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Bill Roper: Reflections on Hellgate

February 7, 2011 Article Start Page 1 of 6 Next

[In this extensive interview conducted at GDC China, Bill Roper, former developer of Hellgate: London, sifts through the aftermath of that doomed project and reflects on mistakes made, community reaction, and how decisions get made in games.]

Hellgate: London was one of the most anticipated and then, soon after its release, one of the most reviled games of the past decade. At the time Flagship Studios was founded, it seemed that nothing could go wrong.

Many of the biggest names in the computer game industry, primarly Blizzard veterans who had cut their teeth on the Diablo series, had set forth to redefine multiplayer RPGs.

But things spiraled out of control. The game and studio bloated, with focus lost. Incomprehensible business models, broken gameplay, and tremendously negative community reaction followed. The studio suffered major layoffs, and by 2009, the game had discontinued service.

In this extensive Gamasutra interview, the first of a two-part talk with veteran and ex-Flagship CEO Bill Roper, he reflects on the decision-making that went into the title and how things went so badly wrong.

He also reflects on some of that community reaction and how it is still, to an extent, beyond what he expected or can even now quite comprehend.

So, what are you up to these days? Are you talking about what you're up to?

Bill Roper: Sure. I'm up to everything and nothing, I guess. I've been talking with a lot of different companies. I've been doing different game designs and talking with everything from publishers to investors.

So, really, the last couple of months since I left Cryptic, I have been seeing what the opportunities are that exist. Always a difficult time at the end of the year, anyway -- everybody gets the holidays in their heads. It's also that, right now, VC money is geared predominantly towards the casual games space.

So I've got some bigger PC console-type title pitches that I've just been kind of sitting on... Because when I started showing those around to friends in the industry and people I know in the business side, they were all like, "Wow, that's a really awesome idea. I would totally play that game. You'll never get funding right now."

Because it's not out there. You know, even for something in the $6 to $8 million range, which doesn't sound like a lot in the scope of what you can spend in the development, it's just really tight right now. There's a lot of money out in the MMO space still waiting for games to launch, right? So, they're very hesitant. There is definitely money for like things on the Xbox Live side. There's money that's out there for starting a company in the casual space, that kind of thing.

I guess the biggest thing that I'm doing maybe is not limiting myself. When I started at Cryptic, I really wanted to stay in the Bay Area. I wanted to stay near San Francisco. I had a house. I had personal reasons I wanted to be there. Now, anything that's that a very specific tie is gone. So, I think the deal I made myself is I'm going to go where just the best opportunity is. If that's starting my own company and that's in the Bay Area, that's great. If it's going to Los Angeles or Seattle or China...

I mean, I want to go where there's an exciting opportunity to do something. And whether that is my own thing and whether that is working at a company, you know, starting something for them or working in an established organization, I think it's really going to be about what games get done and what the idea is there on how it's going to get done, the business model and all that kind of stuff.

If you were to start a company, do you think that you would go the Flagship route again of a big studio? Or do you think that's less of a feasible model these days?

BR: It can be a feasible model. I think there's a lot less support for it on the financial side right now. It's just harder to start a studio at that size.

Flagship actually got a lot bigger than we ever intended it to. In our heads, we wanted to have 25 people. Like, that was how big we wanted our company to be. We had to grow to a larger size within Flagship to support everything we tried to do with that game.

The biggest failure with Hellgate is we just tried to do too much. We were a single-player game, or you could go online and play for free, and there was also this hybrid subscription model that you could get into, and the game was coming out on the new Windows platform.

And we were part of the Games for Windows program, we shipped in 17 languages, we had a very high-end graphics engine that we had built but at the same time we did low-poly versions of the game. I mean, the list just went on and on and on.

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Tony Lebel
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It's funny but I still have Hellgate London installed on my PC. Seriously I thought it was an awesome endeavor. The Premise (For the time) was unheard of it is just too bad that it came crashing down like it did.

Nick Green
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I always liked the single-player game. But the multiplayer seemed like a massive rip-off.

Not really an MMO but still charging like one. I'm not surprised they went under.

Tony Lebel
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I actually really enjoyed the multuiplayer aspect. There was nothing like being able to socialize at a whim, or answer a call from a guildmember in toruble and instantly teleporting in to help them out with whatever they were doing,or jsut going online to blast through a horde. I beat this game from level 1 to stonehenge complete with 4 different classes and I was never disapointed by the core mechanics of the game (except my blademasters addiction to stim-packs).

The only sucky part about the game was the subscription model. I mean on the inside cover of the box release (that I still have) it was promised that there would be additional classes for subscribers, guild vs guild warfare etcetera. I was a subscriber for 9 months and only recieved an extended inventory. Had they mad eexpansions a "single Purchase" and introdced new features that way then it would have been a lot more sucessful inhte long run.

Great game, fantastic vision, horendous business plan.

