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Adventure in the River Kingdoms

Welcome again to our ongoing series of development blogs about Pathfinder Online!

The topic of this blog is Player vs. Environment (PvE) content—that's the theme park component of our fantasy sandbox. You can think of Pathfinder Online as the inverse of many theme park MMO designs—those usually have sandbox elements, but the overall game is driven by the theme park: You go on quests and clear dungeons to get the loot and character power you need to go on harder quests and clear more dangerous dungeons. In between, you might go fishing or you might buy and sell goods in an auction house, or you might just explore the world. In Pathfinder Online, the inverse is true: while you're engaged in harvesting, crafting or exploring, you may find yourself plunged into an adventure—interaction with the scripted part of the game.

How the System Is Designed

Imagine three main types of characters: People Who Fight, People Who Make, and People Who Build. In Pathfinder Online, each of these three character types provide content for the other two, and each needs contributions from the other two in order to thrive. This graphic describes these bidirectional PvE interconnections:

PvE content is not merely an add-on tacked to the side of a whole different kind of game; it's a critical part of the overall sandbox. PvE can be envisioned as a resource faucet: stuff comes into the game via PvE. Sometimes that stuff may be gold coins in the form of treasure, bounties or rewards. Sometimes it may be gear looted from dead opponents. And sometimes it may be harvestable resources used in crafting goods.

PvE is also a resource sink: stuff exits the game as players interact with PvE. That stuff may take the form of used consumables, or the loss of inventory items through character death.

Typically we see all this activity happening within a single hex, but trade and exchange between hexes is also critical to the economy. Most of the crafting system is designed around inputs from many sources which will not be geographically co-located, so each hex will likely have a list of things it needs to import and a list of things it can export to raise funds needed to buy those imports. Some of a hex's imports and some of its exports will be generated through resident characters' interactions with PvE content.

Kinds of PvE

The current design envisions four basic types of theme park content:

  1. Wandering monsters: These are creatures you may encounter as you explore the world. Typically, the further you are from civilization, the more dangerous the monstrous creatures you'll encounter. These creatures are spawned into the game randomly, and if left unmolested for a certain period of time, they'll automatically despawn.

  2. Harvesting hazards: These are opponents that are generated randomly as an effect of harvesting certain resources. The longer a harvesting operation continues at a given location, the more likely it is to attract unwelcome attention. These hazards are scaled so that the larger the harvesting operation, the more numerous the creatures attracted will be. And like wandering monsters, the further the encounter is from civilization, the tougher the opponents will be. A single character harvesting close to an NPC settlement will likely be able to fend off the occasional interloper with a relatively minimal amount of ability and gear. A large party operating deep in the wilderness is going to have to be prepared and well organized to fight off substantially harder hazards.

    If the harvesters flee and avoid interaction with the hazard for a certain amount of time, the hazard will automatically despawn. But if a new group attempts to harvest the resource that attracted the hazard, it will shift its attention to those newcomers as if they'd been there all along.

    (Yes, this means that people harvesting are potentially creating content for people who want to slay monsters. Win/win!)

  3. Ruins, lairs and caverns: These are the classic set-piece adventuring experiences of many tabletop games. Call them "dungeons" for the sake of discussion. You will find these areas using abilities; once located they'll spawn on the map and be findable by anyone who travels to the correct location. If they are cleared, or if no character interacts with them for a fixed amount of time, they'll be removed from the game world automatically.

    Each of the three types of dungeon has different properties:

    • Ruins: In civilized areas, these are fairly low-level experiences. They are often the haunts of undead, oozes and vermin. Be prepared for traps and puzzles. In the wilderness, they can be extremely dangerous, home to high-level opponents and many minions.
    • Lairs: These represent the hardest and most challenging creatures in a given hex. In civilized areas, these are likely to be magical beasts, and are good sources of content for mid-power PCs. A lair may consist of one or more really tough creatures alongside other critters that live with or around the main threat. In the wilderness, these encounters may also feature aberrations and dragons.
    • Caverns: These are underground spaces inhabited by the strange and the exotic. In civilized areas, these are truly challenging, with all the lower-level dangers having been long ago removed or the entrances sealed. Within, characters will find aberrations, dragons, magical beasts, oozes and outsiders. In the wilderness, caverns are a lower-power experience, and may be fairly limited in size and scope.

