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Journey to the Underbelly: The Story Behind Runic Games and The Development of Hob

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In 2009, the Seattle-based studio Runic Games rose to fame with the release of Torchlight. This award-winning game earned praise for its take on the action RPG genre, character design and art style. While Torchlight II shared similar success, the studio has gone back to the drawing board with its upcoming game Hob.

For those of you familiar with the Torchlight games, any glimpse of Hob’s teaser video or screenshots has likely left a surprised yet intrigued impression. I had the pleasure of speaking with Patrick Blank, Lead Level Designer and John Dunbar, Programmer at Runic Games. We discussed the story behind Hob and the challenge of taking such a fresh approach, one the team has met head-on.

Patrick started his career as a level designer by doing mods for various games. “I got my foot in the door through one of the mods I was making. That kind of started things off and from there I was previously at Gearbox Software for about five years. And then in early 2009 I came here to Runic and I’ve been here for about six and a half years. Previous projects I worked on were Brothers in Arms games, the original Borderlands, a little bit of Alien and then of course Torchlight and Torchlight II and now Hob.”

John’s path to becoming a programmer started off in customer service. “I did that for Atari and then I was in QA for a little while. And then I worked on particles and levels and writing and just kind of filled in on all sorts of stuff. I worked on Fate back at WildTangent. Then we did Mythos… and then I did Torchlight I and II so it was kind of four action RPGs in a row. And now I’m a gameplay programmer.” Following the Torchlight series, Runic studios was excited to start working on a game with a fresh concept, story and style.

“I worked on four action RPGs in a row so I’m real happy to have a breath of fresh air here,” John said. “The game is really different and working on the game for consoles and for controllers is really different, too. We’ve been stuck with the keyboard and mouse for a long time now.”

Patrick shares this enthusiasm. “The level design for those games [Torchlight and Torchlight II], you know the levels are randomized, so there are thousands of level chunks that have to be made for each of those games. And that for years and years kind of wears you out a little bit… we approached this project in getting back to doing something that was a little bit more…well crafted overall, from a level design perspective. It was definitely appealing and just the type of gameplay really giving us a lot of verticality and jumping and puzzles and stuff. It’s been great so far.”

Nevertheless, the team’s excitement didn’t distract them from the reality of how challenging a new approach would be. What exactly would this new game look like?

“We wanted a world that feels alive and the challenge has been finding ways to do that, that work with that tone,” John said. “You can’t have too many things waving around or it feels silly, but we wanted the wind to roll through the world and for it to move things and for things to react to the presence of the player and, of course, the player is shifting things on purpose to fix the world or to clear a way for himself to progress. When you’re making a game it takes a while before all those pieces are ready to come together.”

Yet the pieces did come together to create Hob’s current aesthetic. From the animation to the colors, the game paints a beautiful world.

Why is it a natural world on the surface, and a mechanical world underneath that? Who made it like this? For what purpose? This is all just wait and learn as you play the game.

“It has taken a long time to get to what you see now,” Patrick explained. “We’ve gone through a lot of iterations and a lot of trial and error at trying different things. You know with the versions we had early on, we were doing something visually really different and really stylized but we just weren’t quite hitting the mark where everybody was happy… so it just kept on evolving. We have a really great art team here, and they kept pushing it. “

“We’ve always known that we want the topside to be lush and beautiful and then want this underbelly that’s very different,” Patrick continued, “but I think we’ve struggled for a long time trying to figure out what that is and how to represent that.”hob_landscape

“We’ve been trying to avoid the easy tropes as well,” John added. “We’ve been trying not to have a lot of straight up gears and machinery.”

Hob’s development evolved into a sort of yin yang process. The game’s aesthetic influenced the gameplay, which went back to influence the aesthetic.

“After a while it kind of started … things play into the gameplay and the gameplay would play into the art and I think in the end those helped shape each other,” Patrick said.

Eventually, this constant evolution brought out what would be the core element in Hob’s gameplay.

“The game has combat and it has puzzles and it has the exploration of the world and we need all of those pieces to be solid,” John explained. “But just as it has come together, I think the explorations going to be the real star of the show. It feels like an interesting place that you want to know more about.”

