Paizo’s New Venture: Pathfinder Online

Pathfinder Golarion World MapThe Internet has been abuzz of late with news of Pathfinder Online. At least, the parts of the Internet which take note of tabletop RPG news have been abuzz. In case you haven’t heard, Paizo (publisher of the Pathfinder RPG) has spun-off a new company called Goblinworks, and tasked Goblinworks with creating an massively multiplayer online role playing game based on the world of Golarion. Details at this point are scarce. Goblinworks won’t even open its doors officially until 2012. But considering how early it is in the process, we’ve actually been told a great deal.

Truthfully, my initial reaction to this news was not favorable. The concept itself breaks two of my fundamental rules of video games.

  1. Tabletop RPGs never make good video games. They may have some moderate success, such as Neverwinter Nights enjoyed, but they’re still bad games. Every one I’ve ever played makes the fundamentally bad assumption that the video game needs to emulate the rules of the tabletop game it’s based upon. What never seems to be taken into consideration is that video games & tabletop games are different. The greatest strength of tabletop games is tactical infinity. When you’re dealing with a GM rather than a computer, you can attempt to solve a problem using any kind of solution which comes into your head. Video games are incapable of that, it is their great weakness. One of the great strengths of video games is that computers can automatically keep track of the rules, and perform complex calculations instantly. Since humans can’t do either of those things, tabletop games (even the most complex ones) use mechanics which are simple in comparison with most video games. So by forcing a video game to comply with the rules of a tabletop game, you end up with a game that takes the worst parts of both mediums, and ends up with the best parts of neither.
  2. MMORPGs fail. I know World of Warcraft is going to falter eventually, but after seven years of completely unchallenged dominance, is Pathfinder Online really going to unseat it? I’ve started playing a little game with myself every time an MMORPG is released. I estimate how long it will be until the publisher excitedly announces that their game is now “Free to play!” An announcement which essentially means “so few people are playing our game that our only hope to make money off of it is to abandon the subscription model.” The announcement never requires more than a year after the game’s initial release.

That being said, I do have a certain amount of faith in Paizo. To use a ham-fisted simile, Paizo is kinda like the Blizzard of tabletop. They release exceptionally polished products, are an independent company* with a powerful fanbase, and both companies were founded by a bunch of D&D nerds. In fact, both companies also ripped their primary intellectual property off of another company. Warcraft is just a ripoff of Warhammer, and Pathfinder is just a continuation of Dungeons and Dragons 3.5. So given the faith that I have in Paizo as a publisher of quality products, I decided to look into the project a little more, and find out what there is to know about it.

Goblinworks FAQ page provided a great deal of information. Unfortunately I don’t qualify for a job with the company, but there is a lot which serves to allay my concerns. For example, “almost every Paizo employee that works on Pathfinder will be involved to some degree with Pathfinder Online.” That’s encouraging. Too many projects are ruined when the people working on the project don’t understand their source material. I suppose that’s one of the benefits of starting your own publishing studio.

I also find it very encouraging that Goblinworks is promoting feedback from the community. I have no illusions about it. There’s a good chance that Goblinworks is using the suggestion forum the same way Blizzard uses their suggestion forum: as a convenient way to keep people who want to bother them with suggestions busy. However, one of the things which makes Pathfinder a milestone game in the RPG industry is the massive “beta test” which took place in the months leading up to the game’s release. Paizo made PDFs of the Core Rulebook freely available online, and asked players to play the game, test it, and tell Paizo if they had any problems. I have a copy of the original Core Rulebook download on my hard drive still, and I can assure you that a lot changed between it and the print edition of the book. So it’s always possible that Goblinworks will actually keep an eye on the suggestions forum. Tabletop RPG players are creative people, so it certainly can’t hurt to listen to what they have to say.

