[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.
It was complicated, and it sounds like the ambition spiraled out of control.
BR: Yeah. I think that was where our "growing up Blizzard" hurt us, right? [laughs] Because at Blizzard you just go for it. Every time you swing, you swing for the fences. A couple benefits we had there that we really didn't have at Flagship -- I mean, even Blizzard now, but Blizzard 10 years ago -- one, there was always support from Blizzard from the top-down, from the publishing-down.
We'd go in there and say, "We need to take six more months. This is why. This is the benefit you will see from it." And you always had to justify it.
There was always the support there to say, "You know what? If that's what you need to make this game great, then that's what we'll get for you. We'll figure it out." It's obviously very different when you are an independent company, right, and not owned by somebody.
It still eventually comes down to dollars and cents and time. I mean, I think when Hellgate: London came out... we knew it needed another four to six months. The publishers knew it needed another four to six months. Everybody was all in. That was kind of the mindset.
I mean, we didn't have any more money to put into it personally. The publishers were like, "Hey, we're invested. We're in. We're as in as we're going to get." So, the game's got to come out, right? You get to the point. Again, because it is a third-party game. When you're owned by the publisher, if you're the developer, they're much more vested in that happening.
Don't you think that's a mistake, though? I mean, that happens a lot. "The game's just got to come out."
BR: Yeah. I think it's a horrible mistake. [laughs]
Blizzard proves to an extent that polish is what sells.
BR: Sure. I mean, the Blizzard model is almost impossible to use as one to follow, right?
BR: I mean, they will put unlimited time and resources into getting the game out. Every bet is huge. And you have to take everything into perspective. When World of Warcraft came out -- what was that, five years now, five plus years ago now -- when we were working on WoW, the biggest Western MMO was EverQuest. They had 330,000 subscribers.
By the time we were starting to talk about, and this is in '03, I think we were having these discussions... We had sat down and said, "Do you realize that we're going to have to have a million subscribers for a year to break even?" Like we started talking about how much money and how much time had been invested just at that point, and that was insane.
You can't plan for that. That's like saying, "Hey, we've got a great band. We're coming with our first album, and we're going to put all the time we want in the studio, and all we've got to do is sell 10 million copies, and we're gold!" It's like, no one plans for that. And I think at one point, that got really scary.
And if World of Warcraft wouldn't have -- not even do what it did -- but if it wouldn't have been a financial success, a lot of heads would have rolled. The time was right. The market wanted that, and as with all their games, when it came out, it was just as polished as they could get it. Now, people also forget that WoW was pretty flawed in some ways when it came out. Its servers were down all the time and, you know, all these things.
I think the difficulty there is that it seems like a simple enough formula, right? "Hey, put in all the time that you need, make sure the game is perfect when it comes out." But at some point, you have to pass that bottle test. You got to pass that gut check if you're on the publisher side and say, "Am I really going to pay for another six months? Is it good enough to come out?" You start second-guessing that stuff.
You probably went through some of the most harsh and unpleasant community reaction experiences a developer has had in the last decade. [laughs]
BR: [laughs] Yeah. The community reaction put the hell in Hellgate.
To a good extent, we were our own victim, if that's going to make any sense. You know, we had to put together a good chunk of money to make that game. We had to sign a lot of deals, and we had a U.S./Europe publishing partner and an Asian publishing partner. I mean, there were a lot of moving parts in that. And to go out and get the support we had...
And you had two publishers in America, which was confusing.
BR: Yeah, we ended up with two publishers in America. And we were kind of Namco-funded but EA-published, but Namco still a little bit. And HanbitSoft was the Asian holder for the publisher, but we had The9 in China, IAH in Southeast Asia, and Hanbit was in Korea. So, there were all these partnerships, because we were really trying to maximize penetration for all those markets and support in those markets.
We wanted to work with experts in their markets. But to do all that, we really had to go out and honestly hype like hell. You've got to be showing these people that are investing tens of millions of dollars in your project and company, "Yes, your investment is worth it."
