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Eric Schaefer – Runic

In 1996 Blizzard North released Diablo to critical acclaim and massive success. Diablo’s effect on action role-playing games was tremendous. It became responsible for an entire sub-genre, causing future titles with similar mechanics to be dubbed “Diablo clones.” Its lead designer, Erich Schaefer, went on to create an even more successful sequel as well as several other games which stuck close to the genre he helped pioneer. Most recently Mr. Schaefer co-founded Runic Games and assumed a lead development role on Torchlight I and Torchlight II. I caught up with Mr. Schaefer to discuss action RPG design, the rigors of maintaining a small studio, and the upcoming Torchlight II.

This interview was originally published on 7/13/2012

 

While playing the Torchlight II Beta, I was struck by the complexity of all the game systems. Their intricacy is made more impressive because they all affect one another. There’s the spell system, attribute system, item generation, pets, and more, and they all need to work together. Was this a major challenge for your designers? What techniques does the Runic design team use to manage their systems design work?

There are indeed a lot of complex systems that all have to work together, but they mostly boil down to two or three dynamics: how fast the player’s character can kill the monsters and how well the character can withstand the monsters’ attacks. Monster health, armor and damage increases with each ‘level’, so the player must continually upgrade his equipment, stats, and spells to stay ahead of the curve. I maintain some giant spreadsheets with some assumptions of

where the player should be statistics-wise at every level, trying to factor in all these disparate systems. This entails a lot of guess-work, where I posit that your character’s attributes, for instance, will be adding about 20% to your damage output at level 15, and I guess at the quality and bonuses of the items you will have found.

I could expound on the complexity forever, but it’s pretty dry to discuss and probably not that much different from any other RPG, so let me digress to where I think our methods are different, and where it gets fun, for me, at least. I don’t even try to balance the game!

I suspect that’s a shocking statement, considering how much balance gets discussed in reviews, within our team, and amongst my peers in the industry, and it may come back to haunt me if our game isn’t well received, but I think we do it differently here at Runic. One reason, as you allude to in the question, is that the game is simply too complex; there are too many systems and too much randomness for my puny brain to deal with. But the more important reason is that I think balance is boring. I specifically want you to find a weapon that’s just too good. I want you to discover a skill combo that makes killing certain monsters seem too easy, and I want your summoned Nether Imp to feel “way overpowered.” But these imbalance spikes are designed to be temporary. A few levels deeper into the game, you might be struggling to find a replacement weapon, your skill combo won’t work as well against the new monster varieties and your pet will start to seem weaker. The multiple, overlapping systems and heavy randomness work to my benefit in this respect. I just stand back and try to manage the chaos. So all my spreadsheets and assumptions become less important as we finish development, and I concentrate on playing over and over again, getting tons of feedback, and ironing out the really crazy peaks and valleys. Fun always trumps balance.

 

You’ve been working almost exclusively with action role-playing games for close to 20 years. What about that genre makes it special to you?

I’m not really sure. I think it’s mostly momentum. When we ask ourselves what we should do next, “more of the same” is usually the easy answer. I do love this genre, but I probably tend to play more MMOs and turn-based strategy games.  It also helps that the success of the original Diablos makes it easier for me to raise money by pitching these kinds of projects. I do have other plans for the future, but if I never end up branching out from action-RPGs, I’ll still be happy.

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You were a CCO at Flagship, the VP at Blizzard North, and now you’re the CCO at Runic, though you’re also a designer, right? How often do you get the chance to dive into the gritty details of design given your executive position at Runic? Is it ever difficult for you to delegate design work?

All those titles are just fancy terms for “lead designer who also co-founded the company.” 95% of my time has always been devoted to game design. Currently my partners Travis and my brother Max do most of the heavy lifting of running the company.

 

The major new feature in Torchlight II is multiplayer. How did the possibility of co-op play change your designs for the character classes? Do some character abilities have direct synergy with one another?

The main considerations for character class design with regard to multiplayer are 1) What skills can players use cooperatively, that would make playing with others more fun than playing alone and 2) how can we control all these stacking abilities so that the game doesn’t become too easy as the party becomes exponentially more powerful. Many typical skills just plain work better in multiplayer, like area debuffs; all the monsters get weaker for both the casterand his friends. Others we can retrofit: “hey, if I cast a Forcefield bubble around myself, maybe it would be cool if my buddies got a half-strength version.” In theory, and we had some plans for this, we could make skills that were strictly multiplayer, like directed heals, or combo attacks that could set up allies for really big attacks, but even though they would be usable on pets in single-player games, these haven’t really panned out and we haven’t pursued them much.

 

Runic has made the decision to release mod tools with Torchlight II. We don’t see this happen nearly as much as we used to. Why do you think that is, and why did Runic make the decision to release them for bothTorchlight and Torchlight II? Does releasing mod tools significantly add to development costs?

