Following the collapse of Flagship Studios, a number of the developer's founders and core team formed their own studios. Flagship co-founder and original Blizzard North co-founder and Diablo co-creator Max Schaefer then teamed up with the Flagship Seattle division.
This included FATE designer Travis Baldree and a number of other developers who were behind Flagship's second project, Diablo-esque online RPG Mythos, still in late development at the time of Flagship's closing.
"Torchlight is an action RPG, kind of in a similar vein that we were working on previously with the Mythos project," Schaefer tells Gamasutra. "It's evocative of that same style of gameplay; there are a lot of Diablo vets on the team."
While Schaefer clarifies that the art style and mood of Torchlight are completely different from Diablo, he hopes there will be commonalities elsewhere: "We always want you thinking that you've just got to go to one more room and do one more dungeon to find the coolest item -- and hopefully look up and it's three o'clock in the morning," he says.
The support of Perfect World "has been an absolute delight," says Schaefer, pegging the seasoned MMO operator as "exceptionally good and professional" at running online games.
Schaefer also says that on a visit to China -- where the company publishes the Perfect World MMO -- he was impressed in particular with the professionalism of how the company treats its community.
"If we can combine our style of gameplay and their expertise... we really have an unbeatable combination," Schaefer enthuses. "Perfect World is founded and run by game makers. Even though they're in China, we absolutely talk the same language... so far it's just been better than great."
East Meets West: The Monetization Model
With the Chinese approach to MMO operation tends to come the Asian approach to business model: "Yes, we intend to do the microtransactions model," says Schaefer. "Generally, I think Asia leads the world in figuring out monetization strategies for games."
"We feel like the item transaction model is going to be the standard model for MMOs even in the U.S. and Europe in the near future. It originally started out as just being something that [made it] easy to combat piracy... turns out it has a lot of really good advantages."
Schaefer says the team knew intuitively that the subscription model was "wrong" not only because it limits the number of player accounts, but it also locks the player into the game and obligates them to play continually else waste money.
"The item transaction model lets you have as many games as you like; you put it away if you're done with it, and then you haven't paid anything extra. You decide how much commitment you want to put into it."
Getting The Core Comfortable Through Single-Player First
The team has an interesting launch strategy for Torchlight; to gradually introduce to universe to a Western audience more familiar with the Diablo style of gameplay in a single-player context, Runic will launch a U.S. and Europe-only single-player version this year, ahead of the full MMO.
"It's just a way for us to get our feet wet... get the title out there, get people looking at it," Schaefer explains. "This will let the team have a published title and get the IP out there, and let people get to know the Torchlight universe and what to expect from the MMO when it comes out. We've already started on all the network stuff."
"The single-player version is already really fun to play; we know we're onto something good because people just stay late at work and sit and play it. It's already got this addictive, really slick, fun feel to it."
Game Balance And Free-To-Play
So Torchlight is shaping up to be a real core gamer's game -- precisely the sort of audience that has tended to resist the business model migration towards microtransactions. Is Schaefer concerned?
"First, hardcore gamers are just passionate and serious about their games -- there's really no good way to get money from them," he laughs. "It really all depends on how you implement it. If it's one of the games that's free-to-play, and you can optionally do item transactions -- but the reality is its a missed experience unless you pay a lot of money, that's gonna turn people off."
Allowing players to buy themselves into the best character is no good strategy either, Schaefer says. "The things you're selling have to be fun and useful, but it can't alienate the people who are not paying. You have to really make that a reality and not just a perception, because they'll see right through you... hardcore gamers know more about your game than you do. It's all just a delicate balance."
The team had started experimenting with how to offer item transactions that don't unbalance gameplay back while working on Mythos -- where they'd developed an optional-purchase map to a special dungeon with generally better loot, or where enemies offer more experience.
"The cool thing is you can bring your party into this dungeon so that only one person has to buy the map, and he can bring all his friends who haven't paid," Schaefer says, offering an example of the kind of ideas in the works for Torchlight.
The creative challenges of game balancing alongside a microtransactions model are worth the revenue to keep growing in response to players' ongoing needs, Schaefer says.
"With Diablo I and II, we charged for a box and people are still playing on BattleNet to this day. On the downside, we never got to expand the universe very much. You couldn't put a whole crew of people on expanding your game, because there just wasn't the revenue to do it," he says. And listening closely to the community and responding is "a big part of making people more accepting of [the item transactions] model."
The Torchlight MMO: 'Dragon's Lair Meets The Incredibles'
With the single-player slated for "probably not even super-late this year," the Torchlight MMO is expected to follow 18 months thereafter at the earliest.
Players can look forward to something a little bit lighter, thematically, than Diablo: "For some reason, it's such a fun style of game that it seemed like going with a super-gothic tone wasn't appropriate," he says. "Since this is a new IP and a whole new thing, we have a little bit more leeway to have our own flavor on it. Dragon's Lair meets The Incredibles, I think, would be the most accurate way to describe us."
Dungeon-Crawlers And Addiction
The Diablo game mechanics are well-known -- and well-loved for their "addictive" nature, and are infamous for being hard to put down. But lately, game addiction has been in the news with a new study that aims to point out the presence of harmful addict behavior in some hardcore gamers.
Although many, including the Entertainment Software Association, argue with the study's methodology, stories of Chinese players fainting -- or even dying -- of exhaustion and deprivation while parked at their games in net cafes have become familiar news items on the web. How does Schaefer feel about the present environment of concern around game addiction ahead of Torchlight's launch?
"[Game addiction is] a serious problem," he concedes. "I think that game makers should be very aware of it, and should really consider that in their game design." Part of the way the team's addressing the issue is through design that allows players to have a satisfying experience in only a short period of gameplay.
"One of the things that we pride ourselves in the games that we make is that it isn't built into the game that you have to sit and grind for four hours to do a particular mission, or to get something done. We make bite-size chunks," he explains.
"A lot of MMOs out there are such grinds... advancing characters literally requires that you sit at the computer for six to eight hours. We're trying to design around it, so you don't have to do that."
Working Together, Working Around Diablo
The Torchlight team, comprised largely of Mythos vets "plus several new people," is up to about 22 staffers, says Schaefer, and the team size helps with efficiency, focus, and making good tools.
All the staff works together in the same open room: "Instead of having to schedule a meeting, you just kind of turn around and talk," Schaefer explains. "You can really only do that with a small team -- with 30 or 40 people, it'd be too chaotic. But it keeps everyone tight, keeps everyone really engaged and involved, and we save a lot of time."
"It's the most fun I've ever had in my game development career."
All the comparisons to Diablo do prompt the question of whether the Torchlight team sees competition in Blizzard's upcoming major release of Diablo III. "All of us are really excited about Diablo III, also," says Schaefer. "We can't wait to play it."
"It's not really [competition]," he says. "Obviously it's the same style, but again, they're working on an established IP that has its own look, and its own story and its own tone, and they're not doing, as far as I know, a traditional MMO... [it's] more in the BattleNet style that Diablo II was in."
"We're doing a straight single-player and then a true MMO," Schaefer says. "We're kind of working around Diablo III in that sense; it's a little different model that we're pursuing."
Schaefer notes that with so many Diablo veterans on the Torchlight team, "there will be some familiarity there for sure," but that there's plenty of room in the marketplace.
"There are not many action-RPGs out there," he says. "People do more of the traditional stuff -- and we definitely don't want to aim at World of Warcraft either. That's a fool's game."