Last week, Runic Games released a $20 dungeon-crawler in the Diablo style (click-click-click-loot) called Torchlight. Beyond being a completely awesome game that you should play right now, Torchlight is interesting because initially, the game was designed as a free-to-play MMOG - and yet, the game that actually came out doesn't have so much as a multiplayer mode.
The Torchlight MMOG is still under development as an expanded companion to the single-player game, and will serve as the otherwise-missing multiplayer. As Runic CEO Max Schaefer explained, the reason for releasing the singleplayer Torchlight first was to help make gamers aware of the IP, boost the team's morale by getting a game released out on the proverbial shelves, and to start collecting feedback that the developers can use while creating the MMOG (and I'm sure that the cash injection doesn't hurt, either).
These are all perfectly valid and respectable points, but last week's release of Torchlight was something else, too: It was an incredibly savvy business move.
Let's step back a bit for a moment and look at - what else? - the reigning champion in the MMOG space. You could write a book on what made World of Warcraft as successful as it is - a mix of skill, luck, and being in the right place at the right time - but something that can't be underestimated is the impact of the existing Warcraft fanbase. Fans can be a powerful thing, and once enough of them had plugged into Azeroth, the game achieved critical mass and began to snowball from there.
But why Warcraft? Millions of people might have loved the previous RTS games, but can anyone say with a straight face that there were more Warcraft fans than Warhammer fans? Or that there were more Warcraft fans than Lord of the Rings or Star Wars fans? The idea is absolutely laughable. So why didn't people flock to Star Wars Galaxies, Lord of the Rings Online, or Warhammer Online: Age of Reckoning like they had WoW?
The crucial difference was the medium. If you'll pardon the gross generalization: Warhammer fans liked tabletop games, LotR fans liked books, and Star Wars fans liked movies ... but Warcraft fans, by definition, were already gamers - PC gamers, no less, who were more than likely familiar with playing games online thanks to the Battle.net platform. With them, it was as simple as saying, "You like PC games, don't you? Why don't you try this genre you've never experienced before?" Getting people to try an unfamiliar game genre might be tricky, but it's exponentially easier than getting people who aren't gamers to become gamers - then try a new and intimidating genre.
And so, this brings us back to Torchlight. It's a wonderful little game, available at an easily affordable price, and with incredibly scalable graphics that let it run on less powerful machines (my friend actually plays it just fine on a tiny netbook). An internet connection and a ~400MB download are all that stands between a potential customer and the game, and if the game is good - and it is - then Runic has just turned a potential customer into a fan. Not just any fan, but a fan who is familiar and comfortable with the idea of digital distribution, which means a fan who is likely just a tiny shove away from giving online gaming a try (if they haven't already).
So with Torchlight, Runic is on its way to cultivating a fanbase, but there's a second stroke of brilliance here: The game comes with the level editor free of cost, which according to Schafer and project leader Travis Baldree is the same tool that the developers used themselves to modify virtually everything in the game. Torchlight is designed to be incredibly open and moddable, and the developers have encouraged their fans to share their creations with each other. Creators and would-be creators will mingle, share, and discuss the things they've made and the processes with which they made them.
With that, what begins as a mere fanbase could become a full-fledged online community - a community that's practically bred to be ready and waiting to pick up the MMOG once it comes out.
We all know that the MMOG market - especially the free-to-play market - is incredibly oversaturated, and it's tough if not borderline impossible to launch a new title and expect to get enough players to turn a profit. But thanks to Torchlight, Runic's upcoming game will almost certainly have an established community of fans who are all but guaranteed to make the next step to an online world.
It's an incredibly brilliant business decision, and yet it doesn't seem like the sort of move intended to pocket a few extra dollars at the expense of fans' goodwill. Runic's developers might be using Torchlight to cultivate a fanbase for their upcoming MMOG, but they're doing so with an incredibly fun singleplayer game, noteworthy customer support, and by giving aspiring modders the tools to create and share their creations with fellow fans.
What could be wrong with that?