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Musing on Torchlight II’s Real Potential… July 11, 2012

Posted by Wilhelm Arcturus in Blizzard, Diablo III, entertainment, Torchlight II.
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I wrote a post a while back comparing the game play, and other items important to me in a Diablo style game, between Diablo III, which had just launched a couple of days before, and Torchlight II, which happened to be having a beta weekend at the same time.

It was a post of opportunity, as I had played neither game before that week and so I was able to have a fresh look at the pair of them, side by side.

And the conclusion to my post was that, for game play, Diablo III and Torchlight II were close enough that what really separated them was a matter of details.  Those details were minor to some and major to others, but they were not worlds apart.  I said I would be playing both games.

The prime criticism I received about that post was that I did not spend much time on the always online aspect of Diablo III.

The thing is, to my mind, and in my experience, always online is a subordinate issue when it comes to the big picture.

Yes, it is a deal killer for some people.  But the history of online gaming shows that will put up with a lot of crap for good game play.  Day one EverQuest is a good example.  The first year of World of Warcraft is a good example.  And the post-release period of most versions of Civilization are prime examples of people putting up with often horrible technical and environmental issues to get to game play they desire.  The auto-save every turn function in Civ II and beyond was put in because the original Civ crashed so damn often it was practically heart breaking.

Game play trumps absolutely.

Very annoying, but you kept retrying

Players have proven time and again that we will put up with horrible technical issues and oppressive DRM for good game play.  So the negative aspects of always online (lag, downtime) were comparable in my eyes to things people have put up with in the past, while the positive aspect (really easy to play with your friends) seemed a plus.  My opinion, naturally, but I suspect that people who liked the game play would agree.  Unless they died to lag in hardcore mode.

On the flip side of the “always online” issue, one thing I mentioned in that post (along with a couple of other posts) and on which NOBODY commented, was the sentiment that I sure hope Blizzard has some sort of follow up plan for content, game modes, or something, because while I liked what they delivered on day one, there wasn’t enough there to keep me interested in the long term.

My big question is what will Blizzard do with the game they have created?  Eventually it will be played out for most people.  Will it get expansions or new game modes or new games on the same platform?

Yeah, that.

Well, we got the answer to that.  The quote has popped up in a lot of places.

“We recognize that the item hunt is just not enough for a long-term sustainable end-game. There are still tons of people playing every day and week, and playing a lot, but eventually they’re going to run out of stuff to do (if they haven’t already). Killing enemies and finding items is a lot of fun, and we think we have a lot of the systems surrounding that right, or at least on the right path with a few corrections and tweaks. But honestly Diablo III is not World of Warcraft. We aren’t going to be able to pump out tons of new systems and content every couple months. There needs to be something else that keeps people engaged, and we know it’s not there right now..”

That appears to be the tragic flaw which is likely to turn Diablo III into a “flavor of the month” in play time relative to the long term popularity of Diablo II.  “Always online” is small compared to that.

Their key game play driver is flawed and they have no options in the pipe.  Content comes slowly to WoW and this, as they say, isn’t WoW, which sounds like they’ve got nothing.

The first part, the item hunt, as has been well discussed in many other places, Blizzard themselves killed with the auction house.

Even I noticed early on that every drop I saw was usable by characters of much lower level than my own.  So to get equipment at my level, I have to buy it from the auction house.  Drops lost most of their value except as items for alts or fodder for the auction house to finance other purchases.

Chasing loot is dead.  The only point in comparing stats between what just dropped and what I am wearing is to see if drops are closing in my equipped gear, in which case it is a sign that I need to hit the auction house again.

I didn’t start out with that in mind.  I told myself I wasn’t going to use the auction house.  Then, when I started getting frustrated at the low level requirements of the weapons that were dropping, I went there to get a weapon upgrade.  That was easy.  The one piece of equipment I always try to keep current is my weapon, operating on the theory that if my enemy is dead, the rest of my equipment is irrelevant.

But as the gap between my own level and the level requirements for equipment drops grew larger, I started going to the auction house “just to see” what was available.  Uber leet stuff was outrageously expensive, of course.  But items that were a serious upgrade over what I was currently wearing seemed pretty cheap.  Fair to middling gear close to your own level is cost effective, readily available, and usually a huge upgrade over the drops you see.  The auction house won.

So, for me, there is basically the story and group play keeping the game going.

I really like the story.  But the story doesn’t change with subsequent plays.  I can vouch for that.  (Though the need for AH bought equipment goes up.)  And I picked the most amusing companion, the soundrel, for my first run through, so swapping out for the enchantress then the templar in the second run actually made the whole story less enjoyable.

Meanwhile, group play requires me to actually log into the game.  Since my return from vacation, the war in Delve has been my main focus, so I haven’t actually logged in.  We’ll see what happens this weekend, but for the moment Diablo III is looking like a pretty weak entry in the “Games I Play” section on the side bar.

So what does this have to do with Torchlight II?

Well, to start with, TL2 has no auction house.  So, in theory at least, the “item hunt” game is more viable.  That remains to be seen, the itemization in Torchlight was kind of quirky… 1h and 2h weapons seemed to have the same DPS at points, so why would you go 2h if you can dual wield… something I also saw in the TL2 beta… but at least they haven’t shot the whole thing in the head the way Blizzard has.

But, probably more importantly, TL2 has support for mods, so users can create more content for the game.  More content is the gaping hole in Blizzard’s plan, and likely the only thing that can save them.

So Torchlight II is poised to wipe the floor with Diablo III, right?

Not so fast there, sport.

First, I am not sure what winning and losing even means in the context of these games beyond day one sales.  For once, we are not talking about subscription numbers.  The money comes in when people buy the box and that is about it.

