Thanks to a muddy blend of toxic cynicism and globally-ranked ignorance, I'm rarely too starstruck by the people I end up interviewing. Yet, at this year's PAX, I was embarrassingly excited about meeting Max Schaefer, headof Runic Games, the developer of forthcoming Diabloesque dungeon-crawler Torchlight. Long before that, he was a key contributor to another deeply Diabloesque dungeon-crawler - called Diablo. Schaefer's put some serious numbers on the board, in other words, yet he hasn't retreated into luxurious obscurity to live off his millions, and he hasn't grown snippy following the closure of Flagship, the company he co-founded after leaving Blizzard.
Flagship suffered a rather public meltdown following the wonky release of Hellgate: London, and one of the messier footnotes to the sorry affair was the fact that Mythos, the company's second game, ended up in the hands of South Korean outfit HanbitSoft, while Schaefer and his team found themselves shut out. "When Flagship blew up spectacularly, the 14 of us who had been working on Mythos decided that we wanted to stick together," says Schaefer, smiling broadly. "We were such a tight group and had such a good time doing this, we just had to resurrect that team from the ashes somehow."
Mythos itself was a bit of an odd one. Initially built to test networking technology for Hellgate, it was a return to the top-down dungeons Schaefer knew so well, and a title that people generally agreed was looking a lot more appealing than Flagship's actual flagship. We may never know exactly how much more appealing, however, as HanbitSoft has since announced it's significantly reworking the original game in-house. "That Korean company that stole Mythos? Good luck to them," says Schaefer so breezily that you could almost believe he means it. "The tech it's built on was incredibly difficult to build stuff with, so they have their work cut out for them."
With Mythos behind him, the boss of Runic seems distinctly chirpy as he shows us around Torchlight, an oasis of colourful mystery on a show floor dominated by the omnipresent chunter of chain-gun fire (hopefully only virtual), and the explosive thud of dozens of T-shirt cannons hoping to power passers-by, XXL-style, to that convention centre in the sky. Schaefer's probably right to be enthused. The spiritual continuation, perhaps, of the game his team never got to finish at Flagship, Torchlight is shaping up to be a genuine delight: a modest loot hack that's been race-tuned for charm, convenience, and low-spec PCs. All virtues worth pursuing, if you ask me.
There's the depth here that you might expect - the inventory and character pages are bafflingly, temptingly vast - but it's a game that's been designed to fit in around your life, too. "One of the focuses for the game has been to be really respectful of people's time," says Travis Baldree, Torchlight's lead designer. "I've got a four-year-old, and I don't have time for all the usual nonsense. So when you save, Torchlight saves exactly where you stand, and on top of that, we give players a pet, which will level with you and has its own inventory. That means you can get it to go back to town and sell items for you while you stay in the dungeons. We've tried to remove all the obstructions that could make a game annoying. I want to make a game I can just sit down and play."
Make that two games, actually. While the Torchlight that Runic's currently putting the finishing touches to is a no-nonsense single-player experience, it's also the calling card for an MMO, which the developer plans to kick off production on immediately after the first game is safely out the door.
Let's start with the single-player game. Torchlight is a ramshackle mining town, where prospectors have hit a mother-lode of the magical resource Ember. As unlikely characters flood in from everywhere, hoping to make their fortunes with picks and shovels or steal them at gunpoint, events take an unusual turn. A discovery is made beneath Torchlight's mines when the ruins of a handful of ancient cultures who had stumbled across this particular seam of Ember in the past are unearthed. All appear to have died out while trying to harvest it. "It's a windfall, but there's something wrong with the set-up," says Schaefer. "There's something corrupting down there that likes to finish off civilisations, and the player has to uncover the truth."
What this translates to is a joyously traditional dungeon-crawler with plentiful quests, stripped-back point-and-click controls that will be second nature to fans of the genre, and three basic classes (Destroyer, Alchemist and Vanquisher - loosely translating to a melee brawler, spellcaster and weapons user, expert in both ranged and close-quarters attacks). Classes direct the way you approach the game, but they don't limit your playing style as much as you might expect. "We don't have class-specific items, so if you find a bow, for example, you'll be able to use it whoever you are," says Baldree. "That said, the right class using the right item will have special perks."
