Hellgate: London's development, like its eventual implosion, was epic. At GDC, Stephen Goldstein, Flagship Studio's ex-director of business development, explained just how what seemed like a guaranteed hit went horribly, regrettably wrong.
Goldstein reminded us first of the happier, more hyped times at Flagship. In October 2007, when the founders of Blizzard North were on the verge of launching their new company's first title, Flagship had secured 60 magazine covers to promote game. It had six publishers worldwide, and five co-marketing partners—meaning millions of dollars in marketing funds—in addition to comic books, novels, manga, action figures, and more, all born from original, internally owned IP.
But just nine months later, Flagship was laying off a hundred-plus employees, unable to pay the bills and beginning the process of handing off Hellgate: London to someone else. What went wrong?
Many things, according to Goldstein, including the fact that Flagship really hadn't considered failure an option.
"Everything was plan A," he said. "There was no plan B. Everything was going to be a massive success."
Part of the reason for Flagship for not having a "plan A" was that the developer had begun to believe its own hype, he said. Not every person involved in the development of Hellgate: London was like a lemming blindly walking itself off of a cliff, Goldstein noted, but he warned other developers in attendance to get outside feedback from those not invested in the success of the game.
"When everyone's telling you how great you are, take a step back and reevaluate," Goldstein warned, "We really had no objective point of view. Everyone was in the trenches."
Even the game-buying public had begun to believe the hype, a product of a massive marketing assault that resulted in lofty expectations. Goldstein said that "No matter what we would deliver [with Hellgate: London]it would be impossible to meet those expectations."
One of the other contributors to Hellgate: London's failure was tackling "too many firsts." It was Flagship's first 3D game, it's first first-person shooter, it's first subscription-based game, and it's first time creating software as a service. On top of that, it planned to release the game worldwide in 17 languages, which required 17 builds of the game, with each of its six publishers looking to score "something special" for their version of the game.
Another factor was Hellgate's ill-defined structure. It was a single-player game with a multiplayer component that was split into a free-to-play tier and a subscription-based tier.
But what Goldstein called "the company-killing moment" was that, at one point, it had passed on investment. That, hypothetically, could have given Flagship an extra four to five months of development time, a period Goldstein feels could have given the developer enough time to deliver a polished product.
Remember, when someone hands you money, take it.