We talked to Max Schaefer, founder of Echtra Games and director of Torchlight 3, about everything the new installment of the acclaimed ARPG has to offer.
Echtra Games is a humble video game company established in San Francisco, the heart of technology and development in the United States. In it we have relevant figures in the industry and the development of ARPGs (action rpg) that were important for the development of sagas like Diablo. They are currently developing a Torchlight 3 that is already available in early access and tries to improve as a product day after day.
We interviewed Max Schaefer, studio president and Torchlight 3 director to learn more about the new installment of this popular saga. A launch in early access amid a pandemic that affects the entire world.
Meristation: Torchlight 3 has undergone great changes during its development, you have shown as a developer that you know how to listen to fans, was it difficult to turn back the idea that Torchlight Frontiers had as a game?
Max Schaefer: Yes, it was all a combination of feedback from our fans and internal discussions at the company about what was best for the game. We have been able to capture the positive things about the direction we are heading with Torchlight 3, we have been able to eliminate free to play mechanics and a MMORPG-style progression without too much trouble. We have known how to make good decisions and thanks to this the game is better.
Meristation: Why have you finally chosen not to adopt a free to play business model?
Max Schaefer: First of all, our fans are used to a totally different game model and that was already a tough battle to start, but at the same time, the free-to-play mechanics we were introducing didn’t quite match how well we expected with what which has been traditionally Torchlight. The game itself was telling us to remove it.
For example, there were extensive moments in the game based on resource collection and refinement that collided with Torchlight’s concept of immediate fun; also shared combat zones in which enemy respawn was continuous, and that prevented players from feeling that they were completing something. The mix of all this made us think that Torchlight 3 should have a premium model and this has ended up being positive for the game.
Meristation: Max, you were an important part of what for many is the best ARPG saga ever, working on Diablo 1 and 2, Torchlight 3 can and should appeal to those nostalgic fans of old Diablo?
Max Schaefer: When we started the Torchlight franchise we wanted to distance ourselves from the beginning of what Diablo was, we did not want to be seen as simply copying the Blizzard saga. The development of Torchlight 1 and especially Torchlight 2 was done under the shadow of a Diablo 3 that was very close to launching, which led many people to tell us that we were crazy to get an ARPG at the same time as the last installment of Diablo.
We wanted to make a very different style of play, with a completely different universe from that of Diablo, but don’t get me wrong, I adore the dark style of the Blizzard saga and all the effort that goes into creating that universe so serious and violent, although It was a relief to be able to make a much more colorful, friendly, and self-taking world.
It was a lot of fun being part of Diablo, and mechanically both Torchlight and the Blizzard saga are very similar. They are two games that complement each other perfectly.
Meristation: Is Torchlight 3 and these last 18 months of development the great challenge of your career?
Max Schaefer: Yes, in many ways Torchlight 3 has been the biggest challenge of my career because in the first place it was made under the shadow of two first installments that were very well received and therefore the expectations of our fans are high. Another reason is that we have done it with a new team, having created Echtra Games specifically to develop Torchlight 3, with a group of people who had never worked together, the first time we used Unreal Engine with the technological learning curve that it implies.
We want to live up to the expectations not only of Torchlight fans but also of Diablo fans and that is obviously a very complicated thing. Of course, it also affects the fact of going from a free to play model to a premium one.
Meristation: What has been the biggest challenge of taking an already established saga within the genre after a great job by Runic Games? A company you know well, the former Flagship Studios Seattle, where Max Schaefer worked with Hellgate London.
Max Schaefer: Yes, Hellgate London would have been a wonderful project if it had had nine more months of development, it was a kind of tragedy. During the time we were developing this game, we also had the creation of another game called Mythos that looked like Torchligh and behind it was the Seattle studio that would later form Runic Games.
An incredibly talented group of developers, so living up to what they did is complicated because the Torchlight universe was created by them, and now a new group has to build on it and create a game that is true to this universe. . It has been difficult and it is difficult to live up to expectations because when you make the third installment of something, everyone expects it to be better and bigger than the previous ones. I think we are getting there, currently the game is in early Access and every day we add content and pay attention to all the feedback from the players. We are not where we want yet, but I am very confident that Torchlight 3 is going to be a very fun game.
