Thursday, August 27, 2009

Erik Mona Interview: Pathfinder, Customer Service, and Old School

Publisher Erik Mona and his buddies at Paizo are fresh off a tremendous debut of the Pathfinder RPG at Gen Con. He was kind enough to chat with us again as we asked just a few questions about Pathfinder, Gen Con, and to expand his thoughts on the Old School Renaissance:

First off, Erik, congrats to you and the Paizo crew for a great Gen Con and Pathfinder release!

Q: So, what was the moment at Gen Con you pretty much knew you had a hit on your hands?

A: There have been signs that the book would be very successful for months, going back to more than 55,000 downloads of the free Beta, the instant sell-out of the Beta print edition, and the quick sell-out into the distribution channels of the actual final Core Rulebook. But I wanted to remain cautious until I could actually see people buying it with my own eyes. At 9:00 AM on Thursday at Gen Con we had a big rush with the Very Important Gamers who come in an hour early (to say nothing of other exhibitors, who had us ringing sales from the moment we arrived). Still, that petered out to a slow trickle by the time 10:00 came around and the doors opened for the general public. It took maybe two minutes for the hordes to find the Paizo booth. I engaged a customer in a conversation, and suddenly it was like a wave of gamers crashed over me. Our display table was nearly picked clean mere minutes later, and when I turned around there was already a line completely encircling the Paizo booth. I think I knew we had a bona fide hit on our hands when the volunteers running the adjacent art show begged us to swing the line overflow in a way that didn't completely overrun the huge art show. For the rest of the weekend, you couldn't hardly go anywhere without seeing people paging through the book. It's been really fun.

Q: Did you have any copies left over after Gen Con? With the sellout of the first print run having been announced, what's going to happen with those copies? Back out to distributors or on sale via Paizo?

A: A very small number of copies survived the show, which means we did a decent job of guessing how many we could sell. After burning through the Beta in 9 hours last year, we wanted to make sure that we brought enough so that people wouldn't be turned away empty handed. Those few copies will likely end up getting combined with a small number of books we held back in case our Gen Con debut was ruined by a spot customs inspection of the main shipment, all of which will go to hobby distributors and local game stores. A full reprint is expected in October.

Q: Outside of the Paizo booth, what was the coolest item you saw at Gen Con this year?

A: I'm a big miniatures collector, so I'm usually on the hunt for really interesting minis. Reaper provided in spades with sculpted greens for the first few releases in their forthcoming (and announced at the show) Pathfinder Miniatures line. Bobby Jackson did a great, dynamic sculpt of our iconic fighter, Valeros, from the cover painting by Wayne Reynolds. It was amazing. I also really like the sort of gothic wild west minis from a company called Wyrd Miniatures, who publishes a game called Malifaux. I'm not so much interested in adding another minis game to my list of hobbies, but the minis are great. I also had a chance to finally pick up Thousand Suns and Colonial Gothic from Rogue Games, one of my favorite newish small RPG companies.

Q: If you had to pick one book coming up for Pathfinder that you're most excited about, which one would it be? Why?

A: I'm most excited about the Advanced Player's Guide, which will debut at next year's Gen Con. It'll be packed with new options for the 11 core classes and it'll also include six new base classes like the alchemist, oracle, cavalier, and summoner. We plan to round out a lot of the basic options with this book (we don't plan to do a fighter book followed by a wizard book followed by a bard book, etc.), and I'm eager to move on to development of the system for its own sake, rather than to round out updating of the OGL SRD. New, innovative ideas are exciting to me, and the APG will include a lot of those as well as clear the way for what's to come next. And what comes next will be phenomenal!

Q: We've been talking about RPG company customer service quite a bit here lately at RPG Blog 2. Paizo is generally reputed to have some of the best customer service and fan relations in the business. What approaches are emphasized at Paizo to connect with and suppport their gamer customers?

