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Runic Games' Travis Baldree and Max Schaefer talk to Gamasutra about next week's debut of PC action RPG Torchlight, plans for an MMO incarnation, launching into 2009's PC market, community empowerment, and essential design concepts for the action-RPG genre

Chris Remo, Blogger

October 23, 2009

15 Min Read

Runic Games was formed out of the ashes of Flagship Seattle, developers of Mythos, an RPG that began its life as a network test for the dismally unsuccessful Hellgate: London, but nonetheless became an awaited PC online game in the Diablo-style action RPG game genre.

Though Mythos never saw release with its original developers (after Flagship's demise, Korean-headquartered HanbitSoft are attempting to complete it), it generated enough positive buzz with gamers and confidence in its developers to move forward with a similar product: Torchlight, which is launching later this month.

Here, Runic's president and project director Travis Baldree and CEO Max Schaefer discuss how the creative lineage of the developers on the project -- including key contributors to the Diablo series -- has helped to feed in to the new project, which Gamasutra featured recently in a special art-related 'making of' article.

The duo also discuss launching Torchlight -- which is beginning as a single-player downloadable title, and will later expand into an MMO version through a Perfect World publishing deal -- into 2009's PC market, community empowerment, and essential design concepts for the action-RPG genre:

Torchlight is digital distribution-only. What's the role of this game in Runic's overall plan? You'll be moving onto an MMO after this.

Max Schaefer: It's a new IP. This is an opportunity for us to get the public aware of Torchlight -- what it's like, and what it's like to play it. It lets the team get a game out on the shelf, which is a great morale boost for them, giving them an energy boost going into making the MMO version, which we're making right after the single-player version is out. And it will give us a chance to interact more with the community and get their feedback on what to put into the MMO.

Travis Baldree: "Springboard" is probably a pretty good way to put it.

At this point, you guys have quite a bit of experience working on games in this genre. You come from Diablo, Fate, Mythos. What big lessons have you learned from those projects?

MS: The bottom line is these games are fun. We make games that are easy to play, easy to approach, give you a lot of tactile feedback -- even something like opening your inventory and moving your potion to another spot should feel good and sound good. That's what we really try to do. We try to make a game that has a lot of tactile feel, a lot of great sounds, and a lot of great visuals all aimed towards being fun.

TB: We tend to generally be immediate, everything having a certain amount of immediacy. Every time we overdesign and add a lot of frippery, it just tends to get in the way and then we end up tearing it right back out. [laughs]

Despite being relatively simple in a way -- just get in there and it's fun -- it is notoriously difficult for developers to get this genre right. Diablo is phenomenally successful, but many others haven't had the same pickup -- Titan Quest, Hellgate: London, recently Sacred 2. Why do you think that is?

TB: I think it gets down to the immediacy. It's difficult to make something that simply feels good to do with one click of the mouse.

MS: From the customer perspective, it seems like it's all very simple and easy, but it's very difficult to get to that spot.

TB: Mostly, it's because it's a lot of different things all have to work together at the same time. In a lot of ways, it's kind of like a fighting game. There's kind of this tangible, feel-good element to those that very few people feel very right.

There's a reason why God of War is a really great game and people like it. It feels incredibly good to play. That's just difficult to do. You can't do any of the elements out in a box. You can't make your sound over here and your art over here and your animation over here. It all has to work together, or it's not enjoyable to do.

MS: Another pitfall that people fall into is they try to go overboard with their technology and graphics, and it just doesn't run well on people's machines. One of our emphases is making a game that will run on your machine. It will run on your old laptop.

It should run smooth and feel good. That's part of the whole feel of it. If you have a game that looks beautiful on a super high-end machine, but you bring it home and it's choppy, it doesn't give you that immediate feel. That's another pitfall that people have. They go overboard with their technology.

You're a young, small company. How do you create awareness?

MS: We have a multi-pronged approach for that. One, we're very interactive with our community. With the Mythos project on, we've really done our best to keep in touch with the community and be a part of it. We come to shows like [Penny Arcade Expo] and talk to people and get the word out.

Finally, we're trying to get this game into the hands of consumers by offering just ridiculous value. So, we're giving it a $20 download, so it's like a budget price, but you're going to get a full-featured, really deep and fun game and the editing tools that we used to make the game so the modding community can go crazy with it. We think we're giving a lot of value for $20. That's another thing we're trying to do to stand away from the crowd.

