The Game Archaeologist: When Hellgate London got Flagshipped

It seems that it really wasn’t too long ago that I was filling in the time between night classes by boning up on video game news. I was drinking up all of the hot up-and-comers, such as Age of Conan and Warhammer Online, when I caught word that the maker of Diablo was trying to do the same thing again, only more online, in 3-D, and with a cool modern-day/futuristic/horror vibe.

There’s no better way to put it than to say that from the start, Hellgate: London looked all kinds of cool. Oh sure, you can scoff now with your perfect 20/20 hindsight, but I’m betting that more than a few of you thought the same with me around that time. Diablo but with guns and an online persistence — how could we not be intrigued? One of my most vivid memories was being torn between the idea of buying a lifetime subscription deal for $150 or not (again, this was before the free-to-play era, but also before the era of us spending the same money on alpha access. I’m just saying that you can’t judge me.).

I didn’t buy the lifetime sub, if you were wondering, but I did play. I even enjoyed Hellgate: London for a month or so, although something about it never fully clicked with me. It was only after I bailed that I watched with horror that one of the most infamous chapters of video game disasters took place. It’s kind of like when you look at pictures of an earthquake and say to anyone near, “I was just standing there a week ago…”

From its giddy heights of pre-launch hype to the crash simply known as being “Flagshipped” to its subsequent resurrections (yes, plural), Hellgate is a fascinating tale of a good idea, a terrible launch, corporate scapegoating, and bizarre survival.

“Remember the dead. But fight for the living.”

Hellgate’s saga begins back in 1993, when a team of developers formed at Condor Studios. Condor later became known as Blizzard North and transformed into the birthplace of the hit games Diablo (1996) and Diablo II (2000). By then, these devs (Max Schaefer, Eric Schaefer, David Brevik, and Bill Roper) were riding high off of their success, yet after a dispute with Vivendi in 2003, they felt as though it was time to strike out on their own.

In July of that year, the men resigned and brainstormed in secret while the gaming world speculated wildly as to what they could be doing. It didn’t take too long before they announced the start of Flagship Studios in September 2003. However, it would be almost two years until the first inklings of the team’s project were released to the public.

With the names and legacy behind it, Hellgate: London immediately became one of the most-anticipated, most-talked-about games in the industry. The game would allegedly take Diablo’s randomized levels, RPG elements, and horror themes and merge them with a first-person shooter in the modern world. The team didn’t do anything to squelch the growing hype as development continued; on the contrary, it encouraged it in order to raise more funds from publishers.

It was an ambitious project, especially considering that a randomized 3-D game of this scale hadn’t been done before and would need a new graphics engine. Flagship started taking on partners and publishers all over the place.

“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,” Bill Roper later explained.

Namco was particularly important in that it promised to handle the online networking, so when that company pulled out of the project, it fell to Flagship to create a second company — Ping0 — to cover that. Flagship also spun off a subsidiary named Flagship Seattle to work on a side game called Mythos (and that, my friends, is a story for another day).

According to Max Schaefer, the entire studio began to spiral out of control: “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.”

The team knew that the project needed four to six additional months of work, but with a publisher behind it pushing and money quickly running out, Hellgate: London had to launch. And on Halloween 2007 that’s exactly what it did. From first appearances, it didn’t even do too badly: Initial subscriber numbers were around 25,000, reviews were halfway decent, and a million copies eventually sold.

Then all hell broke loose.

Flagshipped

The perfect storm of this disaster came on three fronts: Hellgate wasn’t fully done, it had a ton of bugs and technical issues, and it was overhyped to kingdom come. When the realization of what they had on their hands, the community whiplashed from slavish support to vitriolic venom.

The discovered problems were legendary. Even before it released, Flagship was getting criticized for the use of in-game advertising, not to mention that players felt pressured to subscribe in order to get the “full” experience. Memory leaks abounded, the subscription tech couldn’t get turned on until days afterward, the story felt incomplete and “weirdly “jokey,” some players were double-billed for subscriptions, and IAH had such issues getting the game patched up in Asia that it nearly triggered a full character wipe a month after launch.

