The Theme Park MMO Is Dead, Enter the Sandbox

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What do you want out of an MMO? The prevailing wisdom is that players want game developers to shell out hundreds of millions of dollars on creating a world with dozens of automatically resetting attractions like dungeons or raids. Call it the theme park model of MMO design. Unfortunately, investments in building a theme park MMO don’t seem to be working anymore, with many high-profile titles like Star Wars: The Old Republic falling below expectations. The post-WoW MMO boom is decidedly over, with only a few still in development here in 2012, but one man thinks the secret to success is to shift away from the theme park model altogether. He believes players would rather participate in a sandbox creating their own content instead of lining up to play what the developer puts in front of them. Ryan Dancey from Goblinworks is busy creating what he calls a sandbox fantasy MMO.

Pathfinder Online is going to be a game where the character’s actions are persistent, and the players are going to build large social structures we’re calling kingdoms. And players will be the primary drivers of the stories that are told in the game,” Dancey said during the successful Kickstarter campaign for the Pathfinder Online Technology Demo earlier this year.

“When you accomplish something in the world, that thing will be persistent,” he continued. “When you build a structure or slay a big monster or clear out a dungeon in Pathfinder Online, that will have an impact that will be lasting, people will be able to see that structure that you built. And that dungeon will be empty and those monsters will stay dead.”

You might say Dancey has the ideal resume to make a sandbox MMO a reality. He has a strong background in game design, marketing and strategy that he honed at companies like Wizards of the Coast (makers of Dungeons & Dragons), White Wolf Publishing, and the caretakers of EVE Online, CCP. As he made it his mission to increase the number of EVE Online‘s subscriptions, Dancey saw firsthand just how many players signed on to interact with that game’s corporate machinations. Think about all the stories you’ve heard of what happens in EVE – from Goon Swarm shenanigans to corporate espionage and exploitative investment schemes. None of that gameplay was created by the developers at CCP – they just provided the tools for the players’ own content to form.

“One of the things I took away from my time with EVE that was really surprising for me is that there actually are a lot of people who are interested in that non-adventuring lifestyle,” Dancey said. “They really do enjoy all that other stuff that goes on in an MMO. And I think that before [working with] EVE, I was pretty skeptical about the size of that population. After EVE, having seen it, I’m not skeptical anymore; I know they’re out there. There’s just not as much opportunity to participate in the gaming world because no one makes games for them anymore.”

While Pathfinder Online will certainly cater to those players more than other fantasy MMOs out there, Dancey realizes there will have to be some dungeons, too. He admits EVE concentrated a bit too much on the corporate game, and he plans for Pathfinder Online to have more adventure in contrast. “EVE has a very big emphasis on economic and political structures and not much emphasis at all on adventuring or going up against challenges that are driven by the environment,” he said. Dancey wants a game a “little heavier-weighted towards having fun and a little less towards running a spreadsheet.”

By offering a little bit more PvE content, Dancey hopes Pathfinder Online will be a hit. There have been sandbox MMOs before – A Tale in the Desert comes to mind – but none have broken through to see the kind of success that would make publishers any money. “We’d like to see Pathfinder Online become an evolutionary improvement over the state [of the sandbox] in the same way that World of Warcraft was a revolutionary improvement over the state of the theme park,” he said.

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The partnership with Paizo is smart move towards accomplishing that goal. Pathfinder‘s influence in the tabletop RPG market has grown substantially in the last five years as it challenges the establish brand of D&D. The fans of Paizo have an Apple-like devotion to the company, so setting Dancey’s MMO within its world of Golarion was largely responsible for the Kickstarter campaign’s success. In just three days, the campaign hit the funding goal of $50k, and ended in June 2012 with 4,212 people putting up more than $300 thousand. A new Kickstarter campaign is now underway to help fund the full development of the game. Dancey and Goblinworks hopes to raise $1 million to help speed it up and the new campaign is nearing the halfway point of funding with less than 30 days remaining. With two fundraising drives this year, he’s worried his audience might experience “Kickstarter fatigue” but he hopes Paizo’s fanbase remains supportive.

But beyond what audience the Pathfinder brand can deliver, there’s a location within Paizo’s setting that fits perfectly with Dancey’s sandbox MMO. Pathfinder Online takes place in a region called the River Kingdoms, an area of fertile land that’s ruled by bandit kings and petty lords who routinely backstab and depose each other. “The reason we’re using the River Kingdoms in particular is that it was designed from the beginning to be the place that would be the most [like a] sandbox,” he explained. “It does have existing NPC factions and kingdoms, but none of them are very stable. And the background of that area is that those factions and kingdoms change often. The design of the game is that new kingdoms would rise and there would be a constant turnover of the power brokers in that area.” So while the players of Pathfinder Online will be able to control the region’s fate, it won’t mess too much with the established IP.

