Pathfinder: Kingmaker — a Story Behind the Game

Alexander Mishulin at the GameNode Meetup

During the fall of 2018, Owlcat Games released their critically acclaimed game Pathfinder: Kingmaker. On the January 31st, at the GameNode Meetup focused on game design, the studio’s Creative Director Alexander Mishulin shared his insights into how the game was created.

Key Design Features

Pathfinder: Kingmaker is a classic isometric RPG with real-time combats and a tactical pause, inspired by Pillars of Eternity and Baldur’s Gate. The game took us a little over two years to develop and was released in September on Steam, GOG.com and several other platforms, and received massive feedback. This is a large and engrossing game, which design rests on three pillars. Firstly, it is based on the Pathfinder tabletop role-playing system. Secondly, there is a strong focus on the player’s companions and we have endeavored to infuse these characters with greater personality than is usually the case with isometric RPGs. Thirdly, the game has a strategic level (we call it kingdom), when the player becomes the ruler of a fledgling state and gradually develops it into a kingdom.

Background

When I studied at school, computers were not yet widespread in Russia, but I was fortunate enough to have an opportunity to play computer games at my father’s workplace. There was a game, Beholder 2, that sank deep into my mind. This was an unusual game, telling a story and following weird rules. Later I discovered that the game was based on a role-playing system, for which pen-and-paper rules existed, and there were folks in Moscow who physically held those rules. I could find those people to talk and play… and this is how it all started. When I first came to the industry, I was keen to develop such games — role-playing, lavish with options and opportunities. However, from the very start it went in a slightly different direction, and when I finally got an opportunity to make a game that led me to this industry, I seized it. Almost every team member has a similar story.

Genre and Setting

So, we persuaded our management to take a chance with our idea — and things got rolling. We opted for an isometric RPG, but had yet to decide on the setting. We used to play a handful of board games: Dungeons & Dragons, Gurps, Fusion and Seventh Sea, however, the most enjoyable of these games was Pathfinder, which stands out from the others with its astounding universe. On the one hand, this is a familiar West European fantasy setting, whilst on the other hand, when in this universe you can come across crazy, one-of-a-kind goblins, who would burn it all up, who believe that a written word can drink your soul, and things like that. Therefore, we were happy with Pathfinder as a setting. As to Kingmaker, this is one of the adventure paths that exists within the big role-playing Pathfinder system. Not all adventure paths are well suited for RPG, because there should be freedom of choice and openness, enabling players to express themselves, and Kingmaker fits well into this genre. Actually, it represents a sandbox where a player is showered with various opportunities — where to go, what to do, etc. Furthermore, Kingmaker possesses a distinctive feature: the player becomes a ruler immediately and starts building the realm.

From the very beginning, the availability of printed material has been hugely beneficial and every team member completed the adventure on the tabletop. Having played the game, people got to understand the vision, and what they were actually trying to achieve. Their questions were straight to the point, the system didn’t need to be explained in detail, people became involved immediately and produced the required content and mechanics.

Cooperation with Paizo Inc.

Now that we understood the whats and hows, we produced a set of early concept arts to show to the IP rights holder and convey our aims and our vision. Armed with this, we headed to Paizo Inc., the creator of Pathfinder. I have on more than one occasion dealt with franchising and must admit that interacting with Paizo was a very comfortable experience. While treating their ‘baby’ with due care, they understand that each media lives by its own rules and changes are needed. All of the issues were resolved swiftly and we always arrived at a compromise. Of course, everything related to the game’s storyline, the interaction of characters and particularities of each race had to be discussed with and approved by Paizo. Just to illustrate: our game has a character named Amiri, whom you would likely come across in any book narrating about barbarians. We extended her story and added a few elements, whilst having each step approved dozens of times, as this is their character.

Pathfinder Benefits

The choice of Pathfinder brought plenty of benefits to our project. For instance, we immediately started to resemble good old role-playing games. Pathfinder originated from the 3rd edition of Dungeons & Dragons, just as the origins of Baldur’s Gate and Infinity Engine can be found somewhere in between edition 2 and 3. And there was also Neverwinter. This means that players and aficionados of this genre had long been familiar with the mechanics, stats and spells used in our game, and it came as no surprise that our project has enjoyed a loyal and well-disposed audience.

