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Torchlight 3 is “still trying to crawl out of the review bombing” after Early Access

We spoke to the CEO of Echtra Games to get an insight into Torchlight 3's early access period, reviewing bombing, and more

Torchlight 3’s initial reveal was far from what Echtra Games, its developer, had hoped for. Upon announcing Torchlight 3 was transitioning from a free-to-play game back to a premium product, fans immediately questioned why Echtra Games would make this decision. Though the decision to pivot away from the free-to-play, shared world model was appreciated, some fans were concerned this move was nothing more than an attempt at a cash grab.

Upon launching on Steam’s early access, players immediately review bombed the game, forcing the developer to address community concerns head on. As a result, Echtra Games is still trying to recover its reputation as the Steam reviews left a lasting impression on the action RPG community. After a successful launch on PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and now the Nintendo Switch, it looks as though Torchlight 3’s fortunes are finally changing.

We had the chance to speak to the CEO of Echtra Games, Max Schaefer, about Torchlight 3’s seemingly rocky development process. During our conversation with Schaefer, he talks about the Nintendo Switch port of the game, the issues players had during the early access period, and the future of the Torchlight series.

Pocket Tactics: Could you introduce yourself and give us a brief overview of the game, please?

MS: I’m Max Schaefer, the CEO of Echtra Games. We have made the third instalment in the Torchlight series. It’s a multiplayer RPG and for the first time in my career, we have made it for the Nintendo Switch, which is everyone’s favourite console platform. And the first time for us that you can take Torchlight on the go.

PT: Did you have any difficulties bringing Torchlight 3 to the Nintendo Switch?

MS: Our biggest challenge with the Switch is maintaining the same graphic look, and play that we have on people’s crazy gaming PCs, Xbox, and PlayStation. But, at the same time, everyone’s favourite machine is the Switch these days. We just wanted to make sure we got as close to that PC experience as we could on the Switch. 

It is a little bit challenging because when people play on their PC, they’ve got giant wall-size 4K monitors. The UI that would be appropriate for sitting 18 inches away from your monitor, it’s very different from what would work on a Switch screen. Fortunately, from the very beginning, we intended to be on consoles, including the Switch. We designed our UI and everything to work both on both mouse and keyboard and with a controller. 

PT: There seems to be a subsection of the gaming community that plays primarily on their PC and on the Switch. Is something like cross-play or cross-saves on the cards?

MS: Cross play is more challenging for us, because all the different systems have their own friend systems. Cross save is much more plausible. That’s something we’re looking at for future updates. We just kind of wanted to see our numbers and establish what type of game we are. Are we an online game, an offline game, a Switch, or PC game?

If we were purely a console game, we’d be thinking, should we do couch co-op? Is that our next feature? Or is it cross save, cross play? We want to see where we’re heading to aim for that next big feature.

PT: The latest mobile phones have exceeded the power of the Nintendo Switch. When you look at the new iPhone 12 and Galaxy S20, do you ever think a mobile port could happen?

MS: For the first time they’re strong enough that we could actually entertain the notion of Torchlight 3 running on those systems. But not everyone has the new iPhone, you know. Are you just limiting your market to just that 0.5% of people that have the newest stuff? Even though the top end mobile devices can now carry the power to run these things, it’s just not a big enough market yet.

I think that we’re on the precipice of some really good mobile games happening. The other thing is that your Switch has the controllers off to the side. No matter how powerful your iPhone is, your thumbs have to be on top of it to make it work. That will always be a challenge as well.

PT: Unlike Torchlight 1 and 2, Torchlight 3 spent some time on Steam Early Access. How did that impact the development of the game?

MS: There were positives and negatives. We went into early access taking it seriously. We wanted to have time to listen to our players and make the changes to our design before launch. That part worked for us, and I think the game is better as a result of doing that. But it also meant that we were putting our game out in front of players in an unfinished state. And in fact, the first 48 hours, we had ten times the number of people we’d ever played on our servers. Of course, that crashed the servers, that’s what happens. People were upset. They just paid their $30 and the game is down, they’re right to be upset. 

