History has sometimes punished the ambitious to the absolute possible degree, before exonerating them, often posthumously. Accusations of blasphemy led to Christ’s execution, yet his death became the basis of a religion that has more or less defined western culture. Julius Caesar was murdered by his best friend and an accomplice for ousting the Roman Republic and establishing a dictatorship – but if Dante Alighieri is to be believed, he can happily traipse down to the Ninth Circle of Hell and watch Brutus and Cassius flail eternally in Satan’s maw. Religious discussion in a piece about a videogame? In this case, it’s more than appropriate: not only is the game in question so deeply embedded in Judeo-Christian mythology that it references that tradition’s proverbial underworld in its very title, but it’s also a tale of catastrophic ambition leading to catastrophe. We’re just waiting for the exoneration bit.
In July 2003, Max Schaefer, his brother Erich and David Brevik – creators of that most revered brand of action-roleplaying, the Diablo series – resigned from Blizzard Entertainment, along with vice president Bill Roper. Amid a frenzy of press and gamer inquiry, the newly free agents sat down in Brevik’s house and tried to work out what they were going to do with the rest of their lives. “And we realised all we knew how to do was make games,” Schaefer laughs. “We didn’t really give it a lot of thought at the time. We didn’t want to get regular jobs, so, obviously, we had to make another company. So we sat there just talking about ideas, before we hit on what we wanted to do. It only took a couple of days, really.”
The new freedom – and responsibility – was daunting, but the group preferred that to the deal they were getting at Blizzard. So it was settled: the new company would be called Flagship Studios, and the idea they hit on at Brevik’s house was what would become Hellgate: London. According to Roper, London was chosen for its association with the Knights Templar and its extensive Tube network. And, initially at least, their goal was fairly straightforward and sensible.
“Our fundamental, primary idea,” Schaefer says, “and our most crystallised thought, was to introduce firstperson shooter elements into a proper MMO. We wanted to make an MMO world where you could play it like you were playing Counter-Strike, or any firstperson shooter. That involved some cool mechanics – the immersiveness of the worlds, that camera mechanic – and just working that into the MMO.”
Almost immediately after announcing its intentions, Flagship found itself at the centre of a hype tornado the size of which very few startups have ever seen. While the prospect of a 3D, firstperson version of Diablo (with guns!) was understandably enticing, Schaefer thinks the initial excitement was more a result of the people behind the upcoming game. “It was the story of a large part of Blizzard leaving and doing something ambitious,” he decides. “That raised a lot of hopes. But, you know, yeah, I think the FPS MMO idea was compelling, too. We may have made tons of mistakes, and maybe too many ideas got put into the recipe… and maybe there were too many chefs, too! But that original premise was a good one.”
Back when Flagship was shopping the idea around to publishers, however, that premise wasn’t enough. “Economically, it was a time when publishers wanted to hear grand stories,” he shrugs. “They didn’t want to hear about you making a budget title that was going to come out quick and focus on something; people wanted to hear grand stories, and I think we got caught up in our own stories about the great things we were going to do.”
Hellgate: London thus ended up sticking closer to the Diablo mould than Flagship had initially intended. Rather than simply focusing on the fast-paced MMO component – as Flagship’s fellow Blizzard ex-pats at ArenaNet were doing to great success with Guild Wars – Hellgate became a Diablo-esque singleplayer RPG/MMO hybrid. The offline component would be offered standalone, while the MMO would be extended and expanded via subscriber content. For players, this certainly looked like a good deal – even if you didn’t want to pay subscriber fees, you could play the basic Hellgate campaign online, à la Diablo – but for a newly established developer, it was a fairly tall order.
Despite this, morale at Flagship was high. The company had just signed a deal with Japanese publisher Bandai Namco, which had recently established a North American subsidiary. According to the agreement, Schaefer says, Namco would handle the networking technology behind the game and assist in maintaining the online service. “Their goals were aligned with ours,” Schaefer explains. “Namco was planning on creating a PC division with multiple offline titles and MMOs, and, basically, be a full PC publisher.”
