A Pathfinder Online Interview

An interview with the CEO of Goblinworks Inc. about the upcoming MMO and Kickstarter for Pathfinder Online

Originally posted at Kickstarter Converstaions.


Welcome back to another Kickstarter Conversation!  Today I am surprised to be bringing you Mr. Ryan Dancey the CEO of Goblinworks Inc to talk about his company’s Kickstarter Pathfinder Online.  Thank you for joining us today Mr. Dancey it’s a pleasure!

Glad to be here! I love talking to those who want to know more.
This isn’t your first time to the Kickstarter rodeo as it were, the last time you brought Pathfinder Online to Kickstarter you ended up raising six times the goal amount.    This time however you’re asking amount is twenty times your original goal as well as “returning to the well” as it were for the same project.  How much has your prior experience with Kickstarter helped out with the launch of this latest one?  Do you think having multiple Kickstarters for the same project hurts your funding at all or does having well defined “goals” for each of those individual Kickstarters alleviate any feeling of “double dipping?”  

We worked very hard to make sure people understood that the first Kickstarter was for the Technology Demo; basically a small project that demonstrated our team's ability to use all the tools and middleware necessary to develop the game.

That Technology Demo allowed us to secure the funding we need to put the game into production.  But if we can raise additional money, we can make the game bigger, better, and faster than we are currently able.

The second Kickstarter is a chance for fans to help us do exactly that.  Reaching our million-dollar funding goal will knock a lot of time off our current production schedule, and we have even more chances to accelerate the timeline once we meet the initial goal and are hitting stretch goals.

No one has ever funded an MMO on Kickstarter at the scale that we're attempting.  Nobody knows if the platform will be able to marshal the necessary support for the project.  We're hopeful that the success of our first project is an indication that there will be enough support to succeed with the second.

Why should folks care about Pathfinder Online?  Isn’t Pathfinder just a Dungeons and Dragons Spin off?  Haven’t we done the “Fantasy MMO” to death already?

Most MMOs are what we call "theme park" games.  The primary mode of interaction is between the player and the environment.  Change is not persistent.  Players have a limited (if any) ability to affect the game world.  Since the release of World of Warcraft in 2004, we have seen more than a dozen high profile, big budget AAA theme park MMOs released, and they all follow the exact same trajectory - a big initial spike in play, followed about 3 to 6 months later with a big drop in players, and then server consolidations and downsizing of staff and support.

Pathfinder Online will be a different kind of game, which we call a sandbox.  Sandbox games are primarily focused on the way players interact with each other.  In fact, the foundation of our game design is "maximizing meaningful human interaction".  Sandbox games offer a high degree of persistence.  Players make meaningful changes to the game environment.  They are responsible for making most of the items and buildings in the world, they define the borders of territory, and as they play the game, the game world itself adapts to reflect the actions they're taking.

Sandbox games have a long history in MMOs.  One of the very first commercial games, Ultima Online began its life as a sandbox.  EVE Online was released in 2003, and grew every year for 10 years after its release.
So you’re making EVE Online in a fantasy setting?  What makes sandboxes better than Theme parks for future MMO’s?  

Sandboxes develop in a different way than theme parks.  A sandbox game needs to grow slowly at first to allow the population to spread out and establish a working economic and territorial system.  Instead of trying to post a huge number of players on release, sandboxes start small, but grow steadily over time and can become quite large.  EVE Online has more than 350,000 players!

Sandboxes are more engaging.  Once you've done all the content in a theme park MMO, all that is left is repetitive play; either playing a different character type from start to finish, or playing end-game raid content.  Neither of these things if very satisfying, which is why theme parks have that "boom & bust" business model.

Sandboxes engage you over a long period of time.  They don't have "end games" so you never run out of things to do.  As your time in the game increases you find yourself connecting with more and more people which gives you more and more chances to do something interesting.  It's a positive feedback loop.

Do you think Pathfinder Online is only appealing to us older gamers who remember when MMO’s were MMO RPGs that actually involved role playing and not just gaming or are newer MMO players demanding a deeper experience as well?  

I don't think Pathfinder Online has a target age demographic.  It has a target player mindset.  If you want to play a game where you can explore, adventure, develop and dominate in a fantasy world like that familiar to you from books, movies, tabletop and video games, and you're tired of theme park experiences, we have something new and interesting to offer you.

