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Interview: Ryan Scott Dancey on Pathfinder Online

From humble beginnings the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game has seen a meteoric rise in popularity over the last few years, to the point where it’s now challenging the mighty Dungeon & Dragons‘ status as the pre-eminent tabletop RPG. Now owners Paizo are branching the property out into the video game market with Pathfinder Online, an ambitious, Kickstarter-funded MMO. It’s being developed by Goblinworks, a new development studio formed by several industry veterans. I spoke to Goblinworks CEO Ryan Scott Dancey about his upcoming title.

This is Pathfinder and Golbinworks’, first foray into the video game market. What made you choose the MMO genre for your first title?

When I left CCP one of the first things I did was call and ask Paizo if they had an MMO plan for Pathfinder. They responded “we have a plan to make a plan – come up and tell us what we need to know”. The Pathfinder IP is a great fit for MMOs so it was easy to explain my concept for using it as a the basis of a fantasy sandbox game.

Pathfinder still hadn’t had the explosive growth spurt it’s experiencing now, so it didn’t have much visibility with video game producers at that time. I was just lucky to be first.

One of the stand-out features of the Pathfinder brand is their focus on creating engaging and unique monthly adventure paths. Will you be taking inspiration from these, and if so, how will you approach the concept in game?

Story is a fundamental backbone of the tabletop RPG strategy. The online game is built around the idea that the players interactions ARE the story, so we won’t be telling the same kinds of stories as the Pathfinder tabletop game. Over the very long term, we think we have some ideas for “arcs” of content that will create story-like experiences but we’re focusing on making the game a great sandbox first, before we start thinking about how to accomplish that.

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Pathfinder is built around the Open Gaming License of the venerable and popular D&D 3.5 edition rule-set, but Pathfinder Online is going instead for a classless skill system similar to EVE Online. Could you tell us a little more about how this will work, and why you decided not to use the tabletop rules?

The Open Gaming License is fundamentally incompatible with videogame design. The OGL requires that it be the only license that applies to Open Game Content. Most videogames (including ours) are built with tools that have their own licensing terms, and then for an MMO, we will have Terms of Service and a standard End User License Agreement which will describe and limit what players can do with the software. That is incompatible with the OGL.

The d20 tabletop rules are not a good fit for a real-time MMO experience either. We need a game that allows characters to be developed over very long periods of real-time – years of real-time, whereas the Pathfinder game is built around the idea that a character advances from 1st to 20th level in a couple of hundred hours of play.

The Pathfinder tabletop game is also focused on a very narrow range of characters: adventuring heroes. The online game is a super-set of the characters from the tabletop game. We also need explorers, diplomats, spies, soldiers, merchants, crafters, politicians, teamsters, and a hundred other specialties.

These things require us to create a game system that is evocative of the tabletop game rules and that will be immediately familiar to the players of the tabletop game, but are built from the ground up to meet our unique needs.

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How closely will you be working with the tabletop team in the creation of the game? Will they be involved in the writing, character and mission designs?

There’s a clean separation between Paizo and Goblinworks. The only person with a job in both companies is Lisa Stevens.

How do you intend to approach PvP combat?

Aggressively. It’s a primary focus of the design. One of our guiding principles is to “maximize meaningful human interaction”, and combat is one of the most meaningful interactions that players can experience. So we’re spending a massive amount of time working on those systems.

Player crafting and communities seem to be a major theme in Pathfinder Online, could you tell us some of the ways in which players can impact the world outside of combat?

The game’s sandbox design is based on the fundamental idea that players are the driving force in the game world. Most of the items in the economy will be crafted by players. Most of the buildings will be created by players, from player-generated components. Players will be able to destroy those buildings as well. Players will drive the economics, politics, and warfare of the game totally.

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The MMO genre is a particularly tightly contested one. What makes Pathfinder Online stand out amongst the crowd?

When we begin Early Enrollment next year, it will be the only modern fantasy sandbox MMO with a balanced approach to PvP, PvE, crafting, and kingdom building.

We’ve seen some great successes with Kickstarter recently, but also some high-profile failures. What are your experiences using the model, and what were your reasons for choosing it?

Kickstarter was a near-perfect solution for us. It allowed us to raise a lot of money, quickly, without the complications of debt or equity. That money was crucial to allowing us to bootstrap from “some good ideas” to a fully staffed development team and target a very aggressive release schedule. It allowed us to secure additional investment to meat the budget of the project by demonstrating clearly that there’s a lot of interest in the game and that interest can be translated into revenue.

Long term it also gives us a great contact list of backers who will form the initial players in the game and become the seed of our social network and community – folks we have the ability to communicate with directly via email and in many cases we also have mailing address info as well.

Kickstarter also raised our visibility with potential investors, with the media, and with the industry as a whole, in a way that would have been very expensive to replicate with traditional marketing.

The author of this fine article

is a Staff Writer at Thunderbolt, having joined in September 2012.

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