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Torchlight 2 Max Schaefer Interview – Part 2

26 Apr 2011  by   Paul Younger

Last week in part one of our interview with Runic Games co-founder Max Schaefer he discussed his work on the Diablo series and this week he talks about their upcoming action RPG sequel Torchlight 2.
What is your official job title at Runic Games?
Max: I am the CEO.
IG: And co-founder or?
Max: And co-founder. Yes. Torchlight, you know came out – I mean… Runic Games came out of the wreckage of Flagship Studios. And it was the group that was making the game called Mythos at Flagship. And, Mythos was almost ready to be released when Flagship closed down, so… I had been working as a[n] executive producer on Mythos for the last couple years before Flagship shut down. So, I knew the team really well. And, when Flagship blew up Erich Schaefer (my brother), myself, Travis Baldree, and Peter Hu (our network guy) decided we were going to resurrect that team and start anew with that group. Kinda pick up where we left off with Mythos.
IG: And they were all up in Seattle already? They were kind of Flagship North, right?
Max: Correct.
IG: So, they basically just stayed where they were and you guys are kind of integrating more with them?
Max: Yes, exactly. Exactly.
IG: What does Erich do, by the way? Just out of curiosity.
Max: He is, as we speak, deeply buried in spreadsheets doing item design and item balance for Torchlight II.
IG: ‘Cause I was wondering… he’s kind of… I saw you mention in one of your Torchlight interviews – it reminded me – he kind of invented the whole system of progressive random loot in Diablo I.
Max: Yeah. Yeah.
IG: That was really his… what he worked on.
Max: Yep. That’s kind of his specialty to this day.
IG: So, he’s still doing the math and the spreadsheets and?
Max: Yep. *laughter*
IG: Then, on Torchlight, you said you didn’t really have a title. Everyone was just a team member on Torchlight.
Max: Yeah. You did what had to be done at the time. Obviously, we have people who are animators and people who are programmers and engineers and stuff. But, you know, it being a relatively small team people wear multiple hats. Nowadays, with digital distribution and stuff it’s kind of more… in a situation like ours with a little company like ours, it’s more incumbent upon us to have direct deals with people like Steam and stuff like that. So, there’s a lot more business and contracts and things like that going on with Runic than certainly we had to deal with at Blizzard. Even, to some extent, Flagship Studios was a bigger company and we had more dedicated business people. So, that’s a lot of what I’m doing right now. Just making sure our business arrangements are in place so that when we finish a game we can actually sell it.
IG: That would… just obviously be helpful.
Max: Yes, yes. We are acutely aware of income these days. *laughter* The basics of businesses.
IG: Yeah, in Torchlight II, it’s the same thing basically. You’re not a producer or whatever. Everyone is just kind of wearing multiple hats.
Max: Right, right.
IG: So, just because you mentioned the sales… you recently said, that I believe the first day of the X-Box, was your best sale day ever for Torchlight?
Max: Yeah. Yeah! We were fortunate enough to be able to be part of Microsoft’s house party promotion – which is something they do every year where they highlight five different games. And, each week they kind of put the spotlight on that game. We kind of got the eyes of the X-Box world put on us for the first week. That was really great for us. We’re really happy so far with the X-Box sales, and really the whole experience of getting it onto the X-Box.
IG: Have you guys released figures for that? Or is that confidential?
Max: It’s confidential, but they’re doing well.
IG: I think you said you sold what, over a million Torchlights total?
Max: We’re getting very, very close. And, I don’t know. We’d have to go up and total up all the various distributors and all that. But, we’re gettin’ very close.
IG: Obviously, you have hopes for Torchlight II to do as well or better?
Max: I fully expect Torchlight II to do better. It’s better in every respect than Torchlight I. From the look of it, the feel of it, the sound of it, the depth of it. And, so I really hope and feel like it’s gonna do very well.
IG: People are excited about it. When I asked for questions from Max Schaefer, I got quite a few about Torchlight II. They didn’t all just want you to pick through bones of past experiences.
Max: Right. Good. Good! I’m not getting as many Flagship Studios questions anymore. So, things are obviously going better these days.
