Runic Games recently won awards from the GIN and GDC last week for its single-player Torchlight RPG; will the upcoming Torchlight Online MMO folllow in its footsteps?
When the developers at Runic Games announced the Torchlight franchise last year, the MMO industry anticipated that something special was about to happen. The startup company was founded by more than a dozen shining-star RPG developers and game designers, so it didn't come as a huge surprise that the single-player Torchlight received widespread acclaim after its release in late-2009.
Last week, the gaming industry recognized Torchlight's unrelenting influence yet again, when Runic Games won both the Game Industry News’ "RPG Game of the Year Award" and the Game Developer’s Conference "Choice Award for Best Debut" on March 12. But could this be just the beginning of what's to come? As we reported earlier, Runic Games' single-player RPG is only a precursor to the upcoming Torchlight Online, a full-blown MMO based on the same IP that swept the awards last week. Now, more than ever, we're keeping a watchful eye on Torchlight Online, which could become one of the most-anticipated MMOs of 2010.
Seattle-based Runic Games was formed in 2008 by a veteran group of developers after Flagship Studio's closure the same year; Fate creator Travis Baldree and former Blizzard North co-founders Max Schaefer and Erich Schaefer converged with the Flagship team (which had previously worked on the Mythos MMO). The result was an all-star lineup of developers who created some of the most-popular RPGs of all time, including Fate, Diablo and Diablo II.
Runic Games announced its Torchlight franchise just one year ago; ironically, the company's major unveiling with a playable demo of the single-player Torchlight was at the GDC in 2009—the same conference where it recently won this year's "Choice Award for Best Debut". Many gamers would agree that Torchlight's widespread acclaim is well-deserved; the action-oriented RPG is commonly favored as one of the best "Diablo-like" video games to surface in the past few years.
Last year, in ZAM's preview, we praised Torchlight as one of the best dungeon-crawlers we had seen, despite its relative simplicity. In fact, as far as most hack-and-slash RPGs are concerned, Torchlight actually excels because of its intuitive gameplay mechanics and fun, cartoonish visual style. It's also insanely-accessible; the graphics engine is so well-optimized that Torchlight is commonly hyped as "netbook friendly."
From the very beginning though, the developers at Runic Games had the MMO industry in its sights; in early interviews, CEO Max Schaefer explained that the single-player Torchlight was always intended to be a forerunner to a free-to-play MMO version. "We're partnered with Perfect World," Schaefer told us in September, at PAX. "They've got great infrastructure for MMOs. They've got really good customer support tools and things like that. [...] So we're going to take our gameplay, and our style, and our randomization and all that, and layer it in to their backbone MMO. So it'll be a free to play, free to download, item-based MMO that will look and play just like this."
Instead of launching a brand-new MMO out-of-the-blue, Runic Games decided to first test the waters with the single-player Torchlight, introducing the IP to gamers while gathering valuable market data and getting some initial development experience. Torchlight Online will also rely on many of the art and design assets created for the single-player version.
But the MMO won't just be a simple "multiplayer port" of the original; Torchlight Online will feature new gameplay and much more content as well. In our preview coverage last year, at PAX, Schaefer told us that the dungeons "will be a mix of fully shared and instanced," and the "overland areas" like towns and other places will all be shared in a persistent world.
The folks at Perfect World Entertainment (Perfect World, Jade Dynasty, Kung Foo!) must have recognized a good thing coming, because they signed a publishing deal with Runic Games relatively early in the development schedule. Judging by the success of PWE's free-to-play titles like Perfect World International, the deal will likely prove to be a great partnership. In an interview with Gamasutra, Schaefer admitted his confidence in PWE's track record:
"If we can combine our style of gameplay and their expertise... we really have an unbeatable combination," Schaefer enthuses. "Perfect World is founded and run by game makers. Even though they're in China, we absolutely talk the same language... so far it's just been better than great."
Schaefer also told Gamasutra that Torchlight Online's free-to-play revenue model won't leave non-paying gamers estranged. "You have to really make that a reality and not just a perception, because they'll see right through you," he said in the interview, referring to micro-transactions. "Hardcore gamers know more about your game than you do. It's all just a delicate balance."
Schaefer offered an example of a micro-transaction item that the Mythos team was working on that we might see in Torchlight Online; an "optional purchase map" that players can buy for the entire group. "The cool thing is you can bring your party into this dungeon so that only one person has to buy the map, and he can bring all his friends who haven't paid," he told Gamasutra.
In December, the Torchlight IP joined PWE's public roster and news blog, although we haven't heard much about its development since then. Today, Torchlight Online is tentatively scheduled for release sometime in 2011. Here at ZAM, we're expecting Runic Games to probably start unveiling Torchlight Online in the late-summer/early-fall, throughout the upcoming "expo season." And even though we haven't seen a single teaser trailer or game demo, we anticipate Torchlight Online will have a substantial presence in the MMO market later this year.