Mike Hommel
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I actually reinstalled it about a year ago. It was tricky to find the latest patches, but they're out there! In fact, there are fan patches now that really improve it, and even pull in some of the formerly subscription aspects. Unfortunately, I found those after I had already won. But I put in a good 30 hours or more, finished the game, and had a great time. I started a bunch more characters too. Other games pulled me away, but I was pretty well addicted for a month. Worth the money I paid way back at launch (but glad I never got into the whole subscription side of it!).

I never thought it was a bad game at all. Definitely buggy, and not nearly as good as Diablo 2, but a lot of fun, and a lot of the same appeal as Diablo 2, with the added bonus of run n' gun action. If they had just made it single player from the start, it would've ended up amazing.

Jose Resines
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Lack of LAN. When they said that it was when it was crystal clear where they were going with Hellgate, and that it was going to crash and burn, badly. It did.

Bjoern Loesing
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This. I had Hellgate London installed for a very long time, but the lack of LAN-ability that made Diablo II so much to play with my wife just made Hellgate vanish really fast from my radar.

That, and the horrible last 10% of the story-mode with the broken "casual multiplayer minigame"-style missions, which caused me to never have finished the game.

Despite loving the setting and enjoying the story.

b l
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You commenters are not alone. I still have it installed too. I played it just two days ago. I come back to the game every now and then for something different which other games still haven't managed to provide. I don't regret my lifetime subscription at all.

Tejas Oza
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I remember finding an excuse to go to a friend's place just to play this game. Frankly, I loved it. I loved the different play styles the different classes had to offer and I loved the setting the game was placed in. Sure it had bugs and certain balance issues and what-not, but honestly, I never foresaw people reacting so negatively to it. Its a pity Flagship was never given another chance.

Hellgates various and varied flaws, to me, were easily overlooked when considering all the game had to offer and was attempting to offer.

Anonymous Designer
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Really great read - kind of a magnifying glass on what the pressure of quality and results are like in the industry, and how the power players feel about it - not just entrepreneurs but executives or directors within companies. I really find it funny when people like this compare themselves to Spielberg - "Just give me another chance! I could still be a genius!". But how many other people want that chance? It's an amazing opportunity to be in a position to make your own game - a dream to many. That's why you prepare. So you blow it - now you want another chance. What about the guy who wouldn't have blown it? I mean there's kind of something to the ostracizing.

And yeah, Roper was successful at Blizzard - a great company that does many things to make it's employees and projects successful. Oh yeah and gave him alot of press time to make a public name to get other offers / funding. And Roper took that for granted, ditched, and thus inherited the responsibility on himself - be it good or (the real case) bad. As he said they were their own victim.

I applaud the openness, and it sucks to hear about personal life being damaged/affected by work (if that was the case). In my opinion, a responsible designer would take on something much more manageable as a first project. As I understand they did have Mythos as some form of proof of concept, it's just a shame that the magic there was lost in the process of the "grander vision".

Martain Chandler
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No piercing meaningful insights on Cryptic? Man, this tabloid blows! Oh wait...

Sting Newman
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Roper and his team were sheep come on! Hellgate was trying to cash in on the MMO genre by copying other games. What gamers expected was diablo /w isometric awesome gameplay and they got a really bad 3D pseudo MMO that just sucked.

Roper is proof that many developers/publishers in the game industry are a bunch of sheep who follow the herd. They become so out of touch with gamers they can't use their imaginations anymore.

Marcos N
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Interesting and insightfull read.

Tim Hesse
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Great read, good game.

Neil Sorens
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Here's what went wrong, from what I can see:

1. The promotion for the game started way too early. And since you have to keep building it up till release, the hype got to the point where the game could do nothing but disappoint.

2. The optional subscription. One of the big selling points was that it was free to play online, like the Diablo games. The sub made people feel like they were going to be second-class citizens unless they paid extra. And there did not seem to be a solid plan - to customers, it felt like a desperate, last-minute money grab, not to mention a slap in the face considering that the game wasn't quite finished yet. And the item inventory space for non-subscribers was way too small, rubbing some salt in the wound every time you ran out of space.

3. Business model. Development in San Francisco is expensive, especially when you are also spending money lavishly on non-development stuff. What happened to the console versions? The sub model appeared to be a kind of last minute "uh-oh, we'll never make our money back, I wish we'd made an MMO instead."

4. Too many chefs. The game design was not tightly focused. It wanted to go in more of an action direction than the Diablo games (which was about as much of an action game as an RTS), but it kept the OCD stat emphasis of RPGs. There were powers that would have worked well in a Diablo game, but in a FPS view, with fewer enemies, more enclosed spaces, and three dimensions, they didn't fit all that well. There was FPS with guns, but it felt like a gimped FPS because of how fired projectiles would just disappear after a certain distance. MMO-style fetch/kill quests thrown in at last minute for good measure, but with an inventory system that was really not suitable for the item drops associated with it.

5. Too ambitious. The "scrappy start-up" picks a modest target at first, gets a game out and refines the process and pipelines. Then they can make something bigger and better. Betting the farm on a semi-experimental idea isn't a great plan - better to iterate when it's not burning up a million dollars a month. It seems to me that the founders believed too much in their own legend, much like the people at Sigil.

