I don’t consider myself prophetic when it comes to video games. My accolades in this regard are in fact lackluster. I envisioned a world where MMOs would always have monthly fees, Duke Nukem 3D would never be released, and the Nintendo Wii would be spectacular failure. Regardless, the following premonition is one I feel is earnest and inevitable: Pathfinder Online will be a spectacular failure. I’ll provide a quick overview for the uninitiated. Pathfinder is a high fantasy pen-and-paper roleplaying game. It’s the spiritual successor to Dungeons and Dragons Third Edition and direct competitor to Dungeons and Dragons Fourth Edition, a game whose streamlined rules alienated many veteran fans of the franchise. Pathfinder’s popularity has swelled in recent years, leading it to match sales of the name brand Dungeons and Dragons in 2011. Their cups seemingly runneth over, Paizo – the company behind Pathfinder – announced that a Pathfinder MMORPG was in the works last month.
Given that I’m a weekly player of the game, one might expect me to be overjoyed. Unfortunately, my outlook for the franchise’s foray into the online realm is haunted by doom and gloom. As a general rule of thumb, I consider founding an MMORPG a bad idea 99 times out of 100. The MMORPG genre is unique in the respect that coexisting player bases are largely exclusive. Due to the time and monetary investments inherent to the genre, a player is generally committed to single game at a time. This makes it difficult for any game – even a AAA title – to eke out a player base of sustainable size.
In my humble opinion, there is a triumvirate of qualities an MMORPG must possess in order to prosper. Think of this not as a magic formula for success, but rather a combination of ingredients that create a strong base for a game. These qualities are – in no particular order – money, intellectual property, and circumstance.
Money is the most straightforward of the three, but perhaps the one people take most for granted. MMORPGs are financial behemoths. They have the longest development cycle of any type of game, require extensive support once the game is launched, and are in a perpetual state of want for new content to keep players from cancelling subscriptions. Despite my unabated love of independent studios, I’m forced to concede that MMORPG development is a rich man’s sport. It’s a task best left to the Blizzards, Biowares, and SoEs of the world. Independent MMORPGs often have brilliant concepts, but are fated to flounder due to bargain basement craftsmanship – see Shadowbane, Project Wish, and Dawntide. One of the most alarming aspects of the announcement of Pathfinder Online was the proclamation that the game would be self published. The press release for the game, in fact, read more as a solicitation to potential investors than a formal introduction to the game. This bodes poorly. It’s an indication that the game will likely eke by on extremely limited funding or even run out of gas before it leaves the runway. If Pathfinder Online should ever hit shelves, I worry that there simply won’t be enough capital to afford basic measures of playability: reliable servers, expedient bug testing, and consistent and satisfying content updates. It seems odd that Paizo wouldn’t at least attempt to shop their intellectual property to an established studio. Speaking of which, intellectual property is the next quality to take into consideration – and it’s a doozy. What do Ultima Online, World of Warcraft, and The Old Republic all have in common? They were all based on massively popular and proven lucrative franchises. Starting with an established intellectual property is a massive boon to, well, any game developer. It denotes a level of value and history to the fledgling game, allowing it to rest on the shoulders of its predecessors rather than having to tenaciously establish itself from scratch. It also taps into a pool of players that – while normally hesitant to play an MMORPG – are all but too eager to get their hands on the next installment of their favourite series. I am going to preface this argument by stating that I think Pathfinder is an incredible intellectual property. Paizo have done a great job of crafting an engaging campaign setting for their pen-and-paper materials, whether it be through their Pathfinder Society or Kingmaker materials. However, Pathfinder lacks name recognition. Although I’ve mentioned previously that Pathfinder is rivaling Dungeons and Dragons in popularity in terms of raw sales, the game still lives under its competitor’s shadow in the public eye. Like Kleenex and Band-Aid, Dungeons and Dragons has become the umbrella pseudonym for all pen and paper games. Gygax’s creation is ingrained in our popular culture – the subject of countless parodies and controversies – that most casual gamers are unaware that roleplaying games by any other name even exist. Given the fact that a Dungeons and Dragons MMORPG has been on the market for years, the strength of the Pathfinder brand has to be put into question. Last on the docket is circumstance. Circumstance is something that can be taken for granted when releasing an MMORPG. It requires a very specific situation for a MMORPG to be propelled to greatness. Ultima Online was the only kid on the playground for years. EverQuest was the first to realize a fully 3D online world. World of Warcraft was the first to offer an online experience as polished as an offline game, and really the first AAA MMORPG title. All other games that have sought to enter the market at this level have fallen short of their ambitions, forced to fold or resign themselves to a gimmicky free–to–play model. A new MMORPG has to find a circumstance – an uncontested niche within the zeitgeist of online gaming – in order to truly flourish. Obviously, it’s not Paizo’s intention to compete directly with the Warcraft or Star Wars juggernauts, but the question remains – what will Pathfinder Online bring to the table? It’s hard to say given the limited information released so far. It seems likely – nay, inevitable – that the game will launch as under a free-to-model, but is there room in the market for another one of these unwieldy beasts? Although a relatively recent trend, the market is already saturated with free-to-play games. Dungeons and Dragons Online, Age of Conan, and even the once mighty EverQuest 2 are all established competitors, not only as free-to-play games but as high fantasy affairs. Despite boasts of impressive kingdom building features, Pathfinder Online will simply be another drop in the bucket – a bucket that is quickly expanding to the size of the Grand Canyon. Pathfinder Online lacks a niche to fill, and is entering the MMORPG market during one of the most awkward points in the genre’s growth. The real question any game developer should ask themselves is not “can I make an MMORPG” but “should I make an MMORPG.” The perfect combination of money, intellectual property, and circumstance is almost impossible to grasp a hold of, and the cost of failure is catastrophic. My prediction that Pathfinder Online will fail is one that I stand by, but one I take no joy in. Paizo is a great company that produces quality products and treats their customers with decency and respect. It distresses me that they could fall prey to such a grievous lapse in judgment, and I pray that they prove me wrong.