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Big Things Have Small Beginnings

After reading many of the questions asked by the community for an upcoming FAQ development blog, it became apparent to me that we need to lay a bit more foundation before we try to answer many of the inquiries we've received. So, instead of diving into the FAQs, today I want to talk about what we consider the minimum viable product, or MVP.

When Lisa, Mark, and I were first working on the plan for Pathfinder Online, we started with a pretty standard plan for a MMO: a budget of $50–$75 million, 5 years of development work, and a team of several dozen people. After talking about the scope of that project, Lisa challenged us with the question that became the backbone of the final plan: What is the smallest game you can build, in the shortest amount of time, with the smallest full-time staff and the lowest budget?

At first I thought that question was a dead end. As I worked on the financials for the plan, it seemed like we kept scoping the likely success of the game down without getting much benefit; in other words, we were increasing the risk of failure by making a smaller team work faster. But eventually, after many rounds of reducing our scope, we crossed a threshold. We found a place where the numbers started to make sense again—in fact, they started to make very, very good sense. That was the moment when we knew that we had an actionable plan.

The plan we settled on was based on the concept of the minimum viable product. The MVP for Pathfinder Online wasn't going to look like the kind of game that our competitors were building—it couldn't. We would not have the time, the staff, or the budget to make a game that was "industry standard." But that was kind of liberating. The first thing it freed us from was the need to have a gigantic opening launch. While most MMOs try to get as many people in their games at launch as possible, we were constrained from doing that; too many people would "break" our game and produce an unsatisfying experience. Instead, we had to operate from the perspective of how few players we could serve and over what period of time.

The MVP for Pathfinder Online actually goes through a couple of intermediate steps. The absolute most basic game is what will be ready at the start of Early Enrollment. Remember, that's a game that we plan to bring just a few thousand people into, with a very small number of additional players added every month. Yes, it will be small, sparse, and have little "content" in the traditional MMO sense, but it will also have a tiny player population.

Throughout Early Enrollment we'll be focusing on adding systems to the game. These are the major architectural elements that will be the basis for all the work that comes later. Throughout Early Enrollment, these features will be deployed into the game. The players will be able to help us prioritize the order in which they're built and fine-tune them once deployed via crowdforging. The goal is to have most (if not all) of the core game systems implemented by the time we end Early Enrollment and begin Open Enrollment.

Open Enrollment is where we set the bar for a minimum viable product. While the people who play during Early Enrollment (especially those who join during the first few months) are entering a game that is a seed of the great tree that will grow over time, the start of Open Enrollment will be more like a living tree, if not quite full-grown. In those early months, Open Enrollment will be "feature complete," but many important aspects of the game content—the material built with those features—will still be in development.

Pathfinder Online During Early Enrollment

This is the game we're targeting for the commencement of Early Enrollment. When you read about this game, remember that we're talking thousands of players, which means just a few hundred will likely be online at any given time. Set your sense of size and scope accordingly.

Territory

We're going to build about 144 hexes, each about 680 meters by 780 meters, prior to the first players joining the game. One of those hexes will be a settled area controlled by NPCs, and at least one of the nearby hexes will be a monster hex which will regularly create problems for the settlement. About 15 hexes will be sites for eventual player settlements (the systems for claiming, building, and administering these settlements will be introduced later in the Early Enrollment period). The remaining hexes will be wilderness, places where characters will go to find and extract resources and struggle with each other over the economic assets they represent.

This territory is going to be located roughly in the middle area of the Crusader Road zone we've previously discussed. It's mostly low hills and sparse forest, with some small ponds and a few higher hills. The hexes will be laid out in an east-west configuration. When you reach the edge of the area, you'll find an invisible wall that limits further travel.

Characters

Every character or creature object in the game requires several components in order to function - a "rig" (which is a skeleton-like structure used for animation), a model (which is wrapped around the rig to provide the 3D structure of the creature), and a "texture," which is an image on the surface of the model that creates the visual surface details like skin, clothes, and equipment materials. Some objects also have a variety of "particle effects," which are graphic special effects like glows, auras, and sparkles.

The goal of the art team is to share and reuse as many of those components as possible between characters while still creating a diverse, interesting, and minimally repetitive world for Pathfinder Online. Each separate rig requires a full animation set, which comprises the bulk of the work involved in making unique rigs or skeletons. We can often get a lot of re-use and adjustment from similar rigs and animation sets to create a full set of animations for a new rig, but each new rig requires that hundreds of animations be created or adapted. Starting with the rig we make for humans, we can morph and tweak the rig to make an ogre or an elf, and re-use many of the human animations to speed up the process. Creating a rig for an entirely different morphology—for example, a 4-legged creature such as a wolf or bear, or a more complex creature such as an insect or a dragon—requires us to create hundreds of new animations from scratch.

