Max Schaefer on Innovation and Variety in ARPGs

Fmulder points us to a new Max Schaefer interview on Rock Paper Shotgun. It’s a good piece, with comments from Max on TL2 and their (controversial) plans to release the very unhurried sequel to the very hurried Torchlight 1, about a month after D3.

We’ve talked about that before though, so I want to focus on something from the end of the piece, which also came up in the forum thread here (which is a good read). Here’s a quote churn out new FPS titles:

…In a lot of ways, hack ‘n’ slash are RPGs are only a few paces ahead of Diablo II’s decade-old stomping grounds. Over the course of a time period that saw countless other genres evolve, change, rise, and fall, ARPGs (with a few notable exceptions – ala Borderlands) stuck to samey fantasy settings, basic class archetypes, and even eerily similar interfaces. Sure, they’re fun games, but expectation and stagnation go hand-in-hand. Is Diablo’s oft-drawn well beginning to run dry?

“You know, maybe I have no marketable skills other than making Diablo-style games,” Schaefer joked. “But you’re right: [the entire genre] is just kinda riffing off that. But it’s a good thing to riff off of. It’s something that hadn’t been done like that previously, and I think there’s a long way to go before it’s a tired genre. You know, just like first-person shooters. How many times can you be looking at a hand holding a gun in front of you while you walk around in a 3D landscape? Turns out, a lot.”

“I think [lack of innovation’s] due to the scarcity of the games over the years,” Schaefer offered. “Certainly, there hasn’t been one that’s been more popular than Diablo, but [in comparison] there’s been a lot of resetting the standard of, say, first-person shooters along the way.”

“I think [setting] is definitely gonna be one of the ways that the genre evolves over time. You know, people trying sci-fi and other themes for it. But yeah, I’m sort of at a loss to explain why there hasn’t been more [diversity]. But I mean, there haven’t been a large total number of ARPGs that have been big and successful. It’s a tough thing to do.”

Do RPGs innovate? Is innovation necessary? And why are people assuming a sort of churn out new FPS titles towards D3 vs. other RPGs? After all, numerous developers churn out new FPS titles almost monthly, most of which offer nothing more than “shooting soldiers vs. shooting demons/aliens/zombies” as points of differentiation, and most of them sell quite well.

If there’s anything to this, it’s probably due to the longevity of a good RPG. No one plans to play the same FPS for months or years, since they’re disposable and fairly generic. Some add limited RPG and customization elements, but basically you play through a couple/few times and you’re done and ready for the next slightly different version of the same thing. RPGs tend to have a longer life, as the character development, item slot machine, and end game features (like PvP) often lead to fans specializing in just one title, and playing it for years. At least that’s the hope of the developers, anyway.

Tagged As: | Categories: Ex-Blizzard, Other RPGs, Torchlight 2


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  1. I’ve asked this and been asked this quite a few times, and I think it depends on what is truly meant as the definition for innovation.
    For us, the hardcore fans, odds are that we’ve sought out a lot of ARPGs to try to re-capture the magic of the Diablo games. We are very sensitive to even small changes.
    One of the largest changes from a gameplay perspective between D1 and D2 is actually that you can run. It sounds silly but it changed not only the pacing of gameplay but a lot of the dynamics behind it. It changed the tone of the game and the narrative as well, it was such a sweeping difference. So after that, in other ARPGs, you could run. This makes a drastic difference to the game, but from a certain perspective, you’d scoff at the ludicrousness of the observation. Wow, you can run. Mario can run, who cares?

    The same holds true for FPS. I remember the first fps where I could look down and see my character’s feet. I don’t remember what game it is, but I remember being shocked to see it. While it had pretty much no impact on gameplay, it was a small change to the genre conventions that I was accustomed to.

    To a point, are we looking for change, for innovation, or are we simply looking for someone to further perfect a working formula? I think that’s the more important question is the intention of developers and the wants of gamers. This is the nature of risk versus reward in game development.

    And I always love hearing from Max Schaefer. I appreciate his candor and his aptitude for what he does.

  2. I don’t think FPS have shorter lifespan than RPG.  People still play CS1.6.  It’s all about if the game is good or not.

    • Any well designed game can have longevity.

      • Okay you guys, so then why does almost everyone say that TL2 is doomed since it’s coming out after D3? Or why is every MMORPG either a WoW-killer or doomed?  No one says that whatever FPS is coming out after MW3 is doomed, even though MW3 was sure to break every launch day sales record.

