Interview: Max Schaefer


I would imagine the next iteration in the Torchlight universe would involve a twist, and I don’t know what that would be just yet. Our team have made the Diablos, Mythos, we’ve now worked on the Torchlights and they’ve all been action RPGs. We’re eager to break that mold a little bit.”

Mark: Hi Max! Let’s start with the launch of Torchlight 2: The game has been out for four days. What’s the general mood in the office right now?

Max: Has it only been four days? Seems like it’s been an eternity and yet it seems like it was yesterday!

The mood is very good, however we got some obsessive compulsive lead engineers who can’t accept that someone’s having trouble. They haven’t slept in four days making fix after fix for people. So yeah, people are pretty tired but the mood is very good. Reviews are coming in and they’ve been super-nice, and people in the forum are just being super-cool; so yeah, the mood is definitely very good.

What about when the game unlocked on Steam? Were you on a conference call with Valve when they pushed the big red release button?
Oh we were all huddled around computers checking out how things looked for sure, but we kind of had been doing that already since we were being pre-sold on Steam. So we were camped out on there to see how those numbers were looking. Seeing people begin to show up in games was really exciting and fun! Then things started to break…as expected. We immediately went into fix-stuff mode—our website still isn’t completely back up!

Never-the-less it was still really exciting because the vast majority of people were getting in without any problems and having a good time. The reactions from those people were great.

Oh and yes the Valve guys came over with a great big box full of booze, and that was pretty fun [laughs]! We just all hung out and drank some champagne for a little while and then we went right back into fixing stuff. It started out as a day of celebration and then ebbed back into a work day—it was really weird.

When you say you were able to see the numbers, I’m curious if you were using Valve’s tools?
We were using Valve’s tools and our own dashboard as well. We were able to see the number of people who’re using our lobby service and then the number of concurrent users on Steam’s public page (and on there you can see how many people are playing).

"We wouldn’t be able to do a $20 game of this size while running servers and trying to maintain a secure economy. It just doesn’t happen, and so that’s why you have $60 boxes for things like that."

When I interviewed you at E3 in June you said Torchlight 2 pre-sales on steam shot up 40% when Diablo 3 released, and continued to stay up. How many pre-orders did Runic end up selling before launch?
Oh gosh [thinks]. We haven’t even gone back and totaled the numbers yet but it was probably 20 times more than what we had for the original Torchlight.

Did you guys break 500,000 units?
Not in pre-sales no, and that’s just on Steam. We would need to go back and look at the smaller sites there too. But it was really good, and we’re obviously not a very large company so seeing numbers like that are pretty cool.

Regarding the launch of Torchlight 2 you also said “with any luck we’ll have our own version of [Diablo 3’s] error 37”. Did you get your wish?
[Laughs] we did! There’s no way to simulate 50,000, 80,000 or whatever concurrent amount of people made things go wrong with our website, our lobby and with our account servers. It wasn’t a complete mystery that required rocket science to solve but just stuff we had to grind out to fix. I don’t think we had anything as pervasive as [Diablo 3’s] infamous error 37, but anytime there’s a situation where someone can’t get into their game it’s a crisis to them; so we just jumped on the issues one-by-one as fast as we could. I’d say we had several pop up but most were minor issues that kept people from playing with their friends. There have been some rare cases where an old graphics card was to blame. You just have to roll through those one at a time and fix them. There’re so many weird configurations out there you can’t be totally prepared. We’re not resting until the traffic in the support forum goes down though. We knew it was going to happen and it did!

Runic supported the heck out of Torchlight. I’m curious how long you guys plan to support Torchlight 2 in terms of additional content and patches?
I know that the guys have a bunch of mods they just can’t wait to dump onto people but we don’t have any plans to do any paid DLC. We’re just doing free stuff. We’ll probably sit down after a while and evaluate if we should put a bunch of people together and make a proper expansion pack and not trickle out stuff. We would have to sit down and see if it’s something that’s big enough and adds enough to be considered a proper expansion pack we could sell.

But yeah, that’s something we need to talk about still. At the moment we just want to keep improving what we have and hope that more and more people continue to buy Torchlight 2.

How do you feel about the critical reception of the game?
It’s great! The numbers are wonderful, especially the users scores on things like Metacritic. They’re just fun to read. Obviously not everyone likes everything about the game and those are things that aren’t easy to read, but by and large they’ve been very fair reviews.

Do you think we’ll see the Mac version in 2012?
I would imagine it would be pretty close to 2012 but we’re not committing to anything at this point. It kind of depends on how everything else goes. We’re going to focus on getting the language translations done first, at least the major ones. Then we’ll start into the Mac port and until we’re well into the Mac port we can’t give any kind of release date, but I imagine it would be close to then. Two to four months - we’ll see.