Disagree with Sting above - if they wanted to cash in on the MMO genre, they would have made an MMO.

Sting Newman
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I agree with everything you said except that the whole 3D environment and third person perspective *is* mmo entirely, the fact that they wanted to charge subscriptions was just more proof they were influenced by MMO's during development, every game during that period had MMO influences because everyone saw the money MMO's were capable of pulling down. How you interface with characters, dialogue, etc, is entirely MMO like. They didn't understand the game they were making. Everyone thought roper and team were making an isometric action RPG rendered in 3D but still had the awesome goodness of the isometric action RPG, then they get this pseudo wacked out third person game.

Notice diablo 3 is totally in the isometric gameplay style of diablo 2, they didn't fundamentally break the gameplay. Quite frankly every gamer was expecting a game like Torchlight in gameplay style out of Hellgate, what they got was a big mess where the designers were clueless the were too influenced by MMO style games and you can see it in the design.

Consider what you just said " There were powers that would have worked well in a Diablo game, but in a FPS view, with fewer enemies, more enclosed spaces, and three dimensions,"

That statement is proof they were influenced by MMO's in a huge way.

Matthew Mather
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Hellgate was a tremendously fun single-player game, especially when playing the Sorcerer class in first-person. The only experience that even comes close is playing a Hunter in WoW, and even then WoW completely lacks the procedurally generated environments and claustrophobic FPS atmosphere.

As an FPS/RPG hybrid, Hellgate wasn't quite as good as Bioshock (as one example) in terms of pure shootiness and environment manipulation. This is simply because Hellgate was a Diablo-style numbers-heavy action-RPG first and an FPS second. But I enjoyed it for what it was.

EDIT: Oh yeah, despite the HORRIFIC problem of the rest of the game literally not acknowledging it was there and forcing you to look up FAQs, it had one of the best crafting systems of any game I had played. Until Minecraft, which also forces you to look up stuff on the wiki, Hellgate was the most fun crafting experience ever. (I would say Torchlight was even better, except Torchlight's crafting system basically is Hellgate's, just a little more refined.)

Glenn Sturgeon
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Flagship did deliver the game they said they would.

Every factor and feature that Roper mentioned as being included in the game, in the many interviews i read before the game was released were indeed there.

It was peoples pre conceaved notions of what it would be and how it would look that let them down, not Flagship.

I played for a month then opted for the lifetime membership as the game was realy good and had an original feel.

The game started out good and after the patches ended up being great.

I still see HGL as one of the best online games ever.

Thanks Roper and all who worked on Hellgate.

I'm still hoping HanbitSoft's Hellgate Resurrection makes it out8)

Sebastian Bularca
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I have always liked the game. I played for a long time. Hell, I even gave it an 8 in my review, mainly for the single player part. Then again, I have played a lot of Auto Assault too, and gave it the same 8...

Bryan Marsh
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Their execution of the concept was a thorough disaster, and I don't believe they had a design document before entering production.

There is only one question worth asking Roper, that is never asked: Why so many grey zombies?

The game has them in 70% of the zones. The same grey zombie you see in the first area, is still there in the last areas. They had red and green zombies, but they were very rare and only appeared for quests.

That just isn't standard for the genre. Dragon Warrior 1, Rogue, Phantasy Star, Pool of Radiance... these games had a moving progression in their bestiaries..

Martin Oddy
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A good point well made. I'd love to hear Roper's response to this to be honest.

Max Fresen
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First of all, and I say this with all due respect to Gamasutra: this interview is painful to read. There's nothing worse than reading someone's spoken-word interview with no editing or clean up. I don't need to read every line of non sequitur or equivocating; just cut to the essence of the statement and use quotes when you can. This is lazy.

Secondly, the subject, Roper, comes across as a very vain guy who honestly had no business being the CEO of anything. If you can't tell that your box sales aren't going to dig you out of a hole before the boxes hit the shelves, you are not good at running a business.

The baby with the bathwater, in this case, seems fitting. This whole interview is just one big apology, stopping just short of begging to be respected again. Sad.

Daniel Mackie
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Just a personal response here but you seem a very cruel man. If your right that he is sad and this is a beg for respect would you say this to his face. If so, good on ya, well done your mean spirited and everything bad about commenting on the internet.

It must be lovely passing judgement on people from up on your cloud.

Luis Magalhaes
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I get the feeling that he is having trouble being taken in by any studio. He sounds kind of desperate in the first page of the intervew.

It makes me wonder how badly can someone's career be burned by a failed product. I have no doubts that he is a good designer.

Or maybe it was something that happened at Cryptic that burned him with the development community?

Zachary Hoefler
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Interesting article! I found the end of the article particularly profound:

"We'd talk with developers, and we'd be like, "Oh. We understand what it is you're looking for now. Yeah. We can definitely do something... That would work in our game." But we didn't get a lot of feedback. Everybody needs that. Even the best writer needs an editor, right? Everybody needs that. I think that was a huge thing we didn't get."

It's an angle I hadn't really thought much about before beyond the obvious "you should QA test games". Interesting...