Q&A: Bill Roper opens up on Hellgate

Flagship Studios CEO and cofounder details the first major content update for the hybrid action RPG and addresses the game's rocky beginnings.

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Diablo held a special place for many fans of action role-playing games due not so much to its combat mechanics or storyline, but its addictive item-collection system. This concept has been taken to the next level with Flagship Studios' Hellgate: London, a game that seeks to blend fast-paced shooter gameplay with deep, RPG-oriented customization and item collection. And that's no wonder, considering the studio was founded by former Blizzard Entertainment brass, including Diablo creators Bill Roper, Max and Erich Schaefer, and David Brevik.

Rather than limiting the experience to how much content was packed into the box when the game shipped, Flagship Studios offers an optional pay-to-play subscription model, which promises regular updates to the game to continue fueling gamers' desire for fancier and more powerful items. For those who have decided to pay, Flagship will be releasing its first major content update for the game on January 21.

Titled Stonehenge Chronicles, the update extends Hellgate's borders to the eponymous druidic artifact outside London, adding three new areas to the game and a host of new quests, items, and encounters. The Stonehenge update also adds a number of UI tweaks, and also makes significant skill-balance changes ands adds in a player-versus-player arena, in addition to other changes.

For more on Stonehenge, as well as to get an update on how Hellgate has evolved and appreciated in the past several months, GameSpot spoke with Flagship CEO and cofounder Bill Roper.

GameSpot: The Stonehenge patch was initially slated to arrive before the end of the year. What prompted the delay?

Bill Roper: When we started talking about the Stonehenge patch, we wanted to get it out to players because we were so excited about what we were adding to the game. We were pushing to get Stonehenge released before the end of the year, but we realized that we wouldn't be doing the right thing to push it out before it was ready and properly tested. After looking at what we wanted to accomplish, we decided to take the time necessary to make our first major content patch right. If there's one lesson we learned from launching Hellgate: London, it was that our releases should be a question of "what" and not "when." We just felt that we would be doing everyone a disservice to push this out before it was right. We're proud that we still met our original promise of providing a major update within three months of the game shipping, and we'll continue to work on major releases on a quarterly schedule.

GS: What features implemented in this patch is Flagship most excited about?

BR: Adding our first nonlinear gameplay elements in the Essence caves and Moloch's Pit, the first of our raid-type content in The Wild, making our first major class-balance pass with the Evokers, and starting to refine our player-versus-player play by adding a dueling arena. There are also a host of tweaks, from animations to items to crafting to skills, that everyone will be happy to see.

GS: Hellgate launched with more than a few serious bugs. Was this a matter of staying true to the ominous Halloween date, or were outside forces to blame?

BR: Honestly, we tried to do too much with the game. We created our own engine, tools, and online destination from scratch in just a few years. We are really proud of the work we did; however, we were perhaps a bit too ambitious.

If we could have waited another three months to ship, we would have, but the challenges of an independent game studio are much, much different than what we had during our days at Blizzard or the guys at Arena.net face (since we often see comparisons with them and Guild Wars) as they were owned by NCsoft before they had to ship. We don't shy away from the fact that Hellgate: London was far from perfect when we launched, but we've also stayed dedicated to the game and our players, and have been exerting every effort to make amends and get the game to what we envisioned. We're thankful to our fans that have stuck with us, and encourage people who maybe tried the game when it launched or never checked it out because of early concerns to give us another look with The Stonehenge Chronicles.

GS: Is the game viewed internally as an MMO, or more of a single-player game with online elements?

BR: Internally we treat the game as an MMO because we're constantly working on improving it and creating new content. The challenge with launching Hellgate: London was that it was both a single-player stand-alone game and an online game. This meant our focus was divided at times, but now that the game is out, we're all about working with the online community to get them the features that they want and making the play experience better and better.

GS: MMOs launching while still riddled with bugs seems to be a recurrent theme in the industry. Do you ever see this changing? Will there ever come a time when an MMO will launch without an oppressive amount of technical issues?

BR: The truly massive amount of design, art, code, balance, and testing required to put out an MMO is far beyond any other type of game. This means that it is practically impossible to catch everything before you launch unless you were willing (or more realistically, able) to have the game in advanced test for six to nine months. And by advanced testing, I mean the game being in a state where the developers think they are close to release quality. Unfortunately, even the best and biggest MMOs launch with serious issues. Being able to basically sit and iterate on a game for over half a year isn't something you can really sell to a publisher, or fans, to be honest. As gamers, we all want great games, but we also want them right now, so it is a difficult line to walk.

