[What happens when developers lose control of a nearly-finished
game soon before its planned release? After forming a new studio, Runic
Games, many of the developers behind Mythos
transitioned to Torchlight. What follows is an examination of the decisions,
steps, and key design elements that have shaped the look of Torchlight -- a title produced on an aggressive
schedule and modest budget that still strives to for the production values of
a big retail game.]
It is impossible to
tell the story of Runic Games and Torchlight
without covering what brought all of us here: a little network test that grew
up into a game called Mythos. It began
as a one-man "team" of current Runic president and lead programmer,
Travis Baldree, working with the Flagship Studios team to create a small
hack-and-slash game as a network test for Hellgate:
and increased interest in the test (at the time labeled "Project Tugboat")
allowed Travis to expand the team to three. Eventually three became five, and
then eight (which is the point I joined.) Ultimately, we had a small, focused
group of 14 at Flagship Seattle working on Mythos. The scope had changed from a simple test to plans for a free-to-play
MMO with persistent areas, a cash shop for items, and a variety of features
considered standards in the MMO space.
Mythos had a strange aura about
it. It was a fairly straightforward ARPG, very much in the Diablo mold, with a likeable look and
easy-to-pick-up gameplay. It wasn't groundbreaking, it wasn't a technological
marvel, nor was it particularly shiny and beautiful -- but it absolutely was fun.
We opened it up to
Alpha and Closed Beta testers and something clicked. Testers and forum users
were having fun, making suggestions, and behaving like -- dare I say it -- reasonable people, with nary a flame
war or troll to be seen. This atmosphere was a bit odd to us, as we knew all
too well how the tone differed in the forums for the Hellgate: London team down south.
But we ran with it,
and reciprocated with constant interaction -- and as thin a veil you could
imagine between our testers and what we were working on, contemplating, or
fixing. This aura of being in synch with our game's audience was something
special; they appreciated our openness and we appreciated the input,
enthusiasm, and tone in the forums. We were a few weeks from going to Public
Beta and it was all going so well...
Then, in July of 2008,
Flagship Studios closed and the Mythos
IP was lost in the fallout.
One month later, the Seattle team, along with Max Schaefer, Erich Schaefer, and Peter Hu,
formed what would become known as Runic Games. Having been so close to
releasing our game only to lose it all on the home stretch, we set forth with
an eye to finish what we started... by starting all over again.
The Elephant in the Room
Just as it's
impossible to discuss where we are now without mention of Mythos, we're likely also going to be
linked by many with the benchmark for ARPGs: the Diablo series. Comparisons to the upcoming Diablo III are inevitable -- so let's get this out of the way.
Our founders, along
with Runic's composer Matt Uelman and QA Lead Ian Welke, were major
contributers to Diablo and Diablo II. Their expertise and
enthusiasm for this type of game has been absolutely invaluable in creating Torchlight. It's one heck of a
foundation to build a studio upon.
Any fan of ARPGs is
aware that Diablo III was announced
and is in production. All of us here are fans of the genre, and are very
excited to have a new Diablo game
to play. We've also already heard comments that Torchlight is trying to "take on" D3 as direct competition -- or even that Torchlight is a "cartoony version of D3".
Both comments are
actually quite incorrect. If anything, we've actively proceeded knowing full
well that D3 is on the horizon and
that it behooves us to be on a different train track when it comes roaring
by. Certainly the ARPG, hack-and-slash gameplay full of loot drops is
absolutely a common ground, but we're producing a single player game as a
launchpad to a free-to-play, hack-and-slash MMO.
aside, the art controversy surrounding the announcement of D3 was somewhat fascinating to me and,
in a small way, contributed towards Torchlight's
look. My reaction to the first screenshots was that Blizzard had created a
beautiful, living painting. To me, it was absolutely gorgeous, and a style
that I would have loved to have pursued.
But knowing the
direction Blizzard went with the game helped inform our decision to go in a different direction. We didn't want
the inevitable comparisons, so in a way... it helped us define which artistic
choices were now off limits.