I was only proposing for an interview but I still found it to be quite a big deal.
Torchlight’s daddy is definitely someone I would have wanted to talk to: not that I had played his game (now I have) but I had heard and read so much about it all year. Not to mention it’s one of the best ranked games on Gamocracy.
Icing on the fiery cake, Max and his crew somehow managed to make us believe that their very nice inaugural game was only the first course in an XXL super sized gaming meal we didn’t even know we had ordered.
Not a specialist of Action RPG’s, I asked for some help from Gamocracy’s community to find the right questions. Acerayl from Tempe, Arizona, answered the call with an amazing set of his own. In the end there’s more of his stuff than mine below.
Many thanks Acerayl!
On to the interview…
# About Max Schaefer, gaming careers & Runic Games
Hello Max, you have come a long way from VP of Blizzard North, through your time at Flagship, and now at Runic Games. What advice can you give to those who are looking to start their own game studio?
Make the game that best suits the talents of the team. Do not try to hastily assemble a group to do a particular project. Your first projects should be small, efficient, and quick. Build your way up to bigger projects over time as your team gains experience.
How did you go from graduating with a BS in environmental design to becoming a CEO of your own game studio?
Back in the stone age when I started (the early ’90s), a “game company” consisted of a few guys in someone’s living room, so being CEO of a company didn’t exactly require Harvard training. I was lucky to have broken into the industry then – everything is bigger and more complicated now, but by the time projects became multi-million dollar behemoths, we were experienced developers.
Do you have any advice for game students looking to break into the industry? What kind of skills do you look for in a student entering in the industry?
Everything is so much more specialized now. We joke that there are positions available out there for “texture rotators” who just spin textures around for mapping, but it’s pretty close to the truth at the larger developers. But aside from developing a specialty, you have to show an employer that you have skills that are valuable to them, and that you are willing to work. The best way is to work on demo games with friends or fellow students. Show the initiative to make something that isn’t a class assignment. Show a passion for games.
Explain an average day at Runic Games. What kind of craziness can one expect if they walk through the doors of your studio?
Fire breathing clowns, and calliope music. Actually, like a lot of jobs, game-making is a lot of grinding, a lot of buckling down and working like crazy. So it’s pretty boring to see sometimes, though we have a small enough office that people gather around someone’s machine to see what new cool thing they are working on.
When you created Runic Games with Travis Baldree, Erich Schaefer, and Peter Hu, what did you envision the studio to become? Was torchlight the first game you decided as a studio to design?
We really wanted to return to a simpler approach to making games – to focus on what we do best, and not try to be something we’re not. The experience at Flagship Studios taught us a lot about business, and about the new economy, and it instilled in us a hyper-awareness of schedules, cash flow, and the need for efficient production processes.
Our thought with Torchlight was that we really liked where our previous project, Mythos, was going when we were shut down, and that we should work our way back to making something along those lines one step at a time.
# Crafting Torchlight
Each level has some sort of story to it, mostly in the visuals of the level. How important was story for this game? Did you have any problems trying to explain story for each level?
It’s important that the world feel genuine, and the goal in Torchlight was to highlight the idea that many cultures over centuries had succumbed to the corruption of the ember. This gave us the construct necessary to explain vastly different tile sets and architectural styles on each level type. The story basically works around the mechanic that you want the player to experience a variety of settings along their journey.
What made you decide to do a simple character selection over a complex character creation for the game? Will there be more than three player classes to choose from in Torchlight 2?
We decided to keep the character creation simple in Torchlight because it was a single player game. Character customization is primarily to distinguish you from other players in the game, and that’s not necessary in a single player game. Since we had such a strict budget and timeline, we sought to strip out anything that isn’t directly related to the goals and object of the game, and the character selection was one of them. For Torchlight 2, which is a multi-player game, we’ll have more customization. You’ll be able to pick from male or female, and customize the look to your liking.
The variations of weapons and armor, as well as the upgrades you can perform to them were extensive in the game. How many more weapons and armor types are we to expect in Torchlight 2?
There are more, as would be expected, but more importantly we have more time to balance them and make better use of the assets we have.
Even for a big established studio, making one successful game is very hard. You guys are a new born indie dev team and still you bet from the start you could make two successful games in less than three years. Can you talk about that leap of faith?
We took a leap of faith in thinking people would want to buy games that play well, look good, and run on your old computer, even if they don’t have the bleeding edge graphics technology, elaborate pre-rendered cinematics, or all the extras and bells and whistles that modern games tend to have. We think that PC game production has generally become too ponderous, too bloated, and too expensive, and that the old approach results in too few games and not enough risk-taking. So our goal was to strip down game development to the basics, make good tools right from the beginning so that our developers are at maximum efficiency, and focus like a laser on what our vision is for the game. All the while keeping things simple and low tech.
And how’s the bet looking? Torchlight seems like it’s met an audience but would you have numbers to share?
We have exceeded our expectations for Torchlight sales, particularly given we didn’t do almost any marketing, and that nobody had heard of it prior to release (thank you Steam!) More than that, though, our customers and community have let us know we made the right bet, and it’s an approach we’ll stick with.
Did you expect an Action-RPG title without a multiplayer mode to do that well in 2009/2010?
We had no idea, but we sure hoped so. We know that the action RPG market is under-served, and that there is pent up demand for some good old-fashioned hack and slash, but making it single-player and available only for digital download at first was a bit of a risk. We’re happy with the results for sure, but look forward to giving our players multi-player action in Torchlight 2.
When you released Torchlight 1, you announced another Torchlight game that would have multiplayer in it coming in 2011. We called it “Torchlight MMO” on Gamocracy . But a few weeks ago, you announced Torchlight 2, which seems to be yet another game. So, what’s Torchlight 2 compared with the game that was initially announced?
Yes, it was our intent to roll right into making a full MMO right after Torchlight, but the demand for a simple co-op multi-player Torchlight was unanimous. There are great things you can do in MMOs, and we still look forward to making an MMO of Torchlight, but we have an opportunity to do a simple co-op game much more quickly. With a peer-to-peer co-op model, you don’t have to charge subscriptions or items sales, and you get to do things like releasing the modding tools again, so it’s something that we think the fans will appreciate and enjoy. In the meantime, we’ll get valuable experience with what works and what doesn’t in multi-player Torchlight, and that will make for a much better MMO.
Do you have a release date for the next Torchlight game? And the next?
We’re targeting April/May of 2011 for Torchlight 2, and then a couple years roughly for the MMO after that.
Thank you very much for your time, Max. Best of luck to you and everyone at Runic Games!
Totally unrelated of the day: I’m going to Amsterdam for a week today! I won’t be online much during that time. See you ~