Torchlight Frontiers Interview with Max Schaefer

We discuss Torchlight Frontiers with Max Schaefer, his studio, the future of this popular franchise.

Max Schaefer is the founder and CEO of Echtra Games, a San Francisco-based game studio comprised of seasoned developers who helped shape the world of action role-playing games. He is one of the creators and executive producers behind games that defined the ARPG genre, including Torchlight I & II, as well as Diablo I and II. In addition, Max is the former director of Blizzard Entertainment and past co-founder/CEO of Runic Games and Flagship Studios.

Segmentnext: Torchlight Frontiers replaces player levels with item levels. Hence, entering a low-level dungeon with a low-level friend means that my high-level items are going to be scaled down. The loot will naturally be of no use to me. Can I expect to gain anything else for my efforts that will aid me in dungeons of my own (high) level?

Schaefer: You actually do have a player level per frontier now, so you’ll get the satisfaction of leveling up just like traditional RPGs. But as to the scaling – your high-level items are adjusted to make combat fun, and while you won’t find the best level-appropriate items, you’ll get the normal amount of experience, gold, and resources, so it’s still worth your time. Plus, you get to play with your friends, regardless of their level.

Segmentnext: There’s currently a skill respec system in the works for Torchlight Frontiers that will only unlearn a single skill rather than completely re-speccing a character. Can you elaborate on that? Will only the most recent skills unlocked qualify? Can respec points be purchased with gold? Why not just let the players reset their characters?

Schaefer: We are still ironing out the details of our respec plans, but what we are trying to do is give the player an avenue to “fix” mistakes and regrets in skill selection, while maintaining the meaningfulness of skill choices and unique player builds. If unlimited respec is allowed, all players are essentially the same, and you don’t really make meaningful choices. Yet, if no respec is allowed, then players are too nervous to try new things. So the answer is a balanced approach that makes your choices really mean something but provides the flexibility to experiment to find clever build strategies and make unique characters.

Segmentnext: How generous will Torchlight Frontiers be in terms of loot? Can you do a comparison with Torchlight II, which was personally a bit stingy? Do boss chests guarantee high-level items or are they still randomized with a chance to receive trash? Can items be traded with other players or are they bound to the original owner?

Schaefer: This is always a tricky matter of balance. Yes, Boss Chests (and bosses) have minimum quality standards for drops, but we’ve always liked the idea that you MIGHT find the best item, just from a random crate. I’d say the sheer number of drops in Torchlight Frontiers is a little less than previous Torchlight games, but I think we drop fewer meaningless items, so it’s just cleaner. As for trade, this is something we’re still designing. Generally, open trade creates gluts in the market and undermines the idea that you get your items from adventuring and killing monsters. But we’re considering the idea of letting you trade within your party during our adventure. Nothing is set in stone yet, though.

Segmentnext: Can you reveal anything about the fourth class, code-named Remora? Will it be available at the time of release?

Schaefer: No, except that it is super cool. Our goal is to have it available at release.

Segmentnext: How big do you plan to go for raids? Any thought on having four-five parties joining up to take down a single behemoth?

Schaefer: Yep, we are experimenting with that now. Since our modular level generation system allows us to package and deliver custom adventures to players pretty easily, we’re experimenting with a lot of ideas along these lines.

Segmentnext: Torchlight Frontiers has microtransactions to support its free-to-play status. You have to clarify the business model because there’s a fair bit of confusion (and noise) over the game edging into pay-to-win areas. The main concern seems to be with incredibly rare drop rates forcing players to pull out their wallets or continue grinding.

Schaefer: Our monetization will be limited to cosmetics, convenience, and temporary boosts. It is designed to be gentle and unobtrusive. Things like purchased maps with, say, elevated gold drops, can be shared with your party, and are not needed to get the best loot. And you’ll always have to actually do the adventuring to find the good stuff. Our idea is to sell things our players want and are enthusiastic about, and not what they need to continue to play. What you need is all available in the base game. We continue to work with our alpha testers to develop a very friendly, player-approved system.

Segmentnext: Torchlight Frontiers is still without a release date. Many fear that the tentative late 2019 release window for PC might not hold up. Can you provide an update in that regard?

Schaefer: 2019 was an early estimate. As you probably know, we’re better at making games than estimating dates, but the bottom line is the game will ship when it’s done. Shigeru Miyamoto once said “A late game is only late until it ships. A bad game is bad until the end of time.” We want to take the time to get it right, but we aren’t quite ready to update or change our release date.

To ensure we’re launching with the very best version of Torchlight Frontiers, we plan on broadening the pool of alpha testers, so that we can continue using their feedback to improve gameplay.

Sarmad is our Senior Editor, and is also one of the more refined and cultured among us. He's 25, a finance major, and having the time of his life writing about videogames.