And I get excited about the projects that I work on. I don't think that I talked any more about what the game would be, or could, than I would with Blizzard product. I think that just when a Blizzard game came out, it got close to matching that.
And the things that weren't there, that maybe at some point we had talked about that didn't make the final game were overshadowed by the final product. When Hellgate came out, I think there was an expectation that it was going to change the face of PC gaming, right? And it didn't.
It might have! Not the way you're suggesting. [laughs]
BR: But the backlash, honestly, was staggering. And I think it was, to me, the level and the depth of the backlash. It wasn't just like, "Hey, I played this game, and I didn't like it. It sucked. I hate this game. This game is the worst thing ever." Okay, you didn't like the game and all that. But it got to the point where there were personal attacks on developers.
It seems like the layers, one is like, "Did you like the game or not?" You could say, "I think this game is horrible." Perfectly fine. "Hey, I think your company is crap because it makes bad games." Okay, you know, whatever.
But then I started to get... It got to this level where at one point, on our forums, at the same time... Kind of the backend of this all happening is I was actually going through a divorce at the same time, and somebody found that out and posted on the forums, you know, "Well, I'm sure that his wife is leaving him because he lied about the size of his penis like he lied to us." I'm like, "Oh my... Really? Really? This is where we've come."
And I don't know if it's just because we happened to strike a chord where people had such high expectations for the game... I mean, we had high expectations for the game. We didn't deliver on what people wanted.
And maybe, also at that time, that's just to where the internet -- I hate to use that broad-based term in quotes -- had gotten. Like, people love flaming. The whole thing is all -- they want controversy. They're going to say things. It's like, "Hey, you don't know who I really am. I can say whatever I want." You see it in the press now.
BR: It's not limited to gamers and gaming forums. It's become this, you know, almost outspoken Wild West in some instances...
Well, it was a mixture of things, too.
BR: Yeah. And there was a lot going on. We all felt miserable that the game didn't do what we wanted to, not just because we wanted to make money, but because we wanted to make a great game. And I think there were a lot of great ideas there.
I think there were a lot of things that happened in that game, and in the backend. When I talked earlier about how we got much bigger than we wanted to, we had to start a separate company. We had to start Ping0, which did all the backend, the game servers, the support, the billing, like everything. We never thought we would have to do that.
That was originally part of the deal. That was going to be provided. And then when that didn't happen, we said, "Well, we actually need to serve the game, so we have to start a second company." I was CEO of two companies at one point.
It's like now we're making games, and we have a second game we're working on. We tried to have something, like we talked about, having something coming up. Oh, and there's a tech company we're running. So, we had a hundred employees, where we wanted 25.
Things just spiraled out of control.
BR: Things got real big, real fast. But I think that's part of the process. We had really strong people there. We had really intelligent people there. That was a great team, and I think that we were all willing to do anything we could to try to get this game to come out like we wanted, and a lot of times that was just great. "Yes! Wait, nobody is going to do this? Screw it. We'll figure out how we do it."
And I think in the end, we tried to carry way too much of a load, and ultimately we dropped the ball and nobody was happy. Even things like the business model. I talked to people in the industry, they thought, "I thought that was a great idea, especially at the time, for a business model." "Hey, the game is free to play? Oh, but if I want to give you $10 a month, I'm going to get everything you ever do? Sure, I'm in." But gamers hated the idea.
Well, like you've said, Americans have a certain philosophy of "we pay for it, we get it all". And also like you've said, people think that you're hiding stuff from them that they would have gotten otherwise.
BR: Yeah. That's the really interesting thing. If you had plans for something -- and we literally would go like, "We probably shouldn't working on something like that even if we have time to start working on it, because if we come out with something like that within the first month, people are going to think we held it, even if it's not true." Because you would never do that.
It's like "We're not just going to hold it so we can release it." It's like, "No, if it's ready, ship it." I think that for some reason, and I don't know if it's because they've been burned by a lot of games they've bought where they thought were going to be something else... Like, I don't know what it is, but I think that gamers have become really jaded.