“We ran out of time to get all of the bugs addressed, and a portion of our efforts were wasted in the wrong places,” Bill Roper confessed years afterward. The backlash hit the devs hard. “I think there was also the fact that we were a bunch of ex-Blizzard guys and the guys who made Diablo. And so it’s like, ‘Oh, this is gonna be the best game ever made.’ It was the best game we could make, but it didn’t meet those expectations,” he said.

In the ensuing months, Hellgate’s and Flagship’s reputation plummeted, leading to the creation of a new pejorative: Flagshipped. It came to be used for when a company over-promised and under-delivered on an epic scale.

The team soldiered on even so, attempting to justify the subscription cost with two major content updates and numerous bug fixes. Stonehenge Chronicles came in January 2008 and the Abyss Chronicles that June. Hellgate: London expanded into Korea in February 2008, raking in a million subscribers out of the gate. Many hoped that the game had weathered the storm and that it would be smooth sailing from then on out.

Many were soon to be disappointed.

The rapid expansion of the team (to over 100 employees) and the high rate that the studio burned through its cash reserves put Flagship on a course for disaster. Worried rumors from fans seemed to gain ground when team members began jumping ship in June 2008, but it wasn’t until July that Flagship imploded.

On July 11th and with no money left, Flagship laid off the entire studio save for a few of the higher-ups. At first the reports were of a few layoffs, but the truth is that the entire studio became gutted. Hanbit was livid and declared its rights to the Hellgate IP, a claim that would prove important in upcoming months.

The fall of Hellgate proceeded rapidly: Subscriptions were suspended on July 18th, the forums shut down on the same day, and Namco took over operation on July 23rd. There was a tussle between Namco and HanbitSoft over the rights, and that confusion kept players guessing up until the last moment. The new owners didn’t keep the lights on for too long, as Hellgate: London was shut down on January 31st, 2009, a little over one year after its grand launch.

Flagship’s founders scattered, never to work as a unified team again. “I really wish we could have continued Hellgate. I thought it had amazing potential,” said David Brevik years later.

“It was a really dark time,” Roper added. “It cost me a lot more than just the money we’d put into the company and things like that. It cost me a lot on a personal level with friends and loved ones that I wasn’t able to keep in the process.”

This is into the part of the horror movie franchise where it just got silly.Hellgate: Resurrections

Both HanbitSoft and Namco clung to the corpse of Hellgate, eager to wring out money and take full control. Hanbit claimed the rights in Asia (except for Japan) and kept the title running as a free-to-play experience while Namco investigated bringing it back to NA and EU. Namco finally gave up its claims in early 2010, leaving Hanbit the victor of that legal battle.

Hanbit teamed up with publisher T3Fun to continue work on Hellgate, at least in Korea. Hellgate: Tokyo, a sizable expansion that included new zones and duel arenas, emerged from this project. The whole kit and kaboodle was repackaged as Hellgate: Global, returning to North America for beta testing in June of 2011.

Hellgate: Global was more news for its namesake than its content, receiving a tepid embrace by fans. It gamely delivered events and the promised Tokyo expansion, but at some point in early 2012 it fizzled out and was quietly shut down in the west while continuing to operate in Korea.

In August 2014, T3Fun signaled another resurrection for Hellgate through Steam Greenlight. Exactly a year later, Hanbitsoft indicated that it might want to rework the game to include virtual reality as Hellgate VR. The T3Fun resurrection lasted until fall of 2015, when Hellgate Global was taken offline yet again. Hanbitsoft followed suit by closing its version of the game, the world’s last remaining Hellgate server, in February 2016.

You’d think that would be the end, but no. This game has more lives than entire litters of cats. Hanbitsoft tried to port the game to Android that same month. Late last year, we got wind of a pair of projects attempting to either revive the game or create a spiritual sequel.

Have we heard the last of Hellgate London and all of its incarnations? Somehow, I don’t think so. It might have been a glorious failure, but there was something about this game that kept the flames of fandom alive and the potential of profit stirring in its owners. Let’s see what 2017 has to offer.

Believe it or not, MMOs did exist prior to World of Warcraft! Every two weeks, The Game Archaeologist looks back at classic online games and their history to learn a thing or two about where the industry came from… and where it might be heading.
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29 Comments on "The Game Archaeologist: When Hellgate London got Flagshipped"

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Byórðæįr

Grin Build Version [1d100500000000]
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kgptzac

This is really evident of publishers cling to materialized hype of a bad product, cluelessly trying to resurrect it. It would be somewhat more justified if the original IP is actually successful, like Ragnarok Online and its countless mobile spin offs… It’s sad that all the money and dev power couldn’t be spent on some new prospective projects that might have been more successful.

