How Microsoft Almost Published Torchlight, and Other Memories From Runic Games

By Jason Schreier on at

Last week, publisher Perfect World shut down Runic Games, the Seattle-based developer of Torchlight and Hob. To commemorate, we asked one of the studio’s co-founders to share some thoughts and anecdotes.

Runic was founded in 2008 by Travis Baldree, Diablo co-creators Max Schaefer and Erich Schaefer, Peter Hu, and members of the defunct Flagship Studios, best known for Hellgate: London and a game called Mythos that never came out.

Although Baldree left Runic in 2014, he’s got plenty of thoughts and memories from his time there. When I asked him to share some, here’s what he wrote:

I ran Runic games as its president and was the lead engineer and I guess you could say game director. After Torchlight 2 shipped, and a subsequent false start (which was the genesis of Rebel Galaxy), and once we had gotten a prototype for what eventually became HOB put together, I left with Erich to start Double Damage Games and get back to teeny-tiny development again.

My story with Runic ends there, at least in a professional sense - but the team went on to ship HOB, which had a great critical reception.

That’s all just a line to hang things on, though. I don’t want to grind out a boring history lesson, and you don’t want that either. Corner me with a beer sometime if you do.

I just want to tell you some cool stuff about Runic Games. I want to share some of the gooey center with you - what I want to remember.

This is all filtered through my experience, and anyone else at Runic could give you a hundred other anecdotes about the place. If you meet any of them, I hope you’ll ask.

I want you to know how the team of sixteen was willing to hang on in the face of uncertainty while we tried to pin down a future for ourselves for six months, when they all could have scattered to more secure jobs after Flagship’s closure.

I want to tell you about the prototype for Torchlight, with a licensed model from TurboSquid which looked like a dual-wielding Jesus, and who, incidentally, stabbed himself in the face with both swords while he ran.

I want to relay the dread and relief of our first Christmas, when the snow was so deep in Seattle that buses were high-centring, and our bank account was negative, and I was so incredibly drunk, refreshing our Wells Fargo account page over and over, waiting for the wire that would ensure our survival to come through, while the rest of Runic celebrated and trusted that it would all work out.

We pitched Torchlight (when it was still codenamed Delvers) to Big Fish Games here in Seattle. No pitch was off the table! I had a horrible cold, and was loopy with Sudafed. Their conference room was oddly set up, with a table projector, but no nearby power outlets, and a distant wall that was at a 30 degree angle. I stretched the cable from my laptop to an outlet high on that wall, balancing my computer on some books, while the PowerPoint presentation was projected trapezoid-ally at an off-angle. I can barely remember anything from the pitch - I’m sure it was awful. And someone leaned forward over the table afterward and said, “this is all great, but we don’t really make... games.”

We sat down with Frank Gibeau at EA Redwood Shores, did our song and dance, and at the conclusion, he said: “The ink will be dry on the contract next week”. We never heard another peep.

I can still clearly remember my first visit to Perfect World’s old offices in Beijing, wandering through the long tables of artists and engineers and the incredible (and colourful) proliferation of animal-themed humidifiers scattered everywhere, blurting steam. The big tiled bathrooms, cold because of open windows, where everyone was smoking cigarettes.

Zynga contacted us out of the blue. They had been looking at leasing Flagship’s old office space in San Francisco, and had seen a video of Mythos running there. We met with Bing Gordon and a few other folks in their old offices, seated at a table covered with dry-erase scribbles. We talked about their games, and at some point, Bing leaned back in his chair, jutted out his lower jaw and made suggestive wiggling motions with the first two fingers of each hand as he said, “And now, I’m going to part the kimono,” and prepared to divulge their secrets.

I wish you could see the first technical prototype of HOB - I used Wind Waker models, animations, and effects. We had a little Link running around on Outset island, pushing blocks, throwing rocks, cutting grass, swimming, scaling walls, and shouting ‘hya!’ from an isometric camera, just to make sure that the fundamental navigation would work.

It took us so long to find a name for the studio, that in the interim we were incorporated as ‘Surprise Truck’, Max’s vote for the company name. Since my phone number and address were used, I got a steady stream of phone calls asking if ‘Surprise Trucking’ could assist in a cross-country move.

