Interview: Max Schaefer, CEO of Runic Games

Last weeks I got to check off something on my bucketlist—land an interviewed Max Schaefer. For a man who changed the world of video games he sure is quite the humble one. He’s so easygoing going in fact the fellow answered all my questions—even the annoying ones concerning Diablo 3—then shook my hand and handed gave me a copy of the Torchlight 2 soundtrack(!).

What a guy!

We ended up discussing the future of the Torchlight series including the MMO, Diablo 3 and why its release has been very good for Torchlight 2, the now infamous Error 37 and why Max hopes Runic is fortunate enough to experience it, Torchlight 2 on Xbox Live Arcade & Macs, how Minecraft could meet Torchlight, plus his overall inspirations in games design.

Oh and if you’re interested, you can find my impressions of the Torchlight 2 beta here.

"When I was working at Blizzard a million years ago we were working on Diablo 3 and it was an MMO. We were going to do the Diablo version of World of Warcraft."

Mark: Ok Max, I’ve got to get this out of the way—What’s the anticipated release date for Torchlight 2?
Max Schaefer: We don’t have a date, but we’re getting very close to announcing that. We’re still thinking late summer. You played the beta and saw the level of polish, and I would say that’s representative of the polish level we’d like to be at for the rest of the game. We’re making really good progress, it’s actually happening faster than we anticipated. We’re also making a lot of changes based on beta feedback. So there’s some skill system changes happening, little tweaks with targeting and running, but for the most part it’s all about polishing up the last 2 acts. It’s going well!

What did Runic Games take away from the Torchlight 2 beta?
It’s funny because before we ran the beta we thought it would be dangerous! Mainly because we figured we’d get so much feedback, and you know, the guys care so much about that. We figured they would be in the forums poring over everything, and just being way too self-critical. Basically we made so many changes based on feedback from the beta—it’s just crazy. We started into it knowing it could potentially be a problem, so the plan was to shut down the beta once the network stuff was working to our satisfaction so we could get back to finishing the game. I think we got most of the stuff people were asking for. We fixed, tweaked and just got things ready to go. But it’s good we got the beta done because now we can focus on finishing the game. You can’t do that while you’re running the beta because you’re getting so much good feedback and everyone is so intense about doing the things people want.

I’m actually running Windows 7 64-bit on my iMac, and I’ve surprisingly had zero issues with the game. This leads me to my question about the Mac version of Torchlight 2. When is that due for release?
I do the same! I demo’d the game as Gamecon on my Macbook Pro using Bootcamp. About the stability, you know it’s one of our philosophies that the game needs to be running from day one, and throughout the development process so we can be tweaking gameplay and evaluating skill balance. It’s been remarkably bug-free from the beginning, and that’s a credit to our programmers. But that’s also because we have a culture of trying to keep it running stably through development, so we don’t get to the end and have 18 trillion bugs to fix. By fixing those bugs it changes the balance of the game, so then you have to rebalance everything else. We try to keep in a fairly playable state at all times.

As far as Torchlight 2 for the Mac? Right when we finish the PC version we’ll work on the Mac port.

What do you think we’re looking at in terms of time frame then? Perhaps a few weeks once the PC version is release?
It’s tough to say because our very first priority after the PC release will be to put out fires. I’m sure we’ll have our own version of Diablo 3s Error 37. With any luck you know? [laughs] What that Error 37 really means is you have 6 million people pounding on your servers, so we want our Error 37 equivalent. [laughs]

I’m curious if there’s a requirement for everyone to play Torchlight 2 everyday back at the Runic Games office?
Nah, people just do it anyway. We have a really efficient process where the level designers can get the levels into the game and test them without talking to a programmer. People are always testing their work. They’re looking at their animations, looking at their levels, checking out the new skill balances. Just before the beta ended my brother (Erich Schaefer, Runic Games co-founder) and I spent a lot of time just playing Elite Hardcore [mode] just to see if it was playable. We wanted to see how far you could go, but we never did quite finish out the beta. My brother actually made it to level 21, but he got killed by the final boss. It’s really hard!