Fortunately, most players forget about those starting problems after they have been addressed--as long as the core game is fun and the developers have proven that they are willing and able to work on the game experience. We've seen that if a developer shows their commitment to the game experience and their players, the gamers understand the complexities involved in launching an MMO.

The hard part for any MMO launching now is that they are inevitably compared to games that have been on the market for years. People forget that the current reigning champs on the field didn't launch with all of the features and options and polish they have now. All any of us new kids on the block can do is to stay dedicated to improving the game, keep talking with our community, and get the word out that the game today is vastly improved over when it launched. That is the upside of creating an MMO. You can keep working to make it the experience that your players want.

GS: It's common rhetoric from MMO developers after the first few months that the game has been out that significant improvements have been made, and people should come back and try the game again. What were some of the most griped-about early problems that you all feel you have a handle on now?

BR: The team has worked incredibly hard to smash the biggest, nastiest bugs that we shipped with. A high-level list (and this is FAR from complete in terms of everything done) of what has been addressed includes:

Client-side crashes due to memory issues
Invisible party members
Improved chat, grouping, and general UI
World movement and getting stuck in certain geometry
Quest blockers
Tons of skill fixes, tweaks, and balance changes

We've also added a lot of persistent gameplay features. The top ones on this list being:

Achievements: These are long-term goals that players can work toward which provide completion points. These points will be able to be spent on special perks and bonuses.

The Transmogrifier: An item that allows players to discover recipes, which allows the alteration and creation of items. It also doubles as extra inventory space!

And with the Stonehenge Chronicles, here are two examples of what we are adding:

Essence Caves: These adventuring areas off of Stonehenge introduce nonlinear gameplay by offering repeatable quests that can be done across multiple character levels. Unlocking and completing these caves leads to the final confrontation against Moloch the Pit Baron who has rich and extremely rare rewards. The best part is, this sequence can be done multiple times and the encounters scale with the level of your character or party.

The Wild: This area attached to Stonehenge introduces our first party-specific zone, allowing players to go on miniraids. The difficulty of these areas are balanced for groups only, so players will have a real reason to group up with their friends or guild members to claim new, powerful rewards.

GS: It's often the case that several months after launch, some combat classes simply aren't panning out as expected. Have you all identified any classes that are in store for an overhaul?

BR: We are constantly looking at all of our classes and making adjustments, both small and large. The Stonehenge Chronicles sees our first big sweep on the Evoker class, as well as some tweaks on the Guardian auras. We're continuing to give all of the classes in-depth evaluation and will be making everything from tweaks to wholesale changes as required. We're also very close to starting up a Team Advocate program where specific members of our community will be organizing feedback in several areas from our player base and then speak directly with the design team to see these issues addressed. We have a lot of very passionate players in our community, and we think this will be an invaluable way to best get their feedback and improve the game.

GS: With the most recent update, Hellgate will be further expanding its boundaries outside of downtown London. How far do you see this geographical expansion going? Will the game eventually evolve into Hellgate: Britain? Hellgate: Europe?

BR: We've always planned to move the gameplay into areas outside of London, as well as using some places within the city that we haven't yet explored. We have a lot of ideas on where we think good story and game hooks exist, as well as places that we think would just be cool from a visual and gameplay standpoint. Other areas within the UK are definitely on the drawing board, including some ideas outside of Britain.

GS: Do you see future expansions delving more into the geographical regions of Earth or the bowels of Hell?

BR: Yes! We have ideas both for areas around the world as well as digging deeper into the realms of the underworld. One of the great things about the universe we've created with Hellgate: London is that we have a massive amount of areas to explore and expand into.

GS: As with Diablo, one of the primary draws of Hellgate is the addictive item collection. Are future item updates simply going to focus on the bigger/stronger aspect of new gear? How do you all plan on keeping players interested in the items?

BR: Players always want bigger, better, and rarer versions of what they know, so we'll do that. We also have some ideas for all-new item types that we'll be rolling out in the months ahead. It is really a combination of refining the items in the game, creating improved and rarer versions of the existing items, and introducing new concepts. The exciting thing for us is that we really didn't have much chance to add new item types in the Diablo days, so we can really see how the game will expand in terms of item choice and combinations in Hellgate: London.

GS: One of Hellgate's primary claims to fame is its hybridization of first-person shooter and RPG gameplay. Does the game's current gameplay fit the original concept, or what kind of compromises had to be made to reach the current balance?

BR: We always wanted the game to be an action RPG first and foremost. The FPS elements that we added were designed to contribute to that style of gameplay, and that goal has been reached fairly well. At the same time, we wanted the game to be very approachable by a large group of people. Many of the current FPS games are difficult for more casual gamers. We were able to maintain the feel of an FPS while still keeping the game RPG focused.

