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Begin the Beguine

The past two weeks have been some of the most intense in our short history.

We are in the final stages of polishing the Technology Demo. The team is implementing the basic combat system (not the actual system for the released game, just a simple "whack the goblin" implementation to show off animation and particle effects) and a basic UI. We've also implemented an invisible flying character that we'll use to make video captures from inside the client.

We are working on storyboards for the videos we'll be making to showcase the Tech Demo for the Kickstarter backers. Currently we expect that project to result in a 20-30 minute presentation. It will be assembled in the next two weeks, and should be ready before Halloween. We'll then create a shorter version to show the world!

Mark, Lee, and Ryan are at the Game Developers Conference Online in Austin this week, keeping abreast of trends in the industry and best practices from many types of game developer perspectives. Knowledge is power!

Release Planning

Since last Spring, we've had a very detailed game design document that represents our vision for Pathfinder Online. To get to that vision, there are three intermediate steps that we need to take, but until now, we haven't had the bandwidth or the team talent to define those milestones. So Mark, Lee, and Mike spent a good portion of last week holed up in a conference room working on the critical next milestone for the project, defining the specification for the features we will be scheduling for the initial release of the game.

And a One! A Two! A Three!

First we need to define the minimum game specification we will implement before opening the world of Pathfinder Online to players. This step is like the beta that Gmail entered on its release: everything in it worked, but many aspects of the program's complete specification were not implemented. On release, Pathfinder Online will have a small but very usable set of features, implemented in a minimally developed state. Content features will also be delivered in a basic state.

Following release, we will go through an intense period of collaborative design and development with the community. This is one of the unique and special aspects of our plan: an unprecedented effort to directly involve the community in taking the game to a more fully developed state through a formalized process of interaction and feedback. During this period, the game will evolve at a ferocious pace, and many of the basic features delivered in the first step will be iterated on and expanded dramatically.

After that period draws to a close, the development process will shift again to focus on polish—balancing and completing the list of features as prioritized by the community and Goblinworks. The community will still be deeply involved, and the developers will be working extremely closely with everyone playing the game to make everything work better, more intuitively and to scale well as we grow. During this phase we expect to be adding a lot of content that will leverage the systems built in the previous two phases. This is when we'll greatly expand the number of monsters, magic items, spells, and encounter types in the game.

Start Me Up

Enabling this process to begin requires the team to draft and reach consensus on what that initial release target will include: specific numbers of races, skills, character abilities, structures, monsters, NPC systems, market systems, social systems, graphic assets, back-office systems, etc.

In its most simplistic level, this amounts to how we will release a next-generation fantasy sandbox MMO on a fraction of the budget and in a fraction of the time of a current-generation AAA MMO.

A current-gen theme park requires a nearly feature- and content-complete game design before it can be released. Without all systems and all content, a theme park is not a very good game, and players will quickly exhaust its potential. To recoup the cost all of that entails, the game must attract hundreds of thousands (and in some cases millions) of players. That creates a feedback loop of needing a lot of content, which is expensive, which requires a lot of launch customers, which means more content, etc. It's why many MMO projects fail to release or release in a unsatisfactory state.

Our vision for a next-gen design relies on the idea that players create content for themselves in their interactions with one another. That enables us to focus on designing systems rather than content. That allows us to speed up the release dramatically. But it also means that we'll have a fairly small space ready for the players to experience, so we'll carefully regulate the initial size and growth rate of the game to achieve a good balance of character diversity and density. It's the opposite of the theme park feedback loop. The better the sandbox systems are at making interaction between players interesting, the fewer players we need in the game to make it fun to play, which means we need less content and can get the game out faster.

The game that we deliver on Day 1 will be small, bit not empty. It will then grow every couple of weeks as new systems and content are rolled out. The prioritization and mechanics of those additions will reflect the input of the community, and so the game will reflect the sum of many contributors' inputs.

The next dev blog will talk in more detail about what the release target will include, the tradeoffs we face when building that specification, and how we intend the game to be played and developed collaboratively with the community.

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