Torchlight Interview With Runic Games CEO Max SchaeferBy Patrick Klepek - Posted Oct 12, 2009
There were a great many cheerleaders for Hellgate: London. Who wouldn't be excited about a first-person Diablo-style game from the creators of Diablo? Unfortunately, Hellgate: London didn't live up to its promise or ambition and a string of financial missteps took Hellgate: London, its developer Flagship and its other projects, such as the warmly received free-to-play hack 'n slash Mythos, down with it. Flagship's Seattle studio was developing Mythos, but rather than scattering its team to the wind, everyone buckled down to start from scratch and formed Runic Games. Almost a year later, Runic Games is ready with its own take on the point 'n click action RPG, Torchlight.
I recently spoke on the phone with Runic Games CEO Max Schaefer (with brief comments from lead artist Jason Beck) about his company's formation, its intentions with Torchlight, how Torchlight the single-player game will eventually become Torchlight the MMO, the Diablo III connection and much, much more. If you're interested in these types of games, you're going to want to pay attention.
Torchlight arrives on October 27.
G4: How quickly did Runic Games come together after Flagship closed? How quickly did you guys decide, as a team, that you wanted to stick together? I know it can be difficult to find teams that "gel."
Max Schaefer: Like you said, it all happened pretty quickly with Flagship Studios. There was a day where we announced to everyone that we had to close the doors. And, I don't know, it was about nine minutes later [laughs] we were talking about starting up again just because, like you said, it's really rare to have a team that gels like that. They all knew it was going to be a risk because we were newly out of business, had all kinds of things to sort through, had no source of funding or anything -- so everyone was still technically out of a job -- but everyone was completely on board. There was no hesitation really. And it's worked out great, we're really glad we did it.
G4: I know you guys weren't able to retain control over Mythos. Was that just the rights to the game? Does anything regarding Torchlight have anything to do with the work you did on Mythos?
Schaefer: No. Really, it's just the style of the games that we make that we brought over and our talents. But no, we had absolutely no tech, no code, no nothing. It was all usurped by the various creditors for Flagship.
G4: That sounds very exciting, but it also sounds pretty damn daunting.
Schaefer: Well, you know, it worked out for the best because we were making Mythos with the tools and technology from Hellgate. It was a little bit [like] trying to shove a square peg into a round hole, and being able to start over and take all the lesson we learned from making Mythos and the previous games and start with brand new tech and brand new tools. It's a better game now and the tools are better, so the production is easier and we get to spend more time making it fun than just getting it to work. [pause] It was a little bit of a gruel to have to start from scratch again.
G4: It's probably one of those things that at the beginning it sounds pretty daunting and you're going "Why are we doing this again?" But now that you're at this point it's "Well, that's what we needed to do to get where we are today."
Schaefer: Totally, totally, yeah. At this point, it's all gravy because we've got a great set of tools, a great process and it's really fun making the game.
G4: With Mythos and Torchlight, I know they're different games, but it's a similar style. What's so appealing of that Diablo-style of game that you want to keep going back to it?
Schaefer: It's got a couple of things that we really like about it.
One, it's simultaneously easier than WASD [Editor's Note: A standard control setup for first-person games, referring to the W, S, A and D keys] and then [you get] free mouse look -- you need a little less coordination, which is important for people like me. It's also…it lends itself to a little bit more of a visceral game. You click on a monster and he swings and it's immediate and it just feels more like you're doing things than you're piloting a guy around a universe. It feels like you're actually doing the actions in a weird sort of way. So we really try to run with that. We make everything visceral in the game. Just picking up a potion and putting it back down should sound good and feel good. We really [pushed], throughout the game's design, [that] everything should feel satisfying, and when you hit a monster, it should land with a thump and it should be responsive to your mouse click and you should get a lot of feedback from that. The item game is kind of similar, too; it's a slot machine mechanic. You're getting little bonuses, little jackpots as you go and then medium jackpots every now and then big jackpots every few hours. It's kind of a feedback system and style that we've just latched on to right from the early Diablo days.
It's also something we think not nearly enough people are doing. A lot of people make World of Warcraft-like games and it feels like a really underrepresented genre.
G4: If you're not making a WoW-influenced game, it definitely feels like many developers are making a console-influenced game because that's where a lot of the money is these days. Is that important to you guys, to stick to that PC heritage? It's not something you see as much anymore.
Schaefer: I think we still think the PC world is a great one to be in. Certainly, World of Warcraft is doing very well and they're kind of taking the business from everyone right now. [laughs] It's still where we like to be. We like the fact that you can chat with a keyboard, we like the fact that you don't -- everybody's got a computer but not everybody's go the right console box. You can be a llittle more detailed with your interface, you can hot key things, you can set things more easily. I don't know, I just think we kind of have PC games in our blood. We really would like to see -- or make an attempt -- to get Torchlight on a console machine because we think we have a lot of ideas on how it would work and we think it'd be pretty cool. But we're really PC people.
G4: That's really what I meant. These days, when you start any game, you have to have console in the back of your mind because there's jut so many of them. There just seems less and less these days you see people starting PC first.
Schaefer: Yeah, yeah. We may never see a console Torchlight but I'd love to see an iPhone version.
G4: That genre's really popular on the iPhone. I've seen a lot of those games on there. I haven't had a chance to try too many of them.
Schaefer: I've seen some games. I don't know how deep they are, but I think the Torchlight style, especially the art style, would translate really well to an iPhone screen or even a TV screen.
G4: The art style for Torchlight is definitely unique -- very stylized. Can you tell me a little about where that was born out of?
Jason Beck: It was building off of what we thought we were honing in on with Mythos and definitely analyzing what we thought worked, what didn't work, getting around the pipeline that we had for Mythos. It's definitely a lot more efficient and effective for the tools we have now for Torchlight. The biggest thing was, we tried to experiment with a few things out [and] by a tiny coincidence, the D3 [Diablo III] stuff came out and we said "well, we can't go that route." We'd already built on the somewhat casual look, so it just pushed us more towards the classic animation-type setup where you've got these painterly backgrounds and really crisp, stylized, almost comic book-style characters on the top of it. Again, our art team shares a certain sensibility about what we link and it did seem like a pretty natural fit for us.
G4: How far down the realistic path did you get with Torchlight? Because when I look at a screen shot for Torchlight now, I know it's Torchlight.
Beck: We never really seriously pursued the ultra-realistic, dark and gothic [look] just because we knew the game was much more adventure. We wanted to setup, especially for the MMO that follows it, this world that you want to hang out and explore and it's not this dark and gloomy and depressing [place] -- after a while, it starts getting a little…seeping into the gameplay sometimes, I think. We actually started shooting for a really casual look and I think we kind of pulled back from that and found a place…that happy medium where people were responding to Mythos, where the completely newcomers were like "okay, we'll give this game a try" and the sort of established RPG fans -- there are certainly some that would prefer it dark and gothic and all that -- but it seemed like there were grander interests. We tried to find that little happy spot.
G4: You guys have mentioned the plan to release Torchlight and then roll straight into the MMO. That's an ambitious plan. How did that come about? Is Torchlight a proof-of-concept for the MMO and the MMO is the end game?
Schaefer: No, really, the idea to do the single-player version was something we wanted to do with Mythos, as well. But normally we would just launching right into making the MMO and starting out with that, but with the Mythos project being almost out the door and having to start over again, there was something that was very appealing about getting to something that we can ship and get into people's hands in a fairly short time frame. We're also starting with a brand-new IP -- Torchlight doesn't actually exist in the world. It was also a good idea to get people used to the world and get to know it a little bit, so when then MMO rolls around, it isn't just out of the blue. And, you know, if we make a little bit of money along the way that never hurts, either.
G4: It does feel like the MMO is the thing you guys are excited about, though.
Schaefer: Yeah, the MMO is a big deal. They're bigger, more complex games, the way that they play out and the economies form and all that is just fascinating. So the immediate idea was that we've got to make a new MMO with our company, but there's some really cool things about doing single-player games, too. Like, for example, we're going to be shipping our development tools with it so the modding community can go crazy. Since there's no real cheating in a single-player game, that's something you could do. You certainly could never give out the development tools for an MMO [laughs] and it's kind of neat to be able to do that and we'll be able to see how the community runs with it and what kind of mods they make for it. That's kind of cool.
Not everyone likes an MMO, either. Not everyone wants to get online with people who are not necessarily the most mature or cooperative and they like to play games in a single-player format. It's kind of nice to be able to do both. It is unusual, though.
G4: It is getting difficult these days, though, because MMO means so many different things since when it got started with Meridian 59 and EverQuest. The term MMO, I think you have certain expectations, it can mean a lot of things. From your perspective, what is your approach to what a Torchlight MMO is?
Schaefer: I would say we're not really stretching the traditional definition very much. What our goal with the MMO is to take the action RPG style with the snappy gameplay, the fast pace of running through monsters and the control scheme, the camera and the feel and layer that into a traditional modern MMO framework. So, we'll have a lot of the trappings of a WoW or any games like that with your guilds and your raid content and your PvP and all the cool things you can do when you have thousands people playing online. But we really want to keep our specific gameplay style and we don't think that's really been done well yet.
G4: One of the things I wanted to bring up is that neither of you seem to have any trouble talking about World of WarCraft or Diablo. You don't seem interested in distancing yourself from your past, despite making new games cut from the same cloth.
Schaefer: I don't think we want to distance ourselves really at all. [laughs] It was a great time making the Diablo games and working at Blizzard. We're still friends with all those games, so we cheer for their success for sure. And certainly with the style of game we're making, we're going to get questions about Diablo III. It's a similar looking game and it is that style of action RPG. And with it kind of looming out there, it's something we get questions about all the time, so we may as well talk about it and embrace it and if we can get half the people waiting for Diablo III to come out and buy our single-player game in the interim, we'll be in great shape. [laughs]
G4: I guess this is one of those instances where Blizzard's policy of not releasing a game until it's really, really, really done can work in your favor.
Schaefer: Absolutely. I kind of sympathize with the guys making Diablo III because the expectations are so high and the community of fans of Diablo are so specific in what they want and will tolerate. It's kind of nice to be able to what we're doing, where no one's really watching or no one has any expectation so what it's supposed to be like. I don't think that Blizzard could get away with putting out a single-player version of Diablo for $20. People would freak out.
G4: Well, the nice part is that you're part of that heritage and were part of that team. So people have a certain amount of trust when you say you're making a Diablo-style game because you were part of that team, so you must know what to do. But there isn't that inherent expectation that this is a Diablo game, you're only saddled with the expectation that you would know how to make a good Diablo-style game.
Schaefer: Right, right, which is a much easier burden. [laughs]
G4: The game is coming out and you're starting with digital distribution. That was the idea with Mythos, right?
Schaefer: Yeah, it was going to be a free-to-play free download item sales MMO, which is a model we really like for a lot of reasons. So it just seemed like a natural with Torchlight. By the way, we are doing boxes for Torchlight. They come out in January-ish at a Wal-Mart near you. But it seemed liked the digital download is a little bit more modern, little bit more convenient way to go about it. And the way we've designed Torchlight is that it's really low tech. We don't use any shaders, so there's no normal maps or environment amps and all the crazy stuff that makes your file size bloated. So it's a really tight [game]. 300MB. And so it's a pretty quick and easy download and the economics are much better for a download than they are for a $20 box because Wal-Mart buys that box for $10 and you take out the cost of making it and split it with the publisher and it's a tiny fraction of what you get for a download. And [with] download you can get it everywhere very easily day one, we're going to get up on Steam and Direct2Drive and on our own site and Perfect World's site and just make it really easy for people to get it.
