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[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.