Although many of Flagship’s staff had experience working on Battle.net, Blizzard and Blizzard North’s premier online service, Schaefer concedes that they had it relatively easy back in their old home. “It was our office and our business,” he notes. “We were allowed to run it as we pleased, but there were a lot of things Blizzard HQ did from an administrative and HR perspective that we just didn’t have to worry about. We’re game-makers, not businessmen.” So, when Namco pulled out of its commitments to Hellgate, Flagship was given something of a rude awakening. “Suddenly,” he continues, “all this stuff we didn’t have to worry about at Blizzard, we had to worry about. Namco’s goals – for reasons apart from Hellgate – changed. I don’t want to throw them under the bus, they had their legitimate reasons for changing, but it did leave us out in the cold. We had to operate an MMO, and be an online publisher as well as a developer. And that added a giant, crazy amount of work to the project – things we weren’t expert in or prepared to do but we had to do to make an online game. We just started getting spread too thin.”
Compounding this was the fact that, unlike any MMO around (and, indeed, most singleplayer games), Hellgate’s design layout – that is, levels, monster placements, items, bosses – was, save for several exceptions, completely randomised. This was done in Diablo (and Diablo II) to maximise replayability – but, of course, Diablo was a 2D game. Randomisation on Diablo’s scale had yet to be attempted in a big-budget 3D game, so Flagship found itself in need of a unique rendering solution. It ended up creating an entirely new graphics engine. “We did that because we wanted to do a lot of things that no one else was offering,” Schaefer says. “We wanted to do 3D realtime random level generation, and the existing packages at the time just weren’t up for it. And the amount of modifications necessary to make something existing out there work was almost as much work as just creating it from scratch.”
With the custom technology available, Hellgate’s procedural environments weren’t as difficult as you might imagine; Flagship’s directors and programmers, after all, had significant experience coding Diablo’s on-the-fly dungeons. And to the team’s credit they worked very well – step out of one of Hellgate’s static hub levels and you’ll find a gameworld that’s not only often as consistent and well-paced as that of any scripted game on the shelves, but that also bears a striking resemblance to one of London’s yet-to-be-gentrified streets. “There was room for improvement,” Schaefer concedes, “but that was more because of the difficulties in producing artwork. When we did the graphics engine, we ended up doing way too many cutting-edge graphics features – DirectX 10 features and so forth – and that just made the production of artwork incredibly laborious and slow. It’s not hard to make a level that logically works, from a random-generation perspective, but it takes a lot of iteration and evaluation to make it compelling. And we just didn’t have the time to do that because we had so many levels, and so many areas, that we were kind of hamstrung by the laboriousness of the production process.”
The effects of slow asset production on a game with literally hundreds of different monster and weapon types, not to mention randomly generated levels, cannot be underestimated. This, coupled with the extra development time devoted to fulfilling Namco’s former obligations, was, according to Schaefer, Hellgate’s death knell.
“It permeated everything,” he says. “It reduced our iteration on a lot of things. It reduced the amount of time we had to polish at the end. Ideally, we would have had another six months, another eight months or even another year, just to polish what we had and make it slicker. We’d have made the opening sequences a little bit better, and gone over the quests… So much of what makes a great game is what you do after it looks like it’s done. It’s those last bits of polish, and that last go-around. At Blizzard we had unlimited time and budget, and Blizzard’s always taken advantage of that, and will never release anything before it’s perfect. We simply didn’t have that luxury.”
Hellgate’s final months in development were so rushed that, according to Schaefer, the penultimate story quests were implemented just before release. “We had no time to go back and say: ‘How does this sound? How does this feel?’” he sighs. As a result, Hellgate’s story, while certainly peripherally interesting – its clever ties to English history, plus selected NPCs and cutscenes, were occasionally compelling – but it didn’t feel nearly as well integrated into the hack’n’slash gameplay as Diablo’s (or, better, Diablo II’s) storyline did, where the one-click killing was given a real sense of narrative purpose.