And Blizzard has sold a lot of boxes, in part just because they are Blizzard.  Success leads to success, and not only did Blizzard set some sort of record moving boxes in the first 24 hours, a lot of those boxes were going for close to $60, which is about three times the list price Runic is charging for Torchlight II.

Torchlight II will likely not set such records.  The company is not that well known outside of core gamers.  My wife knows who Blizzard is, but I am pretty sure that Runic Games would just get a blank look.  And they do not have the budget yet to make themselves well known.  TL2 could change that for them, but they won’t be going into this deal with that name recognition.

Furthermore, TL2 is going out in a limited sales channel.  You can, to my knowledge, buy it online through Perfect World Entertainment or via Steam.  That is it.  And while digital sales may very well be the future… and digital is clearly the right fit for Runic with its “keep it lean” philosophy… boxes on shelves, even if those boxes are on shelves in an Amazon warehouse, still make up a big part of the sales channel.

So it seems that, at least in the short term, Diablo III will eclipse Torchlight II in sales.

“So what?” I hear a voice in my head say, “TL2 is providing the tools to keep it viable long after we’ve stopped playing D3!”

Runic seems poised to pick up the slack in the one area that Blizzard has admitted failure, additional content.  More content gives you more reasons to play the game.  And there are two potential avenues for this.

Runic can actually sells us more content.  This might even be in their plan, post-launch DLC adventures or what not.  But I have not seen anything to indicate that this will come to pass.  And since they seem to have plans for a game beyond Torchlight II, a Torchlight MMO or some such, it seems more likely that we will see a replay of Torchlight.

With Torchlight we got a game, we got some patches, we got some ports to other platforms, and eventually we got a box on the shelf.  What we did not get was an ounce more content.  This was fine because they were clearly headed off to do Torchlight II, which sounded more like the game we wanted in the first place.

Maybe it won’t be that way this time around.  Maybe the Runic team won’t rush off to the next project.  We shall see.

But if they do, that still leaves mods.

Mods.  I am even going to link to a definition of mods, just because it has some good examples.

A well done mod is a thing of beauty, something that can transcend the framework of the original game.  A good mod can make people buy your game.  About a decade back I bought Battlefield 1942 specifically to play the Desert Combat mod.  I installed the game, installed the mod, and then never went back and played the original.  The mods for it were far more appealing.

The problem is that, for every great mod, for every Counter-Strike or Defense of the Ancients, there is a huge pile of… well… crap to sort through.  It is the eternal issue of user created content, the signal to noise ratio is always very bad.  How many variations of the Lost Temple map have people made for StarCraft that really added nothing beyond more resources or maybe better defensive positions so people can turtle relative to the number of truly new and well thought out maps?

And that is compounded by the fact that finding out a mod even exists is a crap shoot as well.  I am past the age where I will go out and hunt down mods on various gaming sites any more.  Mods pretty much have to come and find me.  I am also past the days of the epic install to get a mod to work.  Desert Combat required a whole series of steps, installs, patches, and mods layed down on mods, all done in the right order with the right versions that I am not sure I would have gotten the thing running had not someone in the gaming clan I was in made up a document with all the steps written out in detail with links to the appropriate software.  And people in the forums still screwed up that install.

For me, I need something like what Steam has cooked up.  Their Steam Workshop for Civilization is the level of mod organization and management that is required to make mods more than the domain of the serious hardcore fan.  Since Steam is one of their channels, I hope they will get Valve to put up that sort of interface for them.

So there is a potential there.  I will be interested to see how it plays out, and disappointed if mods fade into a quiet background, as with so many other games.

What do you think?  Blizzard is clearly going to win the money achievement with their sales.  Will Runic be able to make their mark on the content front?

Comments»

1. Tesh - July 11, 2012

I also have to wonder about the cost/profit numbers. I suspect Torchlight 2 took less money to make than Diablo 3. If the company still winds up profitable enough to pay their staff and go on to make another game, I’d call that good enough. They aren’t going to take the crown from Blizzard, but they can make a good living.

…that tangent aside, I do think that T2 will provide for a better experience with a longer tail for the reasons you suggest. If they can tie that tail to the MMO they want to make, all the better.

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2. gnome - July 12, 2012

If TL2 has named gear sets that oiffer a bonus for owning all of the pieces, it will sell me a copy. Otherwise, D3, as long as you ignore the AH, has the loot collection thing down pretty well. Lots of room for improvement of course – which is something else I will be hoping T2 has – but other wise seems to scratch hat itch.

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3. Matt - July 12, 2012

The only person that can really kill Blizzard in this area is Blizzard themselves, and between Cataclysm and D3 they look to be making a serious go at it. D3 is, and not just for me, one of the biggest disappointments in gaming, and if the flaws with the game itself haven’t done enough, Blizzard seems intent on poisoning what’s left of goodwill among its players with the RMAH. I’ve been a Blizzard fan since Warcraft 1. I thought Cataclysm was a fluke, but D3 has forced me to admit that the company has changed, and not for the better.

Torchlight 2 will probably be as much of a success as Torchlight 1, but I’m skeptical that it will be a breakout hit. The thing Diablo had going for it from the beginning was a compelling setting, Torchlight 1, on the other hand, I played through almost to the end and can’t remember a thing about the setting.

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4. Aufero - July 12, 2012

I pre-ordered TL2 – I’ll be happy with it if it has more of a story than TL1 (I vaguely remember some wizard guy getting corrupted by something) and slightly less repetitive gameplay.

I have yet to buy DIIII or read anything that makes me want to play it. It sounds like DII with a bunch of added annoyances.

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5. Aufero - July 12, 2012

I apparently got carried away with roman numerals up there, but not to worry – I’m sure I’ll be annoyed by DIV as well.

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