Dancey did not spend the summer idly. With the $300k Kickstarter cash in hand, he hired programmers to begin work on the code. Dancey planned to whip something up and use the tech demo to shop around for more investors, and, at the time, he was confident the team would continue iterating to get ready for a release in 2013.

“I’m not going to pick a day or a month, but I’m going to say it’s going to happen in 2013,” Dancey said with confidence this summer. MMO development usually occurs at a snail’s pace. Blizzard worked on World of Warcraft for four years, and BioWare recently devoted a similar chunk of time to The Old Republic. Why did Dancey think his game could be made so quickly?

“That’s the advantage of doing a sandbox versus doing a theme park,” he explained. “If we were doing a theme park, we’d have to design pretty much the whole game before we could ship it … two genders, five races, sixteen classes and all the appropriate spells, magic items, effects, character animations. It’s just massive the amount of stuff you have to do for a theme park.

“But with a sandbox game, we have to design systems, not content,” said Dancey before the tech demo was created.

A 2013 release still seemed ambitious to me. That’s why I wasn’t surprised when the latest Kickstarter mentioned a window between 2014 and 2017. What changed to push back the date so much? Well, it was in part because the first Kickstarter raised nearly triple what they were asking for. “We became convinced, in large measure due to the success of our first Kickstarter, that we might be able to raise a large portion of that budget directly from the community,” he said. “That simplifies things for us enormously and allows us to keep more creative control over the project and its budget and timeline.”

That means Dancey didn’t need to go out and raise money from the typical sources for games – “angels, private equity, partnerships with larger developers or publishers, maybe venture capital” – but not having the large amounts of money from those sources pushed back the development schedule. “We took the risk that pushing things back would be justified by the benefits of having non-traditional funding for the project,” Dancey said, but he still hopes the present Kickstarter can jumpstart the process. “Based on the investment we have in-hand, we can project starting the Early Enrollment in the early part of 2015 and hitting the Release milestone in early 2017. The $1 million Kickstarter moves that timeline up, to mid-summer of 2014 for Early Enrollment, and early 2016 for release.”


The most important step for Pathfinder Online is what will happen after the Kickstarter campaign, assuming it is successful. The first people who inhabit the sandbox will undoubtedly make marks on the game that will quickly become permanent. Dancey wants to seed his game with people who can put viable social structures in place before the general masses log in. “We [will] have a very small number of people that we allow into the game at launch and those people are carefully chosen to be a great mix of people who want to do exploration and development and domination and adventuring,” said Dancey. “And over time as those people will put down roots and develop infrastructure for markets, for adventuring companies, and for meta-game organizations.”

The term he’s devised for these pioneering players is Crowdforging, and everyone who contributes at least $100 will be involved. Having a small group enter Pathfinder Online first will allow the team to slowly build the population to test servers and fix bugs, but, perhaps more importantly, the initial players will actually be guiding of the game’s design. The plan is for the developers and these seed players to collaborate on everything from social features to combat systems to economic markets.

“The new people who come into the game will experience something that feels much more organic and alive and real to them because it’s going to have all this straight player-created stuff in it,” Dancey said. None of that would be possible if the Pathfinder Online team had to create all of the content a theme park MMO demands before release.

“The age of the $50-$100 million AAA Theme Park MMO is nearly over,” he said. “One by one, they have been released, had a spike in subscribers as people piled in to try them, then a collapse as those folks burned through all the theme park content and left. The solution is to make a sand box game, where you invest in tools and in ways to let players interact, and you can ship it fast and monetize it fast and let it grow over time.”

Dancey isn’t naïve to think he’s the only one who thinks this is where MMOs are going. “We already know that Sony has scrapped their plan for EverQuest III and gone back to the drawing board to make it a sandbox. I’m sure that there are people at Activision/Blizzard, EA, Ubisoft, THQ, etc. who are all thinking along the same lines.” He hopes Pathfinder Online has enough of a jump on his competition to be a success.

The thing is, he doesn’t need much to make it work. “EA defined ‘success’ for Star Wars: The Old Republic as a sustained subscriber population of 1 million players. They didn’t achieve it,” he said. “I define ‘success’ for Pathfinder Online as having about 30,000 paying players at the end of 12 months of live operations, and about 100,000 after three years. I believe that the market is more than capable of generating those kinds of numbers.”

It’s not a very good time to start making a huge theme-park MMO. Failures like Funcom’s The Secret World and Curt Schilling’s Copernicus project – not to mention the disappointment of Star Wars: The Old Republic and the drop-off of WoW‘s population – have stifled any publisher’s desire to invest in developing an expensive theme park MMO. Gamers just don’t seem to want to play them as much as they did. In fact, the only MMO to continuously grow its population year over year is EVE Online. Perhaps that’s because a fully realized economic system, with plenty of player input and rewards, and the social structures that grow to support that market is actually what keeps players engaged. Crafting and camaraderie is what makes them stick around, and Dancey is betting a similar design will work in the fantasy sandbox of Pathfinder Online.

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