A Failed Online Experiment Is Becoming 'Torchlight III'

A free-to-play take on the Diablo-inspired action RPG is being ditched in favor of something more traditional.
January 28, 2020, 5:09pm
A failed online experiment is becoming Torchlight III.
Image courtesy of Runic Games

Torchlight Frontiers, once pitched as a free-to-play shared-world revival of Runic Games’ hack-n-slash series, is no more. Publisher Perfect World and developer Echtra Games this week announced that Frontiers has been reworked as a proper Torchlight threequel_,_ dropping online requirements and the free-to-play model to don the Torchlight 3 moniker with a premium release this summer.

Announced in 2018, Frontiers would’ve been a somewhat _Destiny_-ish revival for the series. Past entries have always let you co-op about with your buds, but Echtra wanted something more—a thriving social space, one where you could pop down the dungeons with strangers throughout a vast, persistent online world.

However, early feedback from alpha testers seems to have convinced the developer to take the game “back to its roots,” turning it into a more traditional successor to 2012’s Torchlight 2.

“When we started developing Torchlight Frontiers, we were focused on creating a shared-world experience,” Echtra CEO Max Schaefer, one of the founders of Runic, explained in a press release. “During development, you often discover what type of product a game was meant to be and we found Torchlight Frontiers was meant to be a true successor to Torchlight I & 2.

A horizontal progression system with “Frontier-specific levels, gear stats, and scaling” has been traded out for a more straight-forward power climb. Likewise, Frontier’s once dynamic, persistent shared open world is now more akin to the “familiar, linear world structure” of past Torchlight games. An in-game store selling items for real-world money has also been scrapped.

There are new features, of course. Torchlight 3’_s steam-powered roles break from the typical cast of barbarians and wizards, and will each get their own Forts to build up, customise and cram full of loot. There’ll even still be social spots to hang out with fellow travellers. But, ideally, you’ll be able to bash through _Torchlight 3 without ever seeing another human being.

Torchlight 3 is set to release on Steam this summer, dropping inside Perfect Worlds’ Arc Games launcher. That’s pretty last-minute for a total structural turnaround, mind. Running a massive multiplayer service game is a very different thing to shipping solo action romps. Just ask Bungie.

Whether Torchlight 3 feels like a true Torchlight successor will probably come down to how late in development this change really came. Are Echtra and Perfect World reeling in a larger online game to get it out the door? Or does Schaefer’s quote hold weight, and had a solid solo dungeon-crawler been lurking under Frontiers’ skin since the start?

It’s a tricky situation Echtra’s found itself in, though. The studio was formed by the Runic founder and CEO in 2016 to create a multiplayer reimagining of Torchlight, while Runic itself branched out to develop clockwork action-adventure Hob.

Runic, however, would shut down a few months after Hob’s launch in 2017 . It’s not clear how many—if any—Runic staff found new jobs at Echtra after the studio’s closure. This isn’t the first time Schaefer has reformed a team, as Runic itself started out by taking on all 14 former employees at his previous firm, Mythos developer Flagship Games.

Schaefer’s been in the slash n’ loot game longer than I’ve been alive, co-founding Blizzard North back in 1993 with his brother Erich Schaefer and David Brevik to create Diablo. According to a 2018 interview with IGN, an MMO twist on the genre’s been on his mind since his Flagship days. Echtra was his chance to bring select Diablo and Torchlight veterans on board to make that dream a reality.

But Echtra now finds itself back in Runic’s shoes—developing another Torchlight game, with many of the same developers, under a publisher that’s proven it’s willing to shut the whole thing down.