One of the major quibbles that I have with SWTOR is the fact that they have borrowed so heavily from other MMOs; to the point where many experienced MMO players consider it to be something akin to “WoW in Space.” The devs on SWTOR don’t appear to want to learn from previous game’s mistakes. Their propensity is to simply copy what has worked before. However, what worked five years ago may not apply to today’s market. Games do not exist in a vacuum, and technology, social attitudes of the time, and player expectations all influence the success of a game in a particular time and place.

Which is why the new announcement from Goblinworks regarding the Pathfinder MMO title is so intriguing. In it they list a number of areas which they want to follow in development. Not all of these are new; SWTOR for example has made quite a lot of use of middleware technology. But it is the culture behind these ideas which is of most importance. And Goblinworks appears to be determined to learn from past MMOs and to not only avoid their mistakes but to take game development in new directions.

So when I read this announcement I wonder if we just might be getting what we have long asked for:

At launch, and for the first seven months following, we will cap new paying players at 4,500 per month. Four thousand five hundred new paying players monthly. We expect to keep only about 25% of those players on a long-term basis, so after we factor in attrition of each month’s signups, we end up with 16,500 paying players at the end of that seven-month period.

Making a game that starts with 4,500 players and grows to 16,500 players is much, much easier and vastly less expensive than making a game designed to accommodate a million players on day one. We’ll be able to focus on a relatively small part of the world at first, expanding it only as we need to.

After the first seven months, we’ll raise the limit on new paying players to 12,000 per month. That will remain our goal for the next couple years of Pathfinder Online’s life cycle. Factoring in attrition, by the end of the game’s third year of operation, we expect to have about 120,000 paying players. For many MMOs, that number would be considered a failure, but because of our lean development strategy, achieving that number of paying customers will mean success for Pathfinder Online.

Details aside for the moment, this is thinking outside of the box. And above all it is an attempt to set up a game to succeed as opposed to positioning yourself for an epic load of failure. I can see issues with this of course, the major one being that MMOs are a social game and players like to bring their friends which this will restrict. But when you add in some more of their goals such as a non-instanced world and possibly only one server, then things start to get very interesting.

We have long lamented the fact that the ultimate expression of MMOs got bogged down with the super theme-park style display. To be honest, after Ultima Online it has been a long and slow rush downhill to where players are akin to lab rats pushing buttons to get rewards and an emotional hit. The achievement system is the ultimate expression of a game without soul and players with no mind of their own. To be honest I don’t know if this will work. But I love that at least they’re trying a different approach.