The audio and transcript of the interview I recently conducted with Runic Games CEO Max Schaefer is now online, and if I do say so myself, it’s worth a read. (Or listen, though I cringe at the audio quality via my crappy mic in the noisy coffee shop in which we met, a block from Max’s house in SF.) Most of our conversation was (naturally) about Torchlight and their plans for the upcoming Torchlight MMO, but we talked a bit about general game design issues as well, and Max had some interesting comments on what made D2 so slow and TL so fast.
Flux: Do you think, looking back, at games like Hellgate and Diablo 2 and other such games that take four or five years to make ? could you apply any of the lessons you’ve learned with Torchlight to those sort of titles?
Max Schaefer: Yeah, I think so. I think that the era of the five-year, eighty-million dollar project is largely over.
Flux: Tell that to Blizzard!
Max Schaefer: Well not for Blizzard! *laughs* They have their own rules over there, for sure. But as far as the economy downturn and a lot of failed projects out there, people are looking for faster, quicker development and cheaper development and less risk, and I think that there’s a pretty good gap in the market right now between the casual game and the super-big budget project, and I think that customers will like it, especially since you can get a lot more product out.
Flux: Could you imagine, if you went back and made Diablo 2 or Hellgate right now, could we shave a year off?
Max Schaefer: I think that if we started over with Diablo 2 right now, we could have easily shaved a year off. That would’ve saved some marriages, by the way. *Laughs* But yeah, we didn’t have anywhere near the kind of tools that we do now, and that really makes a huge difference. If a level designer, a quest designer, a particle designer, an item balancer, and all these people can get their work in without having to bug a whole staff of programmers and wait a day for the build to see if it works ? that’s a huge time-saver.
So, better tools, the knowledge that development isn’t running on a blank check, and a commitment right from the start to work quickly and efficiently. Paging Diablo 3 in 2012?
Click through for some more comments on what Max said, and what we talked about during the half hour when the mic wasn’t running.
Flux: One other question about the very rapid pace of development. You got the art, you got the character design, you got everything you wanted. Do you feel like you had enough time for balancing and leveling, or do you think there are going to be some big imbalances, like overpowered items?
Max Schaefer: Well, of course, there were a few things that, upon release, we realised were a little unbalanced and they should be addressed in the patch that I think is out today. But I think it’s a lot more forgiving in a single-player game to have minor imbalances, and it’s kinda fun to find something that’s a little overpowered once in awhile ? you know, when you’re cruising through the dungeon you find a cool sword and you can kick ass for a little while. That kinda feels good. So no, I think we got it just about right, and I give a lot of credit for that to my brother Erich, who did the bulk of the item balancing.
This is an issue I talked to Max and Erich about back when they were working on Hellgate: London. Just how much balance is desired? Players talk about it long term as though every character and spell should be exactly equivalent, but if they really were, wouldn’t the game be boring? We players like finding an item that’s better, or a skill that’s really effective. It’s fun to feel that you’ve got some advantage. Of course if a whole character build is useless, or grossly overpowered, that’s no fun since it makes them useless or ubiquitous. But in general, isn’t it more fun when different elements in a game have their own strengths and weaknesses?
Flux: Have you enjoyed the Torchlight community? You guys were a brand new community, and very quickly some fansites popped up, and you obviously have Diablo sites that are still covering your game, and a lot of other media. Have you enjoyed how that’s worked? Any regrets not being the centre of the mass tornado that is anything Blizzard does?
Max Schaefer: We love the community that we’ve got. A lot of them came over from Mythos and they’ve been super-cool and really fun to participate in the development of the games with. It’s tough when you get as big as Blizzard. On the forums, it’s almost hard to know people by name because they’re just so big and things happen so quick in them, and they can get pretty hostile. *Laughs* I think right now we’re enjoying the smaller community but of course, we hope it gets big.
Flux: I remember back in the Blizzard North days, Max used to come into our chatroom and there’d always be one guy who’d have some huge bug up his ass about some minor game feature, and you would sit there and debate with them, and argue with them, and talk, and of course nobody from Blizzard goes anywhere near any chatrooms these days. They have corporate rules and Blizzard Irvine, and you see the community managers but even they can’t post off-site. I assume you like being in a smaller community ? and of course, you’re the boss; you can kinda do what you want. It’s nicer you can actually interact with the fans?
Max Schaefer: TorchlightDefinitely. We deliberately made a smaller company, even than Flagship, this time around, just for that reason. Everyone in the company posts on the forums, and there are no rules other than ?Be cool,? and we will try to keep it that way as long as we possibly can for sure.