I see you’ve been using the term “Crowdforging” versus just plain old crowd funding.  Is that just a fun play on words with the theme or are does it represent a major difference from normal crowdfunding?

Crowdforging is the term we've coined that reflects a development process we think is unique in the history of MMOs.

Crowdforging means that we are going to engage the players directly as a part of the design process.  Sandboxes allow this level of deep integration because unlike a theme park, a sandbox game is not feature complete when people start playing it.  

During the initial phase of the game, which we call Early Enrollment, players are going to be involved in helping select features to be developed, prioritize those selections, and give input on how they're implemented and how they are balanced against other game features.

Crowdforging represents the next step in game development; the idea that the players have a vested interest in how the game is designed and have earned a seat at the table where those decisions are made.

   I’m going to preface my next questions with your standard caveat, that what we are going to talk about are proposed and planned systems and ideas that are completely subject to change.  

With that out of the way let’s start off with a pretty bold statement at the top of your Kickstarter page.  Are you really going to let players create their own settlements and eventually forming Kingdoms?  Actually making a long term mark on the game world before launch?  


Settlements are the key element of the game design around which all the rest of the systems orbit.

A Settlement is a collection of players who have joined together to pursue shared goals.  But it is also a physical location in the game where they will construct a variety of buildings which enable them to develop characters as they see fit.

Settlements control territory.  Once established, a Settlement dominates its part of the world (what we call a "hex", a nod to the days of tabletop games where hexagon graph paper was used to describe geography).  In order to make a Settlement, a group will either have to find a Hex that is empty, or destroy an existing Settlement.  That creates a powerful territorial dynamic as Settlements rise and fall on the basis of their social cohesion and economic, political and military successes.

Several Settlements can join together to form a Kingdom.  Kingdoms will unlock the highest level structures, needed for the most difficult character abilities.  Kingdoms will need to defend multiple Settlements and the internal politics will be deep and complex.

The initial Settlements are being seeded now, through the Guild Land Rush program.  People who choose the Crowdforger Guild Kickstarter pledge level are eligible to have a Guild name posted on the Guild Leaderboard.  Their guild members can indicate their affiliation by voting on that Leaderboard.  

The top-ranked Guilds will draft for land in the initial starting area of the game.  Over time, they'll develop embryonic Settlements on that land.  When territorial control is introduced (the ability to destroy Settlements and establish new Settlements) they'll have to fight for their lives!  But until then, they'll provide a stable infrastructure for the development of Settlement-level systems as the game is built.

Your Pathfinder Online Character blog definitely lays out a different kind of MMO character that actually feels more like a pen and paper character.  Are you really planning on us taking two years to have anyone get a capstone ability?

Yes.  For context, 20% of the people who played EVE Online the first month it was released in 2003 are still playing it today.  Players tend to go through a cycle where they are active, then inactive, then reactivate, that 20% isn't the same 20% all the time.  But it represents the long-term stability of these kinds of games.  Having long-term objectives is a key part of making the game meaningful and interesting for years, rather than months.

While I agree that really does bring personal accomplishment and notoriety to players reaching “max level” which is more in keeping with a Pen and Paper game are online gamers really interested in that kind of system?  

The success of EVE Online indicates that they are.  But there are other indicators as well, like the number of people who participate in high-end raiding Guilds in World of Warcraft, who dedicate years of time to staying at the top of the "server first" lists.
How is a player like my wife who is enjoying the sometimes play of Guild Wars 2 going to take it when there are literally years away from doing “the really cool stuff” as it were?

Ah!  That's the key!

Your wife will be doing "the really cool stuff" as soon as she starts playing.  There's no "end game" in Pathfinder Online.  The "really cool stuff" happens because players need each other to accomplish goals.  There are absolutely necessary things that new players can do that more experienced characters will want them for.  Sometimes just having lookouts and scouts is valuable to a group operation like mining or harvesting, or transporting materials from one place to another.  Sometimes it's necessary to keep beating back the incursions of fairly low-level monsters; work that more experienced characters don't have time or the inclination to do, but if they're left unchecked, matters can escalate all out of control; sending in new characters to control those incursions will be important to the security of many Settlements.