TB: Another advantage to the approach we took technology-wise, where we went a little bit more lo-fi, is that it's actually a lot easier to mod. If you look back at previous games that were super-moddable, the ones that were really successful were the ones that were actually easy to modify.

The art wasn't so complex that the average user couldn't generate any. The levels weren't so incredibly insane that people couldn't set them themselves. We tried to make them simple so that people can just get up, do something, and put it out, and it can be fun.

We hope to just have a lot of longevity for little fun things that people do with the game. Hopefully, it will just build over time. With [Baldree's earlier single-player action RPG] Fate, it was pretty much grassroots, but it did really well. It was a slow burn where people passed it onto other people. There was a lot of word of mouth, a lot of forum marketing. We just went out and talked to people.

Your mod tool looks like a full-fledged level editor.

MS: It's even more than a level editor.

TB: It's an everything editor.

MS: You can adjust the stats globally and the balance of the game globally or item. You can do particle systems. You can do scripting for quests for events. You can do level layout.

TB: You can build your own skills. You can rebalance all the existing skills. You can change their names, their icons, their particles, and their animations. If you wanted to raise their level cap, it's about five seconds. Pretty much everything we used to build the game is available. You can add new sets of items. You can add new uniques. You can rebalance all the existing ones. It's pretty full featured. It's actually pretty fun to play with.

MS: This is the actual tool that we're using to make the game. We're not dumbing it down for the consumer or anything. This is the real deal what we use every day to make the game. We fully expect our modding community to do even cooler things than we've done with it because there are thousands of [potential modders].

TB: And none of our file formats are protected file formats. They're all open. They're all easy to change and modify. All of our art assets are using publicly available file formats with publicly available exporters. So, it should be hopefully really easy to add new stuff.

MS: This is a unique thing that you can do with the single-player game. Obviously, if you have an online game, it's going to be trouble to have one guy with the hacking tool basically.

Why do you think fewer games are starting to have official modding tools these days? It used to be a more expected feature.

TB: Once you get to the point where you have to have normal mapped assets and it takes a month to generate a single asset, it's really hard to revise some sort of usable tools because it's so complicated and so time-consuming. Who's going to be able to do that in their spare time?

Are you going to try to facilitate mod work by way of a community site or other resources?

TB: Yes. We're hoping to put out some more videos. We're hoping to field a lot of questions from people as they're playing around with the editor, and give them a hand. It's quite likely that we'll take some assets that we generate while we're working on the MMO and toss those out for people to use.

They're going to be built with the same art style and the same world, and it's going to be for a free-to-play MMO, so it's not like we're really selling ourselves too short, I don't think.

MS: That's the other thing. For $20, they get the single-player game, the editor, and then a free MMO upgrade when it comes out in 18 months. [laughs]

What's the philosophy with the MMO? I don't know how much you're talking about that yet, but is it going to basically play like this?

TB: That is the aim, to make it play as much like this as humanly possible. We'd like there to be hordes of monsters, really visible action with your friends.

MS: This was something that we were trying to do with Mythos and didn't get a chance to, to bring this style of play to a true MMO. That's why we've partnered with Perfect World this time around.

They're the undisputed global masters of the free-to-play item sales MMO, and we bring this action RPG flavor to it, and we hope that we can just layer our game onto that sort of backbone and provide a great experience for MMO players that isn't really available right now. People aren't really doing action RPG MMOs.

So did you look around and ask, "Is this somewhere we can be the flag bearer?"

TB: We did. That was one thing we thought was special with Mythos. There wasn't really anybody else doing it.

MS: This is important. We're making an MMO that you can play without devoting your life to it. A big part of this sort of game is that you can go in for half an hour and do a quick quest, get your benefit, and get out. You don't have to wait two hours to get your giant party together and spend the entire evening or the entire weekend just doing a select couple things. This is a game that people with real lives and dinner reservations can play.

TB: What we used to say about Mythos is it was the game that you can play while you were waiting for your raid to start. [laughs]

Do you find that with Diablo III being on everyone's mind, especially now that it's been pushed out to God knows when, you get any tertiary benefit in terms of people wanting that style of gameplay right now?

