Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Pathfinder Online...

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Goblinworks Blog
A Journey of a Thousand Miles Begins with a Single Step

posted by Ryan Dancey on Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Hello and welcome! This is the first in a series of essays we'll be writing about the development of Pathfinder Online. We currently plan to post new blogs every two weeks on Wednesday, so keep an eye on this page for commentary on the project as it unfolds. You can also find us interacting with the community in the Pathfinder Online section of the Paizo messageboards.

My name is Ryan Dancey and I'm the CEO of Goblinworks, the company we have created to develop and publish the Pathfinder Online MMO. The staff and management of Goblinworks is separate from Paizo Publishing, although Lisa Stevens is both the CEO of Paizo and the COO of Goblinworks. We think that's the best arrangement to ensure a smooth integration of Paizo's role as owner and licensor of the Pathfinder world, and Goblinworks' role as developer and publisher of the MMO. Lisa and I are joined by CTO Mark Kalmes, who has a long history of being an engineering lead in the MMO field. He worked on City of Heroes at Cryptic Studios, and was the Software Director for the World of Darkness MMO project at CCP.

An Audacious Plan

When I first approached Lisa about a Pathfinder MMO, I presented a plan roughly on par with the kind of development that had been the norm in the industry for the past 5 years: a $50+ million budget, a 3 to 5 year timeline, and a development staff of 50 to 75 people.

One of Paizo's strengths is that they work very efficiently, and spend money when and where it counts the most. So Lisa took one look at that plan and challenged me to think outside the box. "Rather than telling me how to do it the way everyone else is doing it," she said, "tell me how to do it for the smallest budget possible while still achieving our goals." Those goals are to produce a game with the same high-quality standards for design, art, storytelling, and community involvement that Paizo has instilled into their Pathfinder products.

Since I live for challenges like that, I spent weeks re-engineering the plan, making it leaner and more efficient, and thus making it take less and less time, and cost less and less money. In the end, we arrived at what I consider to be a revolutionary approach, which I'm going to share with you today.

The Middleware Advantage
Until recently, every MMO was built from the ground up—every significant system was created by that MMO's developers. The clients, the servers, and all the "glue" that makes an MMO work had to be created, integrated and maintained by the development team. This is expensive. It requires a lot of time. And it's risky—you're making a bet that your team can solve a lot of problems of security, privacy, scale, and exploit protection in the face of a growing community that has become expert at attacking these kinds of systems.

But there has been a recent sea-change in the market. Now it is possible to license middleware—the software that does many of these key functions—from companies that have battle-tested it in released games. The burden has been lifted from the shoulders of the game design teams, allowing them to focus on what they do best: create innovative and engaging game designs populated by interesting and visually stunning landscapes, characters, buildings and creatures. Thanks to middleware, it's now possible to create a working internal prototype of an MMO in a matter of months.

We are negotiating with several middleware vendors, and once we've finalized things, we'll be talking more about the capabilities of specific software and how it will be used in Pathfinder Online. But all of the options we're considering will give us state-of-the-art technology without the high upfront cost for design and development, or the ongoing cost of maintenance and upgrades.

Sandbox vs. Theme Park

We've already told you that we're making a sandbox MMO with theme park elements. That's another key to our strategy. One of the challenges standard theme park MMOs face is that they have to do two things before they can be released: They have to build a complete multiplayer virtual world, and then they have to populate it with a massive amount of playable content—the theme park.

In most MMO development plans, that theme park content is where the budget is spent. Creating the assets for the graphics and sounds—and whatever custom programming is needed to make those assets do what the designers want—and then designing the levels to present the challenges that the designers have imagined soaks up lots of time. And that theme park content has to be extensively tested to ensure that it works as designed, adding further development time. And time, in the MMO business, is money, in the form of salaries and overhead. (The ultimate expression of the theme park process is coming very soon in the form of Star Wars: The Old Republic, from EA/Bioware. I have been told by people I trust within the industry that this project's budget has exceeded $300 million. It is the Avatar of this generation of MMOs.)

The result of this time/cost function is that theme park MMOs must attract a huge number of players on release so that they can recoup those huge overhead costs as fast as possible. This creates a feedback loop that dooms many MMO developers: they need a big launch so that they can start covering their costs, so they have to create enough content to satisfy a huge initial spike of players, but making that content costs even more money. It's very easy to get into a trap where the cost to make the content you need to pay for your design is more than you can generate in revenue from that design. This is why many MMOs never see the light of day.