As a character ages, it doesn't become orders of magnitude more powerful like a World of Warcraft character.  Instead, it maxes out the potential for one line of development, and then begins to pursue another.  So old characters have a lot of diverse abilities allowing them to do many different things well.  A new character is advised to focus on doing one thing, and that focus is rewarded by reaching a high degree of competence reasonably quickly.

Going back to the Guild Wars 2 reference, your “action bar” setup sounds very much like Guild Wars system.  How much do you think the proposed weapon skill variations will differentiate you from the Guild Wars 2 system?  For example having two different characters using the same sword but only having first three abilities be the same yet the next three be selectable based on skills or maybe not available at all!

We're not modeling our UI on any one game.  What we're seeking to do is create meaningful choices that players make that define what they can do at any given point in the game.  Being outfitted as a wizard means that you accept certain risks - there are strengths and weaknesses in the kind of gear you use to cast arcane magic.  If you find yourself in a situation where you wish you were wearing heavy armor and swinging a sword, you'll have to retreat, find a place to change gear setups, and then return to the encounter later.  Or you can try to figure out how to make your current gear setup work even in hostile environments.

We're also focused on the idea that gear should not define if a character is powerful or not.  We're using a system of conditional keywords.  High-level gear has a lot of keywords.  That must means that such gear can do a variety of things if, and only if, the character using the gear has the requisite abilities to activate those keywords.

So if I give a newbie character a vorpal flaming humanbane weapon, in that newbies hands, it's just a sword.  But in an experienced vet's hands, some or all of those keywords may match abilities that character has, and that weapon becomes much more powerful.

Those kinds of abilities are the things you'll be choosing to enable in the UI, and thus choosing to have available as you play.  Different sets of abilities and keywords will give you different sets of options.

So making another obvious comparison, this time with EVE Online, how are you avoiding the whole “Spread sheets in space” problem EVE has with many.

I think that there's room for spreadsheets in the River Kingdoms, to be honest.  A lot of people in EVE enjoy playing the market, and that means keeping track of all sorts of data from prices of commodities and finished goods to the various manufacturing processes involved, and tracking supply and demand.  It's not everyone's cup of tea but there's a HUGE population of people who enjoy it.

Combat in Pathfinder Online will be more visceral and immediate than combat in EVE.  In EVE, you can zoom your display out and just treat ships as icons on a radar display, firing weapons and using defensive systems in the very abstract.  Pathfinder Online will require you to pay more attention to managing your position and facing relative to other combatants.  It won't be "twitch" gaming like a First Person Shooter, but it will require your full attention on the details to become an excellent warrior.

Since the game allows PvP pretty much everywhere, as well as looting other players corpses how is encumbrance, transports, and storage going to be in game?  Most MMO’s let you carry everything including the kitchen sink inside massive bags of holding, how different is your system going to be?  

You will never be able to carry most of what you own on your back, once you've ceased being a "clueless newbie".  

The rule in Pathfinder Online is "don't travel with what you can't afford to lose".  In a classic theme park, you buy the best armor you can wear and the best weapon you can wield.  In a sandbox game, that's folly, because if you're attacked you could lose a material portion of your wealth.

Instead, you wear amor that's a fraction of your net worth, and carry weapons with the same level of cost.  When you are moving valuables from place to place you often do it as a group, with guards, scouts, healers, and contingency plans if you're attacked.

Transporting things in bulk will be a huge part of the emergent game play that fosters meaningful human interactions.  You'll need vehicles and mounts, maybe several, to move large quantities of materials from place to place.  That will attract attention.  And if you have to traverse dangerous ground, you'll have to be prepared to defend yourself.

Back in EVE I enjoyed being a delivery guy now and then moving stuff for my corporations.  Are you saying it will be important and rewarding for me to become a teamster  in this game to support the player economy?  

Yes, 100% correct.  There will be characters who do nothing but move other people's stuff from place to place.

I haven’t seen this brought up yet in the blogs or such but what kind of system do you have in mind for Kill stealing?  One of the things my wife enjoys about Guild Wars 2 is there isn’t any “marking” of a monster, every hit counts for everyone involved.  

