Once we were happy with how the initial character designs were progressing, we put all effort into the prototype of the game. Along the way we had decided to utilize the Ogre 3D engine and already had a bare-bones shell of a level with some art stubs to run around and smack things.
We were still heavily into the "deal-making" phase; a few options had risen to the top of our list. As a studio, we put all effort into presenting something indicative of the game we were trying to make and getting it ready for outside eyes.
The first step towards doing this was putting together our first tile set as a benchmark. To work out some of our fundamental construction problems, we went for the obvious dungeon type: the "dark, gothic, undead-filled crypt", for its ease and architectural simplicity.
As with Mythos, Torchlight was going to utilize random dungeons, but we were eager to do it in a different way. We had found the Mythos solution of smaller tile pieces with rule sets for how they connected to be too limiting. Often, dungeons felt like an extruded crossword puzzle -- and very similar no matter how random the rule set was.
With Torchlight we opted to build "super rooms", or "chunks", that had constant attach points where we could link any of the other chunks for that tile set... and within these chunks we could construct and decorate with more purpose and focus. We could lay out actual spaces with a coherent theme, rather than hope that when we randomly rolled for props, the layouts we ended up with worked out.
There was also a new sense of verticality we didn't have in Mythos. It was absolutely the correct choice and our Torchlight dungeons put our previous ones to shame.
The crypt level -- from a rough thumbnail, to a cleaned-up slice, to the final level in-game.
Runic Games has a fundamental belief that "you always have and maintain a playable build of the game, all the time" which is directly attributable to Travis Baldree's previous projects. It was with this philosophy that we took our shell of a game and alternated between playing it and iterating on the various elements.
As a group we're probably outside of the norm when it comes to design process. Our structure and work culture is designed around the idea that we're a team striving for the same goals and that every single team member should feel like they can share ideas or criticisms on any portion of the game regardless of their role. Our offices are of an open design, where everyone can see everyone else and issues that might warrant a meeting in other studios are just a quick conversation away for us.
We are often asked how we're able to do so much in such little time. Besides the fact that Travis and others on the team do the work of three or four people, our structure and methods for essentially circumventing a traditional meeting unless absolutely necessary is a big part of this.
There is also much to be said for hands-on, practical, iterative game design over trying to solve things hypothetically within a design document. We're not completely dismissive of design docs, but in documents can be held with too high a regard. Sometimes it's just a matter of implementing it, playing it, tweaking it, and playing it again until you have the results you want. Between the Diablo games, Fate, Mythos, and now Torchlight, our team has much experience with this type of game.
Concepts and rough potential variants for a creature in Torchlight.