This was the first critical point where our plan diverged from the norm. Sandbox MMOs have a different time/cost function. Their primary need is a robust virtual world that can challenge and engage the audience. Making a sandbox game means focusing on the creation of the multiplayer virtual world. By positioning Pathfinder Online as a sandbox with theme park elements, we can focus primarily on the content needed for players to interact with each other and avoid having to develop a huge amount of theme park content prior to launch.

Focusing on the sandbox doesn't just save time and money, though—we think it's an ideal way to explore the Pathfinder world. In a sense, Paizo's own Pathfinder lines actually combine sandbox elements (by way of the Pathfinder Campaign Setting line) with theme park elements (via the Pathfinder Adventure Path and Pathfinder Module lines). Though the sandbox will be our initial focus, the Pathfinder brand is known for great stories and adventures, and over time, we'll add lots of opportunities for theme-park style adventure into the fabric of the world to give depth and richness to the Pathfinder Online experience.

Big Things Come in Small Packages

The second critical issue with theme park MMOs is that it's very difficult to entertain a crowd of theme park enthusiasts who have completed all the theme park content... and theme park enthusiasts can blast through content in no time. If new content isn't ready when players have finished the old content, they'll flee to another MMO (many will go back to World of Warcraft). The result is the "spike & crash" pattern we've seen with every major fantasy theme park MMO released in the past five years. Companies are then in the position where they no longer have enough customers to cover the cost of the enormous infrastructure they've built up for the launch. This is why many MMOs don't have long-term success.

Lisa's challenge to figure out how to make the game on a lean budget led me to the realization that the last thing we want is a huge spike of players followed by a rapid decline. What we want instead is a slow, steady growth of players—the same kind of growth that EVE Online has experienced almost every year since its launch. Since Goblinworks won't have to pay off a huge theme park mortgage, our focus will instead be on making our virtual world as engaging as possible and sustaining that virtual world as the population grows over years of time.

But a sandbox needs a critical mass of players to interact with each other, or they may as well be playing a solo game. One part of the design that helps determine the amount of interaction is the density of the world—how big is it and how many characters are in that space?

We believe that we've solved that equation in a surprising way, which led us to what we think is a revolutionary plan.

At launch, and for the first seven months following, we will cap new paying players at 4,500 per month. Four thousand five hundred new paying players monthly. We expect to keep only about 25% of those players on a long-term basis, so after we factor in attrition of each month's signups, we end up with 16,500 paying players at the end of that seven-month period.

Making a game that starts with 4,500 players and grows to 16,500 players is much, much easier and vastly less expensive than making a game designed to accommodate a million players on day one. We'll be able to focus on a relatively small part of the world at first, expanding it only as we need to.

After the first seven months, we'll raise the limit on new paying players to 12,000 per month. That will remain our goal for the next couple years of Pathfinder Online's life cycle. Factoring in attrition, by the end of the game's third year of operation, we expect to have about 120,000 paying players. For many MMOs, that number would be considered a failure, but because of our lean development strategy, achieving that number of paying customers will mean success for Pathfinder Online.

How to Get In Early

A question some of you are likely asking is "how do I get to be one of the first 4,500 people in at launch?" We're going to have several ways to get into the queue to play Pathfinder Online, and many of them will be based on being an active and contributing member of the global Pathfinder community. Over the next several months, we'll be telling you how you can help us make the game successful and earn yourself a place near the front of the line. (And if you haven't already done so, please sign up for our newsletter using the form on the front page!)

We're also going to be actively reaching out to organized guilds and inviting them in as groups to pre-seed our sandbox with organizations that will help create the political, economic, military and territorial structure that Pathfinder Online will need to be successful. And of course, there will be ways for folks who want to get in without a lot of hassle to do so as well.

(We know people are apprehensive about the "first mover advantage," where the earliest adopters are able to hold all the power, and we want to assure everyone that we're going to avoid that problem. The world of Pathfinder Online is not going to be dominated by the characters and groups who are the first to explore the world. Players who enter the game later will have similar opportunities to carve their kingdoms out of the wilderness.)

Pathfinder Online: Coming Soon!

And when we say "coming soon," we mean "real soon."

We're leveraging middleware to reduce cost, development time and risk. We're making a sandbox-focused game with a launch target of 4,500 players on a slow but steady growth plan. We have access to Paizo's huge library of Pathfinder content—which gives us all the lore, factions, history, monsters, plots, and NPCs that we'll need. Because of these factors, I was able to rise to Lisa's challenge to create an efficient business plan that meets all of our goals. And one of the best parts of it is that it means our development plan is much shorter than traditional theme park MMOs require. Once we've begun full production, we'll be sharing milestones with the community so you'll be able to track our progress from start to release. We think you'll be delighted at the speed of the development process.

Spread the news: there's a whole new way to make MMOs affordably and in a reasonable timeframe.