And then there are these two quotes:

Pathfinder Online’s innovative archetype system includes specific paths of development that reflect the classes in the tabletop game, so if you want to play a character that mirrors a classic tabletop class, you’ll be able to do it. However, Pathfinder Online is driven by more diverse player activity than the classic adventurer-focused tabletop experience; Pathfinder Online players will be able to act as merchants, farmers, miners, teamsters, caravan guards, spies, and explorers, and in any other role the players choose to create. Characters will have a wide variety of skills to develop, allowing them to be highly customized to the player’s preference.

-&-

Characters in Pathfinder Online don’t have levels in the classic sense. They develop skills over time, and as their skills develop, and as they meet various prerequisites, they unlock new abilities similar to class features or feats from the tabletop game. Characters following an archetype path will be able to unlock a capstone ability much like the 20th-level capstone abilities in the Pathfinder RPG.

This is hugely encouraging to me. Perhaps I am being overly optimistic in saying this, but it sounds like Goblinworks is not only aware of the issue I discussed above in point 1, but has resolved to fix it. PFO sounds like it will be a delightfully complex game, which works for me. The gradual simplification of World of Warcraft is part of what turned me off to that game.

We are planning a hybrid subscription/free-to-play model. Players will have the option to pay a flat monthly fee for complete access to all standard game features, or to play for free with certain restrictions, using microtransactions to access desired features and content on an a la carte basis. Pricing details have not yet been finalized.

While this is not particularly interesting to me, it seems like an unusual payment system. Perhaps helpful in staving off the “NOW FREE TO PLAY” announcement a few months after the game’s release.

Yes. Several types of premium content can be purchased using microtransactions. This content includes “bling”—visual enhancements to the character or the character’s property that have no mechanical effect; a wide variety of mounts that let you customize your ride and show your personal sense of style; and adventure content packaged like classic adventure modules that you and your friends will be able to play through as a group.

I find this somewhat worrying. Microtransactions for bling doesn’t bother me. If somebody wants to spend a few bucks on a special hat, I’m fine with that. In WoW, I’m quite happy with my Lil’ KT minipet which cost my girlfriend $10. However, actual adventure content being purchasable skirts dangerously close to being a dealbreaker for me. I’ll be keeping an eye on that as the game’s development goes forward and we learn more.

The final line in the FAQ provides some of the most interesting information:

Most fantasy MMOs, including World of Warcraft, are “theme park” games. In theme parks, you’re expected to work your way through a lot of scripted content until you reach the end, and then you play end-game content while you wait for the developers to release more theme park content so you can continue to advance your character.

The other end of the MMO spectrum is the “sandbox” game. In sandboxes, you’re given a lot of tools and opportunities to create persistency in the world, then turned loose to explore, develop, find adventure, and dominate the world as you wish. You and the other players generate the primary content of the game by struggling with each other for resources, honor and territory. There is no “end game” and no level cap.

Pathfinder Online is a sandbox game with theme park elements. You’ll be able to create your own place in the world of Golarion, complete with complex social and economic systems. You’ll form ad-hoc or permanent groups ranging in size from small parties to large settlements and even huge nations, and interact with others in your world in a realistic, unscripted fashion. You’ll also be able to participate in scripted adventures, though, with the outcome of those adventures helping to determine the shape of your world.

This all sounds pretty awesome to me. But as a more experienced MMO player pointed out to me: it sounds like a game which will be rife with griefing. I like to think Goblinworks will be aware of this issue and make sure they have a fool-proof solution in place before the game goes live, but we’ll see.

That’s essentially my outlook on the entire project right now, actually: we’ll see. Truth be told, there aren’t many reasons to believe that Pathfinder Online will have any more success than Warhammer Online or Age of Connan did. Every video game sounds good when the only thing we can talk about are concepts. However, I choose to have faith in Paizo, and through them Goblinworks. They’ve done right by me up to now, and I want to see them succeed.

I’ll see about examining the game & the people behind it more in depth as details emerge.

*Technically Blizzard is no longer independent, but their acquisition by Activision didn’t come until after the release of WoW’s second expansion. And the third expansion bombed so hard that subscriptions have plummeted. Coincidence? Probably.

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