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How Pathfinder Online Squeezed Blood from a Stone
by Alex Wickersham

I’ve heard that in marketing, the population is segmented by how much people are willing to pay for a product of a given type. In intellectual property, entertainment, computer programs, any sort of digital bits, there’s always a large segment of the population that has a maximum price point of zero. In other words, they’ll use it if they can get it for free. And if you’re marketing a product that you want to make money on, you will waste a lot less effort and money if you can find a way to market your product to everyone but them.

I’m one of these consumers. My budget for entertainment products is zero. Actually, if you do the math, it’s slightly less than zero: I’m an independent worker with an irregular income. After necessities, in a given month, most of what I earn has to be saved in case the next month I don’t earn as much. At some point I generally fall behind, meaning that at any given moment, my total entertainment budget has fallen into negative numbers. This is why I don’t spend money on video games. I play what I can get for free, when I have time to play at all. I play the version of Angry Birds with the ads on it. 99 cents is too much.

So how did I go from spending zero on entertainment to backing Goblinworks’s Pathfinder Online MMO project on Kickstarter bazed on Paizo Publishing’s Pathfinder at the $175 Crowdforger Buddy level? Well, I did get quite a bit of work this last month, so that definitely plays a role, although the smart thing for me to do would be, again, to save it for a rainy day. But the Pathfinder Online project speaks to me. Its value proposition is especially worthwhile to me. Why? Because the project as proposed is attempting to address everything I hate about MMOs and finally do it right.

I’ve played some (free to play, recall, entertainment budget = 0) MMOs that I won’t name here, but the theme park-style game is completely uninteresting to me. Sure, I’ve played hack and slash dungeon crawl video games before and had fun, but why would I pay a monthly fee just to play Diablo I on the same server where a bunch of other people are also running around playing Diablo I, possibly joining into groups that provide just about the same level of human interaction as hiring an NPC, except they don’t do what you say, and creating a situation where anyone who doesn’t play obsessively all day every day falls way behind the curve in PvE groups or PvP combat? It just feels like a fool’s errand. Why do I need to be online to do a dungeon crawl?

It’s clear when you hear them talk about their project that the designers at Pathfinder Online understand this way of thinking. It’s certainly up in the air how well they’ll do at it, but if they meet their design goals, they will have a very different kind of MMO. The goal of the project really appears to be to create a world that people collectively build and interact in, not a PvE shared waiting room with doors to different dungeons or a PvP free-for-all bloodbath where Scumbag John waits by your spawn point to stab you in the back.

This is actually one of the most controversial aspects of the game, based on the conversations I’ve seen on forums: the fact that there is only one big server. But despite the fact that being new at these games, I will be an easy target for griefers, this actually makes sense to me. If you have to choose a world with violence and a world without violence, only people who are planning to murder each other will choose the first world, where people who choose the second world will miss out on the point of the game, which is to live in a world where there is crime and punishment, war and diplomacy, building up cities and burning and looting them, the kinds of thing that make for story, plot, and meaning, especially when they happen organically, as intended by the designers of this game. And in order to make this work, the bloodthirsty and the innocent have to learn to get along in the same world.

In a system where you need certain resources to do certain things, a functional economy will be created in the game that will necessitate adventuring. So instead of the NPC tavern owner sending you down to his basement to kill some rats, a real-life tavern owner ($5000 on the Kickstarter) might actually have giant rats in his basement that he needs you to kill. Or more likely, a new settlement will need some recruits to go clear out some goblins, or an artificer will need someone to go kill some giant spiders because she needs their furry legs for some kind of potion.

In other words, you may end up doing similar things in this game that you might be doing as quests for NPCs, but you’ll be doing them for a real person who really needs those items to do what they want to do in the game. Or you’ll be engaged as a soldier in actual battle lines between two guilds that are really at war. Again, as the developers put it, this is meaningful interaction between human players, something I’ve always wanted in an MMO and something I don’t believe exists in most MMOs today.

This is the kind of thing you see in EVE Online, of course (although speaking of futuristic space MMOs, what I’d really like to see and would pay every dollar I can scrounge and every penny I can find in my couch for would be an Eclipse Phase MMO), but the design concept isn’t EVE with ElVEs. They’re proposing better controls on griefing, as well as real penalties for general bloodthirsty behavior. You will be allowed to take vengeance on your murderer, making more of their stuff lootable after killing an innocent player and being marked as an acceptable target without an alignment shift or reputation drop, even including safeguards against workarounds like having a friend kill them to have their curse lifted without getting looted, by connecting the curse system to the player who was killed and other players of their choice.

But most importantly, the level curve is not as extreme in other MMOs. The design concept is for someone who’s been playing longer to be more powerful than new players, of course, but nowhere near unstoppable. If they do it right, these will be interactions between more and less powerful people of the same species rather than one player being a bug to be stepped on by another player who is a god. This is an extremely important feature for me as a person who doesn’t have time to play all day every day. As an independent worker, I could spend a month with zero time to play (but my character will still be gaining experience) and then follow that up with a week of having nothing better to do than play, but I won’t fall too far behind.

Of course, being new to these games, I do understand that there will be a learning curve for me, but I’m hoping the system will make it possible to survive as a casual player and get something out of the game. I’m sure Scumbag John is itching to prove me wrong. But I’m glad that by backing the project, I get access to the Crowdforger early enrollment beta, which will hopefully make me powerful enough at open enrollment that experienced PvP MMO players coming in won’t terrorize me from the get-go.

