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Runic CEO Max Schaefer, President & Torchlight Lead Designer Travis Baldree, Art Director Jason Beck and Zombie Pyrotechnician John Dunbar talk about the launch of Torchlight, the upcoming MMO, and the lessons they’ve learned from Hellgate: London, Mythos, and Diablo.

WarCry: How has the launch been so far? There’s been lots of publicity.

Travis Baldree: It went really well. We were all surprised at how well the game was received. Twitter was (and is) certainly our friend.

John Dunbar: It’s great to see people playing and liking Torchlight and spreading the word. We don’t have much marketing, so we were really counting on word of mouth getting around.

Max Schaefer: I think the worst official review I’ve seen was an 8/10? I think you don’t ever mind seeing that.

WC: Do you have any sales figures you can talk about?

Max: We have very incomplete information. Half of our partners don’t report on figures until the end of the month, and since we launched at the end of October that’s just a few days. We know what we’re getting on our site internally, but we have to wait for everywhere else. But we’re very pleased where it’s going now and we can’t wait to release the patch, level editor, and demo.

WC: How big is the Runic team?

Travis: I think we’re 26 now – 26 or 27. I believe we started at 17 back in August of 2008. The original 17 were all ex-Flagship members who were on the Mythos team in Seattle. We’ve since picked up a few extras.

WC: At Triangle Game Conference, [Atomic Games president] Peter Tamte said that on average, bigger-budget games need to sell a million copies to break even on costs. Do you think lower-budget, lower-cost games like Torchlight will become the norm in this economy?

Max: If we sell a million, we will have more than broken even – we’ll all be very, very happy. But I think it makes a lot of sense. If the publisher is at less risk in fronting it, it means that the developers can take a lot more risks. You have a really neglected area here between casual and big-budget games, and I think you’ll see people rushing to fill that space. Plus, it doesn’t take four years to develop – Torchlight took us 11 months.

WC: Do you think you could have priced Torchlight higher and still sold the game?

Travis: We could have sold copies for more, but I think that $20 was the right price. It lets us recoup our expenses, and it’s sort of a “magical” price where people can just make the buy without having to fret so much. If their friends tell them, “Hey, this is a great game,” they can make the decision then and there. It’s the cost of a DVD; it’s the cost of a large pizza.

WC: You could buy the game and then a large pizza to eat while you played it, for example.

Travis: *laughs* And you’d have $20 left over from what an Xbox 360 game would cost you, too.

WC: You mentioned earlier that the founding Runic members were all from Flagship. Were there any lessons you learned from the Hellgate: London fiasco that you were determined not to repeat with Torchlight?

Max: Certainly. The biggest thing we were trying to avoid was “trying to do everything for everybody.” We were going to focus on what we were doing, and a simpler path to where we’re going, not take off gigantic bites that are more than we could ever chew. We wanted to return to what we know and what we do well – action RPGs.

Hellgate was pushing everything – it was pushing DX10, new business models, entire new genres. It wanted to be too many things for too many people, and couldn’t hold the weight.

WC: Is Torchlight the game you wanted Mythos to be?

Max: It will be when we make the MMO version, certainly.

Travis: We all ended up liking Torchlight a lot better than we liked Mythos. The development of that game was contorted and protracted, and like Hellgate it tried to be a lot of different things for a lot of different reasons. I think it’s a better game for it. It’s what Mythos should have been. Maybe it’s what Fate and Diablo I should have been.

WC: Nearly every review has loved Torchlight but bemoaned the lack of multiplayer. Why was the decision made to not include at least LAN capability?

Travis: After we lost our whole Mythos project we said, “Let’s be really pragmatic.” We wanted to put all our multiplayer energy into the MMO to do it right. And we put all our energy into single-player so we would do it right, too. Its $20 price and the editor tools would justify its stand-alone existence. With limited resources and time, you do the best you can do with what you have.

WC: Is there a time frame for the MMO?

Travis: We’ve still got some support and patch stuff to do for the game, but the rest of our energy is fully focused on developing the MMO.

Max: The launch timeline is about 18 to 24 months. Obviously we’ll have an alpha and beta tests long before that, but that’s the timeline we’re looking at.

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WC: Do you have any plans to patch extra stuff into the game to update it as we wait for the MMO? More pets, character customization, stuff like that?