I mean, a game comes out, and they're like, "Oh God." You're always ready to find out what's bad about it. As opposed to saying, "Oh, this is really awesome. Oh my God. These guys kicked ass. And they came out with all this cool extra content like, you know, a few weeks after the game came out." They're like, "Oh. Like, what was the trick? How were they able to do that? They were holding onto it."
I mean, one of the things I've found is I've spent so much after Hellgate, I mean, to a degree... To me, it felt like trying to reconnect with gamers and going, "Hey, I'm not any different than I was before Hellgate." I think I was very disappointed that followed into going Cryptic. You know, people go, "Oh, great. Now this guy is going to come here and screw everything up." It's like, if only I ever had that level of power.
Yes, I was CEO at Flagship, but it wasn't like I made every single decision, right, and did everything. There is no individual at any company... Except maybe Sid, right. Sid Meier, maybe, because Sid still goes home and codes and brings in stuff. I mean, there's nobody at a game developer who is that one guy or gal who comes in and say, "No, pfff. Everything, every decision that was ever made is me."
Certainly they're not their own funder. You know, do you think there wasn't pressure when we were running Hellgate to say, "Yes, you now have to make the hard choice of are you going to fire 20 people so you can stay open for two extra months?" or whatever it is. You start coming to these decisions... Or it's like, "No, it's good enough. You guys are out of time." Or "What can we do? We can't drop that feature because we're contractually obligated to do it."
You know, there are a million things. And I think that to a degree, it's very hard to get that across. The thing that became, I think, maybe the hardest for me was I would go and I would do an interview, and the interview comes out, and I'm reading it, and I'm like, "Good. I really feel like I was trying to get stuff comes across."
But because of how something is phrased or there's no tone or just the way people would read things, then I would see comments like, "Oh, look at how greedy he is," or this, that, and the other thing. I'm just like, "You don't even know me. I'm just some guy that makes video games. I've been really lucky to have done it for a long time, and I feel like I'm pretty good at it."
That, to me, I think, was that tipping point, especially in the post-Hellgate stuff, where it went from "I didn't like your game" or " I don't think your company makes good games" to the personal assault level.
And maybe that's just because I've been a face for so long -- in quotes, "a face for so long" -- you kind of get that thing where it's like, "Oh, yeah, there's that guy. I know that guy." That thing gets attached. That's nothing I ever wanted. I didn't start making games like, "Yeah. Someday, I'm going to be doing interviews, and I'm going to be giving speeches," and this whole thing.
Well, I think what you ran into also is cultural. Americans love an underdog, but they also like to see people fall from on high.
BR: People hate the Yankees for a reason. It's interesting. I think Blizzard is very rare in that... Somehow Blizzard made the transition from the beloved underdog to the beloved number one. But absolutely, everybody... "Come on, you can do it, scrappy start-up guys." But then when you've had a couple hits.
Well, look at Runic.
Much deserved, everyone was ecstatic to support Torchlight.
And partially because it came out of the wreckage of Flagship.
BR: Yeah. Again, I think that part of this was tied into, definitely, how we elected to represent Flagship, but a lot of it was how we had to represent Flagship to go out and do what we were able to do with that company in such a short amount of time was going like, "Yeah. These are all top flight games and executives from Blizzard."
You had to sell the story, right? And I think that the way that came out, to make a music reference, when a supergroup gets put together and you're like, "Aw, man. We've got the lead singer from this group and the bassist from those guys." And you're like, "Holy crap, these guys are going to be great." And then you listen to them, and you're like, "Wow, that really wasn't as awesome as I thought it would be." They were never going to make the album I thought they can make.
And I think that was the way that we had to present ourselves. And I'm not even saying it wasn't true. We had amazing top flight talent there, but when that's a part of your story and you're pitching that, then people say, "Okay, then I'm immediately raising the bar on what I expect."
If you're like, "Hey, we're a bunch of scrappy guys that just want to make games," people are like "Okay, well, gosh, I hope they do well," and you come out with something good, they're like, "Oh my God!"
