Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Pathfinder Online

I've gotten quite a large number of emails from folks asking me my opinion about the recent announcement that Paizo had licensed its Pathfinder Roleplaying Game setting, Golarion, to a new company, Goblin Works, for the creation of a massive, multiplayer, online game. Truth be told, I don't know what to think. Aside from the fact that I don't play Pathfinder, I'm not particularly knowledgeable about the world of video games, let alone MMOs, I've played a few MMOs over the years -- I was once quite an avid World of Warcraft player -- but so are a lot of gamers out there. So, take anything I say here with a huge grain of salt.

Firstly and most obviously, there's the current state of the MMO genre. Everywhere I look, MMOs are going free-to-play, which suggests that it's getting harder and harder to convince gamers to shell out $15 a month for a subscription. World of Warcraft seems to be the only major MMO that hasn't gone completely free-to-play and even it has a rather open-ended free trial (to level 20). Now, it may well be that many of these free-to-play MMOs are still profitable. Indeed, I suppose they'd have to be on some level or else they'd have shut down by now. Even so, could a new MMO based on Pathfinder's setting turn enough profit in a crowded marketplace to be viable?

This brings me to my second thought: Pathfinder and Golarion. From what little that has been said so far, it would appear that, despite its name, one of the big selling points of this MMO will be its setting. In part that's probably because the OGL does not cover video games, meaning that Paizo can't use many (most?) aspects of its D20-derive ruleset in a video game. Or at least that's my understanding. I suppose it's possible that there's some way around this or that I've misunderstood the OGL all these years, but I don't think so. That means that Pathfinder Online won't be using the Pathfinder RPG system but something else, whatever that may be. Now I like Golarion as well as the next guy. It's a very well-done "generic but flavorful" fantasy setting that includes tons of terrific nods both to the hobby's past and to its pulp forebears. But is it interesting enough in itself to drive interest in this game?

So what is special about this MMO? According to Lisa Stevens:
It's going to focus around the characters you create, in a world that will grow out of your interactions, developing the way you choose to develop it. It takes place in the River Kingdoms of Golarion, with our own Kingmaker Adventure Path providing some of the inspiration. There will be an overarching storyline, and dungeons aplenty to explore, but where Pathfinder Online is going to thrive is in the ability of each of you to leave your mark on the world. Do you want to build a castle that you own and control? Go for it. Want to start a town and rally folks to your banner? Do that. Do you want to ally with the neighboring villages to form a new nation—or perhaps wage war on them instead? The choice is yours. Want to become the most feared bandit in the River Kingdoms? The path is available. Want to become the greatest armorer that Golarion has ever seen? All it takes is hard work. If you can imagine doing something in the world of Golarion, we want you to be able to do that in Pathfinder Online.
That makes it sound to be me as if Pathfinder Online is going to be somewhat sandbox-y but with a big dash of EVE Online's "fun with economics" model thrown in. No one should be surprised by this possibility, since Ryan Dancey is attached to Pathfinder Online and he worked for EVE's publisher, CCP, for the last few years. Could it be that Dancey thinks he's found a way to translate EVE's inexplicable popularity into a fantasy setting?

Finally, the fact that Pathfinder Online is being produced by a new company, Goblinworks, ought to give anyone pause. Creating a new MMO (or indeed any video game) isn't easy, so there's always a worry when you see a startup company taking on a big project like this. It's true that Dancey has experience at CCP, as does Mark Kalmes, who's also involved. But you need a talented and experienced team of people to launch an MMO and I wonder if Goblinworks will be able to assemble one.

Those are my initial thoughts based on very little information. As ever, I wish the Paizo crew all the best and hope this proves a worthwhile avenue for them, but I have my doubts.


  1. If Paizo is getting paid for the license, it's a good deal for them even if the MMO dies on the vine. It's like that RIFTS movie option that keeps getting renewed... the movie isn't getting made but Palladium is paid anyway so good on them.

    If Paizo is investing in the MMO, then things get interesting.

  2. There's no mention of a publisher for this game, so presumably Goblinworks is still looking for funding and this is just part of a publicity drive to attract interested.

    MMO's are very expensive and difficult to create, and take a lot of time to develop - even if everything works out nothing will be seen for years to come.

    This is a total non-story right now.

  3. If Paizo is investing in the MMO, then things get interesting.

    I think some Paizo people, like Stevens, are investing in Goblinworks, but I don't Paizo, as a corporate entity, is.

  4. I work in the MMO field, so I'm pretty dubious about this one. Unless they can recruit a top-notch, experienced team across ALL disciplines, there's no way. It's just too competitive and too expensive to make it on sweat and enthusiasm alone.

