"We were a new studio and we had to come quickly and make a big hit right away to establish ourselves," says Runic Games CEO Max Schaefer, talking about creating a hit game the way you or I may talk about making waffles for breakfast.
As a debut game, Runic made Torchlight, a hack-and-slash in the tradition of Diablo, a game the studio was familiar with, as Max Schaefer was an executive producer on Diablo and Diablo 2. His brother and then-Runic chief creative officer Erich Schaefer was likewise one of the Diablo series' creators.
Torchlight had a manageable scope, and that was by design. Runic knew the genre from front to back, and stuck to single-player to reduce complexity. The studio used computers it had purchased out of liquidation, and there were only 14 people at the company when the game shipped. They created Torchlight in 11 months. It sold close to 2 million copies, and as ultimately ported to the Xbox Live Arcade.
Schaefer describes Torchlight 2 as a "natural extension" of the first. It featured multiplayer and extension support for mods. Runic staffed up to around 26 people and took over three years to make the game. It sold close to 3 million copies.
"I've been doing [action role-playing games] now since around 1993," Schaefer says. "It's basically all I've worked on from Diablo 1." The team was ready to tackle another genre after the success of Torchlight 2.
Runic spent about a year on a game set in space, and then the studio changed forever. Co-founders Travis Baldree and Erich Schaefer left Runic to form their own company, and to finish what would later become Rebel Galaxy.
This is the story of how a studio put itself back together to create its next game, Hob.
Hob's debut trailer
Losing the head, saving the body
"It made sense," Schaefer says, talking about the departure of the two men. "Travis is very much a one-man army. He likes to have his hands in everything. To some extent, other people just slow him down. It made sense that he was a mismatch for a 30-person company." While Schaefer makes the co-founders' departure sound amicable, he admits Runic had to change significantly to survive.
"It shakes people's confidence when two top guys in the company leave," Schaefer says, looking back. It didn't help that because so much of the previous games went through Baldree and Erich Schaefer, the studio was used to depending on them. "Suddenly that safety blanket wasn't there anymore."
The studio couldn't find someone who could step in and replace Baldree. "That person doesn't exist in the world," Schaefer says. Those still at Runic had to grow and gain more responsibilities. Everything about how they did things had to change.
"That obviously comes with struggles," Schaefer says. There were missteps along the way, and some hurt feelings. Runic let some people go, slimming the studio down to 24 people.
"That was painful. You never want to downsize and say goodbye to friends, but we really had to do it," Schaefer says. "The new company and the new project requires new structures and new rules."
The studio couldn't find someone who could step in and replace Baldree. "That person doesn't exist in the world," Schaefer says.
The good news is that Runic had been able to shake off some of the action RPG cobwebs in the meantime by working on a game set in space. "It was different, but the basic structure of that is what Eric and Travis are making now with Rebel Galaxy. Rebel Galaxy spawned out of this base game we were working on at first," Schaefer says.
"That was the very first time I've ever worked on a game I didn't finish," Runic President Marsh Lefler tells Polygon. Shifting from nearly a lifetime of action RPGs into a space game that will be finished at another studio — and now a completely different idea — required a lot of change from a studio that had been built on talent and technology that focused on a single genre.
"It's been really hard. I'm not going to lie about that," Lefler says.
The team had an idea for a game that was single-player and filled with mystery. There would be no dialogue, and it would be up to the player to explore and figure out what was going on. Management invited the studio in to talk about ideas, and then took several of the project leads off-site to nail down specifics. The process sounds like something that might involve a sweat lodge and peyote.
"That's pretty much it," Schaefer laughs. "We didn't have the peyote."
The game that came out of all this work is called Hob.
The roadmap is gone
Hob is an adventure game where you play a mysterious character who wakes up on what seems to be an unknown planet. You have to figure out why you're there and what you're doing. "There's a lot more to the narrative than what we're used to," Schaefer says. There is combat, which in motion looks like the sort of battles you see in modern Zelda games, but you have to explore the world and solve problems. You have to learn about what's going on.
"We're telling the story with no words," Schaefer says. "There is no dialogue in the game. There are no NPCs that say anything. There's barely interface on-screen at all. There's a huge process of discovery and learning that is non-verbal." Runic is used to creating setpieces where battles lead to more loot, but Hob is about exploration, not collection and upgrades. This is a game where the team had to slow down and figure out what each piece of the world means. "It's a radical, radical departure than anything we've ever done," Schaefer says.
"It's an open world, but it changes drastically all the time," Lefler says. You'll have to unlock new powers and find items that allow you to explore and unlock more of the environment, and sometimes that means the landscape itself can shift under you. It sounds like Metroid placed inside a Rubik's cube.
That aspect of the game created some massive technical challenges that slowed development early on.
"Streaming [the environment] is the biggest challenge. We don't want to have a lot of load screens," says Game Programmer John Dunbar. The team thought about using the sliding-screen effect from the first Zelda, but ultimately rejected the idea. "That's not as cool as streaming everything in and letting you walk everywhere. We put a lot of extra time into that."
It took months to get the tech ready. There was a monthslong period where people were working on many different aspects of the game, but without being able to stream in the reactive, shifting environment, they couldn't bring everything together for testing. "It's becoming a distant memory, but it was rough going through it," Dunbar says.
"One of the themes we're stressing is wonder and a little bit of mystery," says Level Designer Rick Lesley. "We don't want to call things out for the player. We want them to piece some things together for themselves and really feel pulled in different directions. We want them to feel inclined to look around and not just move forward."
Ico and Shadow of the Colossus are inspirations. "The sense of awe and wonder. Where am I? What is going on? I don't understand," Lefler says. "You get a narrative by playing the game. That's the one thing we absolutely loved and we all talked about trying to do that. Making a world that seemed alien, and playing the game explained that story."
It's a departure for the studio, and that comes with risk. Hob is self-funded. There is no Kickstarter campaign and no publisher. "Honestly, not everything is on the table, but enough," Lefler says. "We're a small studio, not a big company that has a parent that's going to come in and save it. There's a lot riding on it."
"It's weird to say it, but I'm not too worried," he adds. "It's not something I think about." The goal has always been to make games they want to make.
"One of the hardest things for us is we've been making Diablo clones for the last two games," Dunbar says. "Making our own cool version of Diablo, we've had a template to follow, and now we don't. We're off on our own."