From Tristram To Torchlight – An Interview With Max Schaefer

This last June, Gamer Living sat down with Blizzard co-founder and co-creator of the Diablo franchise, Max Schaefer.  After he and Erich Schaefer left Blizzard in 2005, they teamed up with Fate creator, Travis Baldree, and started up Runic Games in 2008 (after their first studio, Flagship Studios, went defunct).  In 2009, they created a new dungeon crawler called, Torchlight. Torchlight quickly became a favourite amongst fans of the genre and spawned a port to the Xbox 360 console seven months later in May 2010.  Two years later, the Beta has concluded for the upcoming sequel, Torchlight II, which is slated to be released later this year.  Will Anderson and Erik Miller sat down with Mr. Schaefer to talk to him about Torchlight II, as well as his thoughts on Diablo III.

Will Anderson: We’re watching the beta, we’re playing around with it, and obviously you guys are looking to bigger and better things with Torchlight MMO and this is kind of a first step towards that.

Max Schaefer: More or less; We don’t know what we’re doing in MMO next or ever or what.  That’s kind of the big plan is to keep expanding the Torchlight world.


WA: Now, one of the biggest differences in Torchlight II is now that there’s the multiplayer.  And how big of an undertaking was that?

MS: Yes.  It was sort of a foregone conclusion. If you looked at Torchlight 1, every single review said, “This is a great game but needs multiplayer,” which we knew.  Then we did the Xbox version, and it’s like, “Yeah this is a great game but it also needs multiplayer.”   So we knew from the beginning that we were going to be doing multiplayer.  It’s not easy, but we actually have a fairly simple model. We’re doing a peer-to-peer model instead of the client server.  Since we’re not going with the super-secure economy where there’s zero-possibility of cheating and you have to be online all the time. We’re kind of going the other way, and saying, “Here’s our development tools; you can mod the hell out the game, if you want.”  And it lets us, frees us up in a lot of ways; we can make a simpler model and not worry about auction houses and things like that.


Erik Miller: So with the developer tools, are we talking level creation and stuff like that?

MS: Everything.  It’s literally the complete set that we use to make the game.  It’s everything from UI mods, levels, quests, skills, animations. We are even giving you a pre-rigged character, so you can mod it and make an entirely new character class if you want.   So they’re super, super powerful.  But the downside is that they’re made for us and not the public, so it’ll take some doing, but they’re really powerful.  And with multiplayer, it’s much more fun to make a mod too, because you play it with people and share it more directly with people.  We expect there to be a pretty big response.


EM: With all the mods flying around, how will the sharing work?

MS: There will emerge a repository of files.  It’ll be on one of the fan sites; we can’t do it ourselves, because we don’t know if someone’s taken IP from other games.  So we don’t want to be in the business of policing their content all the time.   So we’re just going to say the fan site will handle the mods, and you can go there.  We’ll make it easy to see what mods are installed, and make it easy to install and uninstall it.  So you’ll see joining or creating a game, what mods that people are playing with and you’ll be able to easily go get those mods.


WA: I know that you guys have been working with Klei Entertainment for a lot of the cutscenes and everything.  How did that partnership come about?

MS:  Well, you know, I think that we decided that we didn’t have cutscenes unfortunately.  And we wanted to do something that wasn’t crazy, 3D rendered, super realistic stuff. We go the other way, wanted a sort of breezy, stylized look, and Klei is really good with that style. We’re pretty happy with Klei.


WA: Now playing the beta, it had the cutscenes and everything.   Didn’t hear any voice acting or any scripting.  Is that coming along, or is what we’re currently seeing kind of like placeholders?

MS: No, we’re kind of trying to avoid all that as well.  Too much talking kind of cuts into the killing, ya know? (laughs)


WA: Good point.  And, going into this, what’s been the biggest challenge so far of creating the new Torchlight?

MS: I think it’s making an AAA game that competes head to head with Diablo III, with a tiny fraction of the budget and 30 people. (laughs)  And to compete, these games really have a staggering amount of content.  ARPGs are deceptively difficult to make and kind of wrangle together. It’s kind of a massive undertaking. So it’s kind of the sheer volume of stuff, all of the different moving parts that have to come together at this rate. It’s daunting. The reason that there aren’t more ARPGs isn’t because they’re not popular, it’s just that they’re really hard to make.


WA: Obviously you guys are very receptive to community feedback and everything…

MS: That’s why we shut down the beta. We’re not finishing the game while we’re coding the beta. We’re watching people’s reactions and adjusting things and tweaking skills, and unbalancing and rebalancing this and that. (laughs) and it’s like, “Guys, it’s working now.  We gotta get on and finish this thing.” (laughs)


WA: Have there been any community requests where you guys have sat there and went, “That would be absolutely awesome to do, but we don’t have the time. We want to get this out”?