IG: Well, you guys have been pretty forthcoming about that. Bill just did, like a year ago or six months ago – Bill did a really long interview with Gamasutra about that. It was almost… kind of painful to read. He was really talking about the personal attacks that he got and everything.
Max: Right. There’s no sense in hiding. It’s part of our history now. Something we learned a lot from and hopefully we’ll never make those mistakes again. I know that we have talked about it a lot and analyzed the hell out of it and figured out exactly where we could have turned things around. I mean… a lot of it was just random circumstance that happened to us. That was unrelated to our game development. And, a lot of it was our inability to adapt with the changing circumstances. So, yeah, we never really minded talking about it because it’s there and it’s part of our history and we’d rather just be up front about it and move on from it than kind of always have it hiding there in the background.
IG: Yeah. Just because it ties into that topic – the whole issue of iteration and the time it takes to design games.
Max: Right.
IG: You told me last time, if you had 6-9-12 more months, you think Hellgate could have really turned out well?
Max: Yeah, I think with 9 or 12 more months we could have polished it up and made a really, really compelling and fun game.
IG: So, the problem in iteration – as people often complain about Blizzard games – obviously you were there with Diablo II as well, which took a little longer than hoped.
Max: Right.
IG: There’s just so much to do, and then you guys… the iteration. It seems like projects are really slow at the start. Like, it’s really hard to fix on the ideas that you want to set with.
Max: Yeah. You have to iterate. And, you have to put the time into it. At Blizzard, you know, since we had – between Blizzard south and north a string of successful games – we had the leeway and freedom to do that. You know, at Flagship Studios, we were a new company and when you run out of money, you run out of money. There’s just nothing you can do about it. And, that’s what happened to us.
IG: It seemed like what I’ve often expressed surprise about – and I’ve seen fans as well on comments and posts about your new game and your new studio – is just how quickly you guys are making things happen. You’ve just been able to avoid sort of getting stuck in this iteration treadmill.
Max: Yep.
IG: You’re deciding what you want to do and you’re by God doing it.
Max: And we’re doing it in achievable steps, you know? We’re not trying to come out day one and make the world’s biggest massive multi-player triple-A hit franchise. You know? We want to start slowly and get it right and do it at a sustainable pace. I mean, Blizzard… World of Warcraft was Blizzard’s 10 th game or something. At Blizzard North – err, at Condor, we started out making GameGear and Gameboy games and by the time we were around to Diablo I, we had already shipped five titles. Five SKUs by that point. Of different stuff. There really is a lot of value in having that experience before you try to do something huge. I think at Blizzard… Blizzard did a good job at ramping up to making that sort of game. I think a lot… Flagship Studios was just one of many examples of development teams putting together a star team and getting a boatload of money and trying to hit a homerun your first time at bat. I think that we’re taking a much more sane and rational approach this time around just by stepping our way there rather than trying to get there right off the bat.
IG: And you seem to be working up, obviously getting bigger with Torchlight. Torchlight II is multiplayer. You guys have talked a lot about Torchlight, an MMO. Which would be multi, multi, multiplayer or something.
Max: Right. We don’t really know what it means yet, but it’s something that we want to do. *laughter* The MMO. So yeah, the next step for us obviously is multiplayer. And Torchlight II will showcase that.
IG: I asked you this last time also, I’ll save you the bad Russian accent… but I’m a mad Russian billionaire and I want to give you… I have to try, “I vant to give you million dollars!” I don’t know what that is.
Max: That was vaguely Russian.
IG: I think it was Borat actually. I’ll keep that aside. So the Russian-Mark-Cuban crazy man… okay not crazy, but he’s got a lot of money, but he wants to give you 150 million dollars in 5 years to make a ginormous Torchlight MMO that’s sort of a WoW style. everything to everyone huge game. What do you tell him?
