Exclusive Interviews Interview

Runic Games’ President Talks About Hob and Indie Development

Last week, we spoke with Patrick and Jon from Runic Games on the development of Hob. We continue our look into the Seattle-based studio to learn more about this upcoming release. I had the pleasure of speaking with Marsh Lefler, President, Visionary and all-around leader of the studio.

“I’ve been a gamer forever it seems like,” Marsh said when I asked about his career in the industry. “I used to design games like in third-fourth grade. I still have all my notes from it all and I started making games in middle school and high school, then I went to college to make games.…  I grew up in north Idaho so I would have to say that my ability to go to major colleges was not a possibility. In college I ended up making a MMO by myself, getting an art degree and in computer science. I didn’t really finish computer science mainly because the college at the time was doing, like, FORTRAN, they didn’t do C++ or any kind of graphics. They told me if I stayed in the computer science department I could get a job instantly with the army after getting out of college, and for somebody that wants to make games that was not really where I wanted to go.”

Following college Marsh headed for Seattle and landed a job with WildTangent. “I was basically lead developer on small 3D games and that’s where I met a bunch of the people that I work with now and have worked with for a while, and that was in 2000. So since 2000 I’ve been making games nonstop. At Wildtangent I probably shipped over 15 games. Then … we started Flagship north, worked there, we made a little game called Mythos which eventually got shipped. Then …  we started Runic Games. We did Torchlight I, Torchlight II and now we’re making Hob.”

“Hob is a mixture of a bunch of people’s love of different games,” Marsh said when I asked about the origins of Hob. Indeed, after Torchlight II, there was desire from everyone to try something different and original. Jon and Patrick expressed then when I spoke with them. Overall, Runic understood their unique position and knew if there was a moment to take a risk, this was it.

let’s take our chance, make a game that we are gonna be really proud of

“Runic is in a pretty interesting situation in the fact that we are our own little company, and we could make Torchlight III and we probably would do pretty well at it, to be honest, as a company it’s probably the financial thing to do,” Marsh explained.

“However, you know, Torchlight II did well for us and it gave us an option, a chance, to make something different, and I don’t think very many studios actually get that very often, especially ones that are so refined … like EA, for instance, will get, you know, Infinity Ward. Infinity Ward is really good at making first-person shooters and their entire studio is built for that… but when you get a team that big and you specialize in making that first person shooter, you can’t get away from it. You can’t turn a machine around and I guess that’s what I mean, like so many studios really don’t get that chance. We’re small, we’re a really small studio and, you know, we like to make different types of games and we just could not step away from the chance to do it. I mean, we’ve been making action RPGs for 10 years and, you know, this was our chance, like, ‘let’s take our chance, make a game that we are gonna be really proud of’ …  so we did.

To get a fresh perspective, sometimes it’s necessary to take a step back and get away from the day-to-day. The Runic team did just that, ending up in a cabin in Tahoe. This is Hob’s birthplace.

“We weren’t allowed to leave,” Marsh explained. “We just had to sit there for like three or four days and write and talk and doodle and argue about things … we came up with, like, the core things that we liked, and the core things that we wanted to show, and we came up with an idea, because no matter what you ever wanna do you can’t just … anybody that ever copies a game is gonna fail. No one’s ever going to make a WoW killer or a Zelda killer because those are just what those games are and you shouldn’t never even try to approach those type of games or even that kind of conversation. So what we ended up doing was coming up with our own unique game and this metagame that we think is really, really cool, and then we started adding on top of it the things that we loved.”

This unique game was Hob. “We were all ‘like yeah this is really cool,’ and we were really excited,” Marsh said. “I think it only took a day or two and then we spent two days just designing … like the big goals. It is a mixture of all sorts of things we love and it is a game that is, you know, once you start making anything, it’s alive… it’s almost like telling us what needs to happen next and it’s pretty awesome and it’s really great to work on.”

With the core concepts of Hob in place, the team was determined to prove they could make their original vision a reality. The focus then shifted to first steps. What approach should be taken? How much time would be needed?

“What we did with the first two months is make a demo,” Marsh explained. “We needed to prove this to ourselves that we weren’t going to waste a year or two of development in making something and that [it] wasn’t going to be fun… [We] had a bunch of people come in and play it, and it had a lot of the things that the game’s really about. It had mood going in it, it had combat, you had the idea of a glove and, you know, things shifting and moving and you fixing things and it had giant robots and these sprites… [F]rom there we stood back and said ‘well this is fun, this is going to be great,’ and then we really started getting down into the technicals of like how we had to make this world.”

We stood back and said ‘well this is fun, this is going to be great’

Coming off the experience of Torchlight II and action RPGs, the early stages of this game’s development left Runic without a template or genre standard to guide them along. With Hob, they were on their own.

