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Runic On Torchlight vs Diablo, ARPGs' Slow Evolution

Shining a light on that 'one month' confusion

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In almost a month on the dot, Diablo III will finally, honestly, truly launch. This is not a test. Opinions on the beta have been mixed, but still, it is the third entry in a positively massive franchise about everyone’s favorite spicy Latin brand of Satan. We’ve been waiting for more than a decade. All eyes are rightfully on Blizzard’s loot lusting opus. Which is a bit odd, if you think about it. What other genre is so completely indebted to one game? Moreover, is that the slowly festering mark of a stagnant game type? After the curious news that Runic seemingly intends to release Torchlight II a month outside the shadow of Blizzard’s behemoth, I got in touch with Runic CEO Max Schaefer to clarify that comment and chat a bit about the future of the genre he helped pioneer.

So, first up, that whole “release a month after Diablo” thing? That wasn’t exactly what he wanted people to take away from his spiel. Here’s what Schaefer told me:

“It was sort of a misunderstood comment. What we were really talking about there is if the release were to come simultaneously with Diablo, naturally we’d want to wait 30 days just to let the hype die down. The bottom line is we’re gonna work on the game until it’s at the stage we want it to be at and then release it – with the caveat that, if that happens right on top of Diablo, we’d give it a bit of a wide berth.”

“So it really wasn’t saying what we want to do is release a month after. We’re gonna work on the game until it’s to our satisfaction and then hopefully release it right away. I mean, we don’t want to sit on a game for any reason, and we don’t want to rush one out before we think it’s ready either.”

Still though, a month? That’s a bit like saying you’re going to keep your head an entire foot away from the lion’s open, salivating jaw. Not in the belly of the beast, sure, but still way too close for comfort – or at least, you’d think that. Schaefer, though, isn’t so sure Diablo vs Torchlight is even a thing. Obviously, consumer perception tells a different tale, but given the chance to play both, he thinks people will discover a fairly wide gulf between them.

“People have kind of assumed that there’s this great conflict between these two games, but you know, there’s a lot of first-person shooters that come out that are very similar to each other,” he explained. “There’s room for more than one game out there. I think, as we’ve gone on, the games have gotten even more different than the appeared a long time ago. I mean, we were just at PAX East demoing it right next to the Diablo guys, so we could literally stand there and watch people playing both of them. The character of the games is completely different. It’s not just the tone – it’s the pacing as well.”

“But we’re also looking at Diablo III because they’re gonna bring in millions of new gamers and make them aware of the genre. And we generally don’t have huge marketing budgets, so most of our customers are kind of already in the gaming community. And I think that when you have the fame and budgets and all that of the Diablo people, that’s gonna bring in that many more mass market people into the genre. So I see it as building a bigger audience for us as much as anything.”

And, of course, Diablo’s built up a sizable collection of dark clouds that could potentially rain on its long-awaited parade. No LAN play, no mods, a constant Internet connection requirement, and a real money auction house are the big ones, and Runic’s well aware. It’s basic supply-and-demand, really, and – with full support for mods, offline single-player, and no pesky money spending to worry about – Runic plans to supply what disenfranchised Diablo fans are looking for. Mind you, that’s not to say he’s down on the third coming of the franchise he helped create back in the day.

“I mean, when you have a game that big, there’s gonna be people who find things that they don’t like about it, and – to the extent that we do the things that they like – we’re definitely gonna benefit from that. I mean, I think a little of that goes both ways. People are gonna find things in our game they don’t like and decide to buy Diablo. That’s just the nature of things. I expect, though, that people in general are gonna like Diablo III. Just from what I’ve seen.”

That said, while those differences mean a lot to hyper-gaming-literate people like you and I, they are, on paper, relatively miniscule. In a lot of ways, hack ‘n’ slash are RPGs are only a few paces ahead of Diablo II’s decade-old stomping grounds. Over the course of a time period that saw countless other genres evolve, change, rise, and fall, ARPGs (with a few notable exceptions – ala Borderlands) stuck to samey fantasy settings, basic class archetypes, and even eerily similar interfaces. Sure, they’re fun games, but expectation and stagnation go hand-in-hand. Is Diablo’s oft-drawn well beginning to run dry?

“You know, maybe I have no marketable skills other than making Diablo-style games,” Schaefer joked. “But you’re right: [the entire genre] is just kinda riffing off that. But it’s a good thing to riff off of. It’s something that hadn’t been done like that previously, and I think there’s a long way to go before it’s a tired genre. You know, just like first-person shooters. How many times can you be looking at a hand holding a gun in front of you while you walk around in a 3D landscape? Turns out, a lot.”

And so, we circle back around to the beginning: Diablo. Is that it, though? Is this genre doomed to tread water when Diablo’s not playing lifeguard? Is Blizzard’s lord of the damned doomed to be an eternal poster child for a bunch of squabbling me-toos?

“I think [lack of innovation’s] due to the scarcity of the games over the years,” Schaefer offered. “Certainly, there hasn’t been one that’s been more popular than Diablo, but [in comparison] there’s been a lot of resetting the standard of, say, first-person shooters along the way.”

“I think [setting] is definitely gonna be one of the ways that the genre evolves over time. You know, people trying sci-fi and other themes for it. But yeah, I’m sort of at a loss to explain why there hasn’t been more [diversity]. But I mean, there haven’t been a large total number of ARPGs that have been big and successful. It’s a tough thing to do.”

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Nathan Grayson

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