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A look back at the storied history of action RPG Torchlight

A look back at the storied history of action RPG  Torchlight
December 7, 2020 | By Bryant Francis

December 7, 2020 | By Bryant Francis
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More: Console/PC, Design



In 2009 Torchlight took the world of game development by surprise, emerging as an action RPG that truly hearkened back to the almighty Diablo franchise, which hadn't seen a brand new release since 2000's Diablo II. What began as a single-player alternative for players looking to hack-and-slash took off further with the extremely popular Torchlight II, before its developer Runic Games flared out after the release of the beautiful-but-underselling Hob.

That's a very short, very compressed version of what has been a long journey for the lead developers of Torchlight III, which officially launched in October this year.

With the third game's release, lead developer Max Schaefer and game composer Matt Uelmen (both veterans of Diablo II) face an unusual prospect: they've been at the helm of their own Diablo competitor so long, their franchise now has its own storied history that intersects with the rise and fall of other studios around the Seattle area.

It's the long arc of a series that emerged from the ruins of a much larger Diablo competitor that managed to stand toe-to-toe with Blizzard's other major medieval fantasy franchise.

From the ashes of Hellgate

In 2020, you can throw a rock and hit any number of games that have built on the looter/action loop that drove Torchlight and before that, Diablo's initial popularity. You have Destiny, Borderlands, even Square Enix's Avengers game couldn't come out the gate without a series of mechanics pioneered by Schaefer and his colleagues when they worked at the now-defunct Blizzard North.

But before those games released, Schaefer, Uelmen, and other Blizzard alumni took a big swing at the genre with Hellgate London, a game from Flagship Studios that launched and then collapsed in a short window between 2007 and 2008. Uelmen described it as "Destiny, 5 years too early." In the process of trying to get an enormous Diablo competitor off the ground, Schaefer described how a spinoff studio named Flagship Seattle had been spun up with Travis Baldree (the creator of Fate), in a bid to build the networking pipeline that would fuel Hellgate: London.

While Hellgate's struggles would doom Flagship Studios, Baldree's team noodled on a particular project that would change the shape of the post-Flagship landscape. In order to test the networking tech that was meant to keep Hellgate afloat, Baldree made a small action RPG that could be used to test the networking tech before it was implemented in Hellgate. That game (tentatively titled Mythos), was what would eventually become Torchlight.

After Flagship Studios entered bankruptcy, Schaefer said that the 14 people based in Seattle still had what seemed like a functional prototype that could be worth building a game out of. And so with Baldree at the helm, the team went back and formed Runic Games, literally with the same furniture and computers that had been Flagship Seattle.

"It's a funny story, when Flagship closed down we sold all of the equipment---desks and chairs and everything---into liquidation just as part of shutting down the business," Schaefer recalled. "And so when we decided to set up again, we're like, 'well, we need desks and chairs and computers and everything, we should just go talk to the liquidator guy and buy back from them!" And so we did, we bought all our stuff back."

After the overreach of Hellgate: London, Schaefer he, his brother Eric, Baldree, and Peter Hu wanted to focus on a smaller, properly scoped vision. "Step one was one of the lessons we learned with Flagship Studios and Hellgate: London was don't overreach on your first game," he said. "[At Flagship] we didn't ever simplify and we were stubborn about forging ahead with our grand and complicated schemes."

"Lesson learn, let's do something bite-sized."

That meant Mythos, the tiny game meant to test Hellgate's networking tech, would become Torchlight in a mere span of 11 months. After that game's explosive success, the team began work on what would become the true Diablo competitor Torchlight II.

Less expectations, more room to grow

According to Schaefer, the original plan for Runic Games was that after Torchlight shipped, the studio would join the then-raucous world of MMORPG development. But with the surprisingly strong sales of Torchlight, they decided to focus on a sequel that would let players fulfill the Diablo II experience of having limited multiplayer.

"We had all the backbone and tech and everything for a multiplayer game, why not just do that and not take a bet on the big MMO again?" Schaefer said. He added that Runic Games had one major advantage at this point: Diablo III's delayed development was wrapping up, and it had already begun to stir controversy.