        There’s an assumption of exclusivity to RPGs that’s not applied to other genres, and that’s what I was driving at in the OP. Why? Max says the whole assumption is just wrong. Is he correct? Is this related to the size of the audience for RPGs vs. FPS? That seems an iffy argument to make, given WoW’s audience, and the many millions of copies D2 has sold.

        • “why is every MMORPG either a WoW-killer or doomed?  No one says that whatever FPS is coming out after MW3 is doomed, even though MW3 was sure to break every launch day sales record.”
          I think the reason is that FPS games don’t require you to invest much time or money in them. Leaving an MMORPG in which you invested a lot of time to level your characters and spent money on monthly fees is a really hard decision. I think this is the main reason why WoW is so popular and not because it’s so much better than everything else out there. I say this as someone who played WoW from the beginning until the release of Cataclysm. When it got released the fact that it was called WarCraft was enough to make it popular. At least, this was the main reason I tried it out.
          FPS games on the other hand are different. Their singleplayer campaigns are usually short and what time you invest in multiplayer in one of them easily benefits you in other FPSs as well. If I play a lot of MW3 and I’m good at it then I can switch to CS and expect to do moderately well. The learning curve don’t require me to invest that much time in another game, unlike leveling up characters in RPGs.

          Then there’s the whole social aspect. Your circle of friends in MMORPGs are bound to be huge and convincing every one of them to switch games with you is impossible. FPSs can be played just with a few friends and they are more likely to switch games for the aforementioned reasons.

          So new MMORPGs are either “doomed” or become WoW-killers (which probably won’t happen until Blizzard shuts it down) because they are the ultimate player traps and players are unlikely to play two of them at the same time. Since there are a few giants in this market already this makes it harder for new games to become really successful, at least on such a scale as WoW for example.

        • “Why does almost everyone say that TL2 is doomed…?”

          There’s your problem. Not almost everyone says that. A vocal minority says that, and they can’t see past their noses. A lot of these people are self-proclaimed “hardcore” players who dedicate their free time to one game.

          I think if TL2 is delayed to about 3-4 months after D3, it will do absolutely fine. Most of the same people that drop D3 after that period will also ultimately drop TL2, because they are casual gamers whose primary goal is a good story, not a treadmill. These people outnumber “hardcore” gamers by a large margin as we’ve all been sure to point out repeatedly on these forums every time theres a thread about wowification.

          • I’ve yet to see any TL2 interview that hasn’t been focused on “how will your game exist with D3 sucking all the oxygen out of the room?” So yeah, I’d say there’s an assumption of Highlander style survival for ARPGs. I don’t read a lot of previews about other game genres, but I don’t think that’s the common assumption there?

          • Other companies don’t have prior design employees creating competing products. Interviewers will leap on that dynamic and explore it. The questions may also serve to dispel assumptions even if they are not intended to do so. How is that question answered? Surely the TL2 creators think their product will do just fine, and now that the questions has been asked and answered thusly, the assumption should be dispelled.

        • I don’t think there’s an assumption of exclusivity to RPGs at all – unless you’re referring exclusively to MMORPGs, and I don’t think that’s what Max Schaefer is talking about.

          The issue as it pertains specifically to an MMO is that a pay-per-month system combined with a heavy time investment required to “keep up” with the game (a few nights a week for most raiding guilds) means that fans of the genre won’t want to spread themselves too thin. Most people don’t want to pay a monthly fee for 3 different games when they don’t have enough time to fully dedicate to all 3. The type of player who would even consider more than one MMO at a time is probably a fairly hardcore player, and to get the most out of your experience as a hardcore MMO player you have to put in a fair bit of time. So, the perception is that most of the MMO market has turned to WoW, as it has provided the most consistently entertaining MMO out there, and so in order to succeed any other MMO will have to “steal” a part of WoW’s playerbase rather than just focusing on attracting new players.

          I think that, for any individual player, it may be the case that you’re only going to want one game of a particular genre at a time. I’m not sure a dedicated CoD player is going to turn on MW when they need a break from CoD, but they might turn on Soul Calibur or Fez. Both CoD and MW have survived, however, because each has differences which appeal to a different segment of the FPS fanbase. (Personally, I’d take UT2k4 or the original UT over any FPS I’ve seen in the past 5 years, but again that’s just a matter of personal preference.) Some players may try both games, but in the long run most players are going to stick with one or the other.

          Similarly, TL2 will do certain things differently than D3. If the differences between the two games are distinct enough, and both are high-quality games, then a market can develop for both of them. If the two games are too similar, or one of the two is obviously inferior, it’s likely that only one will survive.

