Torchlight III has been in Early Access for a while now. While the developers at Echtra Inc. have been hard at work preparing the next entry in the series, the feedback of fans has been invaluable due to the nature of Early Access. The fluid nature at which the developers are reacting to fan sentiments will likely result in a game that is satisfactory to both newcomers and veterans returning for the third time.
Following the Echonok update, players will be looking forward to more endgame content, more specifically, the endless dungeon endgame content that is Fazeer’s Dun’djin. Bringing back the familiar face of Fazeer Shah will stoke the nostalgia of the fanbase, however, the lure of new and powerful items, fort decorations, exclusive pets, mapwork scrolls, and much more will entice players to keep coming back for more.
To learn more about what goes into formulating such content and the whole Early Access process, I had the pleasure of talking to Max Schaefer. The seasoned veteran has given us plenty of awesome games, such as the Torchlight series and Diablo I and II, and together with his team, they aim to do so again with Torchlight III.
Going back to the drawing board
Obviously, for those tuned into the series, everyone knew that the game began life as Torchlight Frontiers before transitioning into the Torchlight III that we know today. That meant some large changes needed to be enacted. According to Schaefer, it all came down to two things: the business model and the idea of fun in Torchlight.
“There were two basic changes that we made and one was about the business model, these are interrelated,” Schaefer said. “When you run a free to play game, you’re operating a service now and you want to add content, work it into your monetization schemes. And it’s a very valid way to go. But you know it was there were parts of it that were working against both what our traditional Torchlight customers expected and kind of the way we were designing the new experiences in Torchlight III.”
We decided to also go back to the more traditional layout of the game where there’s one story arc that encompasses that from front to back. When you’re designing monetization loops, you’re kind of working against that Torchlight feel of you’re going to find 10 cool things in the next 20 minutes of play kind of instant gratification thing. When we made the change it really let is focus on the fun experience rather than worrying about how the business model integrated into the experience.”
Class above all
To capture that sense of merriment and whimsy, the variety of classes available in Torchlight III definitely plays into that regard. Aside from the Sharpshooter and Dusk Mage, who are more recognizable classes, we also have the Forged and the Railmaster who are a far cry from what you expect out of an ARPG.
“Generally, when we make a character class we want it to be something that is all-new, but it’s also something that you can look at it and kind of tell what it does,” Schaefer elaborated before diving into the process of making the Forged.
“It just kind of opens up a whole new world of possibility, and our worry with that class was that, you know, it’s a fully robotic class,” he continued. “Are people going to be able to identify with, with being a robot? And so we made sure that its animation had kind of very human gestures to it and his reactions are very human, and it ends up kind of almost being the most human of all the classes.”
As for the man who commands literal trains to do his bidding, it sprung from someone familiar in Torchlight II. Building off the lore of the Engineer in the second game, the team wanted to “push it all the way and make him a master of trains.” Suffice to say, that would have been hard to figure out in both design and gameplay sensibilities. However, Schaefer and his team settled on what they felt was the best.
“We got it feeling pretty good and realized we can really do fun skills with cars that come up on the train, sort of having this train exist in the world, where you can park it and run away, bring monsters back to it, and kind of use it strategically in a way that that that is new and different for a character class,” Schaefer said.
At the heart of it all, the classes in Torchlight III stuck to the same design ethos of being quirky, fun, and easy to understand just by looking at them.
Agile in adapting
Of course, being an active game in development with fans giving input is not exactly a smooth process. One of the biggest criticisms of Torchlight III was the revamped skill system. No longer were you increasing specific attributes for your characters, the game streamlined the process in hopes that players could have more ways to play. That plan backfired, and everyone at Echtra Inc. recognized that, and are making amends.
While Schaefer acknowledges the misstep in the revamp, he pinpoints the actual mistake that gave players plenty of grief.
“We were burying the true depth of our skill system deeper into the game, so when you fire up our game you see two skilled trees, and they’re not as big as they were previously.” The change was also due to “the relic system, where you pick a relic, and you get a whole new skill tree out of your relic.” It is through the development of these different areas that “define who you are as a character.”
The legendaries found in Torchlight III also provided more skills to play well. Each came with a handcrafted affix that could be used as a skill if you broke down the item. With over 100 of them, that is already plenty of depth found in the Legendarium.
“The mistake we made was the players didn’t see either of those two systems until they play it for several hours,” Schaefer said. “And then we kind of relied on the fact that people were eventually going to get to these other systems and that was probably a mistake, so we’re actually revamping it right now, and making some, some really cool critical changes to it.”
In the near future, players jumping in will see the relic come into play much earlier in the game. The Legendarium is also going to get more of a focus. The studio seems to have heard the fanbase loud and clear, and will offer more right from the outset.
This exchange with fans has been something more commonly seen nowadays in games development. When you invest money into something, you obviously want it to be the best it can be. That pursuit of perfection, so to speak, is also evident from the developer front.
“Early Access is is great for us. It lets us put the game well before we’re going to ship it and with plenty of time to fix the things that we got wrong, put it before our customers and work with them to kind of craft the game into the way it should be. So we’ve really seen it as very valuable,” Schaefer explained. “We were excited to get into Early Access where we can be in front of an even broader audience and have more mature systems and a bigger and more complete game, although not complete, for them to play on.”
You have to be receptive to both praise and criticism for it to work properly though. “Even more valuable but more painful is that we hear the things that we’ve done wrong. And it’s great to hear it because we have time to fix it and we’re going to fix it. If we didn’t have this early access period, we had to just take these lumps out of release. That would be that.”
It is clear the commitment the studio has to utilize their time in Early Access. So much so that Torchlight III probably would not be possible without it.
In such a crowded space in the ARPG genre, it can be hard for a game to get noticed. Despite its legion of fans, there has to be something extra that pushes the game into the spotlight. For the team, it is the ease of entry into Torchlight III that is an easy sell.
“We’re kind of almost the most approachable of the RPG, you know we’re not as hardcore as a Path of Exile, which we’d love,” Schaefer said. “But it’s also kind of a more hardcore game, you open it up and you see the giant web of skills and it’s something that you have to really be sort of a, an RPG player to get into initially.”
That, plus the “more colorful” and lightheartedness of Torchlight III makes the series a viable alternative to the likes of its more dark and gory counterparts. The additions of Forts in the new entry also marks a drastically different approach to keeping players invested. The decision to include the features stemmed from the game’s initial MMO roots, of giving players a shared area that could serve as a hub as well.
“So, these are places where you’ll not only see other people walking around and doing stuff, but you’ll want to explore other people’s forts just to see the kind of the cool things that they’ve done with it and if there’s anything on there that’s useful for you,” Schaefer said.
While you may embark on adventures on your own, it would help to see a friendly face every once in a while. With the number of customization options, every fort will likely be different. When pressed on whether we would see future updates where PvP becomes an option with these areas, Schaefer shared that the idea has certainly crossed the team’s minds. Fort wars, anyone?
As we head towards a likely release by the end of 2020, were interested to see if Torchlight III can find its voice again.
This interview was edited for clarity purposes.