Max: I tell him, “We’re probably not going to do it.” You know, no matter what the money is because part of the whole success of Torchlight is that it isn’t trying to be everything to everybody. We’re kind of stripping out everything except for the core game experience that we’re looking for. Um. We’re deliberately trying to shrink the feature sets and shrink the ambitions for revolutionary new stuff, because we want what we do to be polished and slick and do it well. And do it quickly. You know? We’re not gettin’ any younger at this point. You know, five or six year development cycles are… they’re a creative dead-end kind of. We really feel like that both the customers (the gameplayers) and the developers benefit from a faster turn around. We’re doing our iteration now in shipped product not just behind the scenes at the studio. I don’t know. I think things are changing in the game world and they’re certainly changing among the people I am working with such that we want to do things faster. We don’t want to make the next six year, 100 million dollar, crazy, sweeping MMO. We want to get something out in a reasonable amount of time. In the style of Torchlight. Everything’s about a little bit smaller, but faster and more nimble now.
IG: And that’s not… is any part of that influenced by any number of giant MMOs that have not been very successful? To put it kindly. Obviously that’s a lot of eggs in one basket if it’s five year and you come out with Tabula Rasa or something like that and it just flops.
Max: It’s a serious fear of ours that that would happen. But, there was no single player Tabula Rasa – to start with. Kind of build it up and figure out what you were making. And, so, it’s tough. That’s just one of many, many, many, many examples. Obviously, Hellgate: London was one and there’s tons of them that never even get released. So, but even if we were guaranteed a success, I don’t know that we want to launch into something that won’t release for five/six years.
IG: I can definitely see the appeal to that. I mean I’m a novelist as well as a blogger and website writer and such. It’s just a lot more fun to spend half an hour writing something and have it be online and get comments on it.
Max: Right.
IG: And working on a novel, it’s just you for six or twelve or eighteen months. It’s really tough to keep motivated and keep your system going, with no one seeing it but you and maybe a few friends. I guess it’s kind of what it would be like making your huge MMO.
Max: The other thing is, with MMOs there’s the big expectation that a lot of your development happens after you release it.
IG: Yeah.
Max: And if you… you put too much detail, and too much effort into making the release of the game… a lot of developers tend to think of the release as the end point. And, so they put all this work and these years and tens of millions of dollars into things that players… you know, the way they play MMOs are going to burn through that content immediately and you look up and find out that after twenty hours they’re done and you didn’t put enough end-game content in for ‘em.
IG: Yet, your five years of work yielded twenty hours of grinding.
Max: Exactly. Exactly. So, I think that we want to… when we get into this stage of making this sort of game we’re gonna want to be able to focus our years of effort on building the community as a… on the basis of responding to what they’re saying about our game. So, we want to put our nice, lean, slick – but smaller game – out there and then kind of build it based on what people want and how they’re playing it. And, I think that we can use our time a lot more wisely that way.
IG: That ties nicely into my next question, which is about the mod community and mods for Torchlight.
Max: Yeah.
IG: You obviously made Torchlight to support modding with your TorchED tool. Were you happy with how that worked out? With how the fans came through on that for you?
Max: Yeah! We kind of had… we made it part of our, you know, part of our pitch for why people should buy Torchlight. But, to be honest, we know that the tool… we released our own game development tool that we use every day to make the game. We didn’t dumb it down for consumer use at all. So, we weren’t sure if anyone was gonna be able to figure it out. We didn’t really have time to fully document it and give elaborate tutorial in how to use it. So, we kind of left it to people to figure out how to use it. And, a lot of people really surprised us with what they were able to do with it. So, yeah, we felt like that was a valuable part of the experience and we anticipate that it’ll be even bigger for multiplayer, because you can share the experience that you’ve made with others in real time. It’s just a lot more immediate and a lot more satisfying, I would guess, than putting up a single player mod that hopefully someone downloads and tells you about later.
IG: Yeah. You’ve had good luck with modding communities for Diablo back when you were making Diablo and Diablo II. Even though there was almost no support. I mean, Peter actually put – Peter Hu put a fair number of supports into the v1.10 patch. Basically, just working on his own. I mean, that was kind of his last thing he did at Blizzard North. His masterpiece, you know?
Max: Right.
IG: I know people that mod who just love him for that. It’s also made it much easier for all the subsequent patches from Blizzard.