The next thing that matters is how many 3D models and texture variations can be built to create variations on the unique skeletons. Each model has its own unique challenges. There's an iterative process between the modelers and the animators: Each provides feedback to the other. The rig has to change to accommodate the needs of the model, and the model has to reflect the constraints of the rig. The player models will include base bodies, clothing variations, armor variations, accessory variations, hair and faces. Ogres and goblins are similar, but will have a lot fewer equipment and clothing variations. The quadrupeds have base body variations only, but require more of them. The NPCs have lots of clothing and equipment variations using sub-components of the player equipment, with some unique pieces thrown in and adjusted versions for human mobs such as bandits or guards. All of the characters in the game may have up to 3 tint areas per character and/or equipment piece, allowing for a lot of color variety in combination with all of the rig, model, and texture combinations. The player characters are obviously the most complex on the side of armor, equipment, and clothing. We want to provide enough variety and progression to give players options and progression. The core suit progression will be somewhat limited for Early Enrollment, but we will augment the selection with sub-components for boots, gloves, helmets, back items such as backpacks or capes, and other accessories.

Because the players are the major driver of the character assets for the game, the first question we had to answer to determine the player content scope was how many PC races we could support. After a lot of lengthy consultation with our partners at Paizo, we decided that the minimum we could accept would be three PC races: humans, elves, and dwarves. Those races are the backbone of the Pathfinder world, and they need to be in the game before we start play.

The second question we had to answer was what class roles, and therefore armor types, we could support. Of course we don't have fixed classes in Pathfinder Online, but we do have the concept of roles, and those roles will be very important during Early Enrollment. They'll define the kinds of specialized niches that players are able to create. We are targeting four roles for the start of Early Enrollment: fighters, wizards, rogues, and clerics. These four roles are the fundamental archetypes of the tabletop game, and they'll be the backbone of the online game as well. Each role will have some distinctive clothing and armor options so you can see at a glance if an opponent is armored for melee combat, wearing the robes of a spellcaster, configured for fast, stealthy movement, or displaying the marks of a holy order. From these roles, we end up with the four core armor types of cloth, light, medium, and heavy armor, and the number of suits needed to fulfill the expected player progression.

One additional factor is that we are working very hard to stay true to the high quality art of the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game. Pathfinder characters have significantly higher attention to detail than characters of many other fantasy worlds, and we want to capture and continue that with Pathfinder Online. We believe in making characters you will be excited to play and creatures that will be convincing, imposing, and exciting to fight and encounter, so we are focusing on making a smaller number of better quality characters, and building up the selection over time.

All this analysis provides us with information on the creatures we'll be able to start play with. Our target list is:

  • Humans, Dwarves, and Elves, both male and female, with three equipment tiers for four armor types (about 192 suit assets and around 120 sub-component pieces);
  • Goblins, ogres, bandits, and wolves, with multiple variations of each;
  • Guards, multiple NPC variations, and basic horses;
  • Kickstarter Daily Deal specific items and equipment.

Gear, Spells, and Magic Items

Everything your character does has to be modeled and the animations need to be built to enable the programmers to show your character visually interacting with the world. Every sword swing, draw of a bow, wave of a wand or presentment of a holy symbol has a 3D model, an effect on the animation rig, and some behind-the-scenes programming magic to make it meaningful. We're going to have some number of spells in the game, including magic missile, fireball, and bless. You'll be able to wield longswords, short swords, daggers, bows, and crossbows. You'll also have wands and holy symbols to wave around with much vigor.

Magic items will likely be variations on these basic bits of gear with various particle effects applied to make them "look cool." Most of the Daily Deal items will not be available at the start of Early Enrollment.

Economy

The economy is at the heart of our game design. It provides a sustained engine for conflict and development. To begin, you'll be able to harvest copper and tin ore, soft wood, and hides. You'll take those resources back to the NPC settlement, where you'll be able to craft them into the arms, armor, and other inventory items. To get coin, you'll be tasked with doing various quests for the NPCs. They'll ask you to slay some monsters or harvest some resources, and in exchange they'll give you some money. You'll use that money to buy the crafted goods characters are making from the harvested resources. Getting better gear will make you more efficient at completing the quests the NPCs task you with fulfilling, so you'll be able to make more coin per hour as you upgrade.

The initial market for player crafted goods will be something very simple—likely just a buy/sell market board that you'll access to check prices or complete transactions.

The Early Enrollment Development Process

Every few weeks we will be adding more content and systems to the game. Some things are obvious: More hexes, a new monster type, new items, or establishing basic settlement-building functionality. Other things are more subtle, such as adding a more complicated crafting system or more elaborate quests. Some things will be really subtle, such as balancing changes to existing game components or changes to the way the game injects coin or subtracts coin.

