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[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: London.
Accelerated progress 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.
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.
Gameplay similarities 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.