Thursday, February 26, 2009

Pathfinder Beta Testing

Beta, pilots, prototypes, and models. None of this is new or cut edge stuff. A lot of companies release early versions for testing. Sometimes it is released to a large test group, and sometimes it is only released to a small test group. But, I think something significant happened last year with regards to beta testing.

Back on March 18th 2008, Paizo announced that they were not going to use 4th ed for their adventure paths, and instead they were going to publish a new set of rules compatible with 3.5 ed, which they were going to call their Pathfinder Role Playing Game (PFRPG). They announced that they were going to conduct an open play test and set up forums in which fans and play testers can provide feedback. They promptly published an Alpha version, and several subsequent updates to this. In August, they published their Beta rules which represented most of what we should expect.

This past Monday, they completed the open play test, and have closed down most of the forums for comments. The results are impressive with over 45,000 individual downloads and well over 100,000 individual comments. Now, we will not see the final results for another six months, but I suspect that Paizo will be providing teasers, and they will probably have the finished version to their printers by April or May, to ensure that they have copies for the big roll out at Gencon 2009. I also suspect that their PFRPG launch at Gencon will be the big event this year.

So what does all this really mean? Good question. Let’s dig into it a bit.

It is interesting to compare what Paizo did with PFRPG what WotC did for 4th ed. Paizo did an open play test. WotC did a very limited play test, with their testers under NDA’s. WotC came under intense criticism for the way they conducted their marketing, as the fans were not happy with the lack of information and the tight control with which they bound the non-WotC play testers. For the most part, Paizo received favorable fan reaction to the open play test, even if not everyone liked the direction that Paizo was going. No one could fault them on their openness of information.

It is interesting to note that we live in an information age that is radically different than what has previously existed. We have access to data and information that is only a few key strokes and a click away. Fans get rabid about information flow. With the creation of the internet message boards, millions of posts are made each day on the zillions of message boards that exist on the web. Amazing stuff. While we can acknowledge that this is true, does it really matter?

Even though WotC received more than its fair share of criticism prior to launch, initial sales of the 4th ed books hit solid numbers with well over 100,000 books sold. For the sake of argument, let’s say that WotC did sell 100,000 sets of books. This far and away out performs any RPG on the market by leaps and bounds. Clearly it is still less than what TSR sold of the early editions, but 100,000 sets sold is nothing to be ashamed of. Overall these are solid sales numbers. The negative buzz did not seem to hurt the initial sales out numbers.

For Paizo’s PFRPG, the numbers are a bit different. The book is not released yet, so the following discussion is purely speculative on my part, and based on stats thrown out by the Paizo team. One of the staff members mentioned that the target numbers for Pathfinder are around 10,000. This is a rounded off number, and I suspect that the actual sales numbers are slightly lower, although over time, they could reach 10,000, and that may indeed be the size of their print runs. Paizo mentions that the Beta had 45,000 downloads. Considering that the download was free, that probably generated downloads that would not have happened with a $50 book. I suspect that if the Pathfinder AP is targeted at 10,000, one can assume that projected sales of the big book will be close to this number. If this book remains in print for 10 years or so, sales numbers could climb to 15,000. When one compares the 15K Paizo number to the 100K WotC number it hardly seems like a fair comparison.

However, I do think there are some additional considerations. I think Paizo benefited from having an open play test, with generally favorable attitudes. This favorable word of mouth probably resulted in additional downloads and additional interest that would not have been there otherwise. While it is hard to quantify how many folks downloaded due to the buzz created by the numerous message boards, such as Enworld, I suspect that the number is significant.

To come back to the concept open beta testing, while this is not a new concept, it is not usually used in the RPG industry. Usually the testing is done with small groups. With the relative success that Paizo is enjoying at the moment, I suspect that we may see more of this on the bigger projects. I would not expect to see it used on the smaller projects. I think WotC was probably taking some notes, and it will be interesting to see if they open up the beta testing on 5th ed, so we know it is coming eventually. If we set WotC aside, there are a number of mid sized RPG game companies such as FFG, Mongoose, White Wolf, and there are probably some others that I am forgetting, that may adapt to the open beta testing.

I applaud Paizo for making such a bold move, and I hope it turns out well for them. I will be watching them closely in the upcoming months, and I do think that it is interesting to compare what Paizo has done and what WotC did for 4th ed. It will be also interesting to see if any other companies follow the trail blazed by Paizo.


trollsmyth said...

I think WotC was hoping to keep the intrawebs in something of a frenzy by their slow drip of information. This is a popular technique for the release of movies and MMOGs, and I could see why they might want to emulate it. In addition, their product was so different from what had come before, they probably worried about being undercut by some hypothetical competitor, especially as companies like Paizo and Green Ronin became very un-hypothetical competitors.

Still, I agree with you. Paizo got a lot of playtesting and valuable feedback for the price of managing forums which they mostly already had up and running. It was an extremely clever and efficient use of their resources and the market strengths.

- Brian

Mr Baron said...

I agree. I think WotC knew what they were doing was very different than the earlier editions, and they were trying to manage it from announcement through the launch phase. I have mixed feelings on how successful they were.