…because of WoW, and all the dumb money and all the publisher pressure, there’ll be lots of games that shouldn’t have been MMOs but would have been great boxed products. Lots of publishers are pushing for that subscription pie, but they’ll fail.
-Rob Pardo, MMOs Past, Present, and Future Panel at GDC 2007
We’ll get to that quote in a bit, but first we must go back to 2012, back to the war to see who would be crowned the REAL successor to that most beloved ARPG Diablo II.
The claimants were Diablo III, which had the name and Blizzard’s might behind it, Torchlight II, which had some of the original Diablo development team on board, and Path of Exile, which was the dark horse indie candidate in the race.
The competition was a big enough deal that I made categories on the blog for all three of them.
In the end I think Path of Exile felt the most like Diablo II when it came to style and atmosphere.
Diablo III, after a bad start, eventually got fixed when Blizz removed the auction house and got the itemization lined up correctly and went on to be the big money maker of the three. It sold more that 30 million copies, got an expansion, and continues to get attention and updates from the company that we could only dream of during the Diablo II era. A version was just announced for the Nintendo Switch even. Still going!
And then there was Torchlight II. It was good. Cute. Colorful.
But where Diablo III had story and Path of Exile had atmosphere, I am not sure what Torchlight II really had.
Not that it did poorly or anything. According to that Steam leak thing I wrote about a few weeks ago it was in 57th place on the list with close to five million copies in play on the platform. The is an impressive haul, well ahead of Civilization VI. Nobody can fault you if you beat Sid Meier.
Granted, it took them a few years to get the promised Mac OS version out the door and at that point it sounded like those working on the game were done with Torchlight. That seemed to be the end of plans for a Torchlight MMO, something that had been talked about since the original Torchlight came out. The original talk was of going from single player to multiplayer and then to an MMO.
And then there were some of the founders leaving the studio along with the fact that Perfect World Entertainment bought them out, and it seemed like the Torchlight saga was done.
Again, not that it had gone badly, but maybe Torchlight II was enough. I mean they never did any addon expansions or DLC or any of the usual things you do to keep something you want to remain a franchise in the public eye. Sometimes you just reach the natural end of things, which was what seemed to have happened here.
So I was a bit taken aback when a couple weeks back there was an announcement that Perfect World was planning a Torchlight MMO. What is the vision for Torchlight Frontiers here?
Not to rain on anybody’s parade, but I couldn’t see the real point, at least not in MMO form.
And no, I am not going the Gevlon route about “productive MMOs.” That is nothing but the usual gamer hubris where we project our own likes on the world and pretend that everybody thinks the same way or that it has some actual logic to it. Wrapping your personal bias in a tissue thin layer of faux objectivity doesn’t change what it really is in the slightest.
My objection tries to get closer to objective reality, or so I would hope.
MMOs are not easy to make and they certainly are not cheap to make. Also, the market is already crowded with competitors. Meanwhile Perfect World has traditionally been a purveyor of Asian style MMOs that don’t really do all that well in the West along with titles that couldn’t keep their original studios alive and were no doubt scooped up at bargain basement prices to be milked via cash shops and lockboxes for every last farthing they can provide.
In that scenario it is difficult for me to see much in the way of hope for anything worthwhile coming out of this idea. Instead of an attempt to meet some real world demand or cater to a specific demographic, this all smacks of the quote at the top of the post, except in 2018 we have to substitute in “pushing for that cash shop pie” in place of “pushing for that subscription pie.”
Yes, there is talk of there being some Diablo and Torchlight devs involved, but when they say it won’t be a generic MMO but a Torchlight MMO through and through it sounds almost like a contradiction, because if I were to fault Torchlight II on anything, it would be on its mild blandness. There was nothing wrong with it, but despite playing through the game I barely remember any of it. I am sure there must have been a story to it, but I cannot remember any of it.
I actually reinstalled it via Steam last week just to revisit it for a while to see if my memories of the game had just faded over time. After a couple of hours of play my hazy impressions were pretty much reaffirmed. It is a decent game, if a bit bland, with a story that never really gets much traction in my brain. It feels more incidental than anything. There are just several other ARPGs that I find more engaging, such as Grim Dawn, Diablo III, Path of Exile, or even the remastered version of Titan Quest. So I am not really seeing this as a property that screams to be made into an MMO. Of course, I could say the same for the other four titles I listed out.
I know, I know, you can say you’re going to make any sort of MMO and you’ll always get some people excited about it. In spite of our constant and repeated experiences over the last decade the acronym “MMO” still retains some magical properties. People still long for a shared, persistent world to travel. People will project their memories and ideas on it and get all excited about an imaginary game that as like as not will bear no resemblance to reality. That path leads to inevitable disappointment.
So given all of that I cannot help but draw back from this and ask if it is really a good idea. Given the state of the market, the limits of the franchise, and the reputation of the publisher is this something to get emotionally invested in yet?
And that leaves aside the basic game play questions. For example, is playing Torchlight II with more than the full party you can play with now really a worthwhile goal? Are dozens or even hundreds of other people around in this click-fest really a benefit?
I think that the best possible outcome might be a setup like the original Guild Wars, where there were certain shared areas like towns but that the actual content was limited to you and your party. That sounds a bit like what they are aiming for, though I think having the overworld all shared and only dungeons instanced out for parties might be too much shared space unless they plan on a lot of dungeons.
As for the worst outcome… the mind boggles at the possibilities. I would not bet against something like a revival of the failed Diablo III real money auction house for starters. But we know from history that you don’t even need a cash shop to get RMT in motion in an MMO.
Diablo II RMT site ad from back in the day
I mean, Path of Exile is there as an example of how not to get mired in RMT, but I suspect that that Perfect World would see that as limiting their revenue potential.
Meanwhile, the fact that it is targeted for next year (developer optimism is evergreen) and is planned for Windows, PlayStation 4, and XBox One makes me wonder if Torchlight Frontiers will in anyway resemble what made Torchlight and Torchlight II as popular as they were.
That is the problem with experience; it inevitably makes a skeptic out of you.
Anyway, we’ll see what comes of this. Maybe we’ll even see it next year.
Others who have chimed in on the topic: