Friday, March 18, 2011

The Torchlight Grind – A Talk With Max Schaefer

max_pic_superLast Friday, I had the pleasure of chatting with Max Schaefer, CEO of Runic Games.

Runic is the developer behind Torchlight, the loot-driven action RPG that stormed the PC community in late 2009. It followed Valve’s Steam platform to the Mac and came to Xbox Live Arcade just last week as part of Microsoft’s House Party promotion.

Max Schaefer founded Blizzard North and co-founded Flagship Studios and Runic Games. His resume includes Diablo, Diablo II, Warcraft III: Reign of Chaos, and Hellgate: London.

Schaefer and I discuss everything Torchlight – the XBLA port, the sequel, the MMO – as well as the history of loot and what it’s like competing against a behemoth of a former employer. Read on after the jump.

The Journey to Consoles

Torchlight was immediately well-received when it hit the PC, but no immediate plans were made to bring it to consoles. Speaking to G4 in October 2009, Schaefer said Runic “would like to see -- or make an attempt -- to get Torchlight on a console machine…But we're really PC people.”

I asked him about that. “I should go back and read those [interviews] to figure out what I said,” he laughed. “The main thing that changed was that we just had an opportunity and a window of time and the desire among the whole team to go for it and do it.”

Schaefer admits that turning a small team of thirty away from their main focus, Torchlight II, and bringing them to bear on a port is no easy task. “It did slow us down a little more than we had anticipated, but I think that it’s definitely been worth it.” It certainly has. Runic announced Tuesday that Torchlight’s XBLA launch was the company’s “best sales day in its history.”

xbox360controllerRunic had some help, enlisting the California-based studio World Domination Industries to handle the “technical legwork” of the port. “[Runic’s] involvement really came in all the redesign of the interface that had to be done, the gameplay design decisions that had to be made,” said Schaefer. That meant completely reimagining UI to “translate what you had wanted to do before [on mouse and keyboard] to a joystick or button.”

The lessons learned porting have value beyond just Torchlight for XBLA. Without dropping any specific plans about a console release for the upcoming sequel, Schaefer said, “It seems like a natural for Torchlight II. When we released the PC version [of Torchlight] all the reviews said "Hey this is an awesome game. It would be even better with multiplayer." We’re hearing that same thing again now on the Xbox Live release. I think every single review mentions it. And it’s true, it will be better with multiplayer, so it seems like a natural for Torchlight II to make its way to the console machines.”

There are caveats, of course. As CEO, Schaefer’s worked hard to keep Runic small and nimble. “We don’t want to grow our company, so at the moment we always have to decide, "What is the one thing that we should be focusing on?"” Spending all day dreaming about ports might distract a team from the job at hand.

Torchlight II – Bigger, Better, Multiplayer

torchlight2-thumb-640xauto-15675Compared to most RPGs, Torchlight is incredibly streamlined. There’s a town, some quest givers, and a near-bottomless cave full of monsters to kill and loot to hoard. Torchlight II will be a bit more complicated than that.

“I should point out that this time we’ve actually hired a writer, so the fiction will be better,” Schaefer said. “It was really a mad rush in making Torchlight. So it’s nice to put a little more love into some of the details.”

Hired to flesh out those details is lead writer JD Wiker, formerly of Wizards of the Coast and Mythic Entertainment. Wiker will be extrapolating on the first game, building a cohesive world to house the various races and environments.

“The whole world is different. It’s going to be half outdoors now. You’re going to go to multiple hub towns. We have a whole new story to tell. And we’re designing new character classes from the ground up as well,” said Schaefer. “One of the cool things about going across the world and going from different towns is that you can represent different cultures and different architecture styles, and basically create a history where it makes sense that there are even different classes to begin with.”

Fans of the classes in Torchlight shouldn’t expect to pick up right where they left off. “You won’t be able to play any of the character classes from Torchlight. However, they do appear in the game as NPCs and they are still part of the history of the world and they drive part of the story.” Schaefer wasn’t ready to reveal new classes just yet, though the Outlander and Railman have already been announced. He did, however, promise “more pets than you saw the first time around.”

