Runic Games Vice President talks Torchlight, PlayStation 4 and the future of the company
Runic Games are the developers behind the critically acclaimed Torchlight series. I recently sat down with Runic Games, Vice President, Marsh Lefler, to find out his thoughts on the comparison made between Torchlight and Diablo, how the narrative behind the series was conceived, the future of Torchlight II and what he thinks about the PlayStation 4 and what Microsoft and Sony can do to help indies on their platforms.
Velocity Gamer: To those who haven’t played any of the games, how would you describe the Torchlight series?
Marsh Lefler: Have they heard of Diablo 2? Or Nethack? Maybe Rogue? Let’s say they haven’t heard of any of those games I would describe it as; “An isometric action role playing game which has heavy focus on fun combat, character development, and exploration. The world and items are randomized making each play through unique.”
VG: Many comparisons have been made between the Torchlight games and the Diablo series from Blizzard, what’s your opinion on this?
ML: People always love to compare things – human nature. In the case of Torchlight VS Diablo there are some pretty easy comparisons to make, not only in game play. For starters Erich and Max started Condor studios and, for those that don’t know Erich, Max and their team created Diablo and Diablo 2. During the creation of Diablo they got bought by Blizzard and were called Blizzard North. Diablo 3 was started by them too, but very early in the development they left to start Flagship Studios. After Flagship they helped start Runic Games. Runic then made Torchlight heavily based on Diablo and a small game called Fate. Next was Torchlight 2 which was a jump in size and quality that was very similar to the approach that Blizzard North made with Diablo 2. So not only in game play are there similarities that people can find for comparisons, but also in who made the games and how they were developed.
VG: What was your method behind creating the narrative for the Torchlight series?
ML: We started the narrative by throwing ideas around of what we thought would be fun for combat, events and monsters. From there a narrative started forming around those ideas. Our initial narrative was “Grand”. Soon into development we realized that we didn’t have the time for such a narrative. We started stripping. Half way through development we stripped down the narrative again and soon after that we probably stripped it down at least two or three more times. When I say we stripped it down I mean we cut pages of text NPCs would say and we cut a few of the bigger events. At one point we added books for people to collect and be able to get a history of the world and places. For multiple reasons that all had to be ripped out. Which was a shame but in the end it helped get the game done.
VG: One of the major differences between the original game and Torchlight II was the addition of multiplayer, did this change how you developed the game?
ML: Adding multiplayer had a huge impact on the game. Early on we decided to take a more MMO approach to multiplayer. Everybody would share the world but quests and events would be instantanced per player. This approach for Torchlight 2 meant people could play a character, than play multiplayer with that character, and finally jump back out and play single player without missing out on anything in the game. Torchlight’s multiplayer approach did have its issues. For instance, early in Torchlight 2 you have to save the Water Guardian. The level designers set up a quest line that would require you to raise a bridge to get to the tower holding the Guardian. The issue we ran into was when a player completed that part of the quest and the bridge raised from the water the other players who hadn’t completed the quest only witnessed the player walking across an open lake much like a famous biblical character. It did not look good. We ran into all sorts of other issues dealing with how our logic worked as well. I could write an entire paper on what we had planned for the bandit camp and what we ended up with. I would say the biggest challenges and the most time consuming bugs we had dealt with getting all the scripting to work in multiplayer.
VG: Do you currently have any plans to expand Torchlight II via downloadable content?
ML: We are just about to release a new build that will have new pets, events, monsters and a new dungeon type. Also the editor is about to ship. Which means people will be making all sorts of new content for free. We’ve spent quite a bit of time attempting to get the game to play nice in multiplayer while using mods. In the server list you will now see what mods people are playing with, and if you’re using steam it’ll actually download missing mods, configure the game and put the player in the game. We also created scheme files for mods; which allows people to have hundreds of mods installed but will be able to activate specific mods per game instance. The editor also has the ability to publish to steam directly. Our next release of Torchlight 2 will be huge and we’re excited to see what people come up with.