“It’s strange when you have a studio that’s making a game that’s kind of like another game,” Marsh said. “And, you know, you make that game really well but then you turn around and try to make something that’s so unique, it’s harder than anybody I think realized that the time, mainly because when we were making Torchlight I and II you know we could sit and argue and look at examples of, you know, Diablo and like ‘hey this is how they did it. Yes we like it, we don’t like that.’ We looked at other action RPGs but with Hob there is nothing out there like it, so you know there’s a lot of time spent on combat and art style and technical aspects of it and, yeah, we’re to the point where we’re just building content now … which is great.”

Continuing our investigation into the story behind Hob’s aesthetic, I asked Marsh about sound effect and music choices. Jon and Patrick explained how the concept of exploration affected these choices. Marsh expanded the conversation with one word: mood.

“It’s definitely on purpose,” Marsh started. “Like the dungeon doesn’t have any music in it at all … we wanted to set a specific mood, and music should be a tool to use for that mood, and if you have music playing on all the time it just becomes background noise, and when you use it sparingly and effectively it becomes an overwhelming tool that the player’s emotion basically gets wrapped up into it … you can have this great moment of just everything, all your senses coming together for this one thing you’re trying to present. It’s definitely an idea there not to play music all the time. And lots of games do this, I mean, the best one I can think of is Skyrim, off bat, when you go and fight a dragon and music kicks on… it carries that emotion for you.  We look at it as a tool and there is gonna be music but yeah it’s definitely not music all the time. This world we’re trying to make it alive so there’s lots of little ambient sounds everywhere.”

Marsh continued to explain this same reasoning went into the decision to exclude dialogue from Hob.

It’s definitely on purpose there is no dialogue in our game. We came up with this idea for Hob and you know it was like ‘How do we tell this game? What’s the NPCs like?’ And don’t think that we didn’t have the idea of telling this story with NPCs and all sorts of narrative to do it, and it was one of the sticking points that we just realized … allowing somebody to kind of come up with their own story and leading them[self] along is sometimes the best option for you, and that’s what we ended up doing, that’s where we went with it.  We’re like, ‘you know what, we have a very specific story we’re going to tell, we’re not going to do any kind of dialogue anywhere in the game and we are just going to show the things that we think will tell the story’ but at the end I think people are going to come up with their own sorts of strange narratives for it and I can’t wait to hear what they think …. I’m excited by it, not very many games actually do it, so we’ll see. It’s another one of the little things that makes Hob unique.”

at the end I think people are going to come up with their own sorts of strange narratives for it and I can’t wait to hear what they think

Letting players develop their own narratives is intriguing, and goes back to the idea of discovery. Everything about world of Hob, with its duality of natural beauty and underground machinery, is a mystery the player needs to solve. The greatest mystery of all, it seems, lies with the silent main character.

“Artistically, we wanted [the character] to stand out, we wanted them, people, to question what the character was. Are they human? Are they not human? Are they male? Are they female? All these questions are things that people are gonna have to play Hob to find out. And at the same time, we had to make the character emote enough on the screen and be able to have a personality of their own, so there was lots and lots of different concepts for the main character, but at that the time one of our artists kinda knew where he wanted to go with it, and we never really deviated too much from that original concept which is pretty interesting. Usually, you know, you do two dozen different concepts for your main character and we’ve definitely modified him …. however, in the end, you know, it’s interesting how close we are to the original.”

Jon and Patrick were surprised, and relieved, at the positive reception Hob received at PAX Prime this summer. Marsh expressed similar delight, and described the scene their booth caused on the sixth floor.

“Every year that I’ve ever been at PAX, the sixth floor was always the interesting games … so I always spent a lot of time up there, but it was like, every single booth somebody would be asking me to come play their game, mainly just because they didn’t have a ton of people go up there. You know, there’d be a lot of handouts, dragging people over, and when we went over to PAX this year we had boxes full of handouts to like try to get people to come over and play our game. We had all these ideas about how to bring people in. But it was insane, people were waiting in line over an hour, sometimes up to two hours and then they’d get back in line. It was even stranger, so Friday was super busy, the line was always there, then Saturday was even bigger, which made sense. Sunday was bigger than Saturday, and then our busiest day was Monday. Our line was around the booth from beginning to the very end, when they closed PAX down. There were people sitting in line dragging their friends out to play our game. It was unbelievable, and I can’t tell you how great that felt for us.”

“We’re making this game, you know, it’s a passion of ours but we don’t know if it’s a passion of everybody else’s,” Marsh continued. “And just to have the reaction that people had to the game and the questions that people were asking and things that people … just even noticed in the game. Again, we were blown away. We could not be happier. It was a kick in the butt and a shot in the arm to just get this game done now, because I really want people to play it and experience what were making. I think some of the things that get lost in that [PAX video] is how easy it is to control and how responsive it is and just, it’s a pleasure to actually play which is great.”

From what I’ve heard on Hob’s development, I find it hard to imagine a larger studio taking on such a unique product. Runic is a studio where everyone has a say, everyone can debates, and things are always open for change.

