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Vicarious Existence

To blog about what is going on in the MMO genre from a casual MMO player's viewpoint.

Author: UnSub

Hellgate: London: A Saga of Drama

Posted by UnSub Friday July 18 2008 at 12:39AM
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The saga of Hellgate: London (HG:L) and Flagship Studios has been a wild and crazy ride. Founded by a host of ex-Blizzard North people, it sold itself as the next great dev studio, with HG:L getting a lot of press based on what, in my opinion, was very little substance. Demons taking over London sounds fine as a concept, but I never really got what would make HG:L special. The fact that both Flagship games (the other one being Mythos) looked like variations on the Diablo theme perhaps made me a bit indifferent, but as a studio they were getting a lot of attention.

Not all of it was good attention. Potential player hackles were raised when HG:L attached a subscription-payment model to it, so that those paying the sub fee got got special account bonuses. A lot of players were used to seeing the kind of game HG:L available in full online for just the cost of buying the box, not the cost of buying the box and paying extra dollars per month. A lot of arguments were centred over whether or not HG:L was a MMO and therefore worth spending the extra money on each month. With all that said, HG:L received quite a bit of attention / hype prior to launch and had a lot of people interested in it.

HG:L launched on October 31 2007 - Halloween - into what has to be seen as one of the poorer releases of recent times. Bugs broke gameplay. Subscription fees were charged multiple times to player accounts.  Problems abounded with multiplayer games. Customer service was poor, no doubt being overrun by demand. A number of special subscription bonuses were released to all players as a form of compensation, only making those who paid the subscription fees angry at having paid for something now given away for free. In South-East Asia, the regional publisher indicated they would need to implement a patch that would delete all characters created in the two weeks post-launch - an absolute slap in the face for players in that region. Although it didn't happen, the threat of it drove players away.

Flagship Studios would later admit that it had tried too much with HG:L at launch and released too early, while the game got reasonable reviews despite all the problems. But the damage had been done in a lot of cases and HG:L was seen as a tarnished title.

Which just brings us up to the fun bits surrounding HG:L. Although recognised that Flagship probably was in trouble, it was a surprise earlier this week to see that Flagship studios laid off all their employees, was reported as being closed and that the HG:L and Mythos IP had been taken by creditors to further develop. Then Flagship got snippy since the founders were still there so Flagship definitely wasn't closed, followed by the bitchiest PR statement I've ever seen coming from HanbitSoft, a licensee / creditor for HG:L that is also looking to acquire the Mythos IP from another creditor. HanbitSoft look ready to take Flagship on to acquire everything they need to continue HG:L in their region and to develop it further.

For current players of HG:L apparently you can't subscribe any longer, but no subscription fees will be charged to current players. Both the HG:L forums and Mythos forums are down or going down today.

So. If you happened to buy the lifetime sub at launch for a cost of $149, you would have spent between 1.5x - 2x the amount on subscription fees than if you had paid $10 a month for it, since HG:L only 'lived' for 8 - 9 months. Lucky you. Yes, the game is still live, but it is being run by a studio with no staff and supported by no-one for the vast majority of regions. You fill in the blanks.

Also, I find it astonishing that Flagship apparently even put its IP up as collateral for creditors. HanbitSoft certainly appear to believe they have rights to the HG:L and is looking to get the Mythos IP from Comerica, another creditor. I can understand offering a number of things to creditors in exchange for investment, but the IP itself? That just seems a bit unsafe. Especially if (and again, since HanbitSoft is communicating, we'll listen to their side) Flagship was unwilling to sell-out in order to keep things going, instead deciding to lay off all staff but somehow concentrate on developing casual games.

There is a lesson here (and not just e-drama is fun in real life as well as in-game). It's that launch is the most important time in a MMOs lifecycle. You can come back from a bad launch - EVE and EQ2 would appear to serve as examples of this - but it is very, very hard. Flagship appear to have tried to launch a new game while developing every single in-game system from scratch. If you want to do that, fine, but its going to take a long time and require a realistic launch decision, not "Halloween this year because it would be really awesome", which is my interpretation of how such a date was decided.

Personally, I'm not a fan of the "release it when it is done" mantra. Such ideas promote feature creep and MMOs, by their very nature, are never complete. Future MMOs need to have disciplined devs who draw the line in the sand and say, "This is the feature and content set we want and we aren't going to even go into beta - heck, even talk about the game - until we are there". However, being sensible is no fun, so I expect to see quite a few more crash-at-launch, crash-the-company failure cascades such as HG:L as the MMO space sees a flood of entrants in the next few years.

UPDATE: Bill Roper has a long interview with about what's happening with Flagship, HG:L, Mythos and what went wrong. It's an interesting read and they key lesson - do more work on less - is pertinant to a lot of games being designed today.