That being said, we have been talking about ways to make our guns and gameplay feel better to FPS players through different sound and animations, as well as looking at some different skills.

GS: Were the hybridization elements a direct effort to break the mold of traditional MMO gameplay? Do you feel there are any specific aspects of the game that break new ground that other MMOs creators will attempt to replicate?

BR: We set out to make a game that would be different and fun. Perhaps we tried to do too much, but in doing so, we came up with some very fun ideas and concepts that are outside the MMO norm. We built a game that is much more centered on action and fighting larger groups of monsters rather than pulling a single creature and fighting it with modal attacks. We elected to make the entire adventuring instance-based to allow players to have the exact experience they wanted, and being able to be more selective with who they play. We chose a setting that was outside the classic fantasy that 99 percent of MMOs use, and created a world that blended reality, sci-fi, and fantasy. We also tried to create a hybrid business model where players could buy the game, play it as a stand-alone game, go online and play the game for free, and then subscribe for additional content.

Will any of our ideas be used by other developers in the future? Who knows--but it would be a great compliment if someone did since, as developers, we tend to be the harshest critics of all.

GS: What is the climate like in the MMO industry? What is considered a success in the wake of WOW?

BR: WOW is an aberration in the industry, and you can't base your success on how it compares. To be honest, this has almost always been the case with Blizzard games. We constantly exceeded our own goals and dreams when we were there, and we recognized that we had reached a rarified status. The MMO space is incredibly crowded right now, and to a good extent, that makes sense. It also means that there are a lot of us competing for the mindshare of gamers. If you can get your game launched--a rarity in and of itself--and then get enough players to keep the doors open while you continue to build on the core experience, that is successful. If you look at a game like Eve Online, for example, they started with a very small number of players, but had enough to sustain themselves while they grew the game. Today, they have a healthy and dedicated player base that makes them a success story.

GS: What do you think MMO developers need to do to break down WOW's stranglehold on the industry?

BR: I don't know if anyone can consciously do this. Blizzard didn't set out to monopolize the space with WOW. It became a cultural phenomenon through years of hard work, good timing on the release, having a quality game, and luck. All a developer can do is make the best game they can, stay connected to their community, and iterate on the game to make it what their players want. The publishers have to be willing to put a lot of time and resources into the game--including being willing to let it sit in test for far longer than any other sort of game there is. And even then, there is no guarantee that the game will do well. MMOs are the biggest crapshoot developers and publishers can make, but the potential for rewards has a lot of people rolling the dice all the time.

GS: Is WOW even a competitor? Is Flagship's focus more on bringing in new audiences rather than pulling gamers away from WOW or other MMOs?

BR: We never focused on trying to take WOW players, or to specifically steal players from any game. There is a lot of talk in our industry about stealing players from other games because we all know that there is a limited pool of people that will play an MMO, and that MMO players tend to stick to one or maybe two online games. Our goal was to reach out to the gamers that we felt were underrepresented in the MMO space: the action RPG fans. We also hoped to draw in some traditional MMO players, and maybe even some FPS players that wanted a way into the MMO space that felt more familiar to them. The best thing you can do is try to expand the global player base for MMOs. It's something that WOW accomplished, and as we've always believed, any game that brings in more gamers overall is a great thing.

GS: What kind of response have you all gotten from the optional pay-to-play business model? Is the paying option proving to be popular or meeting expectations?

BR: In hindsight, perhaps we should have only talked about how Hellgate: London had free online play and not talked about the subscription service until we were announcing the Stonehenge Chronicles. A lot of the misconceptions and uncertainty over what players got for subscribing would have been avoided, and the whole model might have made more sense to people. By trying to offer a delineation of services on day one, a lot of people just got confused or upset because they saw the players in the other side of the fence as having some sort of advantage. We don't see this between MMO players that do and don't buy an expansion set, for example, so somehow we had bad messaging or timing on what we were offering. We really hope that players who experience The Stonehenge Chronicles will understand what we've been trying to do with this since the beginning.

GS: What regions is the game available in? How has adoption of the game in those regions compared to the North American market?

BR: The game is available all across the US and Europe, as well as in Singapore for Southeast Asia. The game has done well in all areas, although PC in general was down this past year. We're working very hard to get the word out about what we've done to improve the game and online play experience in all these regions.

We just started our open beta in Korea, and it is going incredibly well. The numbers we are seeing are tracking very well compared to the top MMOs there, and we are feeling very good about meeting our goals there. The players in Korea are definitely seeing the benefits of all our work on their day one, so we hope that players here are going to give us another look, as well.

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