Travis: We’ll do a first patch, fixing bugs and balance and squeezing in things that people asked for. It’s a maintenance patch to solve issues with hardware that we’ve seen people run into.

Max: There are plans on a couple of levels. Once the level editor is out, we hope the modding community will make a lot of things for our game that people will share amongst themselves. Fansites have already set up clearinghouses in preparation. My guess is that some of our in-house guys will sneak in mods alongside everyon eels.

Also, as we make the MMO, we’ll be making compatible assets that we might trickle down and throw to people in the singleplayer game – new weapons, new monster models, that sort of thing.

WC: How will the MMO work? Will it be just “Torchlight, except with a persistent world and more dungeons”? Will you be able to take your Torchlight character into it?

Travis: Multiplayer will be a fully separate product; you won’t be carrying things between them. We weren’t actually planning on using the singleplayer classes in the MMO at all – we didn’t want people to feel like they were playing something they’d already played.

There will be large persistent outdoor regions and fixed dungeons, but we’ll also have the randomized dungeons that you see in Torchlight. Like in Torchlight, you’ll be able to buy a map and it’ll create your own personalized and randomized dungeon for a group. But we’ll have PVP, auction houses – all the stuff from a functional MMO.

John: Combat will be as close to the singleplayer as we can make it. You’ll fight lots of monsters, it’ll be fast-paced, and you’ll clear tons of dungeons. Click-click-click loot.

Travis: Right. We want it to be as closed to the singleplayer as possible, only with your friends in a persistent world.

WC: Earlier this week, a column went up on The Escapist about building a fanbase before launching an MMO. Was it your intent to build a pre-existing fanbase for the upcoming online game, or was that just a happy coincidence?

Travis: Yes, it was part of the intent. There were two parts to that, actually. We had a small fanbase that had been anticipating Mythos, we liked them and wanted to stick with them. So we felt that retaining them and getting their feedback was important. We wanted to start with a small success and then build on it instead of just swinging for the bleachers right away.

John: It was part of our justification, of course, but we had more reasons than just that. We wanted to do the singleplayer anyway. We like that people can mod it – there’s lots of stuff you can do in a singleplayer game that you can’t make in an MMO.

Jason Beck: From a creative standpoint, it’s nice to have small problems to figure out and solve instead of trying to create this vast history and world right out of the gate. It was a nice, different thing, working with smaller chunks inside a smaller game. Creatively, I’m glad to have some things out the door and set in stone for once!

WC: Do you think having a pre-existing fanbase to set yourself apart will be enough to help you stand out in an oversaturated free-to-play market?

Max: I think the success of an MMO is based on whether it’s a fun game to play and hang out in. Item sales mean that people can play more games, because people don’t want to have too many forced subscriptions on their credit cards. But the tricky problem for us, is you need to design an item game that supports item sales without devaluing loot collection. But any of the models work as long as you have a quality product and implement it well.

Jason: I think the main thing that will separate our MMO from the rest is the playstyle. It’s snappy RPG action that I don’t think is represented anywhere right now in the F2P space.

WC: Torchlight has incredibly scalable graphics – do you think that designing games to run on low-end systems like Torchlight or WoW is better? Are games with high hardware requirements like Crysis pigeonholing themselves?

Travis: I think we do think that. It was a conscious decision with Torchlight – we didn’t want to just squeeze our potential playerbase down to only the people who have modern hardware.

Max: The low-end helps us, because this gameplay style really rests on it being a smooth and snappy game that doesn’t use all the bells and whistles. It has to be a game that runs well on peoples’ machines – it has to run and play smoothly or it just doesn’t work. Beyond that, when we come out with the MMO, we’re looking at the whole global market, and that makes low-end machines much more important.

Travis: When the MMO comes out, I want you to be able to sit in a coffee shop and play it on your netbook. You shouldn’t have to sit at home chained to your desktop to hop online – I want people to be able to play it anywhere on any machine for short bursts of time.

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WC: Is your plan to release the level editor & development tool to the public a way to compensate for no new official singleplayer content?

Travis: We want to be involved with it. We want to work with people in the community to help them do stuff – inject assets in there, for instance – but we don’t have any plans for a full-scale expansion. The MMO is the expansion.

WC: It’s only been a week, but what have you learned from consumer feedback that you are going to keep in mind and do differently in the MMO?