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Totakeke

To put it in a time frame. Borderlands, which is the closest game out there to it when it was around, came out 2 years after Hellgate. Lifetime subs were just the new thing, and Hellgate tact that on to their game, following the success of LotRO’s life time sub sales.

ceder
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ceder

And in the ensuing years, Roper was canned by Cryptic for his mucking with Champions online and eventually went to Disney Interactive.. which has also had tons issues.

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Crowe

Yeah, pretty much everything that Roper has been involved with since Hellgate has sucked. I hadn’t heard any news on him since going to Disney so I’m just hoping he is kept well away from any game I might find interesting.

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Tiresias

I was “lucky” enough to get in at a very early point in the testing cycle. From the get-go the game was absolutely fantastic as a stand-alone, single player or small group game. The lore, the engine, the combat, even the NPCs were great. Act 1 was equal parts exciting, terrifying, and tragic. Black humor entwined with the depressing reality that, despite the sacrifice of so many people, humanity had already lost and wasn’t likely to claw back to victory.

There was even a “Butcher” type miniboss early in the game. The team knew what made Diablo good and stuck with the formula: brutal combat, memorable enemies, powerful skills, and randomly generated levels that were well-suited for exploration.

However, the game never really got out of early beta. Act 2 was too much like Act 1 — it felt like the game played its hand too early and left nothing else to be revealed. The later acts were just Act 1 with a different pallet. Higher-tier skills were frequently objectively worse than lower-tier ones, making it feel like player characters peaked early.

There is one change that will forever stick in my mind: the NPCs. Even as late as early closed beta, the NPCs in the various hubs were great — full of personality and clearly having difficulty dealing with the end of the world. They ranged from depressed to flippant to clearly on the brink of insanity; they represented a spectrum of emotions and provided some much-needed relief from the grimdark of the actual gameplay.

However, there was a small contingent of testers that felt the NPCs weren’t dour and dark enough. With no further consultation, Flagship rolled out “reworked” NPCs that were boring. The flippant “Wirt” in the first hub became a cliched somewhat scared child. The merchants went from offering to clean demon guts off your sword “for free with sharpening services” to just telling you to take a look around. The change took the color out of the hubs.

Hellgate was a fantastic 1-act game. The only problem is that it needed more than 1 act to succeed.

Somebody desperately needs to pick up this IP and the bones of the project, complete with lessons learned, and turn it into a modern work of art.

My vote is for Id Studios. The last Doom game was INCREDIBLE, and Hellgate would be a natural progression.

memegag
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memegag

As an Australian they helped me dodge a bullet when deciding that region locking the game was a bright idea. I would have been stuck playing with the Koreans instead of my US friends – so no sale!

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Pedge Jameson

Clara gave Hellgate a new batch of regeneration’s.

