Interview: Runic Games' Schaefer On Taking Torchlight To XBLA

We catch up with Runic Games' Max Schaefer to learn about the work that went into the upcoming XBLA Torchlight version, and get an update on Torchlight 2 and the state of the Runic team as they continue to find success.
It's been a period of growth for independent developer Runic Entertainment, whose action RPG Torchlight received an extremely warm reception among PC fans with over 600,000 units to date. Upcoming Torchlight 2 will add a multiplayer component to the mix, and a Torchlight universe MMO is planned for the future. The recently-announced decision to bring Torchlight to Xbox Live Arcade came as something of a surprise -- after all, adapting a popular game in the notorious PC-centric genre is no small feat, and the work must have been time consuming. Gamasutra thought it would be an ideal time to catch up with Runic Games' Max Schaefer, to learn about the work that went into the port, and to get an update on Torchlight 2 and the state of the Runic team as they continue to find success. "In some respects, the Xbox version is a straight port -- and in some respects it's more of a conversion," Schaefer tells Gamasutra. "The interface had to be completely redesigned ... the most work of the whole project was redesigning and redoing the whole interface." After all, whether or not action RPGs of the Torchlight vein can work well on consoles has been the subject of much discussion, especially among hardcore PC fans -- many of whom helped lead Torchlight to success. And Schaefer says that the task isn't reputed to be difficult for nothing. "You don't realize how much interface is in your game until you have to go and reinvent it," he says. "It took us a little bit by surprise... once we started digging into it, we realized how completely we had to go through it." "It's a challenge getting this kind of game... over to the consoles," Schaefer admits. The team wasn't entirely without examples -- they took inspiration from Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance, for one -- but "[sources are] few and far-between. That was the biggest challenge for us; technically it wasn't that hard to get it to run." But a console version of Torchlight was something the Runic team wanted to do for a long time, Schaefer says. "A lot of us have always wished we had the opportunity to put the time into making a good console version," he says. "We've wanted forever... to be able to play Torchlight or Diablo kinds of games on the couch." "Everyone has pretty well thought-out theories of how you would do it, but until you dig in, you don't really know," says Schaefer. But it helps to look at it like any other challenge: "A lot of iteration," he explains. "Try something out; if it works, use that theory for other things, and then keep redoing it until it feels right." Schaefer says he feels confident that the Runic team has got it right: "We can't wait to see what people think -- but at the same time, we're a little nervous. But it feels right when we play it. There are guys in the office that prefer to play it on Xbox now, and that's what makes me think we're onto something." And although rarely does Torchlight come up in conversation without someone eventually mentioning the looming giant of upcoming Diablo III soon after, Schaefer says that a thriving audience for this style of game is healthful for all: "A lot of people say, 'what are you going to do when D3 comes out,' but I only see it as a good thing," he says. "We kind of can't wait for D3 to come out. It'll delay whatever we're working on for at least a month when it does! But at the same time we've just got to be doing what we're doing," he adds. So what is the Runic team up to now? According to Schaefer, forging ahead with upcoming Torchlight 2 on the PC planned for this summer, and then "beyond that, we'll see where we can see the Torchlight franchise down the road." Part of the reason the studio wants to focus on one thing at a time is because despite the success and broadening audience for Torchlight, Runic stayed small at just about 30 employees. Thus the decision to work first on Torchlight for Xbox Live Arcade, then on Torchlight 2 -- thereby making the previously-announced MMO project, the team's most ambitious, third in line. "We didn't want [the MMO] to totally take our studio down while we're trying to do Torchlight 2," says Schafer -- when they made the decision to move forward with the sequel, they hadn't yet formed a clear plan for the XBLA edition of Torchlight -- "we had a general goal to do it when we could but there was no specific schedule." But unlike other studios who string together products to fund a bigger one, Runic doesn't have that concern. MMORPG publisher Perfect World bought a majority stake in the company and will publish the upcoming MMO set in the Torchlight universe. "We did well enough with Torchlight 1 on the PC that I can say we're moderately thriving," says Schaefer. "We're able to do what we think is the right strategic move and not make any moves out of desperation. This is going to be the first year in a long time that we have two games released. We have high hopes for an exciting year." Essentially, the team has the unique opportunity to iterate on its big property publicly and slowly, attentive to the needs and interests of their audience in a very granular way. For example, although the team added new classes, characters and outdoor areas "just in case", Schaefer jokes -- the biggest change in Torchlight 2 is the addition of cooperative multiplayer in a one-time purchase with no subscription fees or item sales. "[Torchlight] did very well, and everyone said, 'we just want multiplayer'," says Schaefer. But for that to work, the team couldn't have added a multiplayer component simply tacked on to the original game; it needed to be entirely retailored to suit the new dynamics: "Multiplayer affects the design a lot, and you have to adjust accordingly," he adds.

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