Pathfinder Online CEO Schooled by Players

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This was emailed to me over the weekend asking for my commentary. The Pathfinder CEO took to the very public Pathfinder Online (PFO) forums last week to make what he felt was a heartfelt and genuine push for his players to help grow what is currently a rather stagnant player population. You can read the entire post if you wish, but I’ll quote a summarize.

“In my opinion, Settlement recruiting activities in the wider MMO community continue to be almost zero. […]

We need recruiting activity in the EVE community. I don’t know what the best vehicle is for that, so any and all suggestions are welcome.

Settlements that are committed to growing should have someone delegated to be visible in these places making regular posts and talking about the cool stuff their Settlement is doing. When the wider community sees activity and fun, that is a powerful attractant.” – Ryan Dancey

Within his post he points out a few places like and TTH for players in settlements to go and essentially advertise the game, their settlement, how much fun they’re having, etc. Should players do these things? Yes, I talk about this all the time when I instruct MMO devs to have their players champion their game. Should the CEO make a public post telling people to do this? No, that’s suicide. This translates to the following: Our game isn’t popular, people think it isn’t fun, and our population is shrinking so we need you to go out and spam advertise – HALP!

Other than the mistake of posting this, Ryan made a few other mistakes. From the mouths of a few actual players:

“Ryan, I strongly feel that mass recruiting efforts now are premature. The kind of people we’d be able to pick up from the mainstream sites are people who will login for a week, see a game which is very immature, draw incorrect conclusions, and never come back. The longterm success of the game will be much better if we wait to recruit those people until we have a chance to actually keep them.” – Guurzak

Ryan, I think that most of us are just barely reaching the stage where we are willing to try to bring anyone into this game who isn’t already interested. I love that you are so directly engaged with us, and open to what we have to say, and Pathfinder Online is improving at a phenomenal rate, but there have been a lot of things that were embarrassing, and for many it still isn’t mvp. - Caldeathe Baequiannia

Both of those replies are remarkably well-spoken, and spot on. These two players are essentially teaching the CEO how to market a MMORPG, or any product for that matter, in a small niche market.

Unfortunately, I think that Ryan Dancey either doesn’t understand his game, or is trying to spin things the wrong way. For the next 5 pages of posts he goes back and forth about how small groups of players can participate in the same way that large groups can, and his players are pointing out the sad reality that this simply isn’t the case. It’s a classic case of a system being designed on paper to be played and perceived one way, and the players in actual testing showing that it simply isn’t the case (this is why testing exists folks).

The thread ends with a lesson I have to teach people in the real world every single day. When asked by a one poster how many buddy keys have been given out, here’s what Ryan had to say.

I am somewhat chagrined to say that I don’t have those numbers. They are all being tracked but we have not written an analysis tool to review them yet. This is actually a pretty large issue – there are a lot of analytics that we should have but don’t have because I would rather invest team resources in features and polish than in analysis. Realistically, nothing that analysis would tell us would really impact any decisions anyway. We would be doing the Buddy Trial system even if zero percent of the trials converted. – Ryan Dancey

Oh Ryan… oh my. Use Excel. Use SBSS. Use anything. I’m betting buddy keys aren’t the only data not being tracked and utilized. How can features and polish exist without analytics and analysis? How can any decisions be made on anything but a golden gut without the ability to understand how everything is actually correlating?

When I’m not writing about video games, I’m managing a company’s marketing and product development. I live off of data, research, and proof. We track everything, and I teach even our young interns to look at why customers/users are behaving in a certain way,  and to make decisions based on the data and established consumer behavior models. Rarely do we ever do anything because we THINK it’s the right thing to do.

Here’s a classic example. We have a simple landing page for a campaign we’re running. I opened it up this morning to see how things went over the weekend to find that the color of the call-to-action had been changed. When I asked why, the answer I got was, “because it looks better.” I then had to teach this creative individual that when the button is orange we get over 40% more people to click on it than when it’s blue. How did I know that? I analyzed my data.

Going back to what Ryan Dancey said… “Realistically, nothing that analysis would tell us would really impact any decisions anyway.” Ryan, it may tell you that settlements aren’t working like you think. It may tell you that the buddy key system isn’t working at all. It may in fact reveal that those features you’re designing aren’t right for you at all. It’s time to stop and take a look at that data.