When Runic Games began development on Torchlight, Schaefer explained they got a lot of feedback from their peers that boiled down to "why would you make a game in that genre when Diablo III is coming out?"

"But of course," Schaefer wrly noted "no one knew when Diablo III was actually gonna come out."

So Torchlight shipped, work on Torchlight II began, and once again the questions came back. "You're crazy, why would you be making a game like this when Diablo III's going to come out?"

"We just went through this," Schaefer groaned. "Then the universe kind of aligned for us. Diablo III came out before us, but they had a really rocky launch."

You might recall that Diablo III's initial launch was plagued by two issues: because the game was always-online, players didn't have any option to play when the servers crashed under intense pressure. Additionally, the game's economy was balanced around an auction house where players could buy loot using real money. This left a number of players open to the arrival of a game like Diablo that didn't suffer from the same issues.

"We always felt like we could compete because to some extent, we're competing with our own old franchise," Schaefer said. "We did have to do it with much fewer resources  and being disciplined about constraining our design to something that we could actually ship and do."

Schaefer said there was one other factor that he felt was to Runic's advantage: no matter what issues arose with Diablo III, they always would have run up against fan's expectations for the franchise because it was the third game in the series. "It had been 10 years since Diablo II," he explained "everything that happened that far in the past gets like this glow of warm historical revisionism."

Torchlight, by contrast, had a shorter history and less expectations. So any flaws it had were overlooked by comparison to the intense pressure Blizzard faced with Diablo.

"Anytime anyone wrote an articles It was like Torchlight II versus Diablo III---we already won," said Schaefer. "Just having a comparison was good."

Thinking back on this time, Uelmen gives a lot of credit to Baldree, one of the key members of the team who wasn't a Blizzard alumni, but still seemed to understand the Diablo formula.

Schaefer described Baldree (who would later leave the company with Eric Schaefer would leave to found Rebel Galaxy developer Double Damage) as the central designer whose work shaped the rest of Runic Games. "He was the hub, and the spokes just went out to different departments."

From Runic to Echtra

Unfortunately what followed Torchlight II's success was a game that would lead to Runic Games' demise: Hob. Baldree's departure, and a general sense of Torchlight burnout at Runic, meant the company needed a new direction for its next game. It found it in Hob, a gorgeous adventure game that focused on puzzles and an exploratory experience instead of the grind-and-loot design of Torchlight.

Schaefer recalled that after he left the company midway through Hob's development, he talked to Perfect World (Runic Games' publisher, and now Echtra's) about thegame's prospects. "I told them 'this is a game that is going to be a critical hit, and players will like it, and you're going to lose a lot of money,'" he said with some sadness. "It came out at a time when when the Twitch and YouTube streamers were really hitting their stride as being the movers and shakers in the industry. And Hob is the worst streaming game in the world."

Unlike Torchlight or Diablo, streaming Hob means streaming the game's content, leaving little for the viewers to do if they go out and buy the game themselves. "It was a beautiful game. Really original, really original mechanics. aesthetic, you know, a excellent example of the craft of game making. But it was the wrong game at the wrong time."

At Echtra Games Schaefer and Uelmen said they're now confronted with the challenges their competitors faced now that they're working on Torchlight III, which launched this summer in Early Access "We were kind of laughing at the Blizzard guys, because their task of making a third game after Diablo II was impossible, and the expectations would never be met."

"And here we are," he deadpanned.

Schaefer was up front about the fact that the series' third entry launched mixed reception, and that came from a development that, while not tumultuous, was marked by the challenge of not having all of the same Torchlight developers who'd worked on the prior games.

"We had to educate a bunch of new employees about what this game is even about and how to think about Torchlight as opposed to other ARPGs." They also had to deal with mid-development pivot. Torchlight III had been originally planned as a free-to-play title, to meet Perfect World's request that it be globally monetizable.

