Runic Games: Torchlight interview

We were determined to get an interview with Torchlight developers Runic Games and what Critical Gamer wants, Critical Gamer gets. The offices had very nice clean padded walls, and we managed to convince the nurses to decrease Wonder Russell and John Dunbar’s sedatives to the point where we could question them.

We asked them to keep the jackets on, though.

CG: You’ve got a sense of humour, and you’re not afraid to use it; even your press releases dance a fine line between enthusiasm and clinical insanity. Can we expect to see this expressed in Torchlight?

WR: Ha! That’s the nicest compliment ever. Art Director Jason Beck said in another interview that we were a gleefully twisted bunch, if I remember correctly, and I think that’s pretty accurate. Everyone works ridiculously long hours because we love the game and love what we do – but we also hang out and get drinks together and one up each other with “that’s what she said” quips, you know, like friends do. As far as that cropping up in Torchlight, eh, we’re a bit more subdued. I can guarantee there will be a few in-jokes within the game. Like the missing-string-index quest or the fabled Zardon boss in Mythos, it’s fun to let the cheekier parts of our nature peek through. Something I just found out today is that our third pet option in the single player will be the Imaginary Pet. That is, it’s invisible but still picks up loot for you. Sort of a Hobbes conundrum – is he really there or is Calvin crazy?

CG: Your enthusiasm for your work is obvious and admirable. What’s your take on the ‘games as art’ yawnfest debate, and do you think it sometimes distracts developers from the job of making games that are fun to play?

WR: I can give you my opinion and hopefully others will weigh in on this – I don’t think anyone here is making ‘art for art’s sake.’ Every piece of art is practical and goes into the game as quickly as possible. Something that surprises people is that we don’t have a lot of shiny art lying around for media, it almost always involves pulling someone off a project to make an illustration specifically for a magazine. That said, we also love our artwork and our art style and are incredibly proud of it. But given the size and ambition of our studio, we have to find the balance between the aesthetic and something that makes sense and works within the game.

JD: I think this sort of thing is more likely to be a problem on teams that are led by a “visionary” who has big ideas and expects everyone else to carry them out. That’s just not how we work at Runic. Everyone plays the game and calls out what isn’t fun. When the guy sitting next to you is letting you know that your idea just isn’t working, it’s hard to ignore. That’s really important, because aside from trying to make games into an art piece, devs often get caught up in just trying to make things work. It’s easy to get too close to a project, so we have to count on each other for perspective.

CG: You’ve chosen to give the player randomly created levels. Why? And how are you confident this approach will work for you when it has tripped up other teams in similar games?

WR: The short answer is, it’s more fun that way. A game loses repeat playability if you could potentially memorize the layouts. Bow-rang! Personally, I love the random options, from random quests to random maps, to just knowing that my quest path throughout the game as a whole is going to hold surprises. It invites exploration. I don’t see why it wouldn’t work for us, since it was a successful model for Fate and Mythos! We’re basing our choice on past experience.

JD: Random levels are hard to do, but they add a ton of replayability to the game. It’s fun for players, and it’s also more fun for us because we spend a lot of time testing our own game. You can only walk down the same hallway so many times before going crazy.

We know can make a game with random levels because we have a lot of practice doing it. Our team has experience with creating random levels in Diablo, Fate, and Mythos, it’s kind of our thing.

CG: Why a fantasy RPG?

WR: Good question, and we did spend a lot of time hashing out looks, flavors, feels, themes of what sort of game to make. It can be exhilarating to start with a blank slate, but also pretty intimidating. So many different approaches and storylines that would ultimately inform what sort of gameplay we’d end up with. We started with a democratic process of bringing every option to the board, including sketches and stories and debates. We always knew we’d make an RPG and I think again, it’s because that is a strength of this team and we have to play to those strengths to survive. The storyline itself developed out of a winnowing process from all the initial ideas – we decided to pursue a game that allows us to have some magical properties, some low-tech gadgetry, and flippin’ rad armor.

JD: Fantasy also works especially well for our sort of game because it involves a lot of melee weapons, with spells mixed in. One of the most satisfying aspects of action RPGs is beating on monsters, and fantasy is the best setting for that. The guns are also old-timey, and it feels natural for your character to stand still while firing. In a game with modern or sci-fi weapons, you expect there to be able to move while shooting, and to rely on your laser rifle instead of your laser.. sword. It would be easy for us to make the game work that way, but then you’d be playing Robotron, and that’s not what we’re going for.

Besides, shooting fireballs is fun.

CG: We see that you will empower the player with a game editor. What, precisely, will this editor allow the player to do?

WR: The game editor is, precisely, the exact tools we developed in-house to make Torchlight. A player could make a completely new game, an infinite number of new games, in fact. Most players and modders are going to want to tweak smaller things, rebalance the game, play with particles, make traps and cool rooms and monster spawns and whatnot, but frankly, we’re putting infinite potential into the players hands’. We’re including Preditor tutorials as well, to guide the new and/or experienced modder. The first one is already up on our website, www.torchlightgame.com.

CG: What did you want to put into Torchlight that you felt no other game has so far given the industry?

WR: Wow! I don’t know that any of us were that ambitious; we just wanted to make a game that we would want to buy.

CG: You’re eager to promote the game’s ‘easy, approachable interface’. Do you feel too many RPGs are daunting for those new to the genre? What other problems did you seek to fix?

WR: We want to appeal to as wide an audience as possible. Moms at home, gamers in college with crazy schedules, super casual weekend gamers, and of course, gamers who are absolutely hardcore-elite loot hoarders who get the coolest weapons and show them off. We want ‘em all. To do that, first priority is to make a fun and fast game, but we also have to make sure it’s user friendly. Games don’t have to be difficult to play to be fun, and Torchlight is very good at letting gamers hit the ground running.

CG: The recently revealed ‘Vanquisher’ class is wearing some rather impractical armour. Her thighs, stomach and cleavage seem rather open to attack…

WR: Obviously, she’s like a million times better warrior than the other guys, duh. She came from the capitol city as one of their junior elite guards, she isn’t afraid of a few varkolyn-zombie-undead hordes. I don’t know why I have to keep explaining this – she’s just that much better at her job! Besides if you’re staring at those areas, so are her enemies, and that’s a skill I like to call the Stupefy, rendering enemies temporarily useless. Plus it makes getting a free potion that much easier. It’s fantasy, people!

CG: Now Torchlight is finished, what do you plan next?

WR: The MMO.

Visit the guys’ den at www.runicgames.com. Or why not take a look at the official Torchlight site, at www.torchlightgame.com?

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Written by Luke K

Luke plays lots of videogames, now and again stopping to write about them. He's the editor in chief at Critical Gamer, which fools him into thinking his life has some kind of value. Chances are, if you pick up a copy of the latest Official PlayStation Magazine or GamesMaster, you'll find something he's written in there. Luke doesn't have a short temper. If you suggest otherwise, he will punch you in the face.

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