Torchlight Frontiers is shaping up to be one of the most anticipated free-to-play game releases of 2019. Melding the gameplay of the Torchlight series with the demands of a persistent online game is a difficult task, and one that the developers at Echtra Games can’t do alone. As such, they’ve been hard at work in alpha tests for months (including the recently announced third), iterating on various gameplay elements and getting valuable feedback from their testers about what works and what doesn’t.
We had the opportunity to chat with Project Lead Tyler Thompson and Community Manager Paul Hobbs about what it takes to corral all that feedback and smoosh (that’s a technical term) it into a working game. The key? Taking a broad approach to how they listen and having all developers engaging players on a base level with all aspects of the game. Maybe it’s not revolutionary, but so far, it’s providing the desired results.
MMOBomb: We hear about this all the time, both from games in development and even after they’ve gone live: “We’re taking player feedback to make changes,” etc., etc. So is there anything you think is different about the approach you’re taking?
Thompson: We’re keeping the doors open to our players, especially on Discord, and we’re taking the time to analyze and reflect on the conversations there. Players come by to chat with the design, art, sound, and engineering teams in real time every day. During the alpha tests, the chat and voice channels are packed with players.
Beyond basic stability tests, our goal for these tests is to get as many working systems (game features) into the hands of the players early enough to incorporate feedback. Players are not shy about telling us what works and what doesn’t, what they like and what we need to rethink.
While we’re not able to implement all the solutions proposed by players, we’re always finding value in understanding the message contained in or motivating those proposals. One of the keys in making this work is to accept the fact that no matter how much we’re in love with our plans or our vision, there has to be room to change – even dramatically change – the direction we’re headed.
MMOBomb: Can you give us an example or two of the kinds of changes you’re making based on player feedback?
Thompson: Sure, here are a couple of examples of game features that have changed pretty dramatically since our last alpha test:
Before alpha, there was friction between armor and weapon skill upgrades competing with new abilities, as they both cost Skill Points. This was largely covered in the Frontier Exp blog post we did a while back, but it’s an example of far-reaching changes that came out of player feedback.
Skill Object requirements
The old system required your harvested stone and wood resources to build Skill Objects in your Fort – the devices used to level up and buy new skills. Players told us they didn’t like having to spend those resources for a number of different reasons. For example, some people said they only wanted to kill stuff to advance their characters in an ARPG; others loved the harvesting as a change of pace from killing stuff, but then found themselves missing out on having stone and wood to build decorations for their Fort.
Once we more clearly understood that character progression and Fort progression are two differing areas of interest, it was clear that we could solve both user stories by decoupling the systems. Skill Objects now only require Gold and Skill Points to build, which you get during the natural course of play smashing monsters, leaving your harvested resources for other crafting.
Luminous Run for Dusk Mage
On Discord, players were talking about the Dusk Mage as not having enough survivability during our first alpha. They felt the class was way too squishy. Our immediate response was to point out that both classes have an escape skill. The Dusk Mage has Luminous Run; an ability that dramatically increases movement speed for a short time, but has a 30-second cool down. The long cooldown was there to keep players from using the escape skill as a general purpose “move across the map faster” skill.
The player response was, “Well, why does it have to increase the speed so much?” Our response was, “Because that’s the skill and that’s what it does,” not really catching on or understanding why it needed to change. They asked, “Well, what if it didn’t have a big speed boost, then could it have a shorter cooldown?” After a very active back-and-forth over what those values might be, why escape skills need long cooldowns, why they don’t, why they do, what the values might be again, we were ultimately convinced that a trivial speed boost with a short cooldown was, in fact, a great solution.
We received literally hundreds of feedback reports about the state of the mini-map. It was easily one of the most common complaints during the alphas. Many were upset about how the map was too small and needed to have a transparent overlay option (a la Diablo). The same thing was echoed on Reddit, on the forums, and in Discord.
“We received literally hundreds of feedback reports about the state of the mini-map. It was easily one of the most common complaints during the alphas.”
Having a transparent map overlay was something we wanted to avoid. We don’t want players to play the simplified map, getting the little arrow representing their character from point A to B. We want them to run through the world we’ve built and occasionally reference the map to navigate.
Upon further inspection, we discovered that we had repositioned our default camera after we’d completed our mini-map functionality, which meant that in some cases, the mini-map actually showed less territory than was visible on the screen. The simple fix was to pull the mini-map out further.