    All of these types of areas often include monstrous humanoids as well, which are common in every type of PvE experience in the game.

  4. Encampments: Encampments represent organized bands of monstrous humanoids actively engaged in trying to control their hex. They begin as fairly small, easy-to-eliminate camps, but left unchecked, they will escalate, becoming larger, more numerous and generating more and more powerful foes. Eventually they can overrun a hex and begin spreading to nearby hexes as well. If the people living in a hex don't regularly sweep their lands and the nearby region for encampments and deal with the ones they find, the residents may find themselves facing a full-blown horde with the potential to destroy even player created structures!

The intent of the design is that as a hex is developed, the nature of the PvE content from its ruins, lairs and caverns will change. In this way, there's always some content available for all types of character, but the kinds of content you confront will change as your hex becomes more populated and as the characters in it become more powerful. Likewise, the threat level characters face from various sources changes as well; there should always be something reasonably useful for low-, mid- and high-power characters to do.

The Goal: Persistence

As we've said before, one of the things that differentiates a sandbox from a theme park is that the player's actions create persistent effects. Obviously, if we let every PvE encounter area remain in the game forever, in a very short while the whole map would be covered with exhausted environs and the dead remains of their inhabitants.

Most of the PvE content that you encounter will automatically be removed by the game after a certain period of time passes without any player interacting with it. In this way we can constantly present you with places to adventure that are fresh and ready for the PCs to venture forth and earn riches and glory. However, a very few of these areas may morph into something much more permanent. Occasionally, when players finish with a PvE area, instead of being quietly removed by the game system, that area will instead open up for habitation by characters. Maybe you'll find a bandit lair you can take over to start your own nefarious band. Maybe you'll find an old, ruined watchtower and restore its oversight of the approach to your lands. Maybe you'll find the lair of a fearsome beast that you can turn into a secret place for your magical researches, or the home of your assassins' guild, or merely a great storehouse that's easily defended.

In this way, each hex will become unique over time, gaining a story of its own that's formed from the actions of the players. People will know how certain features of the land were created, and those memories will invest the place with much more value to the world than mere random buildings would ever generate.

Each hex itself also changes in response to how the characters interact with its PvE content. A part of the economy of the world is comprised of many common folk who go about their business effectively invisible to the characters—think of them like the sims of Sim City. When conditions are dangerous, the common folk are less productive, less healthy and less numerous. The common folk are an important ingredient in determining how useful any given hex is, and keeping them reasonably happy—or at least managing their misery—will be something players will need to pay a lot of attention to. Civilizing the wilderness is more than just planting a flag and claiming it in the name of king, church, or self—it means making continuous and effective improvements to the environment on a large scale and substantial basis.

One More Thing...

We have a vision of one more kind of PvE content; for historical reasons, we'll call it a "module." This is a scripted, fully designed adventure suitable for some number of characters of some specified power level. Some of these modules will likely be available to everyone for free. Others may be obtained via the use of in-game microtransaction currency. Modules you unlock would likely be instanced content available to just those characters you wish to adventure with, meaning each group that unlocks a given module will experience it as though it exists exclsuvely for them. (We have had discussions about how, even within instanced module content, there could be common areas that allow multiple groups to interact. Only time will tell how this concept develops and unfolds.)

For such instanced content, offering persistence is tricky. We want you to have the sense that the world changes based on your own successes or failures, and it would break that immersion if you could potentially play the same exact module multiple times. How we untangle that will be a challenge for the development team.

And there's even the chance that you might be able to create your own module content for other players—perhaps even on a for-profit basis. Imagine an "app store" for Pathfinder adventures! It's speculative at this point, but we want you to know that we see the potential, and we are just as interested as you in finding a way to get there.

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