Our theory was that it’s gonna be rough when we put it out, but we’re going to learn so much that it’s going to work out in the end. To this day, we’re still trying to crawl out of the review bombing that we got from the first 48 hours of everything being down. We had to fight against that, but I do think that it was worth it in the long run to be able to interact with our actual players to find out what they liked, and didn’t like with the amount of time to fix that stuff. 

We basically had a five month mad scramble to do three major content updates to the game during early access. We got what we needed out of it, but was it the right thing to do? The thing is that players now are cynical about early access. Early access is used as a fundraising technique, mostly. We were fully funded from the beginning, so that was the last thing on our minds, but that’s the player perception. They’re like, “Oh, this game isn’t done. They’re just doing the money grab”. You deal with perceptions like that and you have to establish the trust in your community. 

So that was the risk for us. We looked at games like Subnautica, and stuff that was very successful in early access. These games had the time and the duration to build that trust with their community. Nobody looked at Subnautica as a cynical money grab to be an early access, but so many other things have abused the early access process, that we were having to overcome that sort of perception, also combined with the fact that we switched from a free to play game. 

The ARPG community is very passionate, and prone to strong opinions. It’s very easy to think, “Well, okay, we maybe should have prepared our message a little bit more or something.” Early access worked for us, and that we did get in front of our community, and we’re able to make intelligent changes to the game and make it a better game. I think in the long run, that’s what’s going to prevail.

PT: Do you think the Torchlight community got the wrong message with your early access campaign?

MS: Yeah. The gaming community has been burned many times, so their initial reaction to everything is “they’re making the switch for some calamitous, cynical financial reason.” And we’re like, “No, it just fits the game better, and it’s more fun.” We get to just concentrate on making fun things instead of worrying about making the proper incentives to buy little trinkets and items along the way. 

Even if we stayed with the old model, there’s a lot of cynicism with the free-to-play model because, again, the gaming community has been burned so many times. No one is mad at Path of Exile for their item sales, but that’s the exception. There’s 99 other examples where the game is just preying on your gambling weaknesses. There was a lot of cynicism. 

We should have started right from the beginning and said, “Look, we’re doing a premium game.” That’s on us for trying to go down the free-to-play route. But honestly, when we started the game four and a half years ago, to be a globally monetizable game, it had to be free-to-play. I think the landscape has changed since then. Premium models do work globally now. It’s just so much easier because we just put a price on the game, you buy it, that’s it. All we think about is what’s fun, and how do we make that activity more fun.

PT: Is there anything from the early access feedback you received that really stood out?

MS: They want their skill trees. Don’t mess with it. If we give them something at level five, they don’t want that. They want to see big skill trees right off the bat. When we told players you get them later, they said it doesn’t matter. “I’m not getting there later. I’m quitting your game now because you only have two skill trees.”

That was like, okay, fair enough. One of our big updates was this Relic system update where you pick your Relic right up front. You see that it’s a skill tree, and you have three big skill trees, passives and actives, you can make all kinds of combinations. And they were like, “Okay, we like that.”

PT: Was there anything the community wanted that you chose not to include?

MS: People come into something like the third instalment in the Torchlight series with very strong expectations and opinions. The first question we got right off the bat was, where’s fishing? Honestly, people didn’t really fish in Torchlight 2. It wasn’t even that rewarding, but it was there. Even though people didn’t really do it, it was sort of a beloved thing, and so people are not happy that we don’t have fishing yet. 

The second question is, what’s your endgame? That’s weird because people haven’t even played the game yet. The endgame question is the heartbreaker for any game developer. We just spent so much time thinking about what game we wanted to make, and you just switch right over to asking about the endgame.

At the same time, there has to be an endgame. There’s no amount of content that we can make in a story campaign that people won’t turn through in a small number of weeks. You could have 200 people working for five or ten years, and there will still be people that whip through that. These players need something to do, so it’s a valid question. 

PT: You’ve spoken about how early access is both good and bad, but is it on the table for your next game?

MS: It’s on the table, absolutely. I think it would almost have been better to go earlier. People wouldn’t go, “This is late in development and they’re just doing this as a money grab.” Because if you’re there earlier, you can see the game is early in the process and that will be developed with the community. The community feels like a part of the development process. I think that’s probably why it was so successful for Subnautica.