Meristation: Do you have any date in mind to go from early access to the final version?
Yes, we will release the final version when the game is ready (laughs). That is our philosophy from the beginning. We still have in mind to launch it this year, we are working very hard to achieve it and also for its launch on consoles. There is still a lot to do and we are improving day by day.
ARPG is a very complex genre to perform
Meristation: Are you happy with people’s response after launch?
Yes and no. We have had a very difficult first 48 hours, because every time you launch a great online game to the market, and suddenly you have ten times more players in it than they have ever played before, it breaks your servers. This also happened in Diablo 2, people do not remember it too much, but there were problems and it was more complicated than today because there was no Discord and other sources of communication from where the players inform us of what is happening to them. In addition, there were no cloud servers that expanded their capacity. At the time of Diablo 2, we underestimated the number of people that would connect to the game, there were many waiting and we had to order computers and wait for them to physically arrive to expand our database.
This time it was more predictable than it was back then, but the number of people who came in exposed our infrastructure and the first 36 to 48 hours the players had a difficult time, and this frustration is completely understandable, they have paid $ 30 and want to play Torchlight. 3. We were able to solve it and nobody had connection problems, we noticed it because our Discord channel was completely silent, where did everyone go? The reality is that everyone was playing. Getting up the next day and seeing that the errors we had to correct had nothing to do with online aspects, but the game was a relief.
We want to live up to the expectations not only of Torchlight fans but also of those of Diablo and that is obviously something very complicated
Meristation: With Path of Exile 2 and Diablo 4 on the way, what does Torchlight 3 have to establish itself and be an alternative to these two titles?
Max Schaefer: I think Torchlight 3 is different from these two games. First of all, we don’t see the rest of the releases necessarily as a competition, but as a way to expand the genre that helps to achieve more followers of ARPG throughout the planet. We have a very good relationship and we are friends with the Diablo team as well as the Path of Exile team, we see ourselves as one big family.
We offer a very good alternative, the first thing is that our game has a lower price than Diablo 4 and a different business model than Path of Exile. We have a different style, with a colorful and friendly world that can appeal to younger audiences or people who are not so attracted to dark and bloody worlds. We bring innovations that make our title more than an experience based on the individual or group, being able to attract strangers around us and offering an experience close to an MMO.
We love these games, when Diablo 4 comes out we will have to close our company for a month because we all want to play (laughs). We also have employees who regularly play Path of Exile and are very interested in the second installment. In summary, we are also lovers of video games and we like to play everything that comes out.
ARPG is a very complex genre to perform, so there is more demand from users than titles on the market.
Meristation: What does Torchlight 3 collect from the previous ones to attract its base audience and what does it add to maintain it and try to attract a new audience?
Max Schaefer: Followers of the saga will immediately feel comfortable. The basic controls are the same, as is the universe and a story that takes place 100 years after Torchlight 2 with the empire in decline and new threats on the horizon. It feels familiar and recognizable, with new characters and classes that fit into the Torchlight style.
There are also differences, the first is that there are cities and places shared online where you will see other players, even if you are playing alone or in a group. Another aspect to take into account is the so-called Forts, which are a kind of home that will be shared in our account by all the characters we create. It is not simply based on the decoration, which is also profound, but it brings usefulness to our characters by being able to add, for example, enchanting tables, which we can also share with other players so that they can take advantage of our recipes. In addition, we can plant a loot tree, which with the right treatment will bring us rewards and also to the players who come to our Fort and contribute to it.
Another big difference from previous installments is the way the characters are built. If you look at the skill tree, it seems smaller than in previous games, but our current system is the deepest that the saga has had. The character is not just based on this skill tree, but also the one with the heirloom weapon to choose from. Interacting with these weapons and their possibilities is a way of developing our characters much deeper, with the legendary weapons and what they give us as another point to consider.
Meristation: Different, with some classes not very common in the genre, is it refreshing to work in such an unusual ARPG at your base? What is the limit?
Max Schaefer: We have many plans for the future, if the game is successful we have many ideas for the coming years. In the long run we would love to experiment with the competitiveness of the game, and today we are already working on a new class. If all goes well Torchlight 3 will continue to expand for a long time.