Was there ever really a decisive push to get Torchlight 2 out before Diablo 3, or was that never really a consideration?
Yeah it was something that we talked about, but the only thing we really didn’t want was to come out right at the same time. You know, like literally within a week or two of it’s release. We didn’t care if it was before or after though. Obviously some of our partners wanted us to launch before, but they also agree with the philosophy that if we rush it out, I mean, what would be the point of that right? Then you’re just going to buy the game and play it until Diablo 3 comes out, and then that’s all people are going to play of it ever again. So we took the path where we’re going to polish the game and actually compete head-to-head for the long term, and it just comes out whenever it comes out.

"We’re doing pre-sales on steam, and the day Diablo 3 released they shot up 40% and have stayed up."

Does Torchlight 2 face different challenges now that Diablo 3 is already out?
I think we actually benefit from it. It’s a subject of debate within the studio and our partners but I think it actually helps us. We’re a small company—you know sort of indie—so we draw our customers from within the gaming community. People who already buy games, look and buy our stuff. I think when someone like Blizzard comes out with something like Diablo 3—where they’re doing TV commercials on ESPN, real mass market stuff—they’re bringing in millions of new gamers into the gaming community, and that makes our audience bigger. We’re doing pre-sales on steam, and the day Diablo 3 released they shot up 40% and have stayed up. They’re bringing in lots of people into this genre, and people are becoming aware of what we’re doing through them. We’re kind of piggybacking on their marketing.

Did Runic take anything away from the launch of Diablo 3?
Not really, I mean we all played it! [laughs] It’s totally predicable what happened on their launch. It happened to Diablo 2, it happened to World of Warcraft and it happened to Starcraft. You cannot test and prepare for that many millions of people pounding on your stuff on day one. It didn’t surprise us at all. We just figured we’d wait a couple days and it would all blow over. Once they get things running smoothly, no one will ever remember they had a rocky start. We didn’t look at it and say “Hey we gotta make sure we don’t have this happen!” because obviously they were trying to prepare for it, they’re not dumb guys at all. It’s just impossible to prepare for that [much traffic]. We were actually relieved that the game didn’t suck. It’s a good game, and we want our genre to be hot.

Also I worked on all the previous Diablos, so emotionally for me it’s important that it not suck, you know, by association. I think we look at it as a successful launch, obviously, it’s the fastest selling PC game of all time.

Are there any plans to bring Torchlight 2 to Xbox Live Arcade or the Playstation Network?
It’s something we’ve talked about. It’s definitely going to be a more difficult job than the first Torchlight because now we’ve got higher polygon models, multiplayer and it’s just so intense to do a direct port. Plus we’d have to redo the entire interface. So we’re not sure it’s going to be worth our while. We’re going to focus on the Mac version after the PC, and then we’re going to take a look at the world and see how it’s shaking out. Are people clamoring for a console version? We obviously have to take that into account. Do they want an expansion for Torchlight 2 instead? We have to take that in to account. Are we going completely insane with too much Torchlight? Do something else for a little bit? We’re just going to let the dust settle. It’s hard to make a rational decision about what’s right because we’re still in the dark days of development where everyone is exhausted and delirious so we kind of want to reserve for ourselves the ability to make that decision when the time comes. So it’s not out of the question, but it’s not something that’s in our plans.

In terms of the Torchlight series and heading in that direction, do you think additional content will be a priority over a proper sequel?
We don’t really know, I mean we may want to trickle some stuff out for the existing customers, but we also might want to package up a little expansion and do it that way. We really haven’t talked about that too much. It’s sort of like, we understand that this isn’t a fire-and-forget situation, so in some way it’s going to go on, but again that all depends on what people are asking for, and also what our heads are like.

