Exclusive – Runic Games Torchlight 2 Interview

A couple of weeks ago we caught up with runic Games at their Seattle HQ to go hands-on with their upcoming action RPG Torchlight 2. While we were there we took the opportunity to talk to Runic Games’ Travis Baldtree about the sequel. Travis talks about his work at runic, the game mechanics and how it differs from other ARPGs and much more.

You can listen to the full audio interview by clicking play in the player after the break, or read the abbreviated transcript.

Tell us about your work position at Runic Travis.

I’m the lead developer and President and other stuff.

Can you give us a brief intro on how you got into videogame design, your first game was Fate I believe?

Prior to fate I did a lot of smaller games that you have probably never heard of. Fate was how I ended up working with Max and Eric Schaefer and the Diablo crew before moving over to Flagship Studios.

I had worked with Phil Shenk who was the character director for Diablo 2 and he was working at Flagship at the time which led to a series of events. They played Fate and liked it and though it captured some of the essence of the Diablo games.

Fate was a very small team?

It was very small, I was the programmer, designer, producer, the art director and I had some outsourcing work that was done and snagged some other people’s time to help out.

And then Mythos was a similar thing in design, there was a common design influence I guess although it never got finished at Flagship.

Mythos went through various stages, it was only ever going to be a very small project, it was only going to be me. It was never going to actually make any money. It was a pre-test for Hellgate’s launch to make sure the networking was solid. Somewhere along the line it was decided to make it a full-blown project so I got the go ahead to hire some folks in Seattle where most of the Runic Games’ staff comes from.

So you got a bigger team, can you see common design themes running through these games, ideas you got in Fate you expanded upon?

I think we tried to carry forward some of the things we particularly liked. One of the things we always thought was great about Diablo was that it was taking a style game that was inaccessible to a lot of people and making that something more people could play.

As we move the transition to Torchlight 2 now, it’s a bigger project but do you feel it’s the same jump in and out style of game?

Our hope is that it’s definitely a jump in and out and play quickly and it’s still very respectful of your time. People who have played action RPGs before are gong be able to jump right in and play and hopefully it’s easy for other folks to pick up. We haven’t streamlined away the essence of the action RPG.

After playing it yesterday, I felt like it Was Torchlight, but more so it’s taken twice as long to make it, it’s had a bigger team working on it and it’s just much more of everything. Is that affair description?

Our aim was to take everything in Torchlight 1 and attempt to make it better and then add things you never got the chance to do in the first game, multiplayer being the biggest new feature and being able to have outdoor areas and have it feel more interesting and full world.

We are very much making a torchlight/Diablo style game, I don’t think we are breaking the mould here, and there aren’t that many types of games in existence so.

You are actually more like Diablo 2 than Diablo 3, certainly with most of the game functions. You have played the Diablo 3 beta which is very slow to start and it’s really like being on training wheels at the start, In TL1 and TL2 it’s not difficult to pick up but you kind of expect players to know what they are doing.

Blizzard is really incredibly good at making game accessible to people that have never played them before and I think they are definitely doing that with Diablo 3. Out approach with TL2 is just getting and play quickly. One of the things I loved about Diablo 2 is I start my character, sprint outside of town and immediately y start laying into stuff, and that idea is something we wanted to keep. Because ideally we want you to play the game again.

We don’t want to scare people away, ideally you get in the game and there are monsters within a few steps and your beating on them and they’re exploding and hopefully that’s satisfying enough. We really want you get you to that immediate satisfaction. Killing stuff quickly and getting a lot of shiny things.

A couple of the ways you are more like Diablo 2 is you still have stat points and you still have skill points as opposed to auto-stats in Diablo 3. So what is the benefit in your opinion of having stats points?

There’s always the problem that roles will dead-end themselves with stat point investment. But I think for it to be rewarding there has to be a chance for it to be not as rewarding, sometime things should occasionally go wrong. And one of the reasons I think that worked so well in Diablo 2 in that it’s such a fast game. You get through the game relatively quickly so if you make a mistake you can try again.

We want people to make alternate characters that have a unique flavour and are thought of as unique characters and there was a set of decisions that resulted in a character. I like to have an identity for a character and it’s not something we want to steer away from.

We have attempted in this stat system to make dead-ends less perilous. We have tried to give each of these stats more utility for every class and every character you want to make and hopefully we have succeeded with that. We do like to give you choices.

And the same thing with the skill points?


And the skill trees, there’s no pre-requisites?

There are currently no pre-requisites, but we can support them, there are level requirements. We have tried to keep people from having to take skill they don’t want in order to get other skills. There are no explicit synergies, there are skills that play off one another in that it provides benefits to another skill and can be used in conjunction, but no synergies like they existed in Diablo 2.

Do you have skills that are obvious upgrades?

