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Max Schaefer Talks Torchlight

With the rabid success of Torchlight, we sent Eric Bruce (Flux)  part-time IncGamers contributor and full-time DIII.net wizard – to ask Max Schaefer, the CEO of Torchlight developer Runic Games, a lot of questions. What follows is the text transcript of that fateful meeting. Read on or listen to the interview.Listen to the
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Okay, we’re rolling. This is Flux, talking to Max Schaefer for a podcast about Torchlight. Say hello, Max.Hello everybody, good to be here.I thought you’d actually say “Hello Max!”Hello, Max. *laughs*How’s the new dog today?The dog is a total spaz. I got a new dog the other day and boy, it’s a lot of work.Okay, you’ve taken a break from your puppy training to answer some questions for us. One of the forum questions – we had forum questions! We’re eager to know! – people are looking at the success of Torchlight and how well it’s doing as a quick game. Did you guys ever consider doing that with Hellgate?Um, we actually considered doing it with Mythos, and it just didn’t seem to be on the cards, so it was a great opportunity to just kick something out quick and get something into player hands as fast as possible.The amazing speed of Torchlight’s development – how were you able to do it so fast? Just using existing tools on all the animation?Actually, we had to start over with absolutely nothing, from scratch, which saved some time in a lot of ways. First, we used the Ogre3D engine which is an open-source graphics engine. We wrote a really good toolset around it, and that really sped up production. I think the biggest thing is that we had a two-year dry-run in making Mythos, and that was good practice. *laughs* We had pretty much the same exact team come over from Flagship Studios that was working on Mythos, so it was a team that was already used to making this sort of game, that had already gotten through all the trials and tribulations, and we actually got to apply a lot of the lessons we learned from that in Torchlight. So yeah, it was very efficient.Do you think, looking back, that if you could do – you know, games like Hellgate and Diablo 2 and other such games that take four or five years to make – could you apply any of the lessons you’ve learned with Torchlight to those sort of titles?Yeah, I think so. I think that the era of the five-year, eighty-million dollar project is largely over.Tell that to Blizzard!Well not for Blizzard! *laughs* They have their own rules over there, for sure. But as far as the economy downturn and a lot of failed projects out there, people are looking for faster, quicker development and cheaper development and less risk, and I think that there’s a pretty good gap in the market right now between the casual game and the super-big budget project, and I think that customers will like it, especially since you can get a lot more product out.That’s definitely true. What’re you drinking, by the way?I’m having a… Crystal Geyser Juice Squeeze Mountain Raspberry.That’s what all the CEOs drink at home. Keep that in mind, kids. Could you imagine, if you went back and made Diablo 2 or Hellgate right now, could we shave a year off this in some way?I think that if we started over with Diablo 2 right now, we could have easily shaved a year off. That would’ve saved some marriages, by the way. *Laughs* But yeah, we didn’t have anywhere near the kind of tools that we do now, and that really makes a huge difference. If a level designer, a quest designer, a particle designer, an item balancer, and all these people can get their work in without having to bug a whole staff of programmers and wait a day for the build to see if it works – that’s a huge time-saver.Well, good to know for the future, perhaps. One question a lot of the fans have, with the speed of Torchlight’s development – it’s just amazing that you guys made it in under a year, when it seems like it takes Blizzard two years to roll over and do anything. But of course, it’s a much bigger team, etc. Was Torchlight a rush project? If you’d had six months, could you have done more? Would you have done more?I don’t think it was a rush project. I think it was a good way to get the Torchlight IP out there. It’s a pretty slick and fun little game, and we almost risk – given the design we had – almost bloating the design a little, adding too many unnecessary things, and ruining the simplicity of it. So I think in some ways the short schedule helped us focus on what we were doing, and get the important things into the game and leave the fluff out.So you guys are happy with how Torchlight is now? You weren’t looking to – “If we could have just had a little more time, we could have put another character, or more monsters, or more tilesets, or…”Okay, two things. I think one thing we would