As someone who’s both a fan and owner of the Playstation Vita and the Torchlight series, I do hope that platform will also be a consideration for you guys. I think would be a great fit!
It’s absolutely a consideration, I think it’s a great game for that too. There would have to be a good business case to make, a market and something the crew is excited to do.

Are there still plans for Runic Games to make a Torchlight MMO?
Yes and no. It’s still sort of in the long-range plan for us. The MMO market is changing right now and the traditional MMO is falling out of favor for a business model.

I like to think of MMOs more broadly though. Anything that puts a lot of players into the same world is an MMO. It doesn’t have to conform to these rigid [rules]. It doesn’t have to be exactly like World of Warcraft in every way, except in terms of the art [laughs]. When you say you’re going to do an MMO that’s immediately what a lot of people think. So yea it’s sort of in the plans but sort of…again it falls in this category of ‘When the game ships we’ll see what the world looks like”’, kind of thing. Maybe the Torchlight series will suffice. Maybe people don’t want a different style of multiplayer Torchlight, and this is what they want. If so then we’ll just do more of this.

Ok just to be clear to everyone out there—you’re not even in the beginning stages of developing an MMO?
Oh no, we’re focused on just Torchlight 2.

So a Runic developed MMO is—at the earliest—something like 7 years away?
Not necessarily, I mean, if it’s what we decide to do next then we’d try to do it more efficiently and quickly than everyone else. I would imagine it wouldn’t take anywhere near 4 years to get something like that out, but again it depends on the design and everything.

With the unfortunate collapse of 38 Studios, the decreasing number of subscribers for the Knights of the Old Republic and even World of Warcraft, I’m curious if the state of the market changes Runic’s marketing and design model for a Torchlight MMO?
Oh yeah! You have to look at the trends and project out a few years because of the development time. You don’t want to get into a dying genre, put all that work into it and then have to do a massive redesign at the end. I think it’s definitely going Free-To-Play. All the successful ones are going that way. It’s something we’re fine with too, you just have to design for it. It’s something that’s harder to do than a subscription based model because of the potential of screwing it up with all the weird item sales. You don’t want people to pay to win. You have to design it. You have to think about the additional content you put in, and each new item you put on sale has the potential to anger people and unbalance the game as opposed to a subscription model where your only goal is to make cool stuff every month. It takes a lot more design, but I think it’s the future and we just have to embrace it.

Speaking broadly, I think Free-To-Play is going to be a model for more than just traditional MMOs too.

You pioneered the Point-n-Click ARPG genre back in 1996 with the original Diablo, and I’m curious just how much your design philosophy has changed up to now? Have your overall goals changed?
I think we look at the basics of the genre—the controls and visceral feel of combat—and realize we’re just better at it now than back in the day. You know, the way we put together and make games has changed quite radically. We’re so much more tool driven now. Everything use to go through your lead programmer, and the few tools you had to put stuff together were clunky and not very powerful. We went into this with the specific intent to beat people and be competitive in the industry through being more efficient and faster. To be able to do things with less money than the competition. The way you do that is you get the most out of your people by giving them really good tools. You make the process by which you get content into the game smoothly and as streamlined as possible. Just the day-to-day work of putting the game together and adding content is so different than the old Diablo days. Today we’re able to do more, much more quickly. That’s where the big change has taken place.

Like you said in regards to the unfortunate demise of some studios out there—and with our own demise with Flagship Studios prior to Runic Games—yes that stuff is what keeps us up at night. I mean, this is the reason why Runic first did a single-player game with the original Torchlight. Just to get a game out quickly and get some revenues coming into the company, to get us more stable. It’s worked for us so far, and that’s still our motto—to do things more efficiently and faster than anyone else.

How many people are employed at Runic Games?
Thirty people.