        • First off we don’t know how well designed TL2 is.  If TL is any indication of the quality of TL2 then it will be in big trouble. (sales wise being sold so close to D3) I would guess that most people that say TL2 is doomed played TL and think it wasn’t that great, and they don’t expect much more from TL2. 

          About FPS, people still bring up the question, “can game X (not just a FPS) make it if it comes out around Call of Duty/ Modern Warfare?”  They did it last year when BF3 was coming out. It did alright but I am sure it would have done better if it was sold a few months earlier.

          Maybe its me but I don’t just play one type of game.  So I won’t be getting TL2 right away, mainly because I will still be playing Diablo 3.  Even if I wasn’t playing D3 I would not want to play another ARPG right after. 

          To a degree I agree with Max.  There is room for more then one ARPG, but not in the same quarter and on the same platform.

          I wouldn’t build a mom and pop burger joint right next to a McDonald’s. I wouldn’t schedule a premiere episode during the super bowl.  And,  I wouldn’t release an ARPG within two months of Diablo 3.  

          The battle for sales would go something like this…  ( you can guess who is who)

    • Yeah, when I read “no one expects to play the same FPS for months or years” I laughed. 

      The only real difference between WoW and something like Modern Warfare or CoD is that the former releases expansions and the latter releases sequels.  If MW, CoD, Halo, and the rest had received more support they might still be around. Instead, companies chose to develop sequels to replace their own products.

      Games of ANY genre that remain popular anywhere near 10 years are fairly special products, and their longevity has little directly to do with their genre. Counter-Strike and Diablo 2 have very little in common, but both have survived because they were compelling games to begin with. RPGs might take longer to burn through in general, but that doesn’t necessarily make them better games or mean that they’ll last years and years and years.

  3. Yeah, what Wildmoon said.
    I’ve been playing Counter Strike for years and years.
    I’ve played Left 4 Dead for a couple of years now.
    It’s all about the games that get you hooked.
    I played The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion for well over 1000 hours, and I still love the hell out of that game.
    I know I’m doing the same things over and over, but I still find enjoyment doing them. 
    Doesn’t matter which genre the game is in, only the quality of replayability.  🙂

  4. I guess that’s why I never got into FPS games. I’ve only ever played two: Goldeneye for N64 and Perfect Dark for N64.

    In the end I am willing to play the same type of game over and over again though, as long as there’s at least one thing about it that keeps me hooked. For an RPG, it’s a tricky balance bewtween adding game content, and avoiding things that kill my enjoyment of the game. The ARPG formula is pretty simple and it works, so I agree with Max, why change it? Sci-fi would be interesting, but I don’t think I want something like a first-person camera, or whatever else people wanted to change about ARPGS??  

  5. We seem to be going down the line of stating that quality = replayability without defining quality itself. It a bit like going thru a dictionary and one word points to another which just then points back to the original definition. It doesn’t work. 😕
    I’ve always found Diablo I/II to have that Gauntlet’eque style to it. There was a huge gap after that tremendously successful arcade game where no developer dared to go. The Diablo series has always been the new gen Gauntlet to me but now with loot. Imo it worked because the looting doesn’t completely destroy the crowd control nature of the game and until that happens it works. To truly improve on Diablo (the new gauntlet) you’d need not so much innovate but bring in another enjoyment to the game in the same way crowd control and looting is an enjoyment but without stomping all over what’s already been achieved in the magic alchemy currently at work. 😉

    • Interesting points.  Both “Dragon’s Crown” and “Warrior’s Lair” (PSV/ PS3 games) are actually seeking to change the current formula as you mentioned.  Dragon’s Crown brings in more crowd-control, with a vintage 2-D perspective and amazing art, while Warrior’s Lair takes a unique angle of making each player a final boss for another.
      I’d say there is a ton of innovation in this genre going on this year.

    • I still own a Gauntlet II arcade machine. It’s been collecting dust in my dad’s garage for years and years, as I live far from him and haven’t really had room in any of my apartments to bother driving it up here and fixing it up. 🙁

  6. With the way the skills system is designed and the crafting system. I would say that Blizzard did their job on splashing their bit of innovation… Now the problem is this ‘veteran’ players who are stuck on their old ways and nostalgia, most of them cries that Blizzard are killing the sacred crows and that the new Blizzard is ruining the franchise they loved, blaming all the innovation on ‘dumbing down for casual’ etc. heck they even ask for Blizzard North and seriously asking for simply Diablo 2 with improved graphic :S

    Pathetic really… Now who can blame the devs for the lack of innovation? 

    • Yeah I’m with you on this – and looking at the Path of Exile beta skill tree/forest just reinforces the idea that skill choice if often just an illusion. Good on Blizzard for doing something new.