VG: You have released both Torchlight games at a modest price points, with Torchlight II currently £14.99 on Steam. Why did you chose not to make it a “full price” release?
ML: We really decided upon the 20 dollar point because of Torchlight 1. It wasn’t worth 40 or 60 dollars. It was a really nice game for 20 bucks. We are a very small company compared to most of the studios people have heard of. For instance take a look at Rockstar who had a thousand people make Grand Theft Auto IV, or Diablo 3 who had hundreds; we are just a rag tag team of 30 people. That includes our marketing and QA. With thirty people we can keep our costs down. As a company all we want to do is make games we want to play. As long as we can do that and survive doing it, we will be happy. Also as a company we have no interest in getting bigger. We will continue to focus on fun games that as a team we can make. With that in mind when we released Torchlight 2 there was no reason for us to sell it for 40 or 60 bucks.
VG: Sony recently announced the PlayStation 4, what do you think console manufacturers can do to encourage more indie developers to make games for their platforms?
ML: PlayStation 3 was a much bigger challenge for porting if the game was made for the PC. PlayStation 4 seems to be going down a much nicer path for people who want to make games cross platform; so that’s nice. Technically there aren’t a whole lot of issues with porting; it’s mainly just time consuming. I think the challenges indie developers had to face was working with Microsoft and Sony. The amount of money that it takes to get a game onto the XBox or Playstation 3 is no small amount. When you are talking about indie developers who make $50K or $100K on a game turning around having to port it; they are pretty much gambling the bank that they’ll make more money on the console. I won’t say it doesn’t happen but in most cases and especially nowadays it is becoming rarer for them to be able to turn a profit. Just trying to find the games on the consoles these days is a game in itself. Just look at Microsoft’s XBox. Every patch the indie page is pushed further and further back. With the latest patch I don’t know if I could tell you how to find it. Now imagine somebody porting their game and betting the bank on people finding that page and their game. Rough.
VG: Where do you think technology can take gaming in the future?
ML: I believe right now we are at a very interesting time when it comes to games and technology. There are so many devices for playing games and ways of interacting with games; it’s a really exciting time for game makers. What is really great is seeing developers make fun games while no longer having to fight with the big name publishers or having to spend millions of dollars for cutting edge graphics so they can stand out in a crowded console market. The tech on most of the new devices can’t do the same thing as the consoles and computers. Get a couple of friends in a basement for a few weeks and soon they can have a hit game ready to be published on multiple devices. That is what technology is doing now and will do for the next couple of years. That is really exciting to me. After that I think games will be running into the same problem they have now with the consoles. Making games on the devices will be so complex and time consuming it will push out a lot of the indie developers. I really hope I’m wrong in that prediction. After that I think technology will need to make a huge jump. Technology needs to make such a jump that pushing [polygons] shouldn’t even be a consideration. Texture memory will be a thing of the past. Creating terrains that don’t require crazy amount of “LODs” and magic to make work will be a must. Modeling and animation tools will make our current tool sets look like medieval torture devices. Once the technology gets to that point where developers can start spending time on making fun games again and not having to worry about the tech behind it, it will spawn another resurgence in original games; much like what happened in the mid eighties and what is going on right now with all the new devices and control schemes. I’m a bit scared what the gaming world will be like in a few years. I hope the new consoles spark some kind of new excitement in gaming. I hope companies that make games for those devices don’t have to spend hundreds of millions of dollars.
Right now and in the coming future I feel people will be just as excited to play a new Angry Birds as a new half billion dollar Halo.
VG: Finally, what’s next for Runic Games?
ML: We have pitched five games to the company and we are having everybody chew on the pitches. As soon as we publish the editor and new assets we will get everybody in the company together to discuss what they think of the ideas. Once we get a majority of the company behind an idea we’ll make that game.