John’s still going to kill me, though. I’m sure of it.

Of course, there are some things I would add to what they’re planning to include in this MMO. For one thing, I think they should incorporate secret societies in addition to guilds, an affiliation that you don’t wear on your sleeve. It would be sort of a Kobold Fight Club, or an Illuminati, or secret cults that you could join, but that other people can’t tell you’re in, unless, for example, they kill you and find a ring or other item identifying your affiliation. It would add an interesting level of intrigue. Another great feature in settlement building would be the ability to design your own structures. The building blocks of castle pieces could be individually purchased and placed to create the structures each settlement wants. It worked for Minecraft. But as this project is being crowdforged, hopefully ideas like these (and the idea that we should all be able to play lizardmen and kobolds and goblins) will be taken into account by the designers. Eventually. When they have time.

The best roleplaying game sessions are the ones in which a good game master can roll with what the players do, and provide realistic consequences to their actions in a realistic world. Based on the design concepts, this is the MMO that sounds like it will come closest to simulating that kind of GM experience, not by attempting to code realistic NPC dialogue or anything like that, but by actually creating a world where the roles usually filled by NPCs are filled by real people with their own goals and needs in a functional economy and a very real community, a complete online world.

So if this sounds like as much fun to you as it does to me, help Goblinworks meet their Kickstarter funding goal and make an honest gamer out of me. I don’t know if I’m representative of any kind of demographic, but if Pathfinder Online managed to get me to open my wallet for them, they must be doing something right. So look for me in the River Kingdoms when Pathfinder Online comes out. I’ll be the one with John’s dagger in my back.

Comments (7)

Ardent FinderJanuary 6th, 2013 at 9:07 am

I play EVE. They seem to be taking the best aspects of EVE and tempering down the parts that drive other people away. Mix that with the Pathfinder flavor and I think this looks very promising, conceptually.

I only hope that there is enough continuing interest to make it sustainable in the long-term. Quality is not always synonymous with profitability/sustainability, more’s the pity.

Fingers crossed.

KevinJanuary 6th, 2013 at 3:07 pm

I’m not sure why secret societies would need to be included in the coding. If there is a desire for such a thing, it will come about on its own, through networks of instant-messenger contacts and such. If they were included in the code of PFO, people would still create the out-of-game version because it’s more secure, with no way to be revealed. If you are not sure someone is a member of the secret society, there’s no need for a secret handshake emote or a ring (which may become recognizable to all and thus useless as a ‘secret’), you could just have a sign & countersign system that changes its words on a regular basis.

Dale McCoyJanuary 7th, 2013 at 6:58 am

Question for you Alex: Would you be interested in being a reviewer? Many smaller game companies give PDF products away for free in exchange for reviews. Whether player focused or GM focused, Pathfinder Compatible publishers can have you covered in more game material than you can use in a lifetime, all for free, as long as you take a little time to read over the material and write a fair review. How does that sound to you?

AlexJanuary 7th, 2013 at 10:13 am

Well, I do like free stuff. I don’t have an unlimited amount of time, but when I do have some, I’d be happy to give it a try. You can contact me at subscriptorium at gmail.

LucekJanuary 9th, 2013 at 1:44 pm

My experience is when a MMO developer promises you everything, expect noting, and be prepared to be disappointed even then. I’m not backing the kickstarter (mostly because I’m against kickstarter as a company but that’s beside the point) and I’m not going to be paying month to month till I get good reviews of people who play the 1.0+ versions. Heck I’m probably not even going to have the option as likly as not they’ll be using direct X or some piece of crappy software that will tell me “your copy of windows looks funny so I’m not letting you play”.

The only thing I have to say for pay for a beta. I’ve no problem paying for a beta. I have a problem renting a beta. I’m one of the old school thinkers who still hates monthly fees just to play. If nothing else It encourages me to play the game as close to 24/7 so I don’t feel I’m not getting my moneys worth. I understand it’s a workable business model but I’m sitting here thinking I can buy WoW for $0.03/minute or I can buy a crappy steam game for a few bucks and play it till the day I die (and for a lot of games probably will).

But all that aside. The kickstarter does tel me something. This is a subscription game not even in open beta yet, and they already have pay to win content. Fuck that.

AnonymousJanuary 14th, 2013 at 12:49 am

@Lucek

While the game is in “Early Enrollment”, which is what I believe you are referring to when you mention “beta,” the game will be subscription only. However, after that it will be free to play with microtransactions, like many games nowadays. “Renting a beta” is a misleading phrase, as it is not really a beta, and not really renting. It is the full game, but because content is generated by players, it is not totally ‘done’. There will be no open beta, as the beta testing is before Early Enrollment, and there is no pay to win content. The Daily Deal items (which I assume you are referring to) will have negligible in-game effects, and are mostly just for coolness’ sake. The benefits of training time (which can also be purchased with in-game currency) and the perks granted from the Kickstarter are there because there should be some reason why a person would pay for the game. No payment results in no profits, of course. The removal of the steep level curve in most MMO’s should prevent these paid benefits from making the game pay-to-win.

LucekJanuary 17th, 2013 at 2:31 pm

What I’m hearing is “they’re not calling it an open beta” but you know what you just described an open beta. Let’s call a spade a spade. Oh and I heard the episode and read the same pressers.

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