I monologued a bit on the “question” since it was a podcast and I wanted to explain things to the listeners. (Which felt odd, trained as I am by years of interviewing game devs to make the questions as quick as possible to get out of the way of their replies.) But you’ve got to like Max’s reply, and that’s very much how Blizzard North (but never Blizzard) was back in the 1998-2001 time frame, during the development and post-release of D2. Max, Erich, Bill Roper, and many others would frequently post in our forums, and Max and Peter Hu were very frequent visitors to our live chat channel. I remember numerous times when Max, who usually logged on as “Brocklanders,” would get into a lengthy debate with some irate channel chatter about some minor game feature that that one guy was just incensed about. I was always surprised Max put up with it as long as he did.
That’s clearly something we see no trace of these days, with the D3 development team. Blizzcon has further insulated them, since in the E3 days, all of the devs would just stand around the Diablo 2 booth and watch players play and answer any questions you cared to ask them, without any sort of PR filters. At Blizzcon they present on stage in big panels, and interviews are limited only to the press room, for 15 minutes, usually with 3 or 4 other fansites there at the same time.
The question then, aside from me moping about how much more fun it was to be able to actually interact with the design team in the old days, is if and how this affects the game design. I can’t think of any specific features in D2 that changed or were added/dropped just because fans talked about them so much, or argued about them directly with the developers, but I have to think the D2 Team was more in touch with the pulse of the community, by the simple fact that they were allowed to interact. There’s nothing to stop the D3 Team from browsing fansites and forums, and we know that they do, but the fact that they’re not permitted to actually interact (at least using their own names) has to make that less fun. And in a way, they don’t feel any accountability for their design decisions, since there’s no direct give and take or conversation with the fans. Maybe this is better for game design; they can just work without being distracted. What do you guys think, both in terms of the game design, and in terms of us having nothing but sporadic tweets and Bashiok forum posts to sink our teeth into?
I met Max in downtown SF, near the Mission district, not far from his home. (He walked to the shop, I drove and parked a few blocks over, since I live in the North Bay.) The first coffee shop he had in mind was hella-crowded and super noisy, and would have made a podcast impossible. So we walked a few blocks to a smaller, quieter place, and did it there.
I’ve known Max since 1999 and have seen him at Bliz North, various E3s, and Flagship Studios over that time. I wouldn’t say we’re technically “friends;” we don’t meet often enough to use that word, and maybe he’s just nice since I’m usually working on a fansite about one of his games, but we get along well when we do talk, and we have a similar wavelength in our cynical, sarcastic natures. So we immediately fell into an easy dialogue while walking to the second coffee shop. Max was laughingly griping about how many podcasts and interviews he’d been doing, and how they all asked the same questions. I said something along the lines of, “You must love talking about the collapse of your Flagship dream over and over again. Do you ever get any questions about your last colonoscopy?” and he laughed.
At the coffee place we got right into the interview. Max offered to buy me a coffee, but I declined his generosity. He got some weird bottled fruit drink, when he kept taking quick slurps of in between questions, leading me eventually to ask him what he was drinking. Podcasts! Irreverent! We did the podcast there, which took about 20 minutes (We could have gone much longer, but I’d gone through all the good TL questions I had and thought it better to have 20 quality minutes than 35 rambling minutes.) Once it was done, Max wasn’t in a hurry, so he sat and we talked for another 20 while he finished his drink and I saved the file, exported it to an mp3, and uploaded it to the IncGamers FTP. That conversation would probably have been more interesting (to readers here) than the actual podcast was, since we talked about Diablo 3 (the current, Bliz South version), Blizzard design processes, his reactions to D3 (he’d only seen it at PAX and had some questions for me about what I’d thought in my play time), game character/variety issues in RPGs, and more.
Max is a friendly guy, and very cool to talk with, and in a way I’m happy that he’s at a small company like Runic Games, where he can interact with fans and be honest and forthcoming and more or less do what he wants to do, in terms of PR. He’d be stifled and unhappy working in the corporate, controlled, PR-managed world that is Blizzard Irvine. That’s not to say it’s necessarily horrible—a lot of video game developers are happier in that environment. There are a lot of shy nerds in the gaming industry (shocking news, I know) who enjoy talking about their project one on one, but who aren’t comfortable mixing it up in the free-wheeling world of unscripted live chats and fansite forums, and who could never be trusted to do on-the-record interviews. Max isn’t one of those guys, and it’s a good thing, for him and for we fans, that he’s not being muzzled these days.