Concept arts for various classes

We demonstrated the game’s first build at a convention for Pathfinder players, where we harvested feedback, both positive and negative. People were willing to help us improve the first single-player game for this universe and this proved to be a comfortable and successful method of working. Of course, one can find drawbacks — any intellectual property keeps your design constrained within certain frames. I am prone to believe, that constraints are a good thing as they inspire creativity.

Tabletop Experiences

We wanted the entire game to be permeated with a spirit of tabletop adventure, where every single element would serve this particular purpose, let alone the mechanics and combats. The exploration element would be a good example here — as players wander through the map and discover new terrains, they see figures moving and objects emerging, which gives a tabletop feel.

Or, for instance, the recreation mechanics are not limited to just clicking the R button — the characters would create a camp, sit around the fire chatting, and only then their health and other parameters would be restored. As evidenced by player feedback, bringing the atmosphere of a tabletop game into the virtual universe, was the right decision. Besides, incorporating these elements didn’t cost us a fortune, but the emulation effect was palpable.

Kickstarter Campaign

One of the milestones in developing our game was a Kickstarter campaign, that allowed us to push forward the project and propel game awareness to a higher level. However, such campaigns are time-consuming, when part of your team would spend a month plugging away at Kickstarter, as there should be someone available to interact with the press, prepare materials, updates, etc. However, the chances are high that your efforts would be fully repaid — once your game has been promoted and recognized, everything tends to become simpler. For instance, you would have an audience ready to test early versions of your game.

Chris Avellone’s Contribution

We are proud to have worked with Chris Avellone. Given that the game was predominantly targeted at the U.S. market, we needed assistance in understanding how to adapt the scenario to this audience and localize the game professionally. Chris has spent a great deal of time playing Pathfinder and enjoys this role-playing system. Therefore, when we offered him to join us on the project, he agreed readily. Our collaboration proved to be quite productive, both in terms of advising at the game’s early stages and in terms of text editing. Chris even wrote a whole-new character especially for us — goblin Nok-Nok. If not for this character, the game would be perceived and experienced totally differently. The bottom line — when targeting an audience that you don’t thoroughly know, never hesitate to invite people who can help you gain a deeper insight into it.

Companion Focus

We were keen to make our companions as vivid and memorable as possible, with a personal backstory and even the possibility of romantic relationship… Bearing this in mind, we created 11 characters, which is more than you usually find in this genre, and again, this was repaid. We boast a lot of fanfics and fanarts that expose people’s attitude toward our characters. Not all of the characters caught everyone’s fancy, however, this wasn’t the goal pursued. They bring out emotions, whether positive or negative, and this is the point.

Scale

A lot of reviews praised us for the intensely profound plot, which is good for RPG, however it had its dark side. The matter is that we produced too many narrative threads to be able to thoroughly test all of them before the release. We are still squashing some of the bugs and are looking to adjust the testing process in such a way as to cope with such volumes when undertaking similar-scale games in the future.

Our game also appeared to be very large. The main story was initially estimated to take 40 hours to complete, while finding everything in the game was supposed to take another 80 hours. However, what we have now is 120 hours to complete the game. Again, there was no avoiding a test challenge. Having learnt the lesson, we have adjusted the estimate and now have a better understanding of how content converts into time.

Strategic Level

Inside our game, we have nested a strategy, which also forms the project’s USP. This is a kingdom governed by the player, who may appoint counsellors, resolve issues, strive for opportunities, settle and build communities… We were anxious that players would give a cold shoulder to such an abundance of elements, given that this is a strategic portion atop RPG. This prompted us to arrive at certain solutions, which don’t seem to be quite appropriate now.

In particular our strategy is isolated from the bigger project, as the idea was to enable RPG fans to completely automate it, so that they could move from one story to another, or play at the simplest level. Some appreciated this detached entity, others — did not, but in either scenario this hinders users from perceiving the game as a whole. Some awkward solutions also crept into the kingdom’s design. For instance, it is inert — having made a number of false steps, players will have to inevitably pay for this as time elapses: they might have to reverse far back, or decrease the difficulty level, or render the kingdom invulnerable, which is not a good feature in terms of design. We should have integrated the kingdom deeper into the bigger game and might well have seen a better result.

Summing Up

This was a glimpse into our journey while creating Pathfinder: Kingmaker, the key elements and pillars underpinning the game, well-fitted and somewhat less feasible design solutions. We are genuinely happy with the result, having realized our early ambitions — those that we had when just starting off in this industry.


The above text is based on Alexander Mishulin’s presentation delivered at the GameNode meetup themed ‘Game Design’. Follow the link to check out the full version of the presentation.