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Byórðæįr

snicker that sounds like the way those guys would spin it. Flagship studios was those guys working out of house in San Francisco, they had money from about a dozen different producers working of los angles and when those producers got external testers from some email list they used to trade around, the developers would call us names like satan’s helper depending on if you submitted a bug they could not figure out how to fix. They tried to frame several of their friends so they could simply seize those people’s assets for what ever reasons. I know roper was part of an attempt at a hostile take over of Disney Media Group by tell his quality a assurance testers not to play the game and only report the bugs they were told to. Likely from the hellgate alpha days when flagship could not fire the external testers, we did not know this at the time, we just through it was mostly finished game we were supposed to find bugs to get fixed before the game went live. I think I might still have the alpha client the first one was renamed upak files from the unreal engine. There was a working game, there were bugs that would delete your progress, and for the most part people were having fun playing the game until the flagship team started screaming at the testers for reasons most of the us really had no idea what was going on. Blizzard North was started with the mod of diablo one hellfire, and roper was simply someone who tracked funding down for the first game and when they made money on hellfire Blizzard moved some people up to San Francisco to work on diablo two while the cinematic team stayed in Anaheim. So there are really talented guys and gals that worked on diablo one and two, but flagship looked good and the quests were funny but the odds are really good they outsources most of the work to sea (south eastern asia) since that is where the primary funding took the game assets and tried to get a completed game so she could get her and the other investors money back since the money the investors sunk into the game was otherwise lost. BIll Roper went on from there to something else until Disney Media Group had a bad leak of the infinity game assets becuase some moron walked an artist through the newly built building for avalance studios who then simply redrew all the assets for the intern coordinator at Zoic Studios claiming it was new idea and Zoic upper management looked into and did not hear about anyone working on something like it turned to Activision Blizzard, who jumped at the idea. I have no idea what happened to the fat dude and his wife who worked the front desk during one of the worse hostile take overs I have ever seen. They had interns tried to steal from each other, they had artists attacking artists, it was nuts, I know the owner and she had one of her producers claim to be the owners daughter and I played along with it to avoid her employees from figuring out where I knew her from. It still got silly but I have a feeling all the under handed dealing is more why the flagshipped started going around, people were stealing each other credits a group of people went around breaking into gamer collections to destroy old copies of credits that had fake names and real ones to get jobs at other companies. There was a group that was working for the playstation lead of one of the test pools during that time who actually told people to take the pre gold master disks home then tried to blame the testers while the whole floor was wired for light and sound. But he created a small limited liability corporation which means that the corporation is not responsible for the actions of the individual members, which in court does not hold water so to speak, but he was paying testers to pass information about the games they were working on to some third party. All the testers convicted of insider trading in California in 2014 keep their mouths shut likely thinking they would get paid instead of discarded. Mostly those developers are what started going wrong with the industry, games that are fun are fun. Most of those dudes thought that playing someone in Prague or India pennies on the dollar to write code or build assets was the best way to make a game. I understand how those pay checks of thousand us dollars for a year’s work might be a lot of money there but when they could not debug the code because it was in Cyrillic or really bad English suggests they should have just found someone there to debug like gothic did or admitted they were simply trying to build games on us dollars in forigne countries that the us dollars went further and were likely spending the rest of the investment dollars to pay for their living expenses in one of the more expensive cities in the us to live in.

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Roger Melly

You might have had something interesting to say but such a wall of text puts me off reading it .

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Bryan Turner

par·a·graph
ˈperəˌɡraf/
noun
1.
a distinct section of a piece of writing, usually dealing with a single theme and indicated by a new line, indentation, or numbering.
synonyms: section, subdivision, part, subsection, division, portion, segment, passage

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Sorenthaz

I always thought Hellgate was an interesting concept and could have been better if they didn’t rush it out and pray that it would make them enough money to stay afloat. Shame it died the way it did, and the resurrection attempts didn’t last long either.

At least it wasn’t completely butchered like Mythos was. :/

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Roger Melly

I remember an article ( in PC Gamer magazine I think ) that suggested it was going to be bigger than World of Warcraft .

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Budukahn

I dodged a bullet with the subscription. I remember playing the game, liking it but getting put off by the knowledge that I couldn’t respec my character at max level. I didn’t fancy putting in the time to get to top level just to end up with a gimped character, especially given game studious habits of rebalancing everything every so often so decided I’d just play one of the other many MMO’s launching back then.
*sigh* It was nice to have so many things to look forward to back then…

Karma_Mule
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Karma_Mule

Yet another lifetime subscriber here too. The game was dripping in atmosphere, had a really cool look, and the bones of an intriguing class/combat systems. Such a shame.

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Ashfyn Ninegold

One of Hellgate: London’s lifetime subscribers here. Well, that was short-lived. Still have it on disc though, because, (ta-da!) it does have an off-line mode, so there’s that. I enjoyed H:L a lot and played it for many hours, tinkering with different builds. It was exciting to play, remembering that it was well before most other FPS stalwarts. It had really creepy graphics and an icky story line. Some of the content was quite difficult for some builds, which made it memorable. I remember spending an hour killing the Act 1 boss with my melee character because it could only be hit with ranged attacks. Ya, good times.

It is interesting that it keeps rising from the dead. It’s almost as if a really great team of developers put together an awesome world, did tremendous work on the classes and system mechanics and then didn’t quite get it across the finish line. It’s almost as if all the stellar work is still there and everyone can see it. But nobody has figured out yet how to get it to shine.