The Early Enrollees will be deeply involved with all these changes. Our intention is to make the roadmap very public so that everyone knows what is currently being worked on, in what order, and what the estimated delivery timeframes are. Those priorities will be set partly in conjunction with player input. And there will be a continuous feedback loop with the players to help us fine-tune the many variables of the game, helping to avoid unintended consequences and exploits.

As Early Enrollment unfolds, you'll find more and more "stuff to do" in Pathfinder Online, and the game space itself will get larger and larger as we add more hexes. The kinds of things your character can do will deepen and become a richer experience. And the environment will change, as more and more creatures and resources are added.

Pathfinder Online During Open Enrollment (the MVP)

To get to Open Enrollment, our key milestones are the establishment of player settlements and territorial warfare. That will be the focus of our development direction during the Early Enrollment period. We'll need to expand the territory of the game so that we have enough space for many settlements. Naturally, that doesn't just mean we need lots of settlement hexes, it also means we need even more wilderness and monster hexes.

We have to build up the economy so that there are a wide variety of resources that need to be harvested, from various areas of the map, so that no single settlement is self-sustaining. We have to have the necessary depth of character systems so that people can specialize as harvesters, processors, or crafters, as well as transporters and guards. We need to add enough challenge to the environment so that players are routinely engaged in the kinds of activities that consume resources and require the repair or replacement of gear. That means we have to have a variety of threats suitable to challenge players from solo new characters up to large parties of experienced characters.

We need to have a system that enables a group of characters to claim territory and erect a settlement. And we need a system for another group to come to that territory and try to take it away from its owners. That implies a fairly complex combat system, as well as siege mechanics. When we reach the point where we're ready to begin unrestricted territorial warfare, we'll be ready to begin Open Enrollment.

The Open Enrollment Development Process

You probably noticed the lack of discussion of races, roles, and character diversity in the definition of MVP for Open Enrollment. That's because most of that work happens after we begin Open Enrollment. During the development of Early Enrollment, we focused on making game systems. After the commencement of Open Enrollment, we're going to shift to focus on game content.

We'll be adding new races regularly until we've added all the player character races from the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game core rulebook (and of course we'll also be thinking about additional races, too). We'll also be adding more roles, and all the support content those roles need—the gear, the weapons, the armor, the magic items, and specialist equipment. That will include things like animal companions, spellcasting systems, and other features that players expect for those roles.

We will continue to iterate on the kinds of quests NPCs ask you to undertake, and the monsters that roam the world making things interesting for the characters. We'll iterate on the escalation systems, adding new and interesting ways that escalations develop and the challenges you have to overcome to complete them. We'll also be thinking about ways to tell larger and more intricate stories. And we will be constantly adding content to allow you to customize and change the way your character looks, giving you an increasingly large palette of hair, body style, and accessories. Changing the look of an existing character has to be a part of that process as well—after all, we WANT you to be able to make your character as close to your ideal image as you can, regardless of when you created that character!

It is during the Open Enrollment development process that you'll be able to contribute ideas for the wide diversity of things many of you are dreaming about for the game, from animal husbandry to assassinations to customized housing and more. We will have a process in place to consolidate the kinds of things the community is interested in seeing developed, talk about the scope of work those ideas imply, and get input on how to prioritize them for development.

The Timeline

Our team is on schedule to begin Early Enrollment in the 3rd quarter of 2014. Between now and then we're focused on getting to that initial playable game for Early Enrollment. Early Enrollment itself is expected to run for about 18 months. We should be ready to begin unrestricted territorial warfare in the first quarter of 2016. What that means is that if you want to play an average-sized human fighter that hunts goblins in the foothills, you'll find the game supports your objectives in the first month of Early Enrollment. If you want to play a half-orc rogue/ranger that specializes in breeding mounts in the deep swamp, you'll have to wait a bit longer—those features will deploy after the start of Open Enrollment.

People who join us as early as possible in Early Enrollment are going to have a heck of a ride. They're going to see how a MMO is built from the inside out, and have a direct participatory role in making that happen. Others may choose to wait until more of the game is fleshed out and they can engage in a way closer to their "ideal vision" of how to play... and that's absolutely OK as well. When Pathfinder Online has developed to the point where they feel comfortable "getting on the bus," we'll be ready to welcome them aboard.

Next Week: Your FAQs!

With this background in place, next week we'll be able to talk in more specific terms about answers to many of the questions you've posed us. Hopefully this discussion has helped to firm up your expectations for when we will be able to implement your ideas, and given you a sense for what the process and timelines will be going forward.

Discuss this blog on paizo.com.