It's hard to say because you can't really find this out... If Hellgate would have come out from a different developer, how much different would the reaction have been? Like, "Hey, here's a start-up. We made this game." You know, would people have gone like, "You know, it's flawed, but wow, holy crap. What an amazing first effort"? Or if they would have been like, "This is a train wreck and a disaster, and I hate you"? Which is what we got.
Again, we were the victim of our own success previously and, you know, hey, that's how we put ourselves out there. We felt that's what we had to do to get the funding to do the company and everything. From that perspective, I understand where some of that backlash comes from.
Balancing advantage and disadvantage, and unfortunately the balance was not struck, I guess.
BR: Yeah. Yeah. I think, if we would have had another six months, maybe things would have been different. The game would have come out much better and met more of the expectations it had. Again, in trying to please so many people, even the game style... I think that people that saw it as taking the Diablo experience into a 3D realm were the ones that were the happiest with the game.
But there was a lot of people that thought like, "I'm getting an MMO." And then they were like, "This is an MMO? I hate this game." Or so many people thought, "I'm getting a first-person shooter." And then they got the game and went, "This is a crappy first-person shooter." So, those people were very disappointed...
Because it wasn't a first-person shooter.
BR: Because it wasn't, and we never pitched it as such. But because it was an RPG with FPS elements, a lot of people latched onto the FPS portion. They were like, "Oh, cool. It's an FPS."
I did get a demo where somebody over-messaged to me "FPS people can get into this game!" I think the lesson, in terms of design, is realizing the implications of the decisions you make.
BR: Yeah. Absolutely. Again, it was trying to be like, "We're going to appeal to everybody." In hindsight, it's like, "Wow, we did so many things that seem so stupid," but at the time, it was like, "We want everybody to play this game. Here's this core thing, and how do you spice up the core thing? Oh, this will be great. We'll add that. We'll do some of this."
And after a while, you have what was originally that great dish, you have put so much other spices and crap in it, it just becomes a big messy gumbo.
Whereas Torchlight was an example of honing in on something very specific.
BR: I honestly think that as much as people hated me, as much as people hated Hellgate and hated Flagship, people would have loved Mythos. And that was the second game from the studio. And there was a lot of crossover, you know. And I think that Torchlight proved that that next game idea was...
But the thing is they're kind of doing it in this three-stage process, where they released a single-player version. Runic did the game like "Here's a single-player version." The next is going to be a peer-to-peer type thing. And then it's going to be, "Okay, now everybody goes online and plays."
The advantage we had with Mythos is we would have been right at stage three because all that tech was already there. It's a real drag. There was a version of Mythos... We did internal, and then we pushed from the internal server to beta server. And people who were playing Mythos when we closed the company, the version that was next going to get pushed to beta, which was internal, had all these changes to it based on everybody's feedback that was playing.
It wasn't hub-instanced anymore. It was a big open world that then you would go into all the instanced content. You could actually run around with people. We were like, "Oh my God, this is it. This is going to be so great." But you don't get there. And I think that's the difficulty, that we were in an unsustainable business model.
I mean, the game sold, actually, a good number of units, not a failure number of units at all. We never released our box money because we never cracked [our royalty numbers]... Because development cost was so high. We were like, "God, we'll never make that."
We even at one point just realized, "We're never going to make money off box sales. Even if this game sells multiple millions of copies, we might never make our money back on the box sales. We're going to have to make our money on the back end, on the online." Because that was a much lower nut to crack every month. But we just didn't get the number of players.
Right. And once the buzz went, thus the game.
BR: Yeah, then the game went. And I think the sad part is there was... It's that kind of thing where, it's like if you have a student who's very promising. It's like, "Oh, this kid is really smart. He's going to be great. He's going to do great in school."
It's like, "Alright, here's the first huge test he had where he finished his first year. Wow, he did not do well. Okay, well, I guess we should kick him out of college and he should be a garbage man for the rest of his life, because obviously he can never be a scientist or whatever."
