Torchlight Shows Why it's Good to Think Small

Torchlight Shows Why it's Good to Think Small

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Every now and then, a development studio needs to know its limitations - a lesson that Torchlight developers Runic Games learned all too well.

Earlier this week, I sat down (so to speak) with four members of the Torchlight development team - Runic CEO Max Schaefer, President & Lead Designer Travis Baldree, Art Director Jason Beck and Zombie Pyrotechnician John Dunbar (yes, that is his actual job title) - to chat about the game's development and launch. Now, if you're one of the people who's picked up Torchlight since it came out last Tuesday, you know that the folks at Runic certainly know how to make a damn good game, but in some respects, it's because they've seen how to make a failure, too.

Runic was founded last August out of the ashes of Flagship Studios after the studio's, um, flagship title Hellgate: London tanked, forcing the developer to close its doors. Though the 17 founding members of Runic had been working on Flagship's other title Mythos, they were still close enough to the problems to see what went wrong.

Hellgate "wanted to be too many things for too many people," said Schaefer, pointing out that the game had been trying to push the envelope on several fronts including new pricing plans and early adoption of DirectX 10. With Torchlight, then, the team knew that they had to "focus on what we were doing, and a simpler path to where we're going, not take off gigantic bites that are more than we could ever chew."

In fact, their own team had been on the verge of making the same mistake with Mythos, said Baldree: "The development of that game was contorted and protracted, and like Hellgate it tried to be a lot of different things for a lot of different reasons ... [Torchlight] is what Mythos should have been. Maybe it's what Fate and Diablo I should have been." Having taken those lessons to heart, the Runic team vowed to focus on what they knew their 27-man team could do, and do well: Make a smooth action RPG.

Though the decision to focus their energy on an enjoyable single-player experience and save their multi-player focus for the upcoming Torchlight MMOG has been seen by some as a blemish in an otherwise gleaming gem, this philosophy seems to have worked out well for the Torchlight team: Though they haven't yet received sales numbers from their distribution partners like Steam (since those are only reported at the end of the month), the internal numbers that Schaefer & Co. are seeing have made the team "very pleased where it's going now."

Thanks to the Runic's small size and small advertising budget, most of the sales have been driven by word of mouth, which is something that the team was counting on: "Twitter was (and is) certainly our friend," chuckled Baldree. Thinking small may have helped Torchlight here, too: A tightly-focused game with a small development budget means that it's less risky for a publisher to fund, and at $20 it's easy to purchase on impulse if, say, you hear about it from a friend.

"We could have sold copies for more, but I think that $20 was the right price," Baldree said. "It lets us recoup our expenses, and it's sort of a 'magical' price where people can just make the buy without having to fret so much. If their friends tell them, 'Hey, this is a great game,' they can make the decision then and there. It's the cost of a DVD; it's the cost of a large pizza."

In fact, even if you picked up Torchlight and ordered a large pizza to eat while playing the game, you'd still be $20 under the price for a typical Xbox 360 or PS3 game, Baldree pointed out. Schaefer agreed, predicting that the industry would start seeing many more games made on a smaller budget by smaller teams for lower prices: "You have a really neglected area here between casual and big-budget games, and I think you'll see people rushing to fill that space. Plus, it doesn't take four years to develop - Torchlight took us 11 months."

It's easy to read that last bit as an affectionate jab at Schaefer's former employer Blizzard Entertainment, a studio known for its glacial development pace and currently working on the third installment of the series he helped create, but it's probably not. After all, there's still room in the market for big-budget AAA titles like Diablo III: "I don't doubt [Diablo III will] be fantastic. They won't release it if it isn't a first-class game, and I'll be a day-one purchaser."

Sounds good to me, Max. Me too - but in the meantime, there's plenty more Torchlight to play.

(To read more about the development of Torchlight and the upcoming MMOG Torchlight Online: The Burninating (...read it, you'll understand), check out the full Runic Games interview over at our sister site WarCry!)

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Well, seems that they took a valuable lesson from Hellgate's failure. They went and created a simpler game, one that could potentially sell well. I hope they take a similar approach to their upcoming MMO. It could earn them tons of cash if made right. I like developers who recognize their mistakes rather than say "Oh my God, the customer is stupid/wrong/retarded and a pirate and that's why it didn't sell!"

Great interview, always nice to hear from the developers side of the fence.

Pre-ordered the game as soon as it popped up on Steam, I liked Hellgate - if it was purely a co-op action RPG I think it would've succeeded, the subscription hurt it a lot.

The fact that just 5 days after release a modder has go rudimentary coop working is fantastic news. Head over to the Runic forums for a better look.

As much as I like Torchlight and hope it'll be a huge success (because there's going to be an MMO, if it succeeds), but I have to disagree with one thing.

$20, or about 16 EUR, is FAR from the prize of a pizza or a DVD. A large pizza costs around 22 PLN here (courier and the tip included), which means that our pizza is about 3 times cheaper than yours. DVDs are for 25-30 PLN too, so you are far from it.