In the past you’ve referred to it as a flat company, correct?
Yeah, we don’t even have any offices. [laughs] There is just one big pit of people, there aren’t even cubicles. It’s just a bunch of desks, and everyone works as just one big team. I think you can only do that with about 30 people or less. Once you go over that then you have to start adding management for organization. Now we just have meetings by turning around in our chairs. Everyone knows everyone and sees everyone everyday, and its small enough that we’re not getting factions and all that sort of stuff. It’s kind of the ideal size where we can do real Triple-A games and still kind of be a small studio. So we want to stay with 30 people, we won’t grow. We joke around and say we want to grow to 25 [laughs].

Let’s say Runic Games began working on 2 games, would you possibly increase the size then?
Nope, we would not grow.

So 30 is the level cap for Runic?
Yes—the level cap for Runic Games is 30! [laughs] It’s conceivable that we could do two games, but they would just be smaller. If we did an expansion pack and than a tablet game, we could do that, but in general we think of it as doing one thing at a time.

How do you feel Blizzard has handled Diablo 3 overall? To be more specific, how do you feel about the release of a sequel to something that required your unique talents to build?
Wow! You know, it’s weird, I’m not going to lie. It’s kind of cool! First of all I’m thrilled it does not suck. They did a good job and it does the franchise justice, so that’s a big relief. I’m kind of glad they did it, and we didn’t have to do it. Mainly because its impossible to beat the expectations of the people who were anticipating a Diablo sequel. I think they really did such a remarkably good job of making a slick game that’s obviously the best selling game so far, so you know, to say from a commercial perspective they did it right.

We were talking about the rocky launch earlier, but no one is going to remember it in a couple weeks after everything has been smoothed out. So yeah I’m really kind of happy that it all worked out. I’m also happy they made some decisions we wouldn’t have.

What do you mean by that in particular?
Oh with no single-player offline, and the auction house and stuff. With Torchlight 2 we already decided we were kinda going the opposite way with that, so when they came out with those announcements it was good for us because we could draw some distinctions between the two games.

In regards to the actual video game, what do you think of Diablo 3? Do you like the new skill system? The story? What classes do you enjoy playing?
All the classes are pretty fun. I like the way they tell the story, it doesn’t feel tacked on like we always did with the original Diablos. It shows they actually thought about it.

I think the art looks great! It looks like Diablo, but they have their own style, which I think they should do. You know, they shouldn’t just try to make Diablo 2 again. They’ve got a totally new crew making the game, and its always best when people are doing their version of what they’re doing, so I’m glad they put their own stamp on the style. I think it looks great and plays great! I had a fun time playing it. I haven’t really had enough time to play it because we’re obviously busy, but of what I have played I did enjoy.

I agree! It’s nice to see the game has been received so well by the critics and community. It’s a pretty amazing feat considering it’s been 10 years.
Right! How do you meet those expectations because it’s been so long and they just continue to go up over time? You kinda assume that its been in development this whole time and they’ve just been honing it and honing it, but that’s just not how it went. They did some major restarts.

You know, when I was working at Blizzard a million years ago we were working on Diablo 3 and it was an MMO. We were going to do the Diablo version of World of Warcraft. Blizzard obviously changed that pretty quickly, so we left to start Flagship Studios and we brought in a lot of the guys, so they rebooted with their own team.

Wait, the Diablo 3 MMO you were working on at Blizzard changed because Blizzard was working on World of Warcraft?
No no, they changed because once they brought it in-house down at Blizzard, they had different design priorities and goals than we did. Again I totally approve of that.

What things have influenced you and the team over the years, or at least from the beginning of Torchlight to now?
I think one of the most obvious things one notices with our game is we have a very unique art style. We first conceived of it—done by our Art Director Jason Beck—because we were looking for a low-tech, easy to produce art style that wouldn’t look cheap. One of our goals was to make a game that would run on virtually any machine. We didn’t really want to make a game with all the bells and whistles because in an ARPG frame rate is everything. So the more simple your art [style] is, the better it will run.

