Translating a tabletop RPG like Pathfinder to its online version is harder than it looks.
You could argue that tabletop roleplaying games like Dungeons & Dragons were the inspiration for MMOs, but the two games are separated by a chasm. One is a social game played around a table, while one is played alone but with people on the other side of your monitor. Pathfinder Online has a more specific problem in translating a particular tabletop game to a digital, multiplayer environment. I peppered the CEO of Goblinworks and avid roleplayer Ryan Dancey on how he was going to adapt the fun of tabletop more generally, and more specifically, how he was going to stop wizards from being so overpowered.
If you watched our PAX East panel on the Future of RPGs, you may have noticed that Ryan is very good at expressing his points. Guess what? He's even more forthright in his emails and rather than try to distill his thoughts, I thought I'd present our full correspondence. Here's the conversation we had on the development of Pathfinder Online.
Greg Tito: Pathfinder Online is obviously based on the tabletop RPG from Paizo, but it is a videogame first and foremost. How are you guys balancing those two very different styles of games?
Ryan Dancey, CEO of Goblinworks: There are four differences that we have to address.
The first is realtime vs. tabletop. On the tabletop players can take an arbitrarily long time to make a decision. This creates a syndrome sometimes known as "packing 20 minutes of fun into 4 hours". The upside is that each player can take the time to cross-reference rules, talk about strategy with other players, and make use of very complex interdependent game mechanics. Online, the players have to act in near-realtime. They have to be able to make decisions quickly, which means that the options we can present them have to be limited. They also need to be reasonably sure that whatever they attempt to do will work, that they won't just be wasting their opportunity to act while someone with a more comprehensive grasp of the game mechanic beats them down.
What we've sought to do is preserve the classic "six seconds" of game time mechanism. On the tabletop, each combat "round" is assumed to take 6 seconds (regardless of how much realtime is consumed). Online, we're building our game mechanic around the idea that your character can do something meaningful every six seconds, which is a fast enough pace to keep the game fluid and interesting, but slow enough to give players time to make interesting tactical decisions and to avoid the "whoever is fastest on the trigger wins" problem. You'll still have to act quickly, and with precision, but you'll have enough time to make interesting choices rather than just mash buttons as fast as possible.
Based on the tabletop RPG of the same name, Pathfinder Online aims to bring Paizo's famous fantasymworld to the realm of MMORPGs with deep, addictive gameplay and mechanics based on the award-winning pen and paper RPG.
The second is scale. On the tabletop the game consists of a small number of players who are assumed to be responsible for a small number of characters. The size of the player social graph and character social graph is very constrained. Online, that social graph explodes. Suddenly we have to accommodate dozens, up to hundreds and potentially thousands of social interactions. On the tabletop it is ok if a character can deliver overwhelming force because they have to in order to facilitate small group success against large numbers of opponents. Online, that rapidly unbalances the game, so each character's power needs to be moderated. The solution to overcoming large numbers of opponents is to assemble and equally large opposing force. Managing the kinds of interactions required to make that work requires all sorts of systems not present in the tabletop game. Tabletop games have "groups", but the Online game adds persistent chartered companies, settlements, armies and kingdoms as well. Each of those social structures requires new management tools and interesting game mechanics to enable them to function.
The third is scope. The tabletop game is focused on adventuring heroes who typically engage in what we would call "PvE" experiences. The Online game is a superset of that, and brings in a wide and diverse range of new character archetypes: crafters, harvesters, diplomats, spies, leaders of large social organizations, etc. The Online game focuses on meaningful human interactions - which some would reduce to "PvP" (although frankly, that's a very narrow view of the concept and one we tend to reject as being too small for our vision). The tabletop game has few rules that govern interactions between players so we need to design those systems for the Online game. The Online game has to provide as diverse and interesting a range of game mechanics for all those new character types as it does for the classic adventurers. Essentially what we are doing is removing most of the NPCs from the game world and replacing them with player characters, and in order to make that experience satisfying for those players we have to invest in game development of systems and content that reward them for their investment of time in the game.
The last is length. The tabletop game is designed to allow you to advance a character from "normal peasant farmer" to "god" in about a year and a half of regular weekly play. Moving through the various ranges of power presents opportunities for the tabletop game to present players with interesting new experiences on a regular basis, and then when a given character has reached full potential, to be gracefully retired and for the cycle to begin all over again with a new group of characters. The Online game is designed around the idea that you will play the same character for many years of time, you'll never want to retire one, and that you'll be interacting with many characters much younger (in game experience) than yours, without you gaining a material mechanical advantage that overwhelms those less experienced characters. This requires us to operate the game in a much more narrow power band than the tabletop game. Instead of "+1" bonuses, we're going to be working in fractions of "1", and that has lots of effects on the underlying math of the game systems.
In the end what we want is for someone who is familiar with the tabletop game to be quickly able to familiarize themselves with the Online game, and for much of their knowledge about how the game system works to be useful to them in understanding the Online game. They should have a sense that they're still well within a comfort zone while playing the Online game, especially the closer they get to playing a tabletop-style adventuring hero in a small group. We also want people who are coming to the game from an MMO background to find nothing lacking, and to be delighted at our approach to solving the kinds of problems that have been challenges in previous sandbox MMO experiences.