With the buzz around new and upcoming games like DeathSpank, Diablo III and DarkSpore, you might come to the conclusion that the classic PC style of action RPG is making a comeback. (Or you might come to the conclusion that Diablo set off some kind of trend with the letter "D". )
For Max Schaefer, CEO of Seattle-based Torchlight developer Runic Games, action RPGs never really went away. A veteran of Blizzard North and a contributor on Diablo I and Diablo II, he has had an affinity for the genre for years. And his team at Runic, made up of a staff that also worked on games like Mythos, Fate and Hellgate: London, also have deep interest in the genre.
This week, the studio announced Torchlight II, the sequel to 2009's original that incorporates much-requested co-op play, character customization and a larger scope.
In this Gamasutra interview, Schaefer explains why the team is working on an action RPG sequel alongside the previously-announced Torchlight MMO, what business and design lessons the studio learned from its freshman effort Torchlight and interest in bringing its games to console.
The Torchlight MMO -- you said you're still working on it alongside Torchlight II but why not just focus on the MMO first?
There are a couple reasons. I think that we were overwhelmed by the response after Torchlight came out. Everyone said they loved it, and there were generally good reviews, and I think that literally every comment in every review said it would've been better with co-op. The more we thought about it, we could give people what they're asking for, and give them a nice, co-op Torchlight experience a lot faster than we could do an MMO.
So it felt like there was a vacuum there. We decided to do it, because it'd make the MMO better in the long run because we'll have a little more experience with making a multiplayer Torchlight, and it'll give people what they want in the meantime. We kind of ran out of reasons not to do it.
It also seems like a lower-cost way to expand the franchise, and it'd help fund the MMO, correct?
Sure yeah, to the extent we make a profit on it, it'll be going into helping out the MMO, so that's a big part of it. But mainly, the motivation is just giving the players what they want.
You announced back in May that Torchlight had sold 500,000 units. How have the sales progressed since then?
I don't think we have an exact number right now, but we're up well over 600,000 now. It still sells well. But we haven't done an inventory of all our distributors for a little while.
Are you noticing pretty good legs on the game?
Yeah, it certainly slowly trails off. I think we lose something like 10 percent every week or so, but that's punctuated by sales, which always kick up the numbers pretty well. It still sells like crazy every time it goes on sale.
Can you estimate the ratio of digital downloads vs. box unit sales?
I would say it's almost four-to-one. I think that will even up as time goes on, just because there are different markets I think boxes last a little longer in terms of their sales curves but right now it's four-to-one, and that's conservative.
And the new one is coming to both digital download and boxed retail.
Aside from the idea that you need co-op in the sequel, what did you learn from the first game, either distribution and business-wise or design-wise?
First, distribution and business-wise, we expected that things had moved to digital downloads from boxes since the last time we published and put [out a game]. But we were kind of struck by just how far that's gone now. The vast majority of our sales are through digital download, either through our site, Steam, GamersGate, or through any of the sellers out there. We didn't expect it to be so biased towards that. I mean, it's good for us, we do better on a download than we do on a boxed sale. But that's something we have to realize, that that's where the market is for this type of game, and we should really be playing towards that.
With respect towards design, a lot of what drove Torchlight I's design was necessity, and the need, want and desire to get something out quickly. People felt a little claustrophobic with the structure Torchlight is just one town and a series of dungeons underneath. So the obvious remedy for that is to make big overworlds and different cities, so we're doing that.
The other thing that people wanted was more character customization, so in Torchlight II people will have the ability to select hair styles, basically customize your character a lot more than you could in Torchlight I.
Have you guys thought about console games?
Yeah, we talk about it a lot. The limiting factor on that is that we're a small studio, and we want to stay small. So it limits the vigor for which we should pursue some of these things. But it's definitely something we're talking about and working on. We think Torchlight would make a great console game. It's just about make all the puzzle pieces fit.
Action RPGs and you guys I think are a part of this movement are making a comeback on PC it seems like. Maxis just announced Darkspore. What are your thoughts on this reemergence?
I think there's always been a market for the action RPGs, and it was just kind of an underserved market. It's harder than you think to make a good action RPG, just to get the feel perfect. But I think the players are out there for them. It's just fun, and that never goes out of style.