We pitched Torchlight to Microsoft and had extensive meetings, a company vetting, and it all seemed to be going so well. To our shock, at the end of the arduous process, they decided they’d rather have us make a Fable game for them. We declined. Right before Torchlight shipped, a Microsoft rep came up to me at our first PAX and cried “Why didn’t you come to us to publish this?”

We came very close to becoming part of Turbine, and working on a Hobbit themed title. I had the best Old Fashioned I’ve ever had at our first dinner with them.

Now, with the passage of time, it’s just funny that a mobile game called Armed Heroes stole assets from Torchlight, and when they protested, I pointed out that they even had the same misspellings for their filenames.

Max Schaefer and I always argued over floating damage numbers, so one day I added floating text for EVERYTHING - including footsteps.

…and I want to talk about the human element that gets baked into the games.

Especially, I think, for teams the size of Runic and smaller. I’ve always been fascinated by the people who make games, and if you are too, I’d recommend you snuggle up and read the incredible essays penned by Jimmy Maher over at the Digital Antiquarian (www.filfre.net)

If you give 10 different chefs a recipe, they can all bake the same thing, but you won’t get the same result. They alter the outcome. The same is true for games. The people who build them influence the flavor of the thing you get in surprising and often untraceable ways. That’s part of what I love about games - that they’re ultimately very human expressions of a group of individuals, the product of a secret recipe, and seasoned just so because of who was tossing things in the pot.

That was certainly true at Runic.

Runic was a company where our ‘Minister of Culture’ Wonder Russell’s dog ended up in the game as a pet, and has his own Facebook page. (Falcor!)

It was a company where our original tech artist Adam Perin is literally wieldable as a sword, complete with mustache crossguard and glasses - and a few select quotes.

If you’ve played Torchlight 2 you’re probably going to stumble across just how much Patrick Blank, the lead level designer, loves the Goonies. And Claptrap appears secretly late in the game, due to Patrick’s history at Gearbox.

Fishing and pets are in the Torchlight games because of Fate, a game which now makes me feel old because I’m told again and again about that time someone played it on their parents’ Dell when they were a kid.

A game is the sum of a billion tiny decisions, most never discussed, that push it one way or the other. I can look at Runic’s output and see the expression of individuals in a thousand nuances that most people will never explicitly recognise. It’s almost like a cryptic photo album.

Jason Beck, our original Art Director, has a particular affinity for thorny corkscrew designs - which you can see in the first Runic Games logo, but also in some of the interface & logo artwork he did for Fate.

The precision texture tiling of Tim Swope in the tilesets he built is impossible for me to miss when I see it.

A Torchlight player mentioned that they had a condition called ‘Nystagmus’ which meant that camera shakes would render the game essentially unplayable. Marsh Lefler added an option to disable it right away.

The different flourishes our two animators, Colin & Matt, applied are unmistakable to me.

Kyle Cornelius’ chunky, physical concepts that benefited from his mechanical design background. Mike Franchina’s bold shapes, lovely metals, and religious iconography.

Jeff Mianowski’s gorgeous and complex character wardrobes.

Matt Uelmen’s scores as binding agents that hold it all together.

And these things are direct influences on the final products - there are plenty that are more difficult to identify, but all contributed to the feel of the place.

During the first six months of Runic’s existence, when we were trying to secure our future, we almost became part of PopCap - to the extent that we had a get-to-know-you party with PopCap folks. This was in 2008, and then the economy cratered, and on the day we thought we were heading to PopCap’s offices to handshake the deal with John Vechey and Dave Roberts, it died instead. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a little moist-eyed that afternoon.

But even the act of pursuing that, the mental gearshifts we were all making in thinking about our potential future at PopCap, and how we’d approach development, persisted in us. I think you can see a partial expression of their philosophy in the games we made, in trying to make them welcoming and accessible and playable anywhere. I think it’s one of the reasons we added a netbook mode to Torchlight. (I know - netbooks? What are those?)

Even people outside of Runic had an influence - uncountable interactions with fans at PAX tweaked the trajectories of the games we made, from overheard comments, to direct discussions, to tweets and posts.

Runic Games was a special place. That particular arrangement of wonderful people will never happen again. Even if, somehow, we all ended up in the same studio, in the same configuration, at some future date. People change over time. The flavor of those games will always, always be unique.

There’s a melancholy to that.

But...

I also know that these wonderful people will be adding their own fingerprint to whatever it is they do next, and that, when I see it, I’ll recognise it for what it is.