I think some of our competitors don’t release mod tools because they want more control over the players’ experience and they try to maintain real-world economies. At Runic, however, we are happy with players being able to change the rules to their liking. As sold, our game isn’t going to be perfect for everyone, but mods can expand and change the game in ways that might please greater audiences. It’s also great fun to watch what others do with our game, which can serve as a sandbox for systems for future games. I don’t think releasing mod tools adds much to our development costs or time. Our tools programmer, Greg Brown, makes these tools for me and the team anyway, and they don’t get much additional polish for a general release.

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Action role-playing games tend to be paced very quickly. Does this make it difficult to include narrative elements with a lot of depth? How important is a strong narrative in an ARPG?

I’m not sure if it makes a strong narrative difficult or if it makes a strong narrative completely impossible. In my mind the storyline for Diablo is “Uh-oh, Demons!” the story on Hellgate was “Sci-fi Demons! Kill them all!” and the story on Torchlight is “Crap, more Demons!” This is a complete simplification and does a disservice to a lot of fine efforts to give these games a story, but are we successful? I have no clue. Personally I can’t follow or read stories in games, even games well-known for having a great story; I have some kind of mental block. The real story, in my experience, is just my internal narrative about what I am doing now, what am I finding, where am I going, why am I unique and better than everyone else.

 

You’ve been involved in the founding of several studios. How was the formation of Runic informed by your past experiences? How have the successes and failures of Flagship and Blizzard North affected your business development strategies for Runic?

The biggest lesson I learned with Blizzard North is that I want to make a game, not to manage a company. Diablo 2 started to get ‘unfun’ when we got past 35 or 40 people. So we took that lesson into the founding of Flagship only to fail spectacularly as we grew to well over 100. Re-learning that lesson for Runic is working so far. Currently we are at about 30 developers, haven’t hired anyone new in eighteen months, and joke that we want to grow to 25. It’s a personal preference, and I know lots of companies grow successfully, but for me a team size under 30, heavily weighted to creative self-starters, with a flat hierarchy and no producers is the ideal development environment.

I think we’ve learned some really good lessons about financing, community relationships, marketing, etc. but I’d defer these to my brother Max, if you want a follow-up interview.

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I was surprised that seriously fundamental changes were made to Torchlight II based on feedback from the beta weekends. Adding tiers to the abilities must have been a large task, especially this late in the development. What other useful information did you get from the beta? Was there anything you learned from gathering metrics from the beta that you didn’t expect?

To be honest, I panicked a bit when Travis suggested the skill tier changes but they ended up being easier to implement than I feared. It’s a testament to our flexible tools and data-driven systems, I guess, that it turned out to only be a few weeks worth of work.

I’d say the best feedback and information we got from the beta was interface and usability criticism. Sometimes we as a team stare at the game so long that we think some things should be obvious or we overlook easy improvements. So it’s great to get a lot of new eyes on the game. Personally, I devoted a lot of attention to when people were dissatisfied with some unique items, or didn’t like the way skills behaved, and made lots of tweaks daily based on forum posts.

There weren’t any big surprises for me in the metrics, though. I sifted through a lot and they pretty much just backed up the metrics from our in-house statistics dumps.

 

Runic has been deservedly very successful, but many small start-up studios aren’t. What common mistakes do you see new studios make?

The biggest and most common problem I’ve seen is failure to budget and plan for after you ship your first game. It’s easy to burn through all your money just getting the game out the door, but then it might take a lot of time to start making money even with a successful game, after paying back dev costs and distributer payment delays. Often your engineers are busy post-ship with patches and emergencies. And people need time off to recharge. So this is the most dangerous period, and I’d advise new studios to really map out the cash flow realistically well after the game’s release.

I’d also caution new studios to not be over ambitious. I often see pitches along the lines of: “It’s an MMO with all the features of World of Warcraft, plus it has castle building… and a strategic map overview… and you control 3 characters at once… oh, and vehicles…” Keep your first game or two simple.  Decide what you are not going to do. With Torchlight I, we opted to drop multi-player, for instance. This allowed us to get a limited game out quickly, which didn’t break our budget, but brought good experience for the team and a modest income stream to support our next, more ambitious, project.

 

How did the design for Torchlight II change over the course of its development? Were there any features you were forced to cut, or ideas you needed to abandon?

I don’t think the design changed that much, but partially that’s because we don’t do a lot of pre-design. We figure it out as we go and develop more by iteration than many studios. Some of my wish list items didn’t make the cut, though. Like I wanted some limited skill trees for pet advancement, and some visual wardrobe upgrades for your pet. Early on we had brainstormed some pretty ambitious PvP modes and arenas, but we always considered those non-crucial to the final result and never found the time to work on them. Overall, though, I think we ended up with a ten to twenty percent bigger game than we planned, and it’s taken longer than we hoped, so maybe we should have cut more…

 

Thank you very much for answering my questions! Torchlight II is looking fantastic, and I can’t wait to play the full game.

Rob is a software engineer and amateur game developer. He lives in Bellevue, Washington.

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