A: Everyone at the company is a gamer, so there isn't much of a sense of divide between us and the people who buy our products. Everyone here is obsessed with the message boards. I've seen reps from some RPG companies bemoan having to spend time online interacting with the fans, the whole "I don't even have enough time to do the job they pay me for" routine. Well, at Paizo, interacting with the fans is PART OF the job that we pay our employees to do, and even if it wasn't there's no way I could keep people like James Jacobs or Lisa Stevens from posting responses to fan queries at 3:54 AM on a Thursday. We also have a great customer service staff in Cosmo and Alison, who spend all day every day attending to the needs of our customers.

Q: You've written online that hearts at Paizo are sympathetic to the Old School Renaissance, and that down the road we just might see something in that field from Paizo. Why do you think the OSR has expanded and gained notice in the manner it has?

A: I think that there's a Do It Yourself element to a lot of the Old School stuff that has great appeal. Back when I got into the hobby in the early 1980s (and especially in the few years preceding that) the books looked good, but not great. A lot of the art of the day was provided by, essentially, talented amateurs, which is where the writing came from too. It's difficult to look at a fat hardcover book like the Pathfinder RPG Core Rulebook and think "I could do that," but the barrier to knocking out something like Tomb of Horrors is quite a bit lower. Direct sales to the customer, online fora, and publishing houses like Lulu make it a lot easier for a guy with a cool idea to produce a game than it has ever been.

And then there's the thematic roots of the game, which basically came from the bookshelves of E. Gary Gygax and his early collaborators. Paizo's designs have always been sympathetic to the thematic spirit of the old 1st edition stuff that enticed most of us into the hobby, so when it comes to themes we're marching in lock step with the OSR. That said, 3.5 is not even close to an "old school" game, and its complexity is one of the factors that fuels the popularity of the movement. A lot of OSR folks likely would scoff at the idea that the editorial staff behind Pathfinder shares a lot of their sensibilities, because Pathfinder is MUCH more complex than most "Old School" games. Like 3.5 before it, it tries to provide an answer for almost every corner-case problem, whereas my sense of the Old School community these days is that they're far more likely to approve of something that puts a lot of decision-making and problem-solving powers in the hands of the Game Master.

While we have absolutely no plans to produce a retro-clone of 1970s or 1980s D&D, a lot of us do see the appeal of more streamlined games that hearken to the same thematic spirit that fueled D&D in past decades, and that fuels the OSR now. Since we already have a fantasy game on the market in the form of Pathfinder (and since others are blazing some excellent Old School fantasy trails of their own at the moment), anything from Paizo in the "Old School tradition" (loosely defined) would more likely involve some other genre. I'd love to do an RPG supporting our Planet Stories pulp science-fiction and fantasy novel line, for instance, and I'm not sure the Pathfinder rules is where I'd start for such a project.

I think the OSR has expanded and gained notice primarily because of its community spirit and the efforts of several active bloggers, who feed off one another and foster a sense of community. In this day and age, you cannot have a healthy RPG without a healthy community, and the internet is the greatest tool for generating and maintaining the supportive communities necessary to make an RPG work. Pathfinder would not exist if not for the community and the more than 55,000 playtesters who helped us with the game, and the Old School Renaissance would not be much of a renaissance if not for blogs like Grognardia, communities like Dragonsfoot, and the writers and fans who fuel them.


Thanks again, Erik!


Stargazer said...

Great interview! Thanks for sharing it with us.

Richard Iorio II said...

Holy cow, this makes my day. In many ways. :)

David Nett said...

Great interview. The Pathfinder folks know what they are doing, from a great ruleset (and fruitful BETA period) right down to the friendly and fun demos at their GenCon booth. And I'd argue that they clearly are interested in streamlining -- the changes they made in combat maneuvers, skill, feats, magic, etc. between 3.5 and PathFinder are almost entirely in the interest of streamlining.

Way to go, Paizo.

Tony Law said...

I think Paizo has done a great job of listening to the fans and incorporating suggestions from them while not rolling over completely. I love Pathfinder, as does the rest of my group. :)

And I was one of the people to buy their book the first day of GenCon at 8am. ;)

Zachary The First said...

Me too, Tony, me too. :)