Pathfinder Online, a massive online game in-development based on the popular tabletop RPG by Paizo Publishing, probably won't attract a subscriber count numbering in the millions. Design intentions on developer Goblinworks' blog read more like a fantasy take on EVE Online than like the numerous close cousins to World of Warcraft that have characterized the MMORPG market in the years since Blizzard Entertainment released their genre-defining juggernaut. The game's anticipated sandbox style of play and focus on the world-shaping results of player interaction stands in stark contrast to the emphasis on tightly scripted, theme park-style content composing the big budget releases we've seen in recent years.
If Pathfinder Online were equipped with a similar budget and subscriber expectation to those of the latest high-profile online worlds, I'd be quick to dismiss it as a project doomed to fail. I can't imagine a subscription-based, sandbox-style game appealing to multiple millions of gamers, many of whom have grown used to being led unsubtly to solo-friendly, level-appropriate content at all times.
For this very reason, I find the game's blog's first entry, entitled, “A Journey of a Thousand Miles Begins with a Single Step”, to be the most heartening one. In it, Goblinworks CEO Ryan Dancey discusses refining his original plan for a 50+ million dollar budget down to a leaner, more efficient plan that includes, most surprisingly, only accepting 4,500 new subscribers each month for the first several months, and limiting the game's subscriber total for the first few years after launch.
Let me explain why a plan that throttles incoming subscriber numbers is ultimately very good for Pathfinder Online.
The Risk of Innovating
If you need any proof that trying something different in the MMORPG market can result in a catastrophic financial faceplant, you don't need to look any further than the original launch of Realtime Worlds' APB: All Points Bulletin. The game, said to have had a budget exceeding 100 million dollars, regularly impressed critics at trade shows, touting extensive avatar customization and action-packed player-versus-player combat in sprawling city districts, but ultimately proved unable to survive even three months live before servers were shut down.
APB didn't adhere to the generally accepted mold for massive online games, and sported a stratospheric development cost. If a game with either of those qualities alone is a risky venture, one burdened with both walks a metaphorical tightrope, having to impress players with not only its quality of gameplay, but also its quality of service, including factors like server stability and customer service responsiveness.
Pathfinder Online aims to try new things with in the MMORPG space too, but Goblinworks' plan to stagger subscribers in allows the company to roll with the punches as some portion of the players inevitably discovers that the game doesn't appeal to them. The company avoids the painful flood-drought pattern that major MMORPG launches suffer when new releases build infrastructure for the launch wave, only to leave behind dozens of near-deserted servers and zones once the merely curious leave behind only the true believers.
Innovation Still Survives
Dancey's aforementioned blog post goes on to anticipate that Pathfinder Online will support 120,000 active subscribers by the end of its third year. That number can be considered a success due to a financially responsible development plan that's created aware of the size of the audience for a sandbox-style MMORPG.
When developers gun for the subscriber numbers that World of Warcraft enjoyed at the peak of its popularity, they inflate their risks and have limit their design options to the tried-and-true end of the spectrum. Pathfinder Online, on the other hand, will enjoy freedom to innovate due to its developer's willingness to grow into success from the ground up.