PT: Were you surprised by the somewhat mixed reception to Torchlight 3?

MS: Yes and no. You know where you stand as you’re going into launch day just from what people are saying. There are definitely haters and lovers. We get good reviews and bad reviews and there’s a vacant middle. That’s the curse of doing a third instalment. It’s funny, a lot of us worked on the Diablo series. We talked about how we were so happy that we didn’t have to be the people making Diablo III because Diablo II was so beloved, and there was a big time gap.

Players have this view of the past and how things were, plus the time gap where they just figure you’ve been working on it ten years, you should have ten years of work behind it. The expectations of making a third instalment in a beloved series are almost impossible to meet. And then here we are doing that. We have a new team doing it, which is hard because you have to teach them how to make your game.

It’s been a while since Torchlight 2, so we put ourselves in that same damn position that we always talked about with Diablo III. Not only do we have these unreachable expectations, but In this gap since Torchlight 2, all of these players have divided themselves into whether they’re playing Path of Exile or Diablo III. Those communities hate each other. The Diablo III players are like, “Why would you play a free-to-play game?” and the Path of Exile players say “It’s like you’re kids playing this arcade-y Diablo game”.

We were not surprised to have a lot of work. The other thing is that, unlike Torchlight 1 and 2, those were very much fire and forget games. We made the game, put it in a box and started working on the next thing. They barely had an update. We are much more now an online game. We’ve been working on ongoing content for a while now and we’ll have holiday stuff, seasonal stuff, and hopefully, some larger updates coming down the road too.

PT: A lot of games these days do receive constant updates like this. Was this something you were thinking about throughout the years of development? Was this always the plan?

MS: Absolutely. We were a free-to-play game, you have to do that. Our plan was always just to get it out in sort of its structural form, and then build on the universe as we go. That’s still our plan. We’ve been making stuff, and we want to continue to make stuff as long as it’s financially possible to do so. We have long term plans for the Torchlight universe. We want to be able to fulfil this plan, but the Torchlight community isn’t used to that. We want to break the expectation of having very few updates and show everyone we have stuff coming down the pike, in fairly regular order.

We look forward to the holidays for this reason, because we’ve got some cool stuff coming. It’s really hard to believe but we’ve only just launched the game. It feels like it’s been over a month, but it’s only been a little over a week. That’s the future right now, just keep updating, keep fixing, and keep moulding the game into exactly what people want. That way we can grab the people who don’t like Path of Exile or Diablo III and offer them our game instead.

PT: You’ve mentioned the seasonal updates… are we talking Halloween, or is this more of a Christmas update?

MS: In various scales, yes. it’s very easy to give you a Santa hat, you know? That’s our Christmas update! Then again, it’s nice to have a Santa hat for Christmas. We’re doing a mix of seasonal fun things. We have that queued up for Halloween, and of course, Christmas. The real work is not just the Santa hat or the pumpkin thing, it’s adding to the core systems of the game to make the whole experience from front to back better. That’s really the bulk of the work we’re doing in our updates.

PT: What’s your favorite feature that you’ve managed to bring to Torchlight 3?

MS: I really love the character classes. No Torchlight has ever repeated a character class, and so we knew that we had to make all new character classes. That’s tough because you have to make something that hasn’t been done before, but it has to look and feel like Torchlight. No one has ever had a class with a train that follows you around, or a completely robotic class where you’re swapping out the whole legs, and stuff like that.

PT: Was the community response positive about the new classes?

MS: I think people like the character classes. I’ve put on my asbestos suit and waded into all the negative reviews. I’ve literally seen nothing that says these character classes are too boring or too goofy. I think people like playing as new classes and figuring out their mechanics, how to play them, and what kind of weird variations you can create. I think we’ve really given players a good opportunity to do that.

PT: If you could tell potential owners of Torchlight 3 one thing, would it be that there’s more coming, but you have to actually buy the game?

MS: Yes. There won’t be more content coming if nobody buys it! We will be able to show people that there’s more stuff coming no matter what happens, because we’ve gotten in the pipe already and ready to go. That’s the way we’re approaching it, we are approaching this as an ongoing project. We have plans, there’s more coming, and people will see that even in the worst scenarios.