MS: We think that there are a lot of people waiting for Diablo III, including us. This is a great thing for people to do in the interim. Hopefully, we can get a little bleed over from the behemoth that is Blizzard's Diablo III.

What do you guys think about the PC as a market these days? It's a perennial topic of discussion and perhaps concern for some.

TB: If you look at numbers for something like Call of Duty 4 PC versus Call of Duty 4 Xbox 360, it's a disparity, which is hard not to be concerned about. The NPD is not that great, but if you're talking about download sales, I think it's obvious there's still a big market out there.

There's sure a ton of World of Warcraft players. There are obviously a lot of casual games being sold as well, which a lot of people don't really think about much when they think about the PC marketplace, although I think there are more and more.

MS: I think the mainstream PC market has been hurt lately by people investing too much money into too elaborate projects that are too speculative and too risky. That's made publishers now super gun-shy to really do anything in the mainstream PC market.

You see the big things like WoW having success and the casual games having success. People have got to kind of come in the middle again and make reasonable projects with reasonable budgets with reasonable amounts of time to give the public something to buy. These are all driven by hits and driven by people wanting to buy games. It's not that the PC market has gone away; it's just that the good games that are reasonable hits have gone away.

TB: Popcap is doing really well. [laughs]

I completely agree about that middle tier. I've always felt that was the golden spot on the PC, whereas console has always made sense with the huge tentpole releases. PC traditionally did quite well in the middle.

TB: The costs were not so insane that people were unwilling to take risks, and you got a lot more variety. And it didn't take so long for everything to come out.

MS: People have spent hundreds of millions of dollars trying to make WoW killers, and that's just a losing proposition.

You've also said, essentially, you don't want to be perceived as an intended Diablo killer, which has driven some of your art choices.

TB: Well, we had some early experience with that. Fate was an ultra, ultra casual look. You played as basically a child throughout the game. With Torchlight, we really want to fork to both sides of Diablo, while doing something that's totally single-player. People who just want to play multiplayer Diablo don't have to be threatened at all by our game. [laughs] It's 20 bucks. And then on the other side, it's a free to play MMO.

MS: We're going around.

TB: The river needs to go around that rock. I like having a slightly more lighthearted style. Honestly, it's easier to produce, too, especially for a team of our size with the kind of budget that we're working with. We can afford to make something like this; it technologically serves our ends because it's a little lower-fi. It differentiates us from Diablo, and it differentiates us visually just generally. It's been a lot of fun. It's a fun style to work in.

Max, you were one of the founders of Condor, which became Blizzard North as it was developing the original Diablo, then you worked on Diablo II as well. What's it like now working on something like this, as Diablo is being promoted as well?

MS: It's very strange looking across convention halls and seeing Diablo III in the corner. I'm not going to lie. [laughs] We still love the guys over at Blizzard. We can't wait for Diablo III to come out. It's a beautiful game. But it's a little weird, yeah.

At the same time, we are doing different things. We have different aims and different goals. And it's fun. We feel like even with Diablo III and Torchlight, the action RPG genre is still underrepresented, so there's plenty of room for several players in this place.

TB: People obviously aren't looking at WoW and saying, "I'm not going to make an MMO at all." [laughs]

How did you end up with the name "Torchlight"? It's a very strong name. It conjures up a lot of imagery right off the bat. The reason I ask is because I think there are very few game names that aren't terrible.

MS: [laughs] First, thank you. I love you for saying that, because naming a game is incredibly difficult. We went through hundreds and hundreds of name possibilities, with arguments in the office. It went on for months basically.

TB: We had a big voting system, and then we got down to the last four results, and we didn't use any of them.

MS: We kind of just pulled Torchlight out of the air.

TB: Basically, Max and I were sitting in the office with the final results, and we were like, "What about Torchlight?" We said, "Yes, we'll agree on that." We disagreed on everything else, but agreed on that.

MS: It's cool, because it's a little adventurous-sounding, and it's a little bit romantic-sounding. It sat well with both Travis and me when we were sitting in that room, and so that was it.

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About the Author(s)

Chris Remo


Chris Remo is Gamasutra's Editor at Large. He was a founding editor of gaming culture site Idle Thumbs, and prior to joining the Gamasutra team he served as Editor in Chief of hardcore-oriented consumer gaming site Shacknews.

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