have done if we’d had maybe a year more would be to do some co-op multiplayer, which is obviously what a lot of people want. But it would have added a year, it would’ve added expense, we wouldn’t have been able to do a $20 USD download, it wouldn’t sit on your computer so nicely, and so I think that it was about right. We are releasing the mod tools, and we expect the modding community to supply a lot of end-game content, and some more cool things that we never thought of.That actually leads onto our next question. The only real complaint I’ve seen about Torchlight is the lack of the multiplayer, and I was going to ask how much longer that would’ve taken to have done. Many many months, much more code, much more programming, who hosts the game, where do you get secure servers…?Exactly. People say “We just want simple co-op,” but there’s no way we could do a client-server model that’s secure and uncheatable without adding years to the project, and many, many millions of dollars of expense. Even if you do just simple co-op, people would want matchmaking of some sort. You start to go down the road and you realise that it’s not a trivial undertaking at all, which is why we figured that it would be best to just leave the multiplayer for the MMO that we’re making next, and to do it right for that instead of just doing a half-assed version now.{PAGE TITLE=Max Schaefer Talks Torchlight Page 2}Okay. I have some questions about the MMO, but we’ll get to that in a second. Since you mentioned it, is there going to be a Torchlight expansion pack? Are we going to see more stuff, or are you just gonna hope for the fans to make cool mod tools?I think that we’ll make some mods ourselves, just because the guys in the office have fun doing it. We’re going to be making this MMO which means we’re going to be generating a lot of content, and we hope that we can get some of that content and just filter it down, via some free little goodies, into the community. But yeah, we do expect the modding community to supply quite a bit.One other question about the very rapid pace of development. You got the art, you got the character design, you got everything you wanted. Do you feel like you had enough time for balancing and levelling, or do you think there are going to be some big imbalances, like overpowered items?Well, of course, there were a few things that, upon release, we realised were a little unbalanced and they should be addressed in the patch that I think is out today. But I think it’s a lot more forgiving in a single-player game to have minor imbalances, and it’s kinda fun to find something that’s a little overpowered once in awhile – you know, when you’re cruising through the dungeon you find a cool sword and you can kick ass for a little while. That kinda feels good. So no, I think we got it just about right, and I give a lot of credit for that to my brother Eric, who did the bulk of the item balancing.And it’s not as if AAA-titles that have five years of development don’t come out with lots of imbalances. There were Diablo 2 things that had to be patched, and World of Warcraft, and I’m sure that in Diablo III we’ll see more of the same. I wasn’t paying that close attention, but was there a public beta, or a demo? Or was it in-house?We did all of the testing in-house. We have a little QA team in-house that plays the game from day one, and they were there the whole time. We ramped up a little bit for the end, and we did a very, very short little friends-and-family thing just with literally less than fifty people. But that was extremely short, and extremely quick, so it was all just in-house testing.A couple more about the current Torchlight. Is there plans for a boxed version? Some people on dial-up say they want to buy it, and they can’t download 500 megs.Yeah, there’s going to be a boxed version coming out in January, so it’ll be in a Wal-Mart near you. *laughs*A Wal-Mart near you, okay then! So distribution is under control, I take it. This is where I keep talking while I look at questions because I’m doing a podcast and not a typed interview. Funny how that works, right?Yeah, live is always exciting, huh? *laughs*A couple of questions about the Torchlight MMO, if you don’t mind. It’s definitely in the works?Yeah, the MMO has been in production – at least from a technical perspective – for the last year. Now we’re working on the patch, we’re going to get the editing tools out, and we’regoing to get a demo version of Torchlight out on our site. Those are all imminent. As soon as those are all done and we can take a breath and relax for a couple of days, then the whole team launches, full-bore, into the MMO.How is your MMO planned? Mythos was going to be a kind of casual MMO with a little bit of RMT [Real Money Trading] to keep it floating. Are you looking at that kind of thing, or some huge World of Warcraft style?I