The need for exploration is no more apparent than in the central mystery of the game: underneath the natural beauty lies giant machinery that appears to be running the world.

“That’s exactly what we wanted you to be wondering about,” John said. “Why is it a natural world on the surface, and a mechanical world underneath that? Who made it like this? For what purpose? This is all just wait and learn as you play the game.”

Naturally, the Runic team couldn’t completely shut out their experience from the years spent on the Torchlight series.

“We’re gonna wear you out on this game too,” John said. “Hob is not a randomized game, but big pieces of the world actually can be moved around, like what you’re doing throughout the game is fixing the world. To make a random game you have to plan the levels very carefully so that they fit together, but you kind of have to do the same thing on this game, too, because stuff is moving around and it has to work every which way… I think we’re putting some of those randomization skills to use even though this game isn’t technically randomized.”Once the team discovered how exploration would play in Hob, this went on to influence other stylistic elements, including music. Yet of course, everything is subject to change.

“I think this is going to be an evolving thing where we’re going to tune it as we go along,” John explained. “It’s kind of conflicting because we have Matt Uelman on the project and he writes beautiful music and he’s written some really cool stuff that fits the style of the game very well, but the sparse nature of the world goes along with not having so much music. Just hearing the sounds around you helps you learn about the world and we actually put quite a bit of time to making the sound effects fit.”

“We wanted almost everything in the way including the soundtrack to be a little bit more minimalistic, so that you can hear more of the ambient stuff and that’s more of the soundtrack to the game,” Patrick adds. “There are certain parts in the [PAX Prime] demo where we do turn the music down or even cut the music so that we can have something else come forward. In the demo you go down underneath into the underbelly, we turn off all music so all you hear the ambience going on under there.”

The demo at PAX Prime also confirmed that there is no dialogue in Hob. When asked about this, Patrick and John said the decision made sense, again, once the exploration aspect was nailed down.

“I think when we finished Torchlight II early on it was a joke just so we didn’t have to deal with localization,” Patrick said. “But as we started getting into the game and going through the tone that we wanted, we wanted to be unique and part of that was … not doing quest givers, not doing quests, not having to deal with any of the dialogue and focusing heavily on the exploration aspect and let that drive the game.”

The absence of dialogue leaves a lot for players to speculate regarding the main character. Screenshots and the PAX Prime demo, for instance, show the main character with a large glove. I asked about the main character’s story, and if the glove is central to the weapon/upgrade path.

“The lead character … is tied very closely to the story of the game, and that’s something that is introduced to you through the gameplay,” John said. “It’s really something you find out about as you’re playing.”

“The glove is kind of the core of your character’s special abilities and as you get new abilities you’re gonna be able to get to new places,” John continued. “The PAX demo was kind of linear but we intend to make more of a Metroid-mania kind of open world game, so there’ll be places you can see that you wanna get to and you can’t … until you have to get a new glove ability and now you can get there.” Regarding the glove itself as a main item, John said, “We have a few other ideas for glove abilities, but yeah that’s something that you’ll collect throughout the game, and you’ll be able to use them for traversal but also for fighting monsters.”

From what we’ve seen so far, players seems pretty much on their own to explore the world the main character has awakened in. To learn more, I asked about the dispersion of enemies and if there were any supporting characters.6-Replacement

“In Torchlight we had hoards and hoards of enemies,” John said. “For this game we want to do fewer, more interesting enemies. So you won’t be finding as many at once, but each of them are going to be more interesting to fight. You’re going to have to use more strategy. You’ll have to block and dodge. They may have specific weak points that you need to exploit…. So we have the boss monsters that’ll probably have some puzzle elements. We have a lot to do and just overall, the monsters are going to be a lot smarter than they were in Torchlight and they’re going be able to do more and move in interesting ways.”

“There are supporting characters in the way that there are things that exist in the world…” Patrick continued. “[Characters] show up when needed or are there for certain reasons, or for ambiance, but it’s not like, you never buddy up with another character that then follows you through half the game… It’s just there are friendly creatures that you’ll meet.”

