building corps, betraying their friends, etc.


Pathfinder does this very well as a tabletop RPG, with a well-developed and deep setting that motivates players to get involved with building a better world, digging into the darkest intrigues or just exploring the farthest corners. How much players can influence the world and turn their dreams into virtual reality will be a key to keeping players like myself, and few examples on how to do this well exist in the MMO world. Pathfinder will be treading a new (wait for it) path if it can do this effectively.


A third key to the game’s success will be how well (and how quickly) it motivates players to spend money. Subscriptions work for some games and not others. The “free-to-play” model, supported by microtransactions, has proven successful for a number of games, but not all. Lord of the Rings Online is one example of how this can work, but current plans for the Pathfinder MMO call for little reliance on that. However, $2.75 million is not a lot to develop a full MMO. Pathfinder will need to quickly develop an independent revenue stream to fund all the development that is needed once the game is live.


Final Thoughts


Pathfinder’s core audience makes for a good base on which to build an MMO. If the development team launches a stable game that gives players the opportunity to build the kinds of characters and enjoy the kind of characters they can in the tabletop game, it has a good chance to build the kind of audience that will make it a success. While it is unlikely to knock off WoW or League of Legends, it should be able to find its core audience. It may not attract a million players, but it does not need that many.


One additional thought that Dancey’s presentation brings up, unrelated to the Pathfinder MMO, is the decline of the tabletop RPG community. Dancey says that in the two years since its release, Pathfinder has surpassed D&D as the most popular paper RPG with 200,000 players. Back in the early 1990s, when I was developer for Vampire: The Masquerade (way back in the good-ol-days, ya whippersnappers), a number of RPGs had larger communities than that, and could sell more than 100,000 copies of their main books in two years. While Paizo does an excellent job supporting Pathfinder with regular, high-quality supplements, the decline of the overall tabletop RPG market is a concern for all of us who love such games.

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About Andrew Greenberg

Andrew Greenberg, best known for designing computer games and roleplaying games, co-created the “Fading Suns” roleplaying and computer games, was the original developer of White Wolf’s “Vampire: The Masquerade” and is lead designer on "Haunted House Tycoon" (www.hauntedhousetycoon.com). Andrew has credits on more than 50 White Wolf products and more than 20 HDI books. He has also worked on products with other roleplaying game companies, including “Star Trek Next Generation” and “Deep Space Nine.” His computer game credits include Dracula Unleashed, Star Trek: Starfleet Academy, Emperor of the Fading Suns, Warhammer 40K: Final Liberation, Merchant Prince II, Mall Tycoon, Dungeon Lords, The Virtual World of Kaneva, and more. His most recent computer game credits are Railroad Tycoon Mobile and the Global Agenda MMO. He serves as director of the Southeast Interactive Entertainment and Games Expo (www.siegecon.net), Playoncon (www.playoncon.com) and Faerie Escape: Atlanta (www.faeatlanta.com). Andrew blogs at http://andrewgreenberg.livejournal.com