What single feature are you particularly proud of in Torchlight 2?
I think it’s the diversity in the level of content. There are so many cool levels, dungeons, surprises, secrets rooms and just a bunch of little things here and there.  I look back on it and realize how many moving parts had to come together. It’s pretty cool we were able to do this with such a small team in a short amount of time.

There appears to be quite a few Easter eggs in the game. Some reference other video games, movies and even developers. Are there any you can mention that might be your favorite?
There are a couple that are now on YouTube and have been revealed so I’m not talking about anything that isn’t publicly available, but there’s a little Minecraft creeper level called Notch’s Mine. You go in there and fight some creepers which is pretty cool. There’s a robot in there called Claptrap from Borderlands. We’re releasing the same week as them so we might as well have a little shout out. There are some more in there that I cannot talk about but there’s, you know, an homage to The Goonies in one of the quests. There’s a lot sprinkled about in there.

How did that call to Gearbox go when you cleared the Borderlands reference?
Well, we wanted to make sure it was the proper Claptrap [design] and they were very very cool about it, as was Notch regarding the Minecraft stuff. It’s just fun to see that stuff happen.

Is there anything in particular you wish could have made it into the game before launch?
Well you know you’re never really done with a game. You just have to kind of decide it’s time to start selling it. I think we actually picked a good time when we said “Ok this is enough!” I think maybe a tiny more attention to get PvP arenas, but then again that’s kind of off the core mission of the game.

The thing is I think as far as the core mission of the game—we hit it! In an ideal world [a developer] could just polish and polish and polish until it’s exactly perfect—but obviously you’ll never get there—but I think the level of stuff is just right.

Player vs Player is still coming to Torchlight 2 correct?
Yea I’m sure. I don’t know in what form though.

Ok so there is no ETA on PvP?
It’s definitely something we want to get out there, but even if we didn’t someone else would probably mod it in there fairly quickly.

What took up most of the development time from beta to release?
Really what took the most time was going back and making sure each boss fight was unique, using the right combination of skills, summoning the right minions and making sure it all felt right. Also going through each area and making sure a variety of creatures were spawning and everything included as intended. That really took a long time.

There’s a lot of work that goes in there to make sure it looks and plays correctly. That was really the bulk of the time. It isn’t anything mysterious, just a lot of elbow grease. It was a lot of hours and hours and hours of playing.

Regarding the mod tools, how powerful will they be for Torchlight 2? For instance can someone create a whole new class?
Yes. I’m not going to lie. It’s not easy to do but we’re basically releasing the same tools we used to develop the game. We’re not dumbing them down at all, but we’re also not making them consumer friendly at all either—at least not very much. So yes they’re extremely powerful. You’ll be able to make new classes, new skills, change the balance overall or specifically; new scripted events, new layouts, new quests and backgrounds. This time—unlike Torchlight 1— the mod tools have access to the User Interface (UI) and those should be extremely easy to make. I’m actually really excited to see what people do with it regarding that because everyone has a different idea ideal of what a UI should look like. Oh and doing some of the wardrobe things is easier now too if you want different armors or want to work on the item level.

The mod tools touch almost everything. It’s really really powerful!

Will controller support ever come to Torchlight 2?
[Thinks] I don’t know. That’s potentially something someone could mod, but it’s something that took so much work to get it to work with Torchlight 1 (regarding the XBLA release). It really took a lot of time re-imagining and repainting the interface and to go through Torchlight 2 again to do that; it would take months. At this point I’m not sure it’s worth our time versus doing other productive things. So, again I don’t think so but I also wouldn’t rule it out 100%.

How does a console release look for Torchlight 2?
It would take a lot more re-sampling of art work and remaking areas that we didn’t have to do it Torchlight 1, so it would be substantially more work to port [Torchlight 2]. Not to mention the multiplayer stuff. Again I think it would be a really cool thing to do, I mean Torchlight 1 was really fun and cool but we’re not sure there’s a business case there with Xbox Live Arcade. We’re going to let the dust settle after the Mac port is done, make sure our translation are out, kinda see what people want us to do next. Also see what’s going to drive us creatively too. Right now we’re so immersed in the release and sleep deprived we’re not making any rational decisions in regards to long term future stuff [laughs].

I have to say I think a Game of The Year edition of Torchlight 2 with every bit of additional content compiled into one package would make an excellent launch day title for the next Xbox and PlayStation. Does that sound like a possibility?
[Laughs] I’m not going to argue that, that would be pretty cool!

"I think people are panicking because they’re thinking about Diablo 3 and what it might be like if you could cheat—and yeah it would be chaos—but that’s only in the context of having a competitive economy."

I’ve finally been able to sink my teeth into the multiplayer portion of Torchlight 2, and though I love the game I think there could be some improvements made to the lobby system and browser. For instance, there is no ping indicator for each server and it would be nice to be able to join a game directly from the friends list. Is that stuff already in the works?
Yeah, everything is on the table and fortunately we have a game that can be easily patched and modified everything is always up for discussion. The lobby was something that we first wanted to make sure was stable and worked well and not try to get something out that was too complicated and frustrating. It’s absolutely something we will look at and will add features to as time goes on.

Torchlight 2 has an overworld where as the original did not. What lessons did the team learn from shifting to this new kind of design paradigm?
I think we learned a lot about how to create a space. You know Torchlight 1 was such a rush [in development] that we were just getting used to the tools and the technology. We didn’t really have time to redo places, reiterate a ton or learn from what we were doing. we were basically trying to get things up and running, get some dungeons made, get some weapons made and then fill it full of monsters.

This time I think we learned how to create a more coherent world. Right off the bat we realized when a player start the game and runs up the path towards Estherian Enclave, though it’s a really small area on a path, just  being outside makes the world 100 times bigger! You realize that right off the bat even though you’ve seen very little and been hardly anywhere. I think there are lessons there where you don’t necessarily have to make a ton of stuff to make the world feel bigger. I think we learned a lot about creating a vast, interesting, multiplayer space and we’ll take that forward to whatever we do in the future.

Right now when a player starts a New Game +, the difficulty cannot be changed. Do you think that option could ever change?
Is that right? I know if you start a single-player game it doesn’t ask you, however if you’re in New Game + [mode] couldn’t you join someone else’s New Game + who’s playing a different difficulty level?

You know what? That’s a good question. I don’t know.
That’s initially what came to mind for me, but I don’t know for sure so I’ll look into that. Multiplayer may be the only way you can do it. That’s a good question!

Why the decision to go with open multiplayer as opposed to server-side character storage? Was it mostly for financial reasons?
Well no there are actually quite a few reasons. There are downsides to doing an open-multiplayer service, so we’re not going to say those people who oppose it are always wrong. However what we get out of having an open-multiplayer service is so much more than what we lose by it; so for us it was a fairly easy decision.

There are many reasons why, and yes one of those is financial. We wouldn’t be able to do a $20 game of this size while running servers and trying to maintain a secure economy. It just doesn’t happen, and so that’s why you have $60 boxes for things like that. Plus ongoing fees for things like auction houses, subscriptions or item sells. It changes the whole financial proposition of the game. You have to go either all the way or there’s no point in going down that road at all. For example if you’re going to support character storage it wouldn’t stop people from cheating at all. You actually have to have a fully controlled client/server game where you’re hosting secure server banks and maintaining a secure economy that people are constantly trying to break. That’s an all-encompassing mission. You’re one duplication bug away from your entire economy being screwed. Hosting a secure economy instills this sort of expectation in people who’re putting their time into playing your game that things are a safe, and will have a real work value or whatever; and so when that is violated by an exploit or whatever—it’s a code red disaster! So there’s no point in going down that road.

You either go 100% secure—which means online only—or you may as well go the other way and let people have an open system with the tools and let them take advantage of the system with the modding and some of the things people are going to see coming down the road.

Now I think people are panicking because they’re thinking about Diablo 3 and what it might be like if you could cheat—and yeah it would be chaos—but that’s only in the context of having a competitive economy. If you don’t have that, then you have no incentive to cheat. We have 4 to 6 player games that are meant to be played with friends and there’s just not a whole lot a cheater or griefer can do to ruin your experience. You can block any individual player or account. So I think it’s kind of based on players’ expectations and experiences going into it. I mean, no one complains too much about Borderlands being a peer-to-peer game and we’re pretty much the same model.

So you know, it’s a complex question with pluses and minuses on each side. Since we’re a smaller company with a smaller budget, we want this reputation of making great games at $20 instead of $60. So yeah, it was a pretty easy decision for us.

Do you think perhaps we could get the ability to never connect to someone in a multiplayer game who has made modifications to the game, be it via console of mods?
You can certainly make games that support no mods. In fact you kind of actually have to synchronize your mods with whomever you’re playing with, so some of it will actually work itself out.

Now you point out you can make items spawn from pulling down the console. Sure, and then someone else can pick it up, join another game and then give it to someone else. There’s no way to stop people for joining with overpowered items and making their own items. What I think is going to emerge is people are going to have their own groups of people they play with. People who are known to not cheat. It seems to kind of be emerging that way in the game itself. I honestly haven’t seen a lot of people cheating. It’s just really is unrewarding. There isn’t a whole lot to gain by it. We don’t have ladders or anything like that. It’s when you introduce those things people want to cheat; so I think what we are considering is perhaps down the road is maybe allow people to set up private servers of their own. It still won’t be completely cheat free but you could certainly gate who has access. That’s down the road but we are talking about it. To create a really secure environment where you can be guaranteed no one is going to duplicate an item or spawn the best items in the game is almost impossible for us.