While the town of Torchlight is a fixed hub where you can interact with NPCs and purchase new equipment, the mines beneath it are procedurally generated. "It's kind of the structure of Diablo 1, where there's this one location, and then we have lots of dungeons spreading off from that," says Schaefer. "We've been doing a lot of work on the randomisation stuff. A lot of us worked on the Diablo series prior to Hellgate, so we've done it every which way for the last twelve years.
"What we've come up with is making larger sections of games than we used to. A whole level will be broken down into eight big chunks, and we make several versions of each room so the game can randomly lay it out. But we're still able to architect specific elements within that. It means you can have really well-scripted events with secret rooms and levers and puzzles, while still retaining the randomisation that keeps it fresh. And even within scripted parts, you can set up random things, so that half the time a particular shrine will appear and half the time it won't."
Naturally, the monsters and drops within the dungeons will also be randomised. "The loot game is so deep on this," Schaefer says, practically giggling with happiness. "We've got set items, magic items, unique items, socketed items, you name it. And we got a lot of experience on Diablo - and Hellgate, to a certain extent - on making the most of monsters, too. They can wield weapons, and they'll feel different to fight as various combinations come together. We've just got really efficient at making this stuff."
Torchlight is a beautiful game to watch: its mines are spangly turquoise grottoes one minute, and sulphur-choked underground fortresses the next. The colours are bright and sharp, and the game has a cartoon look that will presumably scale well, while managing to incorporate elements from dark fantasy, frontier culture, and even a touch of steampunk. It's an aesthetic that should quickly draw a community in, and once they're there, Runic hopes they'll get to work themselves. "We're shipping the development tools with the game," says Schaefer. "You can do that with single-player titles, because who cares if they hack it? We're hoping that the modding community goes crazy. There are a lot of really sharp guys out there - they'll do some cool things we've never thought of, and hopefully build a lot of content."
While the community's working on DLC, then, the Torchlight team will be busy on the MMO. Developed in partnership with the Chinese company Perfect World, Torchlight's online incarnation will follow the free-to-play model, supporting itself with virtual asset purchases. In Asia, this is steadily becoming an exact science, and Runic's plan seems solid and safe - selling you items that lean towards customisation and convenience rather than anything which would give you an unfair advantage against players who aren't spending money.
The team wants to retain Torchlight's accessibility as it moves online. "We want to be the MMO you don't have to devote your life to necessarily," says Schaefer. "You can go in, play for thirty minutes, achieve something, and then go make your dinner reservation." While it's nice to think that Schaefer sees gamers as a group of people with a regular table at the Four Seasons, and perhaps a box at the ballet, too, there will inevitably be a slight shift in approach as a single-player experience transforms to incorporate a large population. "We'll have a more traditional MMO structure than the single-player game," Schaefer continues. "We'll have a shared over-world, and lots of social features like guilds. We'll still do instanced dungeons as well as shared dungeons, though, both soloable and party-play. A lot of MMO players like to solo anyway, so it will be very solo-friendly, but we'll also have raid content and stuff like that."
Schaefer confirms that some of the randomisation will survive, too. "We can do that within instanced dungeons in an MMO, but we do want to have an expansive shared overland where you can walk from one area to another." He grins, pointing back to one of Runic's dozens of HD screens. "What we really want to do is bring this gameplay style, the camera angle, the feel of it, the action, the speed, and layer that into traditional MMO elements with its guild chat and buddy lists. No-one's really done it yet."
It's a very level-headed strategy, then, and there's every reason to hope Runic will be successful. Stuck in between behemoths, it's very easy to root for such a lean, smart development team and their friendly take on game design. That's not to say it isn't scary times for anybody in the Diabloesque business at the moment, what with Blizzard gearing up for their third instalment.
Typically, however, Schaefer seems rather cheery at the prospect. "If you stand on your toes, you can actually see the Diablo III booth from here," he says, gesturing across the PAX floor. "We're still good friends with the Blizzard guys - there was no animosity with our leaving. We can't wait for Diablo III to come out either, and, there's something really satisfying about someone else doing the work this time. I can just be a game fan and enjoy it. We're going in a separate direction with Torchlight, anyway: we're doing a single-player game, and then we're going to do a true MMO. They're going down the middle and doing Battle.net session-based play."
He smiles again. In fact, he's been beaming for the whole half hour I've been with him, and probably for the last few days as he's been showing people his game. "It's all good, really. Even with both of us out there, the action RPG genre is still under-represented, if you ask me."
Single-player Torchlight is released as a direct download for PC on 27th October, priced at US$19.99. More info at the official Torchlight website.