G4: Is the level editor supposed to bundled with the game at release?
Schaefer: Yes. It may be a separate download, but it'll be absolutely free for anyone who wants to get it.
G4: What sorts of versatility do have in terms of creating new content?
Schaefer: Oh, it's huge. It's almost limitless. This is the actual development tools that we use day-to-day. We're not dumbing them down, we're not disabling them. Everything we do with this tool is going to be available for the customer to do. A really, really ambitious modder will be able to make an entirely new game with it. As long as it's an action RPG. We don't have a lot of camera control stuff. It's got to look vaguely like what we're doing and work vaguely that way. But our graphics engine is a third-party graphics engine, it's the Ogre 3D engine -- it's just a graphics engine. It doesn't have any game tools or anything. It's open source and the cool thing about that is people have written 3DSMax and Maya exporters so people will literally be able to generate their own art and plug it into the game. There's level editing, particle systems, skill editors, quest editing features -- the tool si really comprehensive. It's how we create and construct the game on a day-to-day basis and it literally does everything.
G4: The development tools were one of the first things I heard from people who saw Torchlight at PAX. What was the event like for you guys?
Schaefer: It was awesome. The really cool thing about PAX was that it was about three blocks up from our office, so we just walked up with our boxes and everything. [laughs] But it's turned into kind of a big show and kind of a big deal, so we were really happy to have it there. It was a perfect time for us because the game was completely playable and pretty solid and we had a great reception. We were enthusiastic to show it and people were enthusiastic about seeing it. A lot of people just walked by and kind of looked out of the corner of their eye, stopped and when they left, they were ready to buy. It was really cool for us, we really enjoyed that show.
G4: That's probably the coolest part about PAX for developers and gamers -- it's big enough to be impressive but small enough that you can walk around and discover new things.
Schaefer: Like you said, I think it's the perfect sized show for that. It's big enough for the big players to be there. We could stand on our tippy toes from our booth and see the Diablo III both in the other corner and those guys came over and played our game and we went over and played their game. It's big enough for the big players to be there but small enough that everyone can talk and see everything and see new things. It's great. I hope it stay at that basic scale.
G4: Now that you guys are very close to ship, what's the feeling of the team right now?
Schaefer: Mostly sleep deprivation for the team, I think. We're scrambling to get our final business deal in place and get ready to start selling these things. There's a lot of anticipation and a lot of exhaustion, really.
G4: The development period was, what, just under a year?
Schaefer: Yeah, about 11 months. One of the lessons we learned from Flagship is the industry I just too bloated. The development times are too long and the budgets are too big and so people don’t want to take risks with it. We set out to do a lower-tech approach -- our artwork is pretty low-tech, it's easy to produce, it's quick to produce, and as a side benefit, it runs on everyone's machine, as a result.
G4: That is one of the cool things that you're seeing a little bit more of these days. You see guys who have been modern console and PC development where these games take 3, 4, 5 years and after you do one or two of those, you realize you're only going to be able to make 5 or 6 of these games.
Schaefer: And, you know, people end up buying for gameplay, not for graphics and technology. I think there was a little bit of a lesson when the Wii came out for all of us in that it's "oh my god, this is really fun and it's super simple." With the modern PC, there's no limit to what you can do with how high-tech you can get. I think you saw with Crysis just how beautiful you can make a palm tree fall over and it's amazing, it's jaw dropping! But that takes forever to make, to set it up and produce the art and make a whole world like that. It can be really expensive and really time consuming and it's not really worth it.
G4: It feels like we've reached a point of diminishing returns with technology.
Schaefer: The MMO world is a global world, too, so the lower your spec is, that's hundreds of millions of more gamers that can play your game, so it makes sense for that, as well.