Despite this, when the game shipped the response – while surely being more tepid than anyone but Flagship expected – wasn’t exactly damning. Schaefer can’t remember the exact number, but initial subscriber numbers – for a game with a free multiplayer component, remember – were apparently somewhere in the order of 25,000. Certain more enthusiastic outlets described the game as ‘refreshing’ (PC Gamer), as possessing ‘strong core gameplay’ (Game Informer), and ‘addictive and highly playable’ (Play). And given the slow-burn nature of most successful MMO releases, there was nothing to suggest Flagship’s continued support and extension of the product/service for subscribers wouldn’t result in a hit, especially given the more-than-satisfying realtime combat.
The game ended up selling just shy of a million copies – more than respectable for a first-time developer, but not nearly enough to recoup its development costs. “It did OK,” Schaefer judges. “But we really needed that last six months of polish, which is what Diablo had. It’s becoming rare in this industry, because everyone’s in a hurry to recoup investments.”
The game was patched in January 2008 to add a Stonehenge hub are and new missions, but the demise of Flagship saw Hellgate servers facing shutdown after January 2009.
In hindsight, Schaefer believes the process could’ve been smoother had Flagship done away with the free online component. “We had a pretty jumbled and confusing economic model,” he says. “Having singleplayer, multiplayer that’s free, and premium multiplayer content for subscriptions – it’s just too much. And every group felt like the other group was getting the better deal. Looking back, I think we would have done away with the free service. Because what we really wanted to do – and what we never got a chance to do – was to build the universe. One of our regrets with the Diablo series was that it was kind of ‘fire and forget’. We did one expansion, but that was it. We missed out on an opportunity to grow the game, and grow the universe as much as we wanted. So with Hellgate, we didn’t want to do that. We wanted it to be something we’d grow over time. For instance, we wanted to leave London and visit major cities throughout the world.”
It was during the development of Mythos – originally a Hellgate network-test project, but which evolved into Flagship’s second game – that Schaefer realised that wasn’t going to happen. It was just over six months since Hellgate’s turbid release, and the team was still recouping development and publishing costs. “It wasn’t apparent that it was going to collapse until the very end,” he admits. “We knew there was trouble coming. There was a lot of money that has to go into creating ongoing content, and as a developer, we had contracts – publisher-developer contracts – which basically meant we had to recoup all our investments before we started making any money. And so, we were busy recouping money and not making any. We had a pretty big burn rate, and we knew there was a negative cashflow for a while. But we were doing everything in our power to write deals, get studio investments, and do everything to keep us open and get us over that bump. But we just didn’t quite make it in time – not for lack of trying, though!”
Flagship had been attracting unpleasant rumours for some time, but in August 2008 the company officially closed its doors. Hellgate’s concept artist, Jason Felix, remembers: “Someone from upper management had a brief talk with some of us, saying: ‘Just hear what they have to say, but everything will be fine’. It was weird because at that moment, it was a statement of reassurance – but yet it forecast a negative feeling. I expected the following day that perhaps half the company would be laid off, but to have the entire staff unemployed was shocking.”
The Flagship founders didn’t have much trouble finding new employment – Roper went to Cryptic, Brevik to Turbine, and the brothers Schaefer formed Runic Games in Flagship’s ashes – but it was nevertheless a dismal end to a fraught but fascinating project. As most (including Schaefer) have judged, Hellgate: London was simply a case of trying to do too much with not enough, but can you really blame them? Coming from Blizzard, the development land of milk and honey, to a new studio and limited funds was always going to be a shock, and it’s commendable that they tried to create something unique. Flagship has been punished for its ambition in accordance with history. You have to hope that future games from the fractured team will lead them to the glory some of them once knew, and they all deserve.