      Also (and people are going to hate on me for this) – I’m really looking forward to seeing how the RMAH pans out in-game. Although a lot of people just think it’s all about Bobby’s $$$, this could actually be the start of a new funding model for games, outside subscription and F2P/micro transactions. 

    • skills yes
      crafting no

      there is nothing innovative in the crafting system 

    • There is nothing new or innovative in Diablo III. I can’t believe you would even claim this.
      The skill system is actually old-school to a point besides the freespec. Guild Wars had a system similar to this in a way.

      If innovation is taking out layer upon layer of complexity to you, then hey, go have a party. But it D3 ain’t it, no matter how fun the game may be. 

      • The point isn’t wether the system is truly new or rehashed version of some other RPG system, the point is that old players, hardcore (and Hardcore) players are percieving the change as negative simply because it is change from the way D2 did its mechanics. Also, there is nothing really innovative about PoE (I played beta), all of their major systems are rehashes of systems used by older RPG games, Japanese RPG games, specifically FFVII and FFX from what I’ve seen from my beta experiance. But there are still people, and a lot of them apperantly, that percieve PoE as closer to D2 then D3 is, and as such have already turned their backs on D3. Also, as the original posters stated, there is also a sizeable chunk of D2’s players who want (or think they do anyway) that D3 was simply D2 with 3D graphics.

        However, if we are talking about true innovation, RPG games even today base vast majority of their gameplay on systems and mechanics that were established by DnD in the 70s, So, RPG games haven’t seen that much innovation over the decades. Graphics have been improving and are light years ahead of the wihite-dot-on-black-screen graphics of the 70s, however core mechanics, from classes, to core concepts like damage, damage roll, health pools, etc… they are still the same, more or less, from those days.

    • D3 is not innovative. If anything it’s the opposite since they have taken away functions.

      But it doesn’t need to be innovative to be a good game. Enhance what does work, take out what doesn’t. 

      • To me that bloated function removal is part of the innovation. You don’t achieve perfection by keep on adding features, but it’s when there’s nothing else to take away (that’s some quote from somewhere lol)
        Just because you’re used to do something a certain way for ages, doesn’t mean that it’s the best way to do it and should be there for eternity. 

        About the skill system….. so which other RPG has the skill where you can completely modify it with 5 variation? and without dumping point into it? and which RPG has the spell damage based on physical weapon? or cases where a Wizard can replace his wand with a two handed battle-axe to improve his magic missile spell damage? 😛 

        For what it’s worth I will say that Diablo 3 system has the gut to go against the widely-accepted ‘trend’ in typical RPG…

        edit: Complexity is not desirable if it isn’t there for the right reason and illusion of choice is definitely not a good reason.


  7. For me, innovation is directly correlational to the console itself. Using D3 as an example. your entire gameplay can be controlled by the mouse alone. The innovative gameplay that people seek is very limited to clicking everything on the screen. A few bright ideas here and there might be tossed around but at the end of the day, your ARPG is still based on the old-age formula, unless of course new technology exists that gives us whole new experience of gameplay.

  8. @ cozmiccc: Cool story bro.

    The difference between FPS’s and ARPG’s relating to this are:
    1) There are a lot of FPS games, there are relatively little ARPG’s.
    2) Due to the amount of FPS games each year the genre did steadily improve/innovate to the point where each new title hopefully offers a little bit better graphics/physics/AI, ARPG’s have way more catching up to do if D2 with it’s 2.5D/no physics/no AI is still considered to be the never beaten pinnacle of the genre.
    3) FPS’s generally offer(ed) a short amount of replayability so the lack of improvement/innovation of each separate title goes largely unnoticed, the template of ARPG’s (D2) offered a replayability that lasted for over a decade, so this is considered to be the standard of a succesful ARPG.

  9. In the end, it’s bottom line that matters, and the truth is the market for multiconsole FPS is significantly bigger than a PC ARPG. FPS is where the money is, so that’s where the majority of development resources will go to within the game industry… Yep sad but true.

  10. I love fps games an arpg games. Alot of it has to do with perception and your preference of gaming style. 

  11. I know it wasn’t the greatest game, nor the best supported (cough maxis cough), but everyone seems to forget about Darkspore. I’ve sunken well over 200 hours into that game and enjoyed every minute of it, and it is just as much an ARPG as Diablo. The “gear” system was great, and the customizability of characters was fantastic, and creating teams to combo abilities off of each other was really in-depth and thought provoking. Honestly if you are looking for innovation in ARPGS Darkspore is a good place to look if you haven’t already checked it out. 😀

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