After discussing the evolution of Hob’s development, it became clear how dedicated Runic was to creating a unique game. Yet there’s always an uneasiness that comes with not knowing how players will react to a new game. This is particularly relevant to Runic: with their success based solely on the Torchlight series, players might be particularly surprised.

“What I thought about is that people expect us to make a higher quality game,” John said. “It wasn’t so important that it wasn’t an action RPG, it’s just that we have to keep our standards high while we’re making this project. So yeah, we worked on it for quite a while in secret without talking to anyone about it, and when you do that on any project you get so close to it that it’s hard to tell what’s good anymore. We thought it was good and of course we were constantly thinking about the players and what they were gonna think.”

Regarding outside feedback, John explained, “We brought in some groups for some focus testing, which were very helpful to help us just smooth things out that weren’t easy to understand at first.”

John went on to describe the game’s reception at Pax Prime. “We weren’t sure what the reception was gonna be when we went … just because, again, we were so close to the project we couldn’t tell anymore. And then we got it there and people really liked it and, you know, it felt really good. It’s a relief that it actually was good. I thought it was good, but you can’t be sure until you go and show it to people, so we’re really happy that they liked it and we’re looking forward to finishing it now.”

While we were on the topic of positive reception, I asked about the potential for early access further in Hob’s development.

“We’re kind of an old-school developer,” John said. “I don’t think we’re gonna do early access. We kinda like the model where we make the game and then hopefully people like it and then they buy it.”

“We had it for Torchlight II,” Patrick said, “because it was important for networking and to see how on a large scale the multiplayer worked. I think early access is great for people who want to utilize it, but also as a developer it’s kinda terrifying because you are putting an unfinished product out there and that’s gonna be people’s first impression and we don’t really wanna do that. We wanna make sure that we’re happy with it and that it’s as polished as can be before people get that first impression.”

Nevertheless, Patrick and John agreed it’s likely there will be a demo. “Those always go well,” Patrick said.

The positive reception has only built upon Runic’s energy and drive to complete the game. This includes a confidence to let the game complete itself without relying on goalposts such as total gameplay time.

“We don’t wanna do that, you’re gonna be constantly banging your head against the wall and you’re setting up an expectation,” John said. “Obviously we don’t wanna make a two-hour game, right, but we also don’t wanna make a sixty-hour game… we’re too far to tell where it’s gonna fall.”

Since Patrick and John have been with Runic for several years, I asked them about their experience at the studio, and what it’s like working with a smaller group. For reference, only twenty-three people are working on Hob.

“Everyone on the team has a big impact on the game because we are a small team,” John explained. “They’re not working on the doorknobs, they’re working on large chunks of the game. And we want people to work on things they’re most motivated by because they make the best stuff that way. So I’d say everyone has a pretty large influence on how the game turns out.”

John then went on to discuss Runic’s planning approach. “We’re a pretty iterative company. We don’t do a lot of preplanning. We pre plan some, but then it always turns out that some aspect is more fun than we thought it would be, and some other thing we thought would be cool isn’t so great so we have to change it around.”

Patrick also had positive things to say about working with a smaller team. “I worked at bigger companies, and here with the sixteen-person development team I get more done than I did at a big company with too many people…,” he said. “Marsh and I were here until six in the morning putting sounds in one night, you know, and neither one of us are sound guys. That’s just what we needed to do that night. And everybody kind of contributes where they are needed, but it’s definitely more focused with a smaller team because you know what everyone does and everybody’s willing to chip in to get things done. You don’t have to deal with like 20 producers going to each other trying to coordinate something…. we have an open office, you can just turn around and talk to somebody and that’s been really nice.”

I also couldn’t help but ask if the development of Hob has allowed Runic to give thought to any future projects.

“We just have to finish this game,” John said. “I mean, of course when you make games you see things all the time that give you ideas about games you could be making, but the reality of making games is that it takes quite a while just to finish one. You really have to stay focused.”

From what we’ve seen so far, I’d say that focus has paid off tremendously.

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