MS: There are definitely things like that.  People want a crafting system and things like that. Yeah of course that would be cool, but you have to draw the line somewhere.  I think that it’s a good time for us to be releasing right now.  It’s like there’s a little bit of a gap. Obviously D3 came out and that brought millions of new gamers into ARPGs, which is good for us.  I think that if anything, we benefit by the proximity to their release.


WA: Have you seen resurgence in sales of the original Torchlight?

MS: Well, we moved into presales for Torchlight II, and they shot up about 40% the day D3 released.  So, it’s definitely having [Diablo III] in the news – They’re advertising on TV commercials on ESPN.  They’re bringing in people that have never even played this sort of game.  And since we’re a small company, we kind of draw from the existing game community, and they’re making the existing game community a lot bigger.  So it’s really working out for us.


WA: Now I do have to ask, because Diablo and Diablo II are your babies.  Now that Diablo III is out… have you guys…

MS: It’s weird. It’s weird seeing someone else make the game. You know what my history is.  But I think they did a really great job.  I’m happy to see that [Diablo III] didn’t suck, that was my fear.  My fear wasn’t that it’d be very good; my fear was that it was going to suck, you know.  The same way that they’re benefiting us now, so if they sucked, it’d hurt us.  My biggest relief is that it didn’t suck.   And it’s super slick; We’ve all been  playing it, obviously.  It’s made a lot of different decisions than we’ve made, which is also good because we wanted to keep that big distinction between us.  But yeah, it’s kind of surreal.  In a way, I’m kind of glad that I didn’t have to do it, because how do you meet the expectations of the Diablo crowd after 10 years, you know?  Wow, talk about pressure.


WA: So, obviously you’ve played the game.  What’s your favourite thing about Diablo III that they’ve changed from the original?

MS: I like the way that they’re telling the story during the course of the game. I don’t feel that it’s being forced on me, and yet it’s kind of in a compelling way that it’s being unfolded.  I think they did a really great job on that.  The art work is great.  Especially the background, it’s super detailed.  A lot of the time, I’d just stop and just explore around rather than play the game.  And it’s slick, you play it and it’s like, “Oh hey, I’m playing Diablo.” (laughs)


WA: So, you know with Torchlight II, you’re almost wrapped up.  I know that with developers, it’s kind of like, you get to the end of the line and everybody’s gonna start asking you for what’s the next big thing. Do you have any ideas out there?

MS: There’s 30 people in our company and we’ve got 30 different ideas of what should happen next. And we’re deliberately not trying to make a decision about that now. We want to see how it does, what people are clamoring for. Do they want an expansion of this?  And if we do Diablo numbers and sell six million copies, we’re going to do an expansion – we’re not idiots (laughs).  So we’re gonna see how that goes. See if people are clamoring for tablet versions or console versions.  And also kind of judge our mental state, you know, after doing two Torchlights in a row, you might want to do something else a little while and then come back to Torchlight.  We’re going to let the dust settle. We’re going to do the Mac version after this, Mac port, new language translations, release the modding tool, fix all the problems that happened in our Error 37 (or whatever our equivalent’s gonna be), and then kind of gauge what we wanna do and what the world looks like.  But yeah, there’s all sorts of ideas for expansions to new stuff altogether on MMO, consoles, tablets – everyone’s got ideas.


WA: if you did decide to do an MMO, would it still be in the ARPG space?

MS: Definitely.  We would not want to do a traditional at all.  We’d adapt it in many ways to Torchlight. It’d be an MMO in so far as everyone’s playing in the world of Torchlight, but it may radically different.  I think it would keep our creativity alive, not just to do traditional MMO.


WA: From the indications I got from the story playing the Beta, it seems that the antagonist in this game is actually one of the heroes from the first game.

MS: Yes, so it’s one of the character classes from Torchlight 1: the Alchemist.


WA: Yes, and obviously people get into these and it’s not a 4-5 hour game. You get attached to your characters.  Was there any community backlash at all?

MS: About that? No.  I haven’t heard any backlash about that at all.  They were like, they just need a reason to be out there.  And Torchlight 1 was two years ago, and they just want us to finish.  You know, great story, let’s get on with it!


WA: When Torchlight II is finally done and released and out there…

MS: Going to Hawaii.


WA: Perfect!

MS: (laughs) Well, I don’t know if it’s going to Hawaii, but we’re definitely gonna take some time off.


WA: Do you guys do anything to get over the crunch as a team?

MS: Well, we do a release party for one thing.  That’ll be a lot of fun. We talk about maybe taking everyone on a short cruise or something, go sailing or go up to Alaska. Or go to Vegas for a weekend. Something minor.  We still have to be financially responsible.  One day, we’ll have Blizzard’s pocketbooks, if not their size. (laughs) With any luck, and then we’ll do something crazy.


WA: Well, thank you for taking the time to sit down with us and speak with us.

MS: Thanks for coming!


***EDITOR’S NOTE*** – Clarifications on Mr. Scaefer’s background and some of the stuff that got boggled in the audio translation have been made.  Many thanks to webbstre on Runic Games Fansite and DurdenSC for pointing out the goofs!

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