Max: Yeah. I think it’s cool. I mean, there’s… people have, everyone has a slightly different take on what your game should be like. You know? There’s no shortage of opinions on how we could have made Diablo better – or Diablo II better here and there. And this gives people a chance to do it. And what you find out in a lot of cases, they were wrong and you were right. But, in a lot cases, they were right and you were wrong. So, you can just get different people’s takes on it. And, it’s cool. We love the modding community.
IG: Speaking of different people’s takes, I was wondering… people have had questions about Torchlight I. Obviously, the main request was multiplayer and you’re addressing that. But, some of the other comments or critiques that I saw, people thought the game got a little repetitious. There wasn’t a lot of plot. You obviously have a writer this time to help out on that some. But, people felt like it was sort of the same. Like, there was an infinite dungeon, but it didn’t really continue to progress so much.
Max: It was just a matter of the scope of the game. It was 11 months from blank computers to a shipping product. There’s only so much that you can do in that amount of time. So, yeah, it got a little… I mean, considering it’s a 20 dollar game, it’s kinda nitpicking.
IG: Now, 15 dollars!
Max: Right, now 15 dollars!
IG: Available at torchlightgame.com, I believe.
Max: Yes. Thank you.
IG: I think that’s your job, Max. You’re supposed to be dropping these subtle hints in. It’s torchlightgame.com, right?
Max: Torchlightgame.com. And, also available on Steam. Every now and then Steam has their crazy sales. So, keep your eyes open for those. But yeah. For the segment we were going for, I think it’s appropriately sized. But yeah. It definitely shows some of the rough edges of being a really rushed project.
IG: So what have you added or changed in Torchlight II to make it bigger/better/more?
Max: Well, the main thing is we hit the ground running. We’re using the same tools and the same graphics engine. And we’re using a staff that just finished Torchlight I, so they’re really good at this stuff. We just hit the ground running and didn’t have to ramp up and didn’t have to develop our tools and our graphic engines and our pipelines. So, like, right off the bat we were able to put content in. Start honing it. And, you know, it just feels like… first of all, we’re taking longer for Torchlight II, but you know, we are also… have a lot more productivity in the months that we’re using because we started day 1 able to produce content.
IG: Yeah. And, taking longer is obviously a fairly relevant term given your past employment history.
Max: Right. *laughter*
IG: I mean, you’re still… Torchlight II is still pretty much breakneck speed. It’s still looking for later this summer is the release plan?
Max: Right, right. So, it’ll be probably be… all told two years since Torchlight I’s release. But, we also did an X-Box version in there.
IG: Sort of a different themed question here. But, I recall you guys talking about how you picked the name Torchlight. Basically, it was you had tons of suggestions and didn’t like any of them.
Max: Right. We had the company assemble… all give suggestions. We assembled big lists and we voted on them and got to a final ten, or a final eight or something like that. Travis and I were meeting and we were just saying, “It doesn’t matter they vote on. None of these are any good.” *laughter*
IG: Democracy in action.
Max: It was… we tried. But, you know, it just… none of ‘em were… made us happy. I’m sure they would’ve been fine – a lot of ‘em. But, you know, it’s something that you have to say a million times. And it’s something that you have to see in print and in every review a million times. So, you want it to be something that you like. And, so, here we are putting all this work into developing a company-wide consensus and having it being a democratic process. But it wasn’t gonna result in a very good name. So, we were just kind of thinking of what we were gonna do when… I remember Travis looking up and said, “Why don’t we just call it Torchlight and be done with it?” I remember thinking, “Yeah, you know, that’s better than all these. I could live with Torchlight.” And it kinda makes sense. So, we ran with it.
IG: Was that a name that was already in the game? Was that the name of the town? Or that was all on him right there?
Max: Yep, yep. Just kind of out of the blue. Some people liked it, but some people didn’t. But I think generally, within the company, but generally people were cool with it. Everything else was polarizing, too. There was no like one name that everyone liked. That’s the problem with having 25/30 people vote on something like… the thing that everyone likes is probably gonna be kind of bland. It’s tough to get. Then, the things that people were passionate about loving a particular name, but other people hated it. So, it’s a tough thing to do by consensus. But, I think that generally things like the name of the game have to kind of come from weird, random, brief flashes of inspiration.
IG: It’s kind of an interesting comparison given that Diablo, obviously, is named after the monster.
Max: Right.
IG: It was Diablo’s picture on the box. And ,the same thing with Diablo II.
Max: But, the name Diablo came from David Brevik having a flash of inspiration in the shower one morning. He came into work and said, “I’ve got the name of our game!”
IG: Then of course you named the monster “Diablo”.
Max: Right, right.
IG: Just the presentation, and then Diablo expansion pack had Baal on the cover – just sort of a close up. Then with Hellgate: London – the tentacle face monster on the cover.
Max: We were going with the big head on the box theory. *laughter*
IG: Then you’ve got Torchlight. Of course, Hellgate: London isn’t the name of the monster, but it’s interesting that you didn’t pick some “evil demon skull king” or something.
Max: Yeah *laughter*
IG: That was probably one of your suggestions that you didn’t vote on actually.
Max: Yeah, probably.
IG: But, obviously you feel that Torchlight works with the theme and it’s not this gothic horrible… I mean, it’s just interesting the marketing of fantasy and MMO games. Some of them…
Max: Here’s why it’s different for Torchlight…
IG: Often they’re marketed on the heroes. You look at the Everquest games… they all have this hot blue… this blonde mage in this blue miniskirt. And the Diablo games have the monsters, so it’s interesting that Torchlight… is Torchlight. It’s sort of the world itself is what you’re marketing
Max: Right. And I think that that kind of came because our long range plan was – again – to do an MMO. In fact, at the time that we were starting this it was our short-range plan to do an MMO. We made a partnership with Perfect World out of Beijing largely because of their expertise in running and administering MMOs. With the idea that when we got to that point, we’d have a partner who could do all of the administration and running of a giant MMO that we couldn’t do with our tiny small company. So, I think that when your view is to get to that point, you have to have a world that is important. And, something that people want to spend a lot of time in. And hang out in. So, you don’t necessarily want to make it sound grim and horrible in that construct, because you want people to spend all night, every night in there. I think it’s a little bit of a different mindset when making an MMO in that… the idea in Diablo is that you’re grinding through this to defeat this final boss monster to restore a semblance of peace and order to the world. But, you know, so there’s kind of a sequence to it. It’s not somewhere that you want to live. You know, the world of Diablo is pretty grim and pretty violent; whereas, in an MMO, you kind of want to make it more a place that you want to live.
IG: Are you going to including a bread baking and bee keeping and all those other cool MMO things.
Max: No, no bread baking… well, I don’t know! We’ll see what we can come up with that’s kind of fun.
IG: Well, these is fishing…
Max: We’re doing fishing now… who knows, we might have crops. We might have property. I don’t know what it is. You definitely want to have things that are other than just playing pure hack and slashing. But, we also don’t want to do just cheesy add-on things. It should… augment what your purpose in the game is.
IG: It’s not gonna be a Torchlightville on Facebook, is there? You can buy bails of hay, and demon toothes…
Max: Right, right.
IG: I know you’re not talking that much about Torchlight II yet in terms of specific details, but can you tell us a couple of things? What’s going to be different about it that Torchlight I instead of… just, obviously, just more is obviously a good answer?
Max: Right, so it’s multiplayer now, so you’re gonna have other players’ characters on screen. So, it’s important to have the characters be more customizable. So, you know in Torchlight I you had pretty much one look. You picked it and you ran with it. And one sex – so a character class would only be a man or only a woman. So now it’s gonna be male or female for all of the character classes. You’re gonna be able to customize and pick hairstyle, and facial features, and that sort of thing. It’s not a hugely customizable thing. You’re not going to be picking the width of the bridge of your nose or anything. But, it’s enough to make you look different than other people on the screen and give your guy some individuality. So, the characters are… there’s more character classes and they’re much more customizable. Now, the first thing that you see when you come into the game, is you’re dropped into an outdoor area. You have to work your way up to the first town. So, right off the bat, you’re hit with, “This is a big world. There’s outdoor areas. It’s raining.” And, you know, there’s the immediate sense that you’re in a bigger place than you were in Torchlight I. From there, the mechanics are familiar. You control the game the same way. And hopefully, it feels even slicker and more polished and more responsive than the first time around.