  • I saw him speak about Pathfinder Online a few years back at GenCon, a convention I highly recommend. His plans on what Pathfinder Online should be and able to do was impressive in concept and they had a slow player base growth plan. However, to be in on the ground floor to be in Pathfinder Online you would have to have Kickstarted it. Then there would be another stage where people who are willing to buy into playing the early version of the game would try it out. The next stage would then be invites at a limited number. He gave examples how slow growth games last longer than the explosive three monthers and have a more committed community. He sited early MMOs as examples. He gave population numbers that he would be fine with achieving at the different stages of growth.
    I really hope Pathfinder Online succeeds because it is an ambitious concept of a game world and would bring me back to MMOs. It would satisfy the PVE players tremendously, RP players, and some PvP players in that order.

  • I remember that presentation. I agree with the premise of slow growth games lasting longer than explosive three monthers. I think some of his ideas for rolling out that slow growth, however, need to be revisited. I also think that he needs to take a serious look at their marketing.

  • I do not necessarily disagree with the evangelist idea, of getting your community to bring in new players, even if they cannot track the metrics. But that he targets EVE Online in his message seems odd when you think it through.

    Sure, you can says, “Sandbox players like sandboxes, so go to where there are sandbox players!” The problem there is that MMOs as a genre gets people invested in their games and a sandbox MMO just multiplies that investment. EVE Online has a horrible attrition rate when it comes to keeping new players for more than a couple of months, but that small percentage that gets hooked and does stay, they get really invested. So coming up to somebody who has formed the social bonds and invested in the game and asking them to drop all that and come start over… that is a tougher sell than I think Ryan is suggesting. I think it is almost a better idea to send current players after people they know who play WoW with a message along the lines of, “Do you want a REAL garrison?” Most will show up, scoff at the lack of polish and walk away, but some will stay and get invested… which is how EVE Online grew over time.

  • @Wilhelm: Yeah, I agree. I’m also in agreement with one of the posts in that thread where a player points out that a discussion coming from the CEO goes over a lot better on the media outlets than players going into comment sections and white-knighting the game.

  • Data is king.

    One of the hardest things to do when running a business is to be able to step outside of the comfort of ‘this is what I believe’ or ‘this is what I feel’ and objectively analyze data. It of course does not mean you blindly follow data and it does not mean you ignore your gut instincts, but you have to be informed when making a decision. Without analyzing data you are just doing what you think is going to work without actually knowing if it is indeed working. Often times the effect might not be obvious but with looking at data you can see the subtle effects.

  • “Realistically, nothing that analysis would tell us would really impact any decisions anyway. We would be doing the Buddy Trial system even if zero percent of the trials converted. ”


    I honestly question how/why he is a CEO of a company if he has opinions as such. Data may not be sexy but it is the lifeblood of a game/company. There is no company that couldn’t run better with more/better analytics.

  • @Nuke: Agreed.

    @Yotor: Oh man, I cringed too. It was one of those whole-face cringes where you open your mouth and clench your jaw like and have to look away.

    I get part of what he might have been trying to say. Sometimes getting that data isn’t easy, and once you have it it can be difficult to translate the unsexy numbers into action. Getting stuck in the weeds can sometimes freeze you in place and keep you from progressing. But that’s why you need good leadership and a team.

  • I’m hoping he just stated what he wanted to say poorly. What I took him saying is that at a certain level, we all know buddy programs help bring people in. Now you can spend time/resources figuring out how well its working, but at the end of the day you can be rather certain it is working better than not having the program at all. When you have limited resources and a game that isn’t nearly ready for anyone outside of a tiny niche (which is the current state of PFO), I agree with him that said resources are better spent on the actual game than figuring out the conversion % of their buddy system. Long-term the game investment is going to pay off more than marketing analytic at this point.

    I do agree with the players telling him that bringing people in right now is a very tough sell due to the state of the game, and any focus on mass marketing would turn more people off to never return than bring in today.

    Also data can do more harm than good if the wrong person is looking at it. To take Keen’s donation button example; maybe the orange % was due to 3rd factor boom, and the blue % without said 3rd factor is in fact higher. So on paper orange > blue, but in reality someone could look at that data and cause hard rather than help.

  • To me the situation reeks of mismanagement. If his own player base is telling him he needs to hold off on broadcasting and generating buzz it speaks volumes to the current standing of the game. It smacks of desperation a need for more hype to draw more funding through an early access.

    While I applaud a CEO for connecting with their customers, I question if that is the best use of his resources at this time. It seems like he is more focused on generating buzz for a game and turning a profit than seeing its completion be successful.

    His comment came off close minded, and for a game to succeeded he is going to have to make some hard decisions that are based on facts and data not gut feelings.

  • I believe more than ever what really separates all these 3 monthers and their decent graphics and interesting first impressions, is a failure to fundamentally understand the Skinner Box. If you want me to keep pressing the shiny orange (or blue!) button, I damn well better feel like I’m getting rewarded for it. More so than the the people that pressed it far less then I did.