    Pathfinder may seem like a big fish in the pen-and-paper field, but it has zero mindshare in the mass market. The game will have to sell itself on its own merits, rather than riding a popular IP (LotR, Star Wars, and to a lesser extend D&D).

  5. The investor buy-in min is $100k per the website. That, and the development costs that I've heard ascribed to new games (many millions), suggest a whole mess of risk for all involved.

  6. Reviewing the OGL, I'm not seeing any problems with creating a video game based on OGL content. Indeed, any such restrictions would almost certainly also hit tools like PCGen. To the extent that the program contains tables of information about monsters, spells, and the like, that might count as publishing and necessitate publishing the text of OGL, but that's about it. The court rulings are quite clear that copyright can only cover a particular phrasing of rules, not the fundamental rules themselves; turning rules into code would certainly count as rephrasing.

    As for Goblinworks being a new company, that's not necessarily a problem. First, what is the scope they are trying for. MMOs include many successful smaller games like A Tale in the Desert and Puzzle Pirates, both of which were created by relatively small teams. Second, Goblinsworks may have or be working to acquired skilled designers and developers with experience.

  7. They've said in the FAQ on Goblinworks that the system will not be the Pathfinder RPG system, the system will not be OGL, the system will not have classes, and the system will not have levels.

  8. First of all I'd like to say that I like this idea as it gets back to many of the ideas behind original D&D/Chainmail. Definitely old school, even pre-old school, if done properly.

    I believe they formed Goblinworks to provide an economic and legal firewall between Paizo and the MMO so they don't suffer a Multisim style disaster.* The reason it's a new company rather than an established studio is, as The Iron Goat says, that Golarion has effectively zero mind share in the wider community, so why would anyone licence the property when they could do it in house and control the IP themselves.

    The reason it's an MMO is because (a) it's what Ryan has experience of, (b) it allows players to put their holdings in direct competition with each other, and (c) it's easier to create the rules by which a marketplace functions than it is to create that marketplace from the whole cloth.

    The problem with MMOs are that they are expensive to run, both in servers and moe importantly, active support, and the return from users dramatically diminishes over time. Various methods have been tried to amortise this, but given the rate of improvement of computer gaming, well, last year's stuff is so old hat. [WoW escapes this by having created a large degree of personal investment in their characters and being the 800lb supergorilla that was there first.]

    Personally rather than a vanilla MMO I think that they might work better as a highly distributed network (ala bittorrent) where essentially each player hosts "their" domain. Although that will require some clever finessing over the downtime, and some correllation between game time and real time - as an invasion might happen when you are not online to react to it. So most of the game is actually hosted on your computer as a signgle player game and only intrusions into your domain invoke the server. It would increase reliance on NPC automata - you'd send your Herald to negotiate with a neighbouring domain as a normal matter of course, or arrange a time where you could physically meet and talk.

    Although a single-player or cooperative version of this would probably work as well, especially if you just use the central servers to record people's domain states to provide a ubiquitous source of "NPC domains" that are intelligently developed of the various types. This is probably the approach I would take.

  9. Hm, after reading this, I think I'm more optimistic than when I first heard about the Pathfinder Online. My first thought was that obviously the game has to be a level-based adventuring thing, not unlike WoW, and that seems to be a recipe for failure.

    There are a lots of reasons for this, so I'll not elaborate here otherwise than to say that games which have tried to win WoW by doing the exactly same thing but with less Stuff haven't exactly succeeded.

    I've played EVE online for quite a long time now, and there are many things done well in it. I hope Dancey can use at least some of that experience in Pathfinder. Main things here would be a persistent game world, and only one of them, and no class-level mechanics.

    The second one might be hard to accomplish, though, but there might be hope. Or they could do it well, which isn't impossible.

    Not that I'd have much time to play it, though.

  10. I teach both Contract & IP Law for a living as a UK academic. I've just read through the OGL and it makes no reference to video games.

    "4. Grant and Consideration: In consideration for agreeing to use this License, the Contributors grant You a perpetual, worldwide, royalty-free, non-exclusive license with the exact terms of this License to Use, the Open Game Content."

    There is no term restricting use to non-video-games. Open Game Content such as the SRD therefore can apparently be used in video games. This may conceivably clash with some other license WoTC has granted, such as a license to use their IP in video games, but that is WoTC's problem, not the licensee's problem. A contract can not bind a third party to the contract.

  11. Ooo, the new Neverwinter game is evidently supposed to be an MMO and will be post spellplague Faerûn.

    In short: Faerûn vs. Golarion...FIGHT!

