June 24, 2019
Torchlight Frontiers aims to evolve action RPG MMOs in novel ways
To find out how Echtra Games transitioned to UE4 to build their most ambitious game yet, we interviewed CEO and founder Max Schaefer. The former Blizzard Entertainment director explains how they’re building the game’s vibrant, animated world, which strays from the more drab and dreary aesthetics other games in the genre tend to lean on while detailing the innovative measures the company is using to develop the highly anticipated action RPG. Q: Thanks for taking the time to answer our questions! Considering Torchlight Frontiers is an MMO this time around, how might gameplay be different from previous Torchlight games?
The heart of the Torchlight series is very much an Action RPG. In an effort to innovate within this beloved genre, we’ve incorporated many of the social elements one might commonly find in an MMO to create a new hybrid shared-world experience.
The previous Torchlight games provide us the inspiration, setting, look, and feel that our fans expect. Those were relatively linear adventures that could be finished in roughly 10-20 hours. They had great replay options, but it was all designed around that linear journey; Torchlight Frontiers has to provide a much longer, richer overall experience, but capture that moment-to-moment excitement as well, from the first day of release. This is also a game we intend to keep building and developing for a long time.
To this end, we’ve developed more of an account-based system, where players can have multiple characters all sharing a private Fort, where they can play with various mechanics, but also provide a base where all players’ characters can develop their own identity and share accomplishments. On a more traditional level, we’ve created a deep loot game, and introduced some fun new mechanics like our Relic Weapons, which players level up over time to unlock new abilities.
We have also created a world that has a good mix of public open spaces, where you’ll have random interactions with others, as well as private adventures for you and your party. We’ve also introduced what we are calling horizontal content. The world is made up of different “Frontiers.” In each Frontier you level up and progress normally. Each Frontier has its own goals, monsters, and most importantly items, but when you switch to a new Frontier, in some respects, your adventure begins anew. With new elemental considerations and items, you develop your own build for that Frontier. One of the advantages of this is that we can continue to add new Frontiers for the game, and they are available and fun for all players. We won’t just add end-game content, or beginner content; a new Frontier is just new content for everyone.
Q: Several members of the team worked on the Diablo series and the first Torchlight games, what have you learned from those titles that you're bringing into Frontiers?
Some of us have been making ARPG games for most of our careers, in some cases over 20 years. Every time, we bring our previous experiences with us, but each time there are new challenges. Sometimes it’s budget and time, sometimes it’s battling extraordinary expectations from customers. But this is in our wheelhouse. We love this genre, and we love the Torchlight franchise.
We’ve developed in-depth theories on how combat should work, from scaling item damage, how get-hit animations feel the best, to how to do random level generation. However, we’ve always made one-time purchase products. This means we usually make the game, put it out for sale, and apart from a patch or two, we’re done. This time we get to work with our community to evolve the world for a long time to come. It’s an exciting opportunity, and something we haven’t been able to do before.
Q: The characters introduced thus far seem very unique and distinct from each other. Can you talk about the studio’s approach to designing characters/classes?
We’ve always approached character design with a simple philosophy best described by our old colleague Matt Householder as “familiar novelty.” We don’t want to make the same traditional mage-fighter-rogue every time. Each character class should be something new, but they should also be something that is intuitive, and feels like you know what they are right off the bat. You should get a sense of how they fight, and what sort of skills they have, just by looking at them, even though you’ve never played that character type before.
Q: How many playable character classes might players expect to see at launch?
At least three, maybe four. We’ll see where we are at when we release. Content development will be continuous, though, so “launch” is just a date on the continuum.
Q: Torchlight Frontiers de-emphasizes player levels and focuses on item/weapon-based stats. Can you explain the reasoning behind that shake-up?
We’ve actually kept leveling within a Frontier, and some vestiges of overall player level. So you progress, and get stronger, and learn new skills normally. But we reserve some of your advancement and power for each new Frontier. Again, the motivation is that when we add content, we want it to be for everyone, not just a subset of the players. And we can give new Frontiers unique challenges and attributes that don’t neatly fit on the player progression chart.