Art styles are weird. Once you start in on one, they kind of take on a life of their own. They develop their own characteristics. It’s become a look that our artists really understand now, even though we really don’t have any written rule-sets for it. It’s kind of weird how it takes on a life of its own and you just follow wherever it leads. It’s weird now to take a look back on the original Torchlight and see the subtle differences in styles.

<Thinks> I think that was true with the Diablo games as well. We set out to create a dark, Gothic, grey-toned, spooky world and then we created some dungeons and it took on its own life. It’s a weirdly organic thing.

Torchlight has such a lighthearted look to it and I’m curious if that specifically was an intentional design goal from the very beginning?
It was sort of intentional, but we didn’t want it to look like we were just making Diablo you know? We wanted to forge our own identity. We also had a smaller crew too.

It’s also just so fun! I think the ARPG genre is inherently comedic in a way. You’re going out and slaying thousands of monsters that are carrying around Chainmail, it’s just kind of absurd!

…and not only that, they’re dropping 87 pounds of it!
Right! Right! It’s kind of fun and liberating to be able take a more lighthearted approach to the game.

With the success of the Torchlight series, the success of Diablo 3, and the popular ARPG KickStarter projects like Path of Exile and Grim Dawn, it does seem like there’s a bit of renaissance happening for ARPGs. Do you think the interest has always been there? And do you think the market is at risk of becoming overly saturated?
I don’t think so at all. For a decided simple game, ARPGs are actually very complicated to create. I think that’s why there aren’t a lot of them. I don’t think it’s based on the market at all, because whenever they do come out they sell like hotcakes. Look at Diablo 3. It’s the fastest selling game on all time on the PC. It’s a fertile market and I don’t think one or two titles are going to saturate it.

There are so many FPS [games] out there and no one thinks that genre is dead. Every one that’s good sells like crazy. We’re pretty confident that provided we can keep our quality up, there are more buyers than there are games in this genre.

Also it’s been 10 years since the release of a Diablo game, and I think there’s a new generation of people to introduce to the genre. Again this is where Diablo 3 can help us. They’re bringing in so many new people to the genre, and so many kids are now of gamer age. We have a whole new generation to introduce to ARPGs. No one ever leaves games, once you’ve started playing games they become part of your life and you play forever. We’re just getting more and more gamers as time goes on and since there has been such a huge gap in ARPGs, its a very fertile field to plow right now.

We were talking about games that stay with us, and it’s funny you mention that because when I think of the Diablo series the very first thing I hear is that famous guitar strum. It has stuck with me for 10 years, and I know many many other Diablo fans who reminisce in the same way!
Yes it’s so crystal clear, I can hear it right now. [laughs]

My real question: The incredibly talented Matt Uelman—who composed the Diablo games—works on the Torchlight series and I’m curious if there was ever a point where you approached him to creating something as infectious? Perhaps as a wink to the fans?
No not the exact same strum, but it’s totally Matt’s style. We just wanted him to get weird with it. Every now and then when listening to the Torchlight 2 music I stop and go “is that a 12-string guitar in there?”. [laughs]

If runic wasn’t going to make an ARPG, what would it make?
Wow! Well we have 30 guys on the team so you would get 30 different answers.

You know, we don’t want to do ARPGs for the rest of our lives, so this is something we do talk about. For me personally I would like to do something that’s more of a hybrid. I wouldn’t want to do strictly a Real Time Strategy or First Person Shooter, I would want to bring a little bit of Torchlight, a bit of Minecraft, a little more resource-based play, and then little more cooperative stuff to bend the genres. Get you to do more than just resources or just loot, you know, just infuse them all a little bit.

At the same time I look at what I actually play and it’s just Word With Friends. [laughs] I just like all kinds of games.

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  2. chaosdemon23 said: Cool interview, I’m a big fan of Torchlight and am really looking forward to getting my hands on number 2.
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