    Now if we could just get one on the x-box and the other on the playstation for maximum bloodshed.

  12. I'm not much of a Pathfinder fan, so this affects me little other than being yet another game my friends will try to get me to spend money on, only to watch it fail like Conan, Warhammer, Vanguard, etc. Even having played Patherfinder for a year or so before giving up on the 3.X derived rule sets entirely, i can't recall one time we ever used Golarian as a setting, its barely mentioned in any of the cores books, or than a very short listing of gods, so unless your a fan of Adventure Paths, which none of the people i play with are, you would never know it included its own settings. Obviously we aren't the main audience, as Paizo's adventures remain popular, but i don't think its enough to build an MMO on.

  13. S'mon said: "I teach both Contract & IP Law for a living as a UK academic... There is no term restricting use to non-video-games. Open Game Content such as the SRD therefore can apparently be used in video games."

    I fully agree with that (in my utterly amateur reading). In fact, the OGL's broad category of permitted Derivative Works is said to be "(including into other computer languages)". [item 1(b)]

    Where it was explicitly prohibited was in the 3E d20 System Trademark Guide: "You may not use the d20 System License or the d20 System Logo in conjunction with any product that meets the definition of an 'Interactive Game' as defined in this Guide." [v1.0, p. 10]* So that's where the recollection from a lot of people comes from, I think.

    * "'Interactive Game': means a piece of computer gaming software that is designed to accept inputs from human players or their agents, and use rules to resolve the success or failure of those inputs, and return some indication of the results of those inputs to the users." [p. 3]

  14. You're right that I was confusing the provisions of the d20 STL regarding computer games and the OGL. Given that, one wonders why it is that Pathfinder Online won't be using similar rules to those of the tabletop game.

  15. I'll preface these comments by saying that I'd rather have my toenails ripped out than play an MMO. In my experience, they basically automate and encourage the two worst aspects of tabletop RPGs. That is rampant munchkin-ism combined with a widespread aversion to character role play. It's basically false labeling to include RP in the acronym MMORPG. Still, I have played in the past, and have family members who still play them.

    This can't hurt Paizo at all. For them, any publicity is good publicity, and the money is cream in the coffee. I'm not sure what Goblinworks get out of the deal. Really, there's only a handful of original pen and paper RPG settings out there that have enough name cache outside of the hobby to really drive interest. Forgotten Realms is obviously the prime example, World of Darkness is another, Eberron to a much lesser extent, and that's about it. Golarion doesn't even begin to show up on that list, at least not yet. For all the relative success of Pathfinder, there aren't enough Pathfinder players out there to drive the success of an MMO vs. Goblinworks developing their own original setting. I suppose it does save Goblinworks having to spend the time and creative effort on creating their own setting, but I don't see it driving that many additional sales or subscriptions.

    Re. not using the OGL, my belief is that the OGL is done as a video game mechanic. It was never popular with MMOs years ago (D&D Online being the exception), and even in more traditonal computer RPGs, it's been abandoned at this point. The state of the art for character improvement in Computer RPGs and many MMOs is so far ahead of the plain vanilla D&D level system that I don't think it would be compelling to an MMO player at this point.

  16. As much as I like Pathfinder (don't worry, I like retro stuff too :P), I don't think this MMO would be a bright idea.

    The mainstream crow has probably never heard about Pathfinder. It'll be pretty tough surviving in a market that is dominated by WoW and was literally flooded with MMO's based on pretty well-known licenses.

    The Pathfinder players on the other hand will probably not like the fact that the game uses a completely different game system. And some might not even care all that much about Golarion.

    Maybe Goblin Works should've started with something more Baldur's-Gate-ish?

  17. "It's basically false labeling to include RP in the acronym MMORPG."

    I'd second that - and I think the bleed of mechanics, attitude and expectations back from MMORPGs and CRPGs - neither of which are RPGs any more than contemporary RnB is Rhythm and Blues - damages role playing games. They do push new players that way, though, so...

  18. Considering that even such gold-standard mythoi as Hyboria and Middle Earth could not even make a dent against the endless parade of in-jokes and blatant lore theft that is WoW's Azeroth, you have to wonder what chance Golarian can possibly have.

    Hell's bells, even GW couldn't do it with their long-running, detailed Warhammer Fantasy setting and its large, rabid fanbase.

    (Although it was grand to see Gotrek and Felix in the flesh, as it were...)

  19. Ok, so now everyone who used the un-argument "4e is a MMO" must stop playing Pathfinder since it literally will be a MMO?