Meristation: Pets, what would Torchlight be without pets. Importance of them in Torchlight 3?
Max Schaefer: We knew that pets had to be there for their usefulness and how important they are within Torchlight. We made the pet system in the first Torchlight because being an individual game made you feel less lonely, but we ended up maintaining it when we went on to have multiplayer, by now everyone loved their pets.
In Torchlight 3 we have kept all the usefulness and characteristics of pets, but we have added some functionalities to them. You can choose three at the beginning of the game, but during the development of the game while you face some bosses you can unlock new pets that will be kept in the Fort. Pets have different abilities, but we can add and mix these to our favorites, thus adding a very interesting collectible appearance.
Meristation: The customization of our character, Path of Exile is the reference of the genre in this sense, how much depth does it give the Torchlight 3 player?
Max Schaefer: Our system is very different from other games like Path of Exile, which are fascinating, but at the same time impenetrable for many players. We have depth and very different ways of playing each of our classes, synthesizing the abilities of each character along with those that bring you the relic weapons, as well as the variety of customization depending on what we are wearing. And, of course, pets are also an addition to consider.
Meristation: Single player campaign, multiplayer, are the possibilities with Torchlight 3 almost endless?
Max Schaefer: When the final version of the game is available we will have an offline campaign, so it will no longer be necessary to be connected to be able to play Torchlight 3. Currently, in early access everything is online because we need to see all the problems in order to solve them and communicate with the players.
The game has a story mode that after finishing it puts us in an endgame that can make you play for life. I can’t talk about it yet because we’re doing it, but it’s so much fun and I can’t wait for people to see it. It will give players the opportunity to play infinitely. Plus, we have the Fort mechanic that we think helps make creating new characters more enjoyable. People are going to be able to play Torchlight 3 for a long time.
Torchlight 3 has an endgame that can make you play for life
Meristation: Is online gaming the best option to fully experience Torchlight 3?
Max Schaefer: Everyone has their preferences, but we think we have achieved enough rewards for playing with other people that even the most hardcore gamers will want to meet with others to get ahead more quickly.
Meristation: Speaking of great possibilities, Max, can you tell us about the Forts?
Max Schaefer: We want each player to think of himself in the game more as an account than as a character, and the Fort is there for all your characters, it is something that you build over time and ends up being useful for both you and for the rest of the players who access it. Not only is it based on utility, but the ability to decorate the Fort is also extremely profound with hundreds of objects at our disposal. A meeting place to go to in celebrations, after great battles …
Meristation: Battle passes have become a recurring thing in the industry, Torchlight 3 has something similar called contracts, how does this system work and how much do you drink from the previous free to play project?
Max Schaefer: Yes, totally, the idea of contracts came as one of the monetization systems when the project was Torchlight Frontiers MMO. When we made the decision to change the project we did not want to lose the contract system completely, because it is fun to be receiving the rewards that this system brings you and it offers us the possibility of rewarding the player beyond the most common methods such as overcoming an enemy final.
It is really curious, it arose in the previous project, but it has been improving with our premium model without monetization as a way to access that battle pass.
Meristation: Is the monetization system completely closed?
Max Schaefer: Yes, completely, buy the game and don’t think about it anymore. It also helps us to focus on improving and making our game more fun, thus forgetting the part that forces us to think of ways to integrate and evolve monetization within the game.
Meristation: Has the pandemic affected the development of the game in recent months?
Max Schaefer: We are currently in San Francisco and, like everyone else, working from home, which has been a challenge in the last few months of game development. I can’t wait to go back to the office and be face to face with colleagues.
Meristation: You are a relatively small development studio, what expectations do you have for Torchlight 3?
Max Schaefer: We hope to be an economically viable business (laughs), so we can continue the game. We are a small group and there are magical things about it because everyone knows and sees each other every day, everyone talks to everyone regardless of the position in the studio and having a say in the game. It is more fun, but at the same time we can be more agile, make changes faster without having to go through committees and listen to our players. We are about 40 people currently, a good number to work on a game like Torchlight 3.