The big question is how all of these elements – the narrative, the outdoor environments, the new classes and pets – will be impacted by Torchlight 2’s primary selling point: multiplayer.

“There will still be a story that proceeds. You’ll just be able to do it with someone, and the person who starts and owns the game will be the driver of where you are along the way in the storyline,” Schaefer said. “Since it’s a multiplayer game, it’s more important that your character is more unique looking. Each of the character types will be male or female, and you’ll be able to pick things like hair color and facial features and that sort of thing.” Not only is this a way to show off new gear, but it should help players keep track of their character amidst the chaos.

And Runic’s alright with a little bit of chaos. The PC version of Torchlight sported robust modification tools, and Schaefer is constantly impressed by the fervent mod community that sprang into being. Torchlight II will embrace the modders, even in its multiplayer. “We got some great user-generated content from the community, and no one to our knowledge has really done that in an action RPG multiplayer setting.”

Someone made a dragon pet.According to Schaefer, every multiplayer developer has a choice to make. “Are you going to go for a perfectly secure, closed environment where people can be absolutely sure that nobody has modded anything? Or do you want to go the other way and say this is a game for playing with your friends, but it’s also a type of game that benefits from the community’s input and the content that they generate?”

Just because Runic chose the latter does not mean that multiplayer will consist solely of heavily-modded bedlam. When browsing through servers in Torchlight 2, “you’ll be able to very clearly see what mods people are running at what time, and we’re going to make it very easy to install and uninstall mods,” said Schaefer. “The other upside is that we don’t have to run crazy banks of servers to guarantee a super cheat-free environment. So we don’t have to charge subscriptions or item sales or anything like that. It’s just going to be: you buy the game once and that’s it. And you play multiplayer forever.”

Massively Multiplayer Torchlight

Torchlight’s first announcement carried with it a sort of bonus announcement: Runic would be applying the experience and capital they gained from the first game to a massively multiplayer online game set in the same world. It’s still happening, Schaefer says, despite things like an XBLA port and full sequel getting in the way.

“It’s still rummaging around in our brains,” he insists. “We view the world of MMOs more broadly, I guess, than most. When you say MMO, people always have a very specific picture in their mind of what you’re talking about. We really don’t want to make a cookie cutter MMO. We want to come out with a fresh take.”

Schaefer’s dedicated to the action RPG model. “We want to figure out what makes sense for a world that works like Torchlight does – with our camera controls, with our skills and the way you move around, the way you interact with the world.” Torchlight 2 should give Runic’s ample time to refine their brand of point-and-click combat for multiplayer on a massive scale.

With its current projects eating up the lion’s share of the team’s time, there’s no official timetable for the MMO, but the groundwork is already in place.

“We’ll probably have the same tools, although updated, and be working within the same framework, and just figuring out how to make a fun massively multiplayer experience with that,” said Schaefer. “We want to stay low tech. We want it to run on everyone’s machines still, that’s a very important part of our strategy. We want to be able to produce stuff more quickly than the competition does.”

The Competition

BlizzardEntSchaefer, with his brother Erich, broke into game design on the Atari Lynx and the Sega Genesis. The two formed a company with David Brevik and soon after found themselves pitching Diablo to Blizzard Entertainment. Two Diablo games and a harrowing Hellgate: London later, Schaefer is now running a company in direct competition with his former employer.

Blizzard’s own action RPG, Diablo III, is due to hit shelves…sometime in the near future. Schaefer’s keenly aware of it, too.

“People have mentioned the imminent Diablo III from the time we started the company, and it’s certainly something that we’ve thought about a lot. It’s just kind of always hanging out there,” he said. “But I think that’s true really for everybody. I think that very few people are making an entirely new genre with their games, so in a sense they are competing with the big hitters, no matter what you’re making.”

Schaefer just hopes Blizzard doesn’t push out Diablo III before Torchlight II goes gold. “Of course we’re going to buy one Day One and it’s going to slow us down and all that – ‘cause we’re just as much fans as anyone,” he admits with a laugh.

From a business standpoint, he’s not too worried. “The action RPG genre is still pretty thin. I think that there’s more demand than there is product,” he said. Diablo’s certainly a grimmer, less whimsical world than Torchlight, and Blizzard’s vast resources mean it can be developed for higher-end machines while Torchlight’s tuned for a wide variety of systems. “I think that there are enough differences that we can co exist, but it is certainly something that you can’t ignore.”

There’s another Blizzard game Runic can’t ignore – one with at least of 12 million subscribers and almost two-thirds of the MMO subscription market under its control. “You can’t really approach any MMO project without taking into account World of Warcraft,” said Schaefer. “It’s the elephant in the room of every MMO company.”

WoW is the primary reason Runic will avoid a subscription model for its Torchlight MMO. “I don’t think really anyone can do [subscriptions] anymore because pretty much everyone that does subscriptions has one for WoW.”

The Roots of Loot

One of Torchlight’s defining qualities is its intricate loot system. Characters kill monsters. Loot and gold spray from the corpse like candy from a piñata. This is the hook that keeps most players interested in games like Torchlight. It fuels massive WoW raiding parties, turning otherwise normal people into trinket-hungry Gollums.

treasureAs one of the fathers of Diablo, Schaefer knows a thing or two about loot.

“It feeds into what has basically been described as sort of a slot machine mechanic,” he said. “First of all, you got to make the loot valuable, you got to make it something that’s desirable. When you find a killer sword, it has to be killer, in a sense that it makes you much more powerful so you can kill things easier and find loot more quickly.”

Schaefer credits his brother Erich for being the loot designer from the beginning. “When we were making Diablo, we realized that you really need the little short term rewards that you get, you need medium term rewards, and you need to be able to find that killer once in a lifetime sword, basically once in a lifetime.” Erich drew inspiration from roguelikes such as NetHack and Moria, expanding the system to a point where it could be balanced from levels one through fifty, which “translates into there being a lot of loot.”

Recently, loot has been popping up in games outside of the RPG genre. Borderlands stood out for blending first-person shooting with scores of color-coded loot. Schaefer digs it.

“I think it’s cool. I think it gives the shooter genre something that they didn’t really have before. It’s especially important for someone like myself – who doesn’t have the first-person shooter skills that a lot of people have – to be able to rely on finding a good weapon once in a while.”

The appeal of item drops and the accessibility of the combat is what compels Schaefer to make action RPGs like Torchlight.

“It provides instant gratification,” he said. “It’s not a type of game where you have to do a lot of work before you can bop a skeleton in the head and find a cool sword. It’s the kind of game you can play for 20 minutes before you got to go out to dinner, but it’s also one that you can geek out on all night. It’s just a very accessible format that gives people a chance to enjoy a game rather than work at a game.”

Looking Ahead

As CEO of Runic, Schaefer vows not to repeat any of the mistakes made at his former company, Flagship Studios, which promptly folded after releasing the much-maligned Hellgate: London.

“One of the main aspects of that is to take a more conservative approach to game development,” he said.  “Make smaller games and build up everything step by step instead of just swinging for the fences all at once.”

There are currently no further plans to port the original Torchlight to more platforms. While he thinks “it would be pretty cool” on mobile devices, he isn’t ready to commit to anything.

“We think it would be a great tablet-based game, but we have to make some hard decisions because we want to stay a small company. We don’t want to end up spreading ourselves too thin and diluting our flavor.”

For now, Schaefer and the folks at Runic are wrapping up development on Torchlight II. There’s still no hard release date, but Schaefer assured me that they’re “still aiming for late summer.”

Diablo III, the race is on.

Big thanks to Max Schaefer for his time. Torchlight is out now on Xbox Live Arcade, PC, and Mac.