An interview with Pathfinder Online's Ryan Scott Dancey

An interview with Pathfinder Online's Ryan Dansey
Pathfinder Online is an ambitious new sandbox MMO that is making quite a stir lately. The development team at Goblinworks began its spotlight rampage with an initial Kickstarter project raising money for a tech demo and is currently running a new Kickstarter project to raise enough money to make the game bigger and better with a faster release date.

Of course, it helps that the Pathfinder IP has enjoyed wild success through its Pathfinder RPG, but a massively multiplayer online version is an interesting concept. Add to that the fact that Goblinworks is made up of a few industry vets like Ryan Scott Dancey, Mark Kalmes, and Lee Hammock, and you've got yourself a winner.

We sat down with Goblinworks CEO Ryan Scott Dancey to discuss the project, the game, the IP, and more.

[Update: Clarified that the second Kickstarter project isn't to complete the game. Wowza, people.]

Massively: Pathfinder is a popular RPG, but what made you want to go "massively" and "online" with it? Did you look at similar RPGs that did the same thing?

Ryan Scott Dancey: We think that we're at the close of the Age of Themepark MMOs. Since [2004] and the release of World of Warcraft, every AAA MMO announced has been a themepark game, with a budget from $50-$100 million (and some a multiple of that) and a four- to six-year development process. Every one of those games has followed the same pattern: a release to big numbers and a spike in active players followed by a sharp drop to a fraction of the peak. Not one of those games has grown consistently year-over-year (except World of Warcraft).

As far as we know, the last game in this tradition, Elder Scrolls Online, is in its final pre-launch preparation, and after it, there are no big new AAA MMOs in acknowledged development. The industry has realized that the AAA themepark MMO business model doesn't work.

The alternative is sandbox. During that 2003-to-now era, only one game showed consistent year-over-year growth: the science-fiction sandbox MMO EVE Online. We think there's a huge market opportunity for a next-generation fantasy sandbox MMO, and that's why we're doing Pathfinder Online.

The sandbox development model is very different from the themepark model. Instead of trying to make hundreds of hours of content, for a sandbox you focus on developing really great systems that let players do interesting things and especially interesting things with each other. We have made "maximizing meaningful human interaction" the key to our development process. That lets us make a game much faster, with a much smaller team on a much smaller budget. We get the game into the hands of players much more quickly, and we can develop the features of the game with the players in real-time, a process we call Crowdforging, which means that we get the benefit of all their accumulated knowledge on what works and doesn't work in the MMO space as well as that of our own development team.

Sandbox MMOs are the wave of the future. SOE has already announced that it's scrapping the work it's done on EverQuest III (EQ Next) to make it a sandbox. I'm sure there are teams working on sandbox MMO pitches inside all the major studios. We have the advantage of being a first mover in this space. We want to carve out some territory and then grow our game slowly and steadily year over year, just as CCP has done with EVE Online.

An interview with Pathfinder Online's Ryan Scott Dansey
With Pathfinder Online being such an open world sandbox, how much liberty do you have to expand upon the Pathfinder IP? Or are you staying 100% faithful?

We are able to work within the Pathfinder IP and still provide extensive freedom to our players. We are locating the game in an area of the Pathfinder world called the River Kingdoms, which was designed to be very "sandboxy" even for tabletop RPG players (it was the home of an Adventure Path published by Paizo Publishing called Kingmaker that was a "sandbox" approach to tabletop RPG play!). Within the River Kingdoms we've created a region we call the Crusader Road. This is a place where people from all over the world of Pathfinder are converging, which gives us easy access to all the incredible backstory, character types, and regional flavor built in to the Pathfinder world without having to try to build that whole world in the game.

Goblinworks and Paizo Publishing are extremely close. In fact we're physically located in the same building. There's a tight connection between the staff and management of both companies to ensure that we get maximum consensus on everything we're doing in Pathfinder Online and that everyone who works on Pathfinder at Paizo has a chance to provide input and context on all the content that is being created.

Unrestricted PvP seems to be a staple for sandbox MMOs, and Pathfinder Online is no different. You mention in the Kickstarter FAQ that it will be possible but "very difficult" to avoid PvP entirely. Is this an aspect of the game that may change according to player feedback? Or is it integral to the design?

It's integral to the design.


"It's not going to be a random gankfest where you are always coping with people attacking you for no other reason than the lulz."

We really want to stress that we think this is a place where we're going to advance the state of the art for sandbox games. We are 100% committed to the idea that we can have a lot of PvP in the game without having a lot of griefers in the game. We think that between actively working with the community, having lots of in-game mechanics that discourage griefing, and strictly enforcing standards of fair and good play, we can keep misbehavior to a minimum.

This is a game about exploration, development, adventure and domination -- not about PvP. PvP is just one of many, many ways that characters will interact in the game. It's not going to be a random gankfest where you are always coping with people attacking you for no other reason than the lulz.

We've seen some Kickstarter projects tweak their rewards when they find that some are just completely unpopular. Do you plan to do that at all? Say, with the one fan who is pledging $15?

We're constantly evaluating the Kickstarter rewards. Kickstarter is a very big black box right now. There are more "unknowns" about it than "knowns." Every time we try something, we learn a little bit more. And we watch as many other projects as we can to see how they're approaching the Kickstarter system and learning from what they do as well. So nothing is set in stone when it comes to Kickstarter. If we have a better idea or see a better idea, or if one of the members of our community suggests a better idea, we'll jump on it if we can.

You mention that game time can be traded between players, much like PLEX in EVE Online. Do you plan to dedicate as much of an economic focus behind the scenes as CCP has for EVE with an in-house economist, etc.?

Yes, I think that will eventually happen. Dr. Eyjo, CCP's economist, didn't join CCP's staff until the game was nearly five years old. But there's a lot of basic economic guidance we can get from experts in that field, and we'll be actively working with economists to help shape our game system even before we're ready to hire a full time professor. The economy is central to the design, so we'll pay as much attention to the economy and everything that it touches like crafting and harvesting as we will to combat. It's not something we can just hope takes care of itself. It has to be carefully built and carefully managed for the life of the game.

And finally, a difficult question we like to ask Kickstarter interviewees: If you don't meet funding on this particular project, will the show (game) still go on?


"Success in this Kickstarter accelerates and broadens the scope of the game; it won't determine whether it is completed. We are going to make this game no matter what."

Yes, it absolutely will.

After we completed the Technology Demo project last summer (we raised over $300,000 on Kickstarter for the Tech Demo), we were able to secure the financing we need to put the game into production. With that backing, our existing team will be able to work on the game as long as it takes to get it into the hands of players.

The Kickstarter we're running now is to help us make the game bigger, better, and faster. We are in the sweet spot for game design where extra staff means shorter timelines and richer features. Raising money above what we've already had committed lets us add additional staff. Success in this Kickstarter accelerates and broadens the scope of the game; it won't determine whether it is completed. We are going to make this game no matter what.

Thank you for your time!

When readers want the scoop on a launch or a patch (or even a brewing fiasco), Massively goes right to the source to interview the developers themselves. Be they John Smedley or Chris Roberts or anyone in between, we ask the devs the hard questions. Of course, whether they tell us the truth or not is up to them!

This article was originally published on Massively.