think we have to be much more efficient than that. It’s impossible to compete with the level of content and the depth of World of Warcraft. So we do carve out, definitely, a slightly more casual style of gameplay, but just through the tools we make and the efficiency of our process, we hope to have a big, vibrant world in which the MMO takes place. But it’ll be a touch more casual than World of Warcraft, and right now we are looking at the item transaction model, although that’s something that you’d never want to chisel in stone because we’re talking about two years for the MMO, and two years is an eternity in the industry, and maybe no-one likes item sales anymore at that point! *laughs* You do have to do a lot more design with item sales, too. But that is the plan right now.Interesting to hear that. At least you’re not taking on another super World of Warcraft-killer that’s going to flop on development and release like most of them seem to. Is the MMO the same as Torchlight? Will it be the same characters, the same world, or is this just sort of a demo and you’re going to expand vastly and no-one would recognise the MMO from Torchlight?A little of both. It’s going to be in the same world, it’s going to have the same gameplay style, same camera, same controls, the same pacing of combat, but Torchlight is just one town and one dungeon. We’re going to make a big overland world and different towns to go to, and all kinds of new things.Now, with the characters – for an MMO, you have to have much more customisable characters. In Torchlight, there’s one gender and one look for each character, and you just look different based on what you find. MMO, you’re in with a lot of people. You’ve got to stand out, you’ve got to customise your character a lot more, so we’re going to start from scratch on the characters. We’ll take inspiration from the ones that are there and we’ll respect the fact that there are Destroyers, Vanquisher, and Alchemists in the world, but the player characters will basically be starting from scratch.Are these building on ideas that you guys had right from the start, or did you just say “Let’s do what we can with Torchlight, and then if that goes well, then we’ll brainstorm and think everything up for the MMO?”We figured right from the start that the things that would transfer over directly to the MMO would be the dungeons, tools, and the lore in the world, and the look and feel, but we knew right from the get-go that we were going to be doing new characters for the MMO and having to build a big overland world. So the first task that we do is going to be making a nice terrain editor!{PAGE TITLE=Max Schaefer Talks Torchlight Page 3}So lots of interesting plans for that. This is a clichéd question, but what are the advantages and disadvantages of an MMO like Torchlight, versus some huge, massive project like Warhammer or World of Warcraft?I think more money has been wasted trying to take down World of Warcraft in this industry! *laughs* I think that’s a fool’s game to try and do. The advantages – well, first of all, I don’t think that there’s a really good, snappy action-RPG MMO out there yet, so we think it’s a gap in the industry and something that hasn’t been done. We feel like we’ve kinda got that style of gameplay down, so it’s a good opportunity for us. It’ll be a faster project, it’ll be more efficient, it’ll be leaner. So, yeah, we have quite a challenge in front of us, but we think we’re aiming at a good spot.Do you think that your model is a little like the Asian RPGs where it’s a little more item-based and a little faster, versus the bigger Western ones?Yeah, but even moreso. Even going further down the line of it being quicker, faster combat. We want to make the level grinding fun. We don’t want to look for alternatives to the level grind – we want to make the grinding fun, and make the adventuring fun, and make dungeons cool, and getting your party together, and getting a map, and going to some special dungeon should be a fun event, not a chore you do so you can get to the next level, so you can unlock something or get a particular item. Again, like I said, there hasn’t been a good, snappy action-RPG in this structure. I think we were pretty close with Mythos and we were going down the right track with that, but this is going to be a lot better. We learned a lot of lessons from that one.It’s sort of a stupid question to ask if you have any regrets, but if you had Mythos back today, if you had the IP, would you still be working on that? Is there something you feel that Mythos had that Torchlight didn’t, or vice versa?We loved working on Mythos, and we’re really attached to the community. I have to say that it was a little bit of a struggle making it because we were working on tools and technology made for a different kind of game – for Hellgate – and so it was a little bit like