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.
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.”
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.