What business model are you going with for the MMO?
Schaefer: Right now we're looking at free-to-play: item sales and free download. We like that model because we think subscriptions are just too restrictive. Everyone's got a (World of Warcraft) subscription already, so who wants to put more money on their credit card every month whether or not they play the game? So we like the item sales model. Having said that, it's two years until it releases and that's an eternity in this industry, so we reserve the right to change that. (laughs)
The economy isn't in good shape either. Do you think that's also a good reason to go free-to-play?
Schaefer: It is internationally. The question is, would (free-to-play games) get adopted in the U.S.?
Baldree: The nice thing about (free-to-play) is that it's a low barrier to entry. You get in and try out our game. And we'd like everything about the game to be that way. We don't want you to have a high-end rig to have to run it; we want it to be something people can easily try out.
Schaefer: And we don't want you to have to buy a $60 box so that you can start paying the subscription to play the game.
Do you think the free-to-play market is getting too crowded though?
Schaefer: I think consumers are business-model agnostic. They'll get word of mouth that some game is cool and that's what they'll play.
Baldree: I think we just have to make a really good game. That's the most important thing.
Schaefer: Right. And if it says, "Hey, come check out this game, you don't have to pay anything to try it out," I think that works. Now item sales is more challenging from a design perspective than subscriptions. With item sales, you have the whole issue of having to balance out what you're selling and not angering the free guys, not angering the pay guys and making everyone happy with it. And it's certainly possible, but it is more work.
Baldree: In the end, I think the game has to come first and if we make a really good game, regardless of what we do business model-wise, it'll work.
What kind of items will we be paying for?
Baldree: A lot of things we talked about are things that really still encourage you to play the game. We really don't want to charge people to skip the game.
Schaefer: Right, we don't want you to buy a cool sword. We want to make it so that the guy who pays has a little better chance to find the cool sword than the free guy.
Baldree: And we don't have that much interest in grinding; we want you to just play and have a good time. A good example is one of the things we were going to be doing with Mythos. We had the concept of cartography. You could buy maps that would make a private instance for you and all of your buddies, and you could control the properties of those areas.
So you could say, "I want this to have more champions" or "I want it to be luckier so I can get slightly better loot." These were options you could change for small amounts of money. So you could have one person who would spend a buck and create an epic map for you and your party to go into.
Schaefer: Right, so everyone can participate; you just got to get one guy in your party to buy the map.
Baldree: Things like high-end balance and guild-housing and cosmetic features. We really don't want to be selling the biggest, shiniest sword in the game for money and then have people buy that because it just doesn't feel fair or right.
Schaefer: That's not fun for anybody.
Let's go back to the beginning though. How did the idea for Torchlight come about?
Baldree: A lot of us worked on all of the Diablo games, and all of us have worked on action-RPGs for a lot of years. And we were working on an action-RPG, Mythos, when (Flagship Studios) closed. So I think it was kind of just a momentum thing. We wanted to finish what we started with the Mythos project, and we thought we were on to something pretty cool with that so we didn't really debate it much. When we started the new studio, we were like, "Let's get a real cool-looking action-RPG going as fast as possible."
And having worked on Mythos and Diablo, did you try to differentiate Torchlight from those games? What did you take from those projects and what did you try to avoid?
Baldree: We definitely wanted to approach it with a different visual style and tone, because we're really not trying to make Diablo. We're making a game in that genre, so we consciously went for a more Pixar kind of look to things. Overall, the look of the game isn't quite as grim.
Schaefer: I think also we brought a lot of lessons from the development of action-RPGs from those projects. We learned a lot about the process of making them and how to do them efficiently, and I think we've applied those lessons to the single-player version and will apply the lessons from the single-player version to the MMO. I think every time you do it, you get a little better at it.
Obviously, just from having worked on Diablo and creating a game in the same genre, people are going to make inevitable comparisons to the past Diablo games and the upcoming Diablo III. How do you feel about those comparisons?
Schaefer: I think it can't do anything but help. I mean, Diablo III is a relatively high-profile project with some pretty significant expectations, so as long as the comparisons aren't discouraging we're pretty happy with it. And obviously that is going to be the comparison. I think one of the reasons we've picked this genre is we feel that there aren't enough games in it. There are a million games that play like WoW, but there really aren't a lot of good action-RPGs or MMOs out there. So yeah, obviously, Diablo is the biggest one and therefore we're compared to that. But I think that's kind of testament to the fact that there aren't that many good ones.
Can you comment on some of Torchlight's similarities to Diablo?
Schaefer: I think there are interface conventions that are not just from Diablo and Torchlight that people use because there's no point in reinventing something that everyone already knows how to use and is already comfortable with. It's kind of just frustrating to figure out how interface works or how a skill tree functions when everyone already knows the standard way to do it. So we didn't want to reinvent how you control one of these games or what they look like, we just wanted to give you a new and fresh take on it.
And Diablo certainly didn't invent a lot of those things that people would say are striking similarities. We consciously used things from other games that worked and felt right. And I think every game does that. How many games use the WASD keys and mouse look controls? It's because it's good, and it works. People know how to do it.
Baldree: I think it gets down to the fact that the genre right now doesn't have that many games in it. Right now you have Borderlands, Rage and Fallout 3. All of which are post-apocalyptic, semi-RPG shooters. But the genre is so large at this point that the internal comparisons aren't made as much.
Fair enough... but you could've added a pants slot!
Baldree: (laughs) The pants slot comes in the MMO!