Well it happened. Pathfinder Online is being made. The project’s Kickstarter hit its million dollar goal just hours before the deadline rolled in last Monday evening, it’s success sealed by several substantial pledges at the last moment.
Anyone who reads The World is Square on a regular basis (all three of you) know that I have a storied history with Pathfinder Online. I rarely think developing an MMO is a good idea even if you have a relatively robust intellectual property like Pathfinder at your fingertips. I’m concerned Pathfinder Online is a pet idea that has ballooned into an unwieldy time and money sink for Paizo and that these resources would be much better spent on the core Pathfinder pen-and-paper game.
But my most substantial grievance with Pathfinder Online is they way they’ve jury-rigged the success of their Kickstarter initiatives. The success of the Pathfinder Online Kickstarter was not floated by the merits of the project itself. I’d wager that many of the folk who contributed to the Kickstarter aren’t even interested in playing the game. The real prize these contributors sought are the various pen-and-paper perks Paizo has peppered in their different reward tiers – the most prominent being the Emerald Spire megadungeon book. The book, penned by modern fantasy legend and honourable canuck Ed Greenwood, likely could have funded a $200,000 Kickstarter on its own, and I have no doubt that the Pathfinder Online Kickstarter would have fallen flat on its face without its inclusion as a reward. The initial Kickstarter for the Pathfinder Online tech demo was likewise catapulted to success by the tantalizing Thornkeep book.
This is a dangerous tactic. For one, those books aren’t going to write themselves. Either the production money is going to have to be sapped from the funds dedicated to development of the MMO or Paizo is going to have to pen the book pro-bono to prop up Goblinworks. Neither of these options are particularly palatable to me, and I dislike how this overhead cost obfuscates how much money was actually drawn in by the Kickstarter campaign.
Secondly, it bodes poorly for the sustainability of the project. The books did a great job of attracting Paizo’s pen-and-paper disciples to Kickstarter, but their interest in Pathfinder Online begins and ends there. These players aren’t going to sign up for a monthly fee or contribute to whatever freemium model Pathfinder Online might adopt; they are going to stick to their home games and organized play. Paizo and Goblinworks have artificially inflated the perceived interest in Pathfinder Online, and they may be in for a shattering disappoint once the game goes live.
There’s an elephant in the room that I haven’t touched on yet: the Emerald Elixir boon. Anyone who contributed at least five dollars to the project gains the boon, a one-shot perk that can be used in Pathfinder Society organized play. The boon has two alternate functions. First, it can add the advanced template to a single character for a single adventure. In layman’s terms, the advanced template is a pen-and-paper steroid, effectively allowing the character to operate as if they were one or two levels higher than normal. Second, the boon can trigger a random permanent mutation in a character. Details for this latter benefit have been scarce, but it’ll likely amount to a small skill bonus or otherwise miniscule boost.
I find both features of this boon problematic. The former feature trivializes the difficulty of a single adventure. A barbarian or archer with the advanced template is a complete monster, and there’s very little a game master will be able to do to mitigate their overpowering presence at a table. I specifically dread running an special event scenario, like the upcoming Race for the Runecarved Key, and having it trampled over by one or two boon junkies. Secondly, while I’m sure most of the permanent mutations the boon offers will be kosher, there will doubtlessly be one that disrupts game balance and adds to power creep in some way (my guess is an initiative bonus). In both cases, Paizo is again inflating their Kickstarter funds with contributors entirely disinterested in playing Pathfinder Online. I’m equally troubled by the fact that they are selling power, a business model I don’t tolerate in my online games and one that I’m disappointed to see creep into the pen-and-paper world.
In the end, Paizo is only hurting themselves. Even in its infancy, Pathfinder Online has already diluted the integrity of its pen-and-paper cousin, and the game itself is propped up on extremely shaky financial grounds. I know I wasn’t the only one with my fingers crossed on Sunday night, hoping that the Kickstarter campaign would fall short of its goal and Paizo would return to less fanciful pursuits. Now that their game is funded, I’m genuinely concerned for the future of my favourite gaming company.
Paizo, I hope you prove me wrong.