We usually don’t have skills that are just bigger and better versions of a previous skill. We want all the skills to feel unique. We would rather have a skill that got more visually and physically more potent as you put skill points into it.

We try to make the skills viable for a long period of time; a lot of our skills incorporate DPS to help retain viability

One of the inherent problems is that you have a lot of skills and you want them to feel very powerful and very useful and if you succeed in making them powerful and useful a lot of players can just use that skill and have fun using that skill and I think to a certain extent we have to come to terms with that in the normal game. Ideally for people who are more hardcore players playing at higher difficulties, there’s more advantage to combining those skills because you are overcoming more difficult threats.

Are there any achievements in TL2?

We will be doing achievements but we haven’t put them in yet. They will probably just be Steam achievements than our own achievement system.

You still have the old school interface, the red bulb, blue bulb,  and in some games mana becomes irrelevant for melee characters

Ideally for most of our Melee skills for like the Berserker, we decided to stick with a single resource system this time round instead of trying to develop a lot of different resources. But we have tried to combine that with the charge mechanic, it’s kind of our separate resource system

So what is the charge mechanic?

Each class has a charge mechanic that’s specific to them. So for instance the Berserker accrues charge with melee attacks and once they have maxed out their charge bar they’ll go into an overdrive state where every attack is an instant critical hit.

The Engineer is different, he accrues charge through physical attacks and the charges are tied in more closely to the skill system so that skill gets physically more potent. So not only do you have cost for your skill, you have a separate mechanic that increases the potency of skills.

How often does the charge fill up in regular gameplay?

It’s relatively brisk, part of the function is to encourage you to stay in combat as it depletes after you have been inactive. Ideally it’s not more than 30 or 40 seconds.

How long will the benefit last?

It varies from class to class and there’s skill that can modify how long it can last or how fast you accrue charge or how much is depleted when you are using it.

One of the big draws of the genre is items and you talked yesterday about how in TL1 it wasn’t really refined or balanced.

Yeh, it really wasn’t. Assets came in really close to launch and we had to get a lot of stuff done and there as very little time overall.

As far as Torchlight 2 goes, Eric (Schaefer) says this is probably the most items he has done for any game ever. I don’t know what the final count is but it’s pretty huge. We have more weapon types than we have had before; we introduced claw weapons and cannons. As for other individual items that have been created, there are more than Torchlight 1, both on the armour and weapon side and we’re spending more time working on uniques and how the effects are apportioned between the items to make more distinct.

In Torchlight we had way too many items and most of them were worthless and with Torchlight 2 we tried to reduce the number of items that are dropped but to have a greater variety overall.

Now things below you character level are automatically identified right?

The identification system is tiered out, all uniques are never identified by default but them again you know that every unique is going to be interesting and worth identifying

Green items which are our randomised effect items are always just identified. They generate lower tier stuff. Blues are automatically identified if they are of your level or below. We tried to still have the fun of finding an item and not knowing what it is and being able to uncover that without making it this drudgery of constantly clicking on scrolls and identifying stuff you know is trash.

We trying to make sets achievable to assemble, In Torchlight 1 you’d find one or two set pieces on a play through, I mean whoever assembled a set in Torchlight 1? I not very many people. You had to be really committed.

Torchlight 2 we are giving more sets that are a lot easier to achieve. There’s a much higher drop rate on set items overall.

How much in-game testing have you guys done?

We test all the time and the testers are constantly paying through all of the game, which at this point, is assembled end to end which means a lot of hard work through all the acts and balance and tuning. But right now we are going through the game step by step.

The kind of testing I am talking about is more dev testing, we are sitting down, playing with the numbers, playing in the zone and seeing how things feel.

Can you briefly describe the planned end-game.

We are not doing the endless dungeon; it’s something that doesn’t particularly work well in multiplayer.

So we have two aspects to the end-game.  One where you beat the game and you can start over and go through the campaign again with your level 50 character.

The other is doing a dungeon map with friends or by yourself and some of these dungeons will have bosses from previous areas of the game. It’s a sort of mini-run for specific kinds of gear. So if I want to play with some buddies I can select a map for a level 55 on an act 1 boss.

Are you thinking about expansions?

We haven’t talked about an expansion per-say, certainly nothing that we would charge for.  It’s highly likely we’ll release chunks of stuff we will release to people for fun to help support the game.

We’ll be getting the editor ready for release as soon as we release the game which is another undertaking.

So where did the Runic Games name come from?

The original name of the company was Surprise Truck, which I think was a phrase Max and Eric liked in a song. They did the initial paperwork for incorporation, I still have credit v=cards that say Surprise Truck.

So when is it going to be out? I have to ask.

It’s going to be out as soon as it’s done and we’re happy with how it’s completed. We just are getting it done as quickly as we possibly can.

Taking the time to get it out the door is not a luxury we had with the first game and we have the ability to do that now.