Travis: We’ve gotten lots of feedback so far. People want lots more late-game content, for instance. There are tons of threads on forums about game mechanics, how they should be tuned, and stuff like that. We’re reading all of it, and we’re going to incorporate it moving forward into the MMO.

Max: We can probably say people were upset about not being able to respec their characters *laughs*. So we released a mod that allows respecs – we’d actually created something like that before release. The way that the skill trees were set up, it wasn’t our intent to allow respecs, but we wanted to make sure it would be easy to add. It’s kind of like the Extended Edition of Lord of the Rings – you weren’t going to put that sort of stuff in the movies, but you liked it anyway.

WC: Are you guys working on any other games right now?

Travis: Nope, just the MMO!

WC: Max, you did Diablo and Diablo II, so you obviously have a lot of experience with this style of game. Is there any one thing you think makes this genre “work”? The secret sauce, so to speak.

Max: Man, that’s tough. If I had to try to distill it… you need to spend tons and tons of time on making it feel right – everything: clicking monsters, all the skills, hitting buttons, even moving potions around in your inventory. It has to feel right. There’s no way around it other than just spending days, weeks and months working on it.

WC: You’ve previously said that the controversy over the Diablo III art style was something that helped shape the visual aesthetic for Torchlight. Can you elaborate?

Jason: It was all in the timing of it – Mythos had fallen, and you had the D3 announcement. Once they put out what they were doing, we knew it was off the table. We were aware from the beginning that we’d have comparisons to that game no matter what we did. So we factored that in, and went to the casual, stylized look the game has now – we didn’t want to out-Diablo Diablo. It’s their look, and it’s what they do.

Max: I feel for those guys a lot. There is a world of expectations on their shoulders, and they not only have to make a world that’s good and unique and different, but also like all the other Diablo games. I played what they were showing at PAX, and I don’t doubt it’ll be fantastic. They won’t release it if it isn’t a first-class game, and I’ll be a day-one purchaser.

WC: Do you think that the hype and anticipation for Diablo was a factor in how well Torchlight has been received?

Max: I think that the hunger really made it easy for us to do this style of game. Obviously, it was very advantageous for us to get out before Diablo III.

John: Actually, I’ve seen at least one person who said that they’d be buying Diablo after playing Torchlight – they’d thought the genre wasn’t for them! So it’ll help both games, I think.

WC: You get an extra two months to work on the game. What do you change, improve, or polish?

Max: Ooh, we might have lost our lead programmer then. I don’t think Travis would have made it.

Travis: Lots of little things that we wanted to do that didn’t quite make the cut. Other kinds of shrines, minigames that went along with them… the pet could dig up bait, finishing would be more robust – things that just add flavor.

Max: It would take a lot longer than two months to put in decent multiplayer.

WC: Will the MMO be called Torchlight Online? It’s a great name, “Torchlight,” so I’d imagine you don’t want to throw it away.

Max: We have to tie it together somehow – maybe not Torchlight Online, since it’s just the name of one town in this big world, but it’ll have to be incorporated somehow. It’s a conundrum we’ll be grinding over for a while.

Travis: Torchlight Online: The Burninating!

WC: Anything else you’d like to talk about that I didn’t touch on?

Max: I think you’ll see that the MMO and Torchlight will complement each other both ways. We’ll look at our six-month sales figures and know for sure!

Travis: I appreciate singleplayer games – I have a copy of Dragon Age sitting on my desk right now that I can’t wait to go home and play. When we were making Mythos, we had a lot of people who wanted to play a singleplayer game, and so we talked about making a singleplayer Mythos that we’d sell for $20 for people who wanted that sort of thing. So we made a singleplayer game while we were laying the ground for our MMO, without extending the MMO timeline. It’s kind of like developing it for free, but … not exactly.

Jason: I think a lot of people who spend a great amount of time playing MMOs start getting burned out on the social dependency, on the stress of having unpleasant guildmates and all that. Sometimes you want to take a break, a less stressful exercise.

Travis: One of the nice things about developing a game like Torchlight is that you make sure it’s fun as a solo gameplay experience. A lot of MMOs, if there weren’t other people … the mechanics of those games aren’t very fun if there’s no social element, if there’s no one else involved.

I think that there are a lot of MMOs that, if they were changed into a singleplayer game, you couldn’t get people to play them. So what we’ve done is create a singleplayer experience that we think is terrific fun, and with other people should hopefully be more fun.

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