we were shoving a square peg into a round hole. It’s easier working on Torchlight – the tools work better, the tech works better. It’s just easier. I regret that we couldn’t get Mythos out, because we put a lot of work, and our heart and soul into it, but we’re pretty happy to be where we are now.I have one other question about Torchlight that I forgot to mention earlier. Are you guys working on a way for players to trade items with each other, or do you figure that’s going to come out with mod tools and item trainers and stuff?We don’t plan to support that, but we think that’ll be a pretty trivial mod, for sure.Do you think that any players might manage a multiplayer mod, or is that just way too much code and way too much stuff to write for LAN code and TCP/IP?We would be seriously impressed if someone was able to do that! *laughs* We’ll take their resume gladly.Any aspiring designers out there, write some multiplayer code for Torchlight, and you may have a job! Speaking of jobs at Torchlight, Max is living in the Bay Area still, full-time as far as I know, and he’s the CEO of a company that’s in Seattle. Has that presented any interesting issues? Do you fly up there regularly?Yeah, I’ve got a lot of flyer miles now! *laughs* I go up at least every two weeks. And it is interesting. It was the way we worked on Mythos, so it’s what everyone’s used to, and also our publisher – Perfect World – is right here in the Bay Area, so it’s really easy for me to pop down to the publisher’s office and do things there. So I think especially as we transition to the MMO, we’ll be using quite a bit of their infrastructure and working quite closely with them, and it will actually be an advantage.Have you enjoyed the Torchlight community? You guys were a brand new community, and very quickly some fansites popped up, and you obviously have Diablo sites that’re still covering your game, and a lot of other media. Have you enjoyed how that’s worked? Any regrets not being the centre of the mass tornado that is anything Blizzard does?We love the community that we’ve got. A lot of them came over from Mythos and they’ve been super-cool and really fun to participate in the development of the games with. It’s tough when you get as big as Blizzard. On the forums, it’s almost hard to know people by name because they’re just so big and things happen so quick in them, and they can get pretty hostile. *Laughs* I think right now we’re enjoying the smaller community but of course, we hope it gets big.I remember back in the Blizzard North days, Max used to come into our chatroom and there’d always be one guy who’d have some huge bug up his ass about some minor game feature, and you would sit there and debate with them, and argue with them, and talk, and of course nobody from Blizzard goes anywhere near any chatrooms these days. They have corporate rules and Blizzard Irvine, and you see the community managers but even they can’t post off-site. I assume you like being in a smaller community – and of course, you’re the boss; you can kinda do what you want. It’s nicer you can actually interact with the fans?Definitely. We deliberately made a smaller company, even than Flagship, this time around, just for that reason. Everyone in the company posts on the forums, and there are no rules other than “Be cool,” and we will try to keep it that way as long as we possibly can for sure.That’s good to hear. Any final thoughts, Max? We’ve had a lot of time here, you’ve got a lot of other things to do, you’ve got a dog to go home and train…Yeah, I shudder to think what I’m going to find when I get home right now! *laughs* But no, thanks for the great reception for Torchlight from everyone, and you know we’re going to get an alpha of the MMO as soon as possible. We’d like to have community involvement in our game production and we’d like to have the game running all the time, so one of our goals is to get that up and running as quickly as possible, so even though it’s two years off before the MMO will be out, it’ll be a lot sooner that we’ll have servers up and we’ll have a beta community and we’ll get going with making this thing!Really? So you’re going to beat Diablo III, it looks like. And you’re going to have the existing community – you’re going to need beta testers, you’re going to need all kinds of people to help out with ideas. I guess you have your own staff for ideas, but fans always love when they feel like their input and their ideas and their concepts, and the lessons from Torchlight, can be applied to the new game.Yeah, for sure. And we have to beat Diablo III out, because if we don’t it’s going to set back our own production about six months! *laughs* It’ll be all anyone’s doing in the office for a little while.Thanks a lot for your time, Max. This is Flux for IncGamers signing off.

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