The challenge with that request was that it wasn't even accurate to call Torchlight II, the last entry in the franchise, an "online game" compared to how online games are made in the last five years. Torchlight II relied on peer-to-peer connections to party players up, now Perfect World was proposing an online experience, with incentives for players to spend money. "we were struggling to concentrate on just making a rollicking good time playing the game. And instead of thinking about how can we create pinch points so that some people will elect to make a purchase, but other people who don't want to make a purchase, it doesn't screw them."

This design was tricky to nail because the team had Diablo III's lessons to benefit from: they knew that asking Torchlight players to come back to the franchise would rely on some sense of familiarity, and what wasn't familiar was a game that leaned on players to spend money to gain access to loot. Fortunately, changes in what Perfect World expected from the game allowed Echtra to return to developing a paid product, but even a move that might have been heralded as positive came with some cynycism from players.

According to Schaecter, "They were just finally getting used to the idea that we're going to do this. And then we switched it again. And you know, the public is fairly cynical. And they assume the worst of whatever's happening a lot. "At the same time, most of the old Torchlight players were like, 'finally, they've come back to their senses.' But it was a challenge. And it was just kind of an example of how the world changes underneath halfway through development."

What makes ARPGs so appealing?

After over 10 years in the same franchise, Schaefer and Uelmen had plenty to chew on about why players are still so hooked on ARPGs, and what developers should be focusing on when working in the genre.

Uelmen reached all the way back to the original Diablo, making connections to Hollywood history about the transition from black-and-white silent film to movies with color and recorded sound. "I kind of feel like that was the transition that we were lucky enough with the first Diablo that  we were kind of the first  game where the technology helps you get to the point where this was actually a game game where you get killed if you don't engage with it on a fairly constant attentive basis."

"That technology also allowed us to put real audio, and not just Wavetable MIDI tracks in the game." He contrasted this with other popular games of the era, such as Myst, which were more "a series of tableaus," as opposed to a constantly engaging experience.

Schaefer pointed out that in the beginning, ARPGs like Diablo were the only experience that took the hardcore roleplaying fantasy and distilled it down to a quickly accessible form. "They are the sort of graphic representation of every Dungeons and Dragons run that every kid had on paper and pen growing up" he explained. "We didn't abstract the whacking of a monster with a sword and killing it into dice rolls or anything, you it was abstracted into whacking a monster with a sword and killing it."

"I think at the time RPGs were very nerdy, very stat heavy. You spend an hour making your character before you do anything. And I don't think that was the best use of the computer for for this type of experience. That was more of a social thing. You're sitting around the table with your friends and cooking stuff up. It's very fun."

"But when you're alone in a room with your computer screen, you want to get to hit the skeleton."

In a pre-Lord of the Rings film era, the pair reminisced on the fact that Diablo's darkness and gory vibe also stood out in a big way that's less clear in the fantasy-soaked world of 2020.

For game developers looking to join Schaefer and Uelmen in the ARPG genre, the pair focused on the fact that what's made their efforts so successful for years has been that tightly honed accessibility factor. Schaefer recalled that it was a goal on Diablo that after you booted up the game, you should be killing skeletons "within minutes."

Though other game genres have delved into the realm of fantasy since Diablo, Schaefer said the ARPG has remained the home of a more casual fantasy experience. He compared it to a modern Renaissance fair, how some attendees might go because they want to participate in a medieval fantasy, and the more casual fans who make up the bulk of attendees. "You don't necessarily have to drink deep from the lore of whatever someone's telling you to kind of wander around and just bask in the atmosphere of it...and you don't have to be really good at aiming and twitching to enjoy."

But even as the genre continues to thrive, there's a link between that casual factor and the changes that developers might make as their game advances from sequel to sequel. If ARPGs are a certain kind of player's comfort food, the pair remarked that it was almost easier to try and make a new series then to try and make major changes to an existing once.

Still, Echtra Games will be plugging away on the future of Torchlight, giving players a canvas to paint their blood-soaked dungeon crawlers on for years to come.



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