The long-standing dream of an MMO set in the Torchlight universe has died yet again, and I’m unhappy about it.
The original Torchlight was born out of the ashes of two games called Hellgate: London and Mythos.
Hellgate was a big budget loot shooter that was ahead of its time, and Mythos was a side-game at a satellite studio that was both its own online RPG, and a project engineered to help develop Hellgate’s back end.
When Hellgate and its studio died shortly after launch, Mythos was dragged down with them. Both games have gone on to live second and third lives under the auspices of different Asian publishers, and Hellgate is available right now on Steam if you want to see the origins of the loot shooter genre that’s currently well-represented by Borderlands, Destiny and Warframe.
Mythos’ development team had some legendary names on it from the world of action RPGs: Max and Eric Schaefer, two of the lead creators of Diablo, and Travis Baldree, the designer of the acclaimed Fate series.
When Mythos died, the team regrouped as Runic Games. They wanted to make their cool, colorful fantasy action MMO, but now they were back to square one. In order to raise funds, they decided to quickly pump out a Diablo-inspired game to show what their small studio could do in just eleven months, and Torchlight was born.
It turns out that they made one of the best games in the entire action RPG genre, and one of my personal favorite games of all time. It had one hint of the larger MMO that was supposedly coming, in a design concept also used by Mythos. Several of the vendors in the game sell “Mysterious Maps,” which will generate a portal to a new dungeon at your current level with exciting loot tailored to your character class.
These magic maps smartly used the game’s procedural generation system to make new content on-the-spot just for you, and could perhaps have been monetized in some hypothetical future as fun optional content which also expanded the scope of the world.
I wasn’t the only person who thought Torchlight was awesome. The budget- priced game was a runaway hit, and development soon started on the MMO version. But a short way in…they scrapped it and decided to make Torchlight II instead. Eric and Travis eventually left the company and formed Double Damage Games, which now makes the excellent Rebel Galaxy series, and Runic put out one more game in Hob before going out of business.
But Max Schaefer didn’t want to give up on the Torchlight MMO dream just yet. After a several year hiatus, he formed Echtra Games in 2016, hired back many of his former co-workers, and started work yet again on a Torchlight MMO. Finally announced in 2018 as Torchlight Frontiers for a 2019 multi-platform release, at long last the game that had so many different false starts would come to life.
Last week, Echtra announced that Torchlight Frontiers is not happening. Instead, they’re making Torchlight III, by re-purposing all the currently-finished content from Frontiers and re-shaping it into a more “traditionally designed” action RPG without the MMO elements.
For haters of free-to-play games and loot boxes, this is an apparent win. The game will now be a one-time purchase available on Steam. But I’m still disappointed. I’ve been following this whole saga with great interest for over a decade, and I’ve always wanted to see what the Torchlight MMO would be.
In fact, I think the free-to-play MMO format is perfectly-suited to loot-based video games. In the time since Torchlight came into being, several other successful games have proven this. Path of Exile is huge across multiple platforms, and its team just announced a sequel. And then there’s Warframe, the quintessential free-to-play loot game with a massive user base. Destiny 2 also recently adopted this format.
Yes, I know we’re in an era where gamers are rightly skeptical of “live services” as nothing more than a way to cynically extract more money from users. But the live service game design concept also perfectly solves many of the flaws that usually limit the long-term viability of loot games, and by extension, the long term viability of their development teams.
Simply put: in spite of their large size, loot games still eventually get old. You’ll have seen all the content, found all the unique weapons, and maxed out every character class. Then you’re out of luck unless you want to grind against old levels. Sometimes a game will have random challenges available, like Diablo III’s adventure mode, but even then there’s only so many times you can see the same trees, floors, and swords.
Ongoing support fixes this problem. The development team can create new places to go. New worlds to explore. They can freshen up old content with new monsters and weapons, so forgotten places suddenly have life in them again. They can increase the level cap. They can give you a reason to come back and spend some more time hanging out with the characters you worked so hard on.
And they get to keep their jobs beyond the initial launch of the game.
In the old days, this was accomplished with expansion packs, and a few games still go that route. Borderlands 3 has a robust set of expansion content. Grim Dawn has dropped a few large updates(though I’m still waiting on its console release). Destiny 2 went this route at first too…before turning into a live service.
I’ve loved the colorful, expressive world of Torchlight since it first debuted. The town, dungeon, and vibrant effects work of the original game had their own distinct personality that was equal parts cartoon and Diablo. The second game blew out the scope of the world in some interesting directions, but it felt like it barely scraped the surface. These games have always been building towards a vast, ever-expanding MMO world…and Torchlight III probably won’t have that.
Now that the game will be a ~$30 thing on Steam, there’s less incentive to do large scale on-going development beyond a few patches and fixes. Without a continual money stream, Perfect World (the publisher) may not want to pay for more content. And Echtra might very well have to downsize or close yet again if they don’t hit sales targets. Those targets will be quite different since the game is now a one-time purchase instead of a free-to-play game.
Furthermore, they’re putting Torchlight III out in a crowded genre with plenty of good options that are both completely free and frequently discounted, and standing out is harder when you’re just “another sequel.” Hardcore players will eat it up thanks to the new business model, but I’m not sure how the game will stand out long-term against bigger titles like the upcoming Diablo IV or the free games mentioned above. I guess only time will tell. The launch of new consoles this year might help if the game can simultaneously release on those platforms.
The transition from the Frontiers closed alpha to the new Steam release hasn’t been a smooth one. The team has been scrambling behind the scenes to manually send out keys to all their current players, and it seems like many of them just aren’t going out at all. It’s another PR blemish on a game that’s already missed some release dates and is now going through a big design transition.
I want Torchlight III to be good. I plan to be there on day one. I didn’t ever get accepted into the closed beta for Torchlight Frontiers in spite of being a fan and applying early on, so maybe the game was just extremely terrible and that drove the player base away. But I also don’t think changing the business model and scope of the game will magically fix it.
I know that free-to-play MMO’s aren’t everyone’s thing, and I understand why. Their pricing models are sometimes exploitative, and their content can get stale if not guided well. But Torchlight’s development pedigree is undeniable, and they’ve talked about wanting to make a massive ever-expanding online world to explore for so many years. I bought into that dream one hundred percent, and I’m sorry to see it die yet again.