IG: Alright. Cool. Are there… can you… this is more a question for your brother I guess, but are there any big innovations in how items or systems like that are working? Or skills? Innovations compared to Torchlight or compared what’s often seen in other MMOs… or RPGs at least?
Max: There’s a lot of evolutionary stuff there. We look back to where in Torchlight I it might have just seemed like there was item soup and you didn’t really get a sense of finding anything cool. And kind of punch that up a little bit. There’s little differences here and there, and I don’t want to go into too many specifics, because it might be gone tomorrow’s build. We look at what we did and look at it with a critical eye and see where it was working and where it wasn’t working and try to address all of it. But, I’d say the biggest difference this time around is there’s more time to spend on just giving it more iterations and more love than was the first time around. So, hopefully you get the sense that, you know, there’s cooler… that you always should have the sense that you might find something really cool and something that’s going to make a difference in the game at any moment. So, we’ll just try to cultivate that even more than we did the first time.
IG: Alright. Cool. Okay, last few questions. Changing speed a little. Are there any other RPGs or MMOs you’re playing these days?
Max: I consider Minecraft an RPG and I’m still playing that quite a bit. That’s probably the only RPG that I’m playing right now.
IG: Obviously, it’s a very simple game. It’s sort of a basic sense of how an RPG could work. I think you said it’s almost like the raw elements of an RPG.
Max: Yeah, it’s almost the purest RPG there is because there’s so little force fed construct there. I mean, you make what you want out of it. I think it’s really cool. You know? Just, the different ways you can approach it. And, how open ended it is. You have to decide how you… what kind of challenge you want to make, whether it’s making crazy buildings or whatever it is. So, I think it’s very clever, very cool game.
IG: And, okay. This last question is sort of about Minecraft, but it’s more general. Minecraft, as you say, is such a… it’s almost like a do-it-yourself game. Can you just play a game anymore? If you pick up a new… I don’t know, Dragon Age II or something? Can you just play it and enjoy it? Or is your game designer in your head always…? Are you just kind of seeing how the pieces fit together? How everything is structured?
Max: I have to admit, yeah, that I look more at how the pieces fit together and how it’s structured. And how they do interface stuff. I’m kind of furiously looking through it just to see how they approach certain things and what’s new. So, yeah, it is difficult to kind of sit back and experience it like you’re watching a movie, you know? I’m definitely looking to how they made it and how they put stuff together and how they organize this, how they tackle that. So yeah, it is kind of difficult to just get into the gameplay. Which is why it was kinda cool with Minecraft, because there’s just so little there that there’s not a whole lot to look at. You just concentrate on what you want to do in the game. So, I am able to play that one that way. But, yeah, the bigger and more elaborate and bigger production a game, the more elaborate their systems are and the more I just want to look at that. *laughter*
IG: It just awakes your inner game designer. I have the same thing… I can’t just read a novel, ‘cause I’ve written enough and I’ve edited enough to see how all the pieces go together. And I assume it’s the same for people who make movies or other things.
Max: I’m sure all they see is the setups of the scenes and how they’re stitched together and it’s very difficult to just experience the narrative. So yeah, it’s the same thing.
IG: Any other games you’re… obviously you’re not playing a lot of other games right now? But, looking forward to? Or the RPG or any other genre?
Max: I’m with everyone else. I’m waiting for Diablo III. I think it’s going to be really cool and I look forward to wasting a lot of time in there.
IG: And give a little plug to our friends at Path of Exile. You said you enjoyed their… you saw their early build and chatted with them.
Max: Yeah, yeah, yeah. No, those guys… they’re… I consider them a competitor, I guess. But, in a good way! They’re in the game… and I think the more people that are making this sort of game that we make, the better. I want to see the community grow and people to have more choices. So that if one particular aspect of one game isn’t perfectly up your alley, that you have an alternative. I think that only makes the community stronger.
IG: Okay. Well, thanks a lot for your time, Max! For doing this twice, even!
Max: Alright! No problem. *laughter*
IG: And, good luck with Torchlight II.
Our interviews with Max were first aired in the recent edition of the Diablo Podcast.

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