We discovered by continuing to reflect on the feedback and engaging in conversation with our players, that the underlying problem was the mini-map needed more information. Because of the feedback we received (players describing their specific experiences), we’ve added plenty of easily distinguished icons that show points and objects of interest both near and far on the mini-map. We hope this allays the need for an overlay style map. But we’ve got to get that into the hands of players for another round of feedback. And, as always, be prepared to change.
Changes to Waypoints
Similar to the mini-map conversations we were having with players, we were of a mind that having only one “bind” (a place you could teleport to outside town and your Fort) would keep players immersed in the world instead of hopping around instantaneously and not engaging with the content. It was a system we’d seen in other games like World of Warcraft and EverQuest.
It turns out that players were frustrated when having to trek back through areas when changing back and forth between Frontiers or going back for a lower-level quest. After reflecting on the feedback and talking with the team, we found that there was no reason to stick to the idea if it wasn’t working. Players can now freely teleport to any waypoint they’ve unlocked.
MMOBomb: Responding to players is all well and good, but how do you find that balance between listening to a few of the most passionate (and loud) voices versus the community as a whole?
Hobbs: Thankfully, everyone in the office is in the habit of participating in or monitoring the various communication channels like Discord and Reddit. There is no sanitizing of the communication that goes on between the players and the active members of the development team in some sort of summary-style feedback report.
“There is no sanitizing of the communication that goes on between the players and the active members of the development team in some sort of summary-style feedback report.”
As a result, the topics and concerns raised by the players spread directly into the conversations that take place within the office. We’re all big nerds with our own opinions, and any idea that percolates from the community has to survive the gauntlet. It helps that we’ve got a strong development roadmap and gameplay pillars to guide us when any of our conversations start getting into the weeds. This regular filtering and sanity-checking keeps us on track and helps us determine which suggestions made by the community are the ones we need to devote time to.
Part of the CM’s duties are to encourage conversation among players and point them to specific devs when their questions are best answered by a member of the design team. The last thing we want to instill is any sort of filter or bottleneck. We want the players talking directly to the folks on the design and engineering team whenever possible.
Right now, we’re at a manageable level of activity with our early fans. With the help of our volunteer moderators, I’m largely able to field recurring questions and keep conversations rolling. As the number of people in these channels begin to swell, it’s important to encourage the players to bounce ideas off one another and identify thin spots in proposals coming from the community. From there, the ideas get iterated on and become truly insightful and actionable feedback.
In most ways they’re already doing this, and our early fans are the perfect models for the ranks of players who will continue to join the conversation. Of course, this works with our current volume of players, but as the community continues to grow, we will have to adjust our approach accordingly.
MMOBomb: What would you say is more requested by players: actual gameplay changes (like how a skill works) or quality of life stuff (like wardrobe management)?
Thompson: Though there are plenty of QoL requests, they tend to center around similar topics. So in a sense the requests for gameplay changes create a larger, more varied pool. Players are drawing from a bunch of experiences they’ve had with other games. It means we get a ton of great suggestions. The best feedback we get is from a person who thoroughly explains the problem as they see it and walks us through their specific subjective experience. Once that’s as clear as can be, then they go on to cite specific examples from other games that may solve the matter. Using other games as examples is a common vocabulary we can all use to make sure everyone is on the same page.
MMOBomb: Tweaking gameplay is great, but I’m obligated to ask: What about the cash shop? Have you received input from players about that, and what steps have you taken to incorporate it?
“The best feedback we get is from a person who thoroughly explains the problem as they see it and walks us through their specific subjective experience.”
Thompson: In the spirit of transparency, our CEO and studio founder, Max Schaefer, posted our Monetization Philosophy on our blog a few months back. We’ve waded into discussions about the info contained in that blog post on Reddit and Discord numerous times – Max especially. We know it represents a major concern from our players that’s totally on us to get right.
It’s a challenging topic because there’s nothing concrete for players to analyze; the shop hasn’t been in any of the alpha tests. Without getting into the full list of opinions shared by the community, what we’ve heard from players is that they want the free-to-play experience to be fun. We agree wholeheartedly. That idea is our guiding principle as we make ready for putting the shop into the hands of the players. Once players can see the game and the shop in action together, then we’re going to be able to take the conversation out of the hypothetical and into actionable feedback.