Q: The previous Torchlight games allowed you to choose your difficulty. How are you balancing the challenge of Frontiers considering it's an online MMO?
It is different, and we won’t have normal difficulty levels. Fortunately, this sort of game is at least in part, self-pacing. If you race ahead of your level a bit, the difficulty increases. If you feel underpowered, you can run some lower level dungeons until you catch up. You generally play at the level of difficulty of your choice. We are also playing with a number of hardcore and hardcore-lite mechanics, so players looking to take some risks and up the danger level will have plenty of opportunity.
Q: Torchlight Frontiers features beautiful graphics with vibrant colors, which sets it apart from other games in the genre. How did you achieve the visual look of the game?
We are just expanding on the aesthetic developed at Runic Games by the original Torchlight developers. A lot of us came from the Diablo series and we built Torchlight in the shadow of the looming Diablo 3 release, which is why we wanted to differentiate ourselves. Also, after Diablo, Diablo II, and the expansion Diablo II: Lord of Destruction, we’d been playing in the dark, gothic, violent, and sometimes disturbing atmosphere for a long time. It’s a refreshing change to play in a world that doesn’t take itself quite so seriously. This is especially refreshing for an MMO, since, to some extent, we are asking players to come live in our universe for a while.
Q: The animations look fluid and larger-than-life. How did you go about creating them?
Animation is much, much harder to nail than it appears. You have to infuse your characters with personality, but also want to make sure they are responsive and that combat feels tight and intuitive. There are so many ways for it to go wrong, and it’s a testament to our animators and art department that they are hitting the mark so well. We have so many rules for combat animations, swings, idle animations, deaths, etc., and yet we ask that each character and monster still exudes personality and individuality. It’s hard enough to make any basic walk cycle look normal. To get all the rest in there takes real professionalism.
Q: Considering the first two Torchlight games didn't use Unreal Engine 4, what made UE4 a good fit for Torchlight Frontiers?
The original Torchlight games were built with a custom engine layered on top of the open-source (and free) Ogre 3D engine. It served our technical (and financial) needs at the time, but this time, we have a whole new team unfamiliar with the inner workings of our old engine. We are also developing console versions simultaneously. Unreal Engine 4 lets us easily do that, and it’s so extensively documented. So many talented engineers and artists have experience with it that it’s given us a tremendous head start. It will have probably saved us a full year of development overall by the time we’re done. This is one decision we’ve made that I don’t think a single person on our development team regrets.
Q: How was the transition to UE4?
Working with UE4 has been good. We were able to get something up and running relatively quickly. We went a long time without a graphics programmer, and generally our programming team has been relatively small because of the technologies that UE4 already has and continues to add.
Q: Does the studio have any favorite UE4 tools or features?
I’m sure there would be a variety of answers to this across the studio. Sequencer has allowed us to create special moments in the game with a minimal amount of engineering on our side. We rely entirely on the dynamic lighting and dynamic nav mesh systems, which are complicated problems that we only need to wrestle with on the outside edges. UMG has been one of the better UI systems that I’ve worked with, too.
Q: Has it been helpful having access to UE4's source code?
The source code is the best documentation for UE4.
Q: Considering Torchlight supports keyboard/mouse and controllers, did UE4 make it easier to implement?
The support for various input types has been robust and helpful. We’ve been able to support keyboard/mouse and controllers from the first few weeks of development.
Q: When do you plan on launching the game?
When it’s ready! We have lots of announcements coming up that will shed some light, but frankly, our own plans change over time. We are up and running our game 24/7 in closed alpha already, but the actual release dates and plans are still in flux. When we nail something down, generally we announce it quickly.
Q: Thanks for your time. Where can people learn more about Torchlight Frontiers?
Please check out our website, PlayTorchlight.com, for news and a chance to sign up for closed alpha.
Also, come talk to us any time in our Discord channel: https://discord.gg/playtorchlight. Our devs are active there.