And I think that's the sad part. It's almost throwing the baby out with the bathwater, which I think Mythos was, and I think that other products... We had learned so much. It's that kind of thing; you learn from your mistakes. And I think it is the rare, almost unique company that never makes mistakes.
Even if you look at the best filmmakers. It's like Howard the Duck, hello. There's the classic Howard the Duck things, whatever he does, but that's not like the end of their career. It's not like, "Alright, Mr. Spielberg, you're done. You're not allowed to make any more movies," right. It's just like, "Oh, wow. That was a really bad movie. Well, alright, let's see what the next thing is."
Now here's a question for someone has gone through a very conspicuous flameout. Are you surprised when you see publishers, experienced publishers, completely fuck up launches of MMOs and online games still? Like Final Fantasy XIV is a cluster.
BR: Yes and no. Yes, from that standpoint... There are certain things that have been done so many times, you're like, "Oh my God. How do you not do that?" But at the same time, having been in the middle of it, sometimes you just miss stuff. You're like, "You know, that never happened before," which always seems weird. That will invariably happen with something with every launch.
Like "Wow, we never had that problem until, of course, the game launched, and now this weird problem has shown up and, oh my god, how do we fix it?"
And the thing I think that's difficult, too, is there are times where the developer has to carry the blame for the publisher or the operator because the publisher or the operator in Asia has a lot more on the line. They're servicing multiple games. They have multiple products they've got out.
So, if there's a problem that happens, it's easier and safer for them to say, "Oh, well there was a problem with the code," or "The developer did something, but they'll fix it. They're good guys. Don't worry. It will get fixed." Because you can't lose faith in the people that bring you all the different games, you know, you're giving the money to.
There are instances where, certainly there were problems with things that happened with Hellgate, where when we would spend a day tracking it down, we would ultimately going back to someone not with our company and say, "You know, when you guys did this? You did that thing wrong, which is why this isn't working. So change this to that. You put the wrong file in." It's a simple mistake, but it happens.
So, in that instance, I'm not surprised that it happens because it's not like that person did it on purpose. It's just somebody messed that up. A lot of times, that fault all gets pushed back on the developer, when it isn't. It's just one of the hazards.
But at the same time, when it's a catastrophic failure, right, it's like, "Didn't anybody see this was going to happen?" I actually think that was one of the challenges we had with Hellgate, and this is something that was a strength at Blizzard that we didn't have when we started Blizzard. At Blizzard, there was Blizzard North and Blizzard HQ.
BR: Right, down in Irvine. Like, the Diablo guys would play the Craft games, and they'd say, "Hey, so we were playing this, and we noticed this, and we thought that, and have you guys thought about..." There was this really high level quantitative feedback on the game.
Same thing, working on the Diablo titles, the Craft guys would go like, "Hey, so we were playing this. Have you thought about that and have you thought about this?" So, you had this sounding board that was incredibly good to bounce ideas off of. And we had these oversight groups, these strike teams that we ran for everything that was all the highest level guys in the company that looked at every product and gave directed feedback.
We didn't have that. We were our only sounding board. Namco wasn't doing PC games. We were their only PC title. And they were doing very little development in the U.S., so any feedback we tried to get through Namco, they didn't have that level of experience we were doing at all.
When we were trying to get feedback from Hanbit, they were predominantly a publisher. They weren't doing any internal development. So, the feedback we got from them was from the publishing side, and a lot of times it was very vague. "Oh, you should have more social in your game." "What does that mean?" "Here's the elements we believe are social." "Where are we not doing that?" And they wouldn't be able to describe it.
Once, interestingly enough, in early '08, we took a business trip. Eric [Schaefer], Max [Schaefer], and myself came over to China to talk with several companies. We were trying to get more funding for Flagship. We started meeting with publisher-developers, like Perfect World is a good example.
And we'd sit down with them, with publishers that make their own games, and they would say, "Yeah, you know." And they would have the same comment. "You guys really need some more social aspects in your game." And we'd say, "You know, we've heard that before, but no one can explain that. What do you mean?" And th