“I’ve always just made games with small groups of people,” Marsh said when I asked what it’s like to work at a small studio like Runic. “I think the most people we ever had was 30, that’s probably the most I’ve ever worked with, and that was at Torchlight II at the end, including contractors and everything else. But what it’s like to work at runic, you know, with a small team I can tell you a lot of the things that I love, and I get scared about the idea of leaving, because I mean I would love to make like a giant triple-a title, you know, that’s worth a hundred million dollars. I think that would be not only interesting but it would be fun … however, the things that I would miss are the things that make really Runic and small teams great, where we can sit around and talk about the game.”

“Our office is open, we just sit around and talk and this morning all we did was talk about the game for two hours straight, and different things that we want to have in it and what the visual art style is. I mean, I don’t know how often a programmer gets to come in and say ‘Hey, let’s try this. This would be cool,’ and the artists are like ‘Hey, yeah, let’s do it, and we get it in, in a day. Znd5EbOagpA2zRBfXbrUYkaS1Gjwnlp2ASglh9Sp69w (1)Or an animator comes up and asks if he can get like a puzzle or something into the game because they think it would be cool, it has nothing to do about animation, but it gets in, and it makes the game that much better.”

Hob is not, … it’s not only my fingerprints on it, it’s everybody in the company’s fingerprints and … there’s so many different little things about Hob and even Torchlight II and Torchlight that were unique from all the people in the office. You could go into one dungeon and it would be completely weird and bizarre compared to the next dungeon, and monsters AIs were all different in Torchlight II and this was because everyone was having a say in it, and I don’t know if I would want to get rid of that. I really like the idea of having a team that we each trust each other and everybody’s responsible for what they have to get done, and everybody’s really good at it and everybody here wants to be here.”

I don’t know how often a programmer gets to come in and say ‘Hey, let’s try this. This would be cool,’ and the artists are like ‘Hey, yeah, let’s do it, and we get it in, in a day

While Marsh enjoys the small team at Runic, he still awes at what big studios are capable of in the industry today.

I honestly love Triple A games. I love the fact that our industry has matured enough where people can make games like that. They’re fun games. They’re awesome to see. There are so much potential in them, it’s just amazing from so many different standpoints that they actually even get done … I salute them, because, just how they all have to work together to get those amazing games done because they are amazing. It blows my mind sometimes.”

Our conversation on small and big studios led me to ask Marsh about his thoughts on other aspects of the industry. Crowdfunding sites like Kickstarter have seen games funded in just hours. Small studios can take their games to Steam Greenlight and build community support. Are these forces shaking up the industry? If so, are they for the better?

“I love the fact that the industry has matured enough now where people can actually make games with smaller teams. There are so many games out there nowadays, so many great ideas, the one problem I see arising though, is that unfortunately I feel like we’re kind of stepping back to the age of Atari, where at the end of Atari, [it] was just allowing anything to be made and people were trying stuff and it’s almost … it killed the industry. And I’m not saying independent game makers are going to kill the industry, I think they’re actually going to be the life that going to keep it going to be honest, but I worry about people just making so many games out there.”

“I guess more of the thing I’m kind of reflecting on is not necessarily Steam but more like the phone situation where there are so many games being made nowadays and the fact that most of them are free and most of them are just terrible. Like they’re made from giant companies just looking to make money, and I worry about that, and I think the only people that will actually save [the industry] are kind of just the independent groups that are really going for the really fun little games. The problem is I think those ones are getting stepped all over because of the free games. That’s what people play nowadays … sometimes free games and microtransactions just don’t make for a really fun game. Sometimes they can. There’s definitely games out there that have microtransactions and are fun and those are the ones everyone’s trying to copy nowadays. But in general … when was the last time you actually bought a game on your phone that wasn’t microtransactions? I mean … moving forward I worry about that whole concept moving over to the PC.”

“In general, I still think the most independent game makers are on PC, and I think they’re drowning on the phones. But the nice thing about what we have in our industry right now is tech that allows them to make those games. As long as that tech keeps going and companies like Valve allow them to do green lights and allow them to be able to put out there and it’s just not like a pool of just free games that are just trying to make you buy little things here and there, I think we will make it through it…”

With the experience that Marsh has with the industry, I had to ask for some advice he’d like to give to game developers just starting out.

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“It’s harder than they think. Making a game is always harder than people think. But never give up, just take everything one day at a time. Just, what do you have to solve today? What do you have to solve the next day? But don’t think long term, don’t design your entire game from beginning to end and think this is exactly what you’re going to make because it’s never going to be exactly what you plan on it being. It’ll change, things will move here and there and you have to be fluid enough to understand why this is more fun than another thing and be willing to change your idea. And also, just sometimes you also just have to get the game done, and you have to cut the things you love, but always make sure the first things you ever should put in your game are the most fun things.”

With Hob, Runic Games has taken this advice to heart. The team has taken a huge risk but has also stayed true to their purpose. An original game with an original concept. The exploration of a mysterious world with a similarly mysterious main character. With Hob, we have nothing to look forward to but the fun things.

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