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James Crow

ex lifetime here.
hellgate was a unique game in the mmo genre.

the atmosphere was great. the charcter,story and cinema was kind of one in a life time.
and yes it was more like hybrid of h&s & mmo than the usual games.

ive done every thing you can do in the game and also return to the global version because of the tokyo part…but – they didnt supprort dx 10 (you know before 11-12 XD) and the bugs still was in-game.

i think its more because the original developers wasn’t there and we all familiar with this kind of things.

i can’t say its the best mmorpg i played but we didn’t got something similar, when i heard about hanibsoft making hellgate 2 i was all in to buy lifetime once more but it was cancelled.

i think there are some mmorpgs that always going to stay in our hurts.
CoH,Tabula Rasa and warhammer have its fan base.
i played GW1 for six years and even that in this case we got GW2 it was something else, something diffrent and you still can hear the fan waiting for the the things from GW1 to come.

and now after 4 years of playing The Secret World i feel like its going to happend again, the game getting new life but its not the same and all the progression going to hell (without a gate).
dont get me worng, new life for a game is better than to say bye bye…
but still – its not the same and i think alot of veterans not going to start over.

for me TSW was the real “sequel” to GW1 because of alot similar things.
as HGL was Diablo MMO for me.

goodbye dear friend, rest in peace and please don’t raise from the dead again if you not going to be a new game :)

great article and its always good to read about our beloved game.
its not an mmo but i would like to read something similar to the “Legacy of Kain” Series who had kind of similar fate in the end.

Karma_Mule
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Karma_Mule

Yeah, Tabula Rasa. I was having fun playing it and then what an abrupt “oh well too bad so sad we’re closing” end to it all.

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thirtymil

I played this at launch. I still remember feeling oddly disappointed as I played it, as if I felt like I should have been having more fun than I actually was.

I did like the way the ranged classes used first person view and the melee classes third person, but other than that combat had that dreaded ‘floaty’ feeling which can destroy my enthusiasm for even otherwise excellent games.

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thickenergy

The code for this game is like one of the cursed artifacts from the Friday the 13th television show.

django857
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django857

like the game alot but it had the wrong people in control of it.

Cyclone Jack
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Cyclone Jack

I was really looking forward to this game, and then they decided to jump on the MMO bandwagon, shoehorned in a ton of fetch quests, and attached a monthly fee to it. I walked away and never looked back.

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birini

I got lucky on this. I loved D2 and was looking forward to this game. At the time, however, I wasn’t in financial position to buy the game, let alone the lifetime sub. Wound up being a couple hundred dollars fortunate. Pitiful end of one of the greatest dev teams of all time.

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silverlock

I tried one of this games F2P incarnations. Had a mission to kill a boss cleared the zone found the boss and killed him only to have him rez somewhere else in the zone, so I searched the zone found him killed him again and he went and did it a third time! I finished the mission but was like if this is their idea of fun game play I want nothing more to do with it.

A really cool idea poorly implemented.

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Robert Mann

How could we not be hyped? Well, the guns part does it for me. I don’t mind them when I’m playing a time relevant pure fps or strategy game… but outside that they are a turn off for me. I just have issues getting past the force imbalances in real life, and find their presence in most situations where any other main weapons are used offputting.

deekay_plus
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deekay_plus

occasionally i get super shady looking spam mail about this game from it’s asian publisher. having never signed up for any mailing lists or made account with them.

it was a bit of a topic of conversation with my gaming buddy at work about a decade ago. idk that either of us ever played but we were very much aware of it’s problems at the time and how a game that had looked rather promising prelaunch ended up being a pile of shit.

pepperzine
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pepperzine

Do Fury Online next!

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FU NDA

I think this game could have been more successful had it not been so instanced.

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James Crow

the game was doomed because of a bad leadership not really because the game itself.

i still follow after games from the sequel – the most known is Torchlight 1&2 from runic (ex flagshiped)
and still people don’t know why they don’t want to make a sequel – also the founders of runic are now ex-runic.

its like this:
Blizzard -> Flagshiped -> Runic Studios

Runic Studios->
1. Gravity Bear
2. Echtra Inc

wpDiscuz