Why are players not given access to fully respecify their talents and skills?
[Laughs] That’s one of those religious arguments! You either like to respec or you don’t.
The reason we did this is basically because it makes the character you’ve played totally yours, instead of being this clay thing that can be molded for any given situation. You actually build a character and it means something. I understand wanting to respec your character to try out new things, but it’s really at the expense of individuality. We’re really not designing our game for that level of min/max, where you have to have things charted out in Excel in order to get to the parts of the game that’re fun. We just wanted to make a game where it’s fun to try out crazy, different builds that sometimes end up contrary. Like, so far from min/max you’re almost forced to come up with a clever build someone else has never thought of before. Just, you know, have fun with replayability that way.

As soon as you allow full respec it kind of kills the fun of making cool new builds because anyone can be any build at any moment.

I know Torchlight 2’s only been out for 4 days but I’m curious if there’s already been feedback from the fans regarding the kind of additional content they would like to see?
Not really. I think people are still digesting the game, and frankly we’re spending most of our time assisting people who’re having connection problems.

Was a proper crafting system ever considered for the game?
Not really. There’s a transmuter in the game—which is a primitive crafting system—but it’s not really robust, and that shows up later in the game.

When we spoke at E3 a few months ago you said “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.” Can you go into any detail about the design goals the team had?
Well it was never going to be just World of Warcraft with a Diablo skin. We were always top-down, click on the ground to move and so we stayed with the Diablo control scheme. It was really too early for us to get a whole lot into it. We had levels and would run around killing monsters, but we hadn’t started making of the game proper yet. When we left Blizzard we were still working on the engine and the tech. We never really worked with big design specifications. We kind of had a basic framework of what we wanted and iterated as we went. We kind of were just in the phase of making combat feel good and from there we wanted to make the game world what it wanted to be. We wanted to do an MMO, a shared world. As I recall—and this was a million years ago—we didn’t have a whole lot of instancing in the plans. It was going to be a true, big MMO world but with Diablo sensibilities and controls.

"That’s kind of part of the deal with Torchlight. It was really really fun making Torchlight 2 so I suspect we’ll never get too far from that but we definitely want to put a twist on it for the next thing."

Do you know if Blizzard’s plan was to also charge a monthly fee for this version of Diablo 3?
This was a different time. Before item sales and the like, and I think people were still in the subscription infatuation at the time. So as I recall, our goal was to do a subscription game.

Were there new classes in the old Diablo 3 or did you incorporate the classes from Diablo 2?
We went all new. We were actually a 2D sprite-based game with Diablo 2, and so with our Diablo 3 we were going with our first 3D engine. Since we had to make everything completely from scratch we decided to go with new stuff all around.

Do you remember any of the new classes?
I don’t remember them, no.

Will Runic make a Torchlight 3?
Yes. However I don’t know if it will expressly be a Torchlight game but with more, in the sense that Torchlight 2 was the same as Torchlight 1 but with more. I would imagine the next iteration in the Torchlight universe would involve a twist, and I don’t know what that would be just yet. Our team have made the Diablos, Mythos, now we’ve worked on the Torchlights and they’ve all been action RPGs. We’re eager to break that mold a little bit.

So a move to a completely different genre?
Nah, I’d just say a related genre. We’re not going to do a puzzle game or anything.

What do you think it is about the isometric ARPG that Runic connects with so well?
I think it might just be our one good idea in the world [laughs]. It’s our sole marketable skill and if we weren’t doing this we would probably working at Home Depot or something. I think it’s just something we had a lot of early success with in Diablo 1 and it just sort of stuck with us. We kind of have a head start on everyone else in making them. Travis [Baldree] our president and lead programmer made Fate. He’s got a lot of experience and has had success with this genre. Starting a new company it seemed like the obvious and most responsible thing for us was to stick to what’s in our wheelhouse make something we know we can do really well. Something that would allow us to build a foundation beneath us before branching out and taking some risks. That’s kind of part of the deal with Torchlight. It was really really fun making Torchlight 2 so I suspect we’ll never get too far from that but we definitely want to put a twist on it for the next thing.

Do you think there’s a chance you could go Sci-Fi at some point?
No idea! Someone has to do a really good action RPG that’s like this control scheme. I know Borderlands is more of a first-person shooter, so I’d like to see something that’s Sci-Fi but also point and click. Whether that’s us or not, I don’t know!

Well maybe you can make that lovely game you were talking about when we spoke at E3. You said “I would want to bring in 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.” That sounds FANTASTIC!
Still totally want to do that—absolutely.

Thanks for your time Max!
Thanks Mark!

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    This man is awesome and Torchlight 2 is a fucking amazing game!
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