Nevertheless, $20 = 60 PLN, and I can count on fingers of one hand games for that price and quality of Torchlight. Eee... One of the Half Life 2 games (first one or the expansions), Diablo 2, Baldur's Gate series + Icewind Dale series + Planescape:Torment combo pack (although that's 70 PLN, but meh).... And... I think that I've seen Warhammer 40k pack on sales for few weeks for less than 80 PLN. Still, a good price for a good game.

I'd like to get my hands on Torchlight to play it. However, it's been proven in many mediums that keeping things small and tight improves the overall quality of the work.

Torchlight is just a nice little dungeon crawler. Definitely worth it unless you've already spent WAY too much time playing Diablo 2.

John Funk:
To read more about the development of Torchlight and the upcoming MMOG Torchlight Online: The Burninating

OK... I like Torchlight. A lot. I like it's style, it's fun to play, it scratches that Diablo itch that's been bugging me. I also happen to like Homestarrunner. But... The Burninating? I almost can't take this seriously at all. I feel like they've taken it just one step too far in not-taking-themselves-too-seriously. Not to say this won't be a good game, but why use a meme so far out of date that I was watching it when I was in college? It feels... odd, because unless they randomly pulled that out of the air without knowing, I'm not sure what they're trying to accomplish by using it.

I paid £13 for my Torchlight, most DVD's I come across for almost double that.

So I was not jipped on the price at all.

Torchlight, for what it is, is a great game, it's simple and it doesn't pretend to be anything else And the Dog/Cat having bag space and being able to sell euipment independantly.

Genius, pure genius.

It's a fantastically simple dungeon crawler with perfectly executed limitations that after a while don't even feel like limitations.

I didn't stop my first plunge into the dungeons until I hit the Lava prison.
because I didn't HAVE to come back to town for anything (besides the occasional quest which thanks to the way Fame is handed out during exploration, it's really a "If you feel like it" endeavor.

It's well worth the price it was given.

coldfrog:

John Funk:
To read more about the development of Torchlight and the upcoming MMOG Torchlight Online: The Burninating

OK... I like Torchlight. A lot. I like it's style, it's fun to play, it scratches that Diablo itch that's been bugging me. I also happen to like Homestarrunner. But... The Burninating? I almost can't take this seriously at all. I feel like they've taken it just one step too far in not-taking-themselves-too-seriously. Not to say this won't be a good game, but why use a meme so far out of date that I was watching it when I was in college? It feels... odd, because unless they randomly pulled that out of the air without knowing, I'm not sure what they're trying to accomplish by using it.

Read the interview. :P

CantFaketheFunk:

coldfrog:

John Funk:
To read more about the development of Torchlight and the upcoming MMOG Torchlight Online: The Burninating

OK... I like Torchlight. A lot. I like it's style, it's fun to play, it scratches that Diablo itch that's been bugging me. I also happen to like Homestarrunner. But... The Burninating? I almost can't take this seriously at all. I feel like they've taken it just one step too far in not-taking-themselves-too-seriously. Not to say this won't be a good game, but why use a meme so far out of date that I was watching it when I was in college? It feels... odd, because unless they randomly pulled that out of the air without knowing, I'm not sure what they're trying to accomplish by using it.

Read the interview. :P

Bah!
At least it makes sense, but you stated it in such a matter of fact way I actually believed that's what they were going to call it. My bad for not having all the information. Also, as usual, small company interview is fun to read.

bah, my eyes are ruined from playing torchlight for 6 hours straight so i could barely read this, but its a great interview and i love the game, especially the enchantments, letting me keep my favorite weapon for 15 levels without having to compensate my dps is a great way to make me fall in love whit a game.

hmm, wha.. Oh, that's interesting.

*goes back to playing torchlight

MMOG Torchlight Online: The Burninating will not be the name of the mmo :) that i believe is a joke.

Zazerzs:
MMOG Torchlight Online: The Burninating will not be the name of the mmo :) that i believe is a joke.

You would be correct. Read the interview :P

It's a good little game.

Although with a bit too high loot pinata factor (and subsequent selling and identifying of items every 5 minutes) and a bit too light on story.

But the gameplay and sound/music is great.

Now I have the Trogdor theme song stuck in my head.

I felt like buying it, but I think I've felt sick of regular fantasy since ever. I also think my computer can actually be bad enough to not be able to run it.

I love Torchlight, and I think Runic really nailed the development and scope of it perfectly. They could teach a lot of other companies a lot. Their attitude of actually learning from mistakes and listening to their fans is refreshing, so many places do just stamp their foot and complain they are misunderstood artists and the players are wrong, wrong, wrong!

Torchlight is about AU$22. A bit more expensive than Domino's, less expensive than good pizza. Likewise, I can get older or crappy dvds for less, but new or good ones tend to be a bit more.

But when you compare it to games, which typically run AU$90-AU$110, it's a downright steal.

I got Torchlight from Steam on I want to say Christmas eve, or it might have been the day before, and for the next six days or so no other game even touched my computer. I think dust flew out when I finally cracked open the cd case I store my games in to at last play a different game, which ironically enough, was Diablo 2: Lord of Destruction.

 

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