I think that when it comes to PvE type encounters we'll be using the best practices from PvE centric games.  It's too early to comment on specific mechanics, but something like GW2's setup sounds quite reasonable to me.

The financial model you’ve announced so far seems to be a hybrid Free-to-Play /Subscription model where you either pay the monthly fee to by “skill time” or you can just buy skill time from the cash shop.  At the same time you’re going to allow skill time to be sold in game for in game money?  That sounds a bit like EVEs “PLEX” system which I dubbed the Play-to-Play system.  Can you elaborate a bit?

That's exactly right.

During Early Enrollment, we'll just be using subscriptions, because they're easy (for us and for the players).  As we add more complexity to the game systems we'll also be building the groundwork for microtransactions and a cash store.

After Release, you'll be able to choose how to pay to play - either subscriptions or via microtransactions.

The core of the microtransaction system is buying skill training time.  Unlike a lot of MMOs, but just like EVE Online, your character gains skill points in realtime - even when you're not logged in.  Those skill points are pre-requisites for unlocking character abilities.  You'll be able to purchase training time in increments ranging from a day to a month.

And here's the twist.  Like PLEX in EVE Online, you'll be able to sell that training time on the in-game markets for in-game Coin.  So by helping another player stay engaged, you'll be able to get extra wealth for your character!

We have not finalized the rules for how you'll be able to play when you switch to paying via microtransactions.  There will be a period of "free play" for people to try out the game before they commit, but we have not decided how (or if) to let people "play for free" if they're not currently either on subscription or buying training time.

An interesting part of your Kickstarter campaign is that you are doing “daily rewards” that accumulate based on when you pledged.  For instance my pledge started December 22nd, so am I really going to have like 24 items right at launch that are unique to the Kickstarter?  How hard is it to keep updating the Kickstarter page with your daily items?  How much of a problem is it going to cause fulfillment to add all those items to the accounts?

We try to update the page every day (although we're taking some days off for the holidays).  There is a new Daily Deal posted every day though, no matter what.  Updates are not hard, but they do require a lot of planning and thought.  We could spam the page with all sorts of trivia, but if we did that it would not be very productive.  instead, we put content on the page that we think might trigger someone who was on the fence about the project into being a backer, or giving people who don't know much about the game some depth of knowledge.

There's a constant tension between converting interested potential backers and educating folks who come to the project cold.  

Adding the Daily Deal items to people's accounts will be reasonably easy.  They're designed to be primarily "display" type items that you'll use to make your character look distinctive, rather than having meaningful mechanical benefits.  So they don't have to be balanced mechanically like items we expect to be used in combat will.

One of the keys of a successful Kickstarter project is backer participation.  How are you engaging your backers?  What kinds of things do you have planned for updates?  Interviews?  Videos?  Stories from the project?

We have thrown every idea we have at this Kickstarter, and then some.  :)

We send a backer update out once a day (except during the holidays) so there's a constant flow of information. We also post every day to our Facebook, Google+ and Twitter accounts about that day's news.

We're running several promotions, including the Daily Deal and the Guild Land Rush to give people an incentive to back the project and track its success.

And we have parts of the project that get better as we get closer to the project funding goal, to help incentivize people to recruit their friends.

What kind of media attention have you received with your project?  How are you spreading the word?  Facebook?  Twitter?  Google+? Youtube?  Advertising?  Are you using Kicktraq to help things along?

We've been featured on Fortune, CNN, Massively, PC Gamer, the Escapist, and other media outlets.  We are also running advertising on Facebook, Penny Arcade, and ad networks that serve MMO players.

Do you have any tips/advice would you give to anyone looking to start a Kickstarter?

Kickstarter is a wonderful place to monetize an existing community.  It is not a great place to try and build a community from scratch.  All the successful Kickstarters spring from existing communities of enthusiasts.  To be successful build or find that community for your category of products, and make them your champions and evangelists BEFORE you launch your Kickstarter.

Thank you for spending your time with us!  Do you have any final thoughts for our readers?

Thanks for the chance to spread the word!  If you're looking for an MMO that isn't just "another WoW-clone", we invite you to join the conversation about Pathfinder Online on our forums:

Thanks again and I hope to hear good things from your Kickstarter!

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