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What Was Hellgate: London?
Hellgate: London (average metacritic score of 71%) was an action rpg created by noteworthy Blizzard/Diablo veterans who split off to create their own games. They founded Flagship Studios, and Hellgate: London was to be the game that made a name for their studio. Set in post-apocalyptic London in the year 2038, Hellgate: London sent the player on a Diablo style romp - killing demons, gathering loot, and levelling up. From early previews and screenshots it looked like a guaranteed hit.
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The Beginning of the End
But that was before Electronic Arts got involved and slipped Flagship a bit of their online RPG poison. In one of the most titanically bad decisions in gaming history (rivaling Atari's decision to bet the farm on E.T.), someone decided to charge $10 a month in addition to the $50 box price for what was simply a single player/co-op action RPG. It did not have a persistent world or any of the other MMO-like traits that generally make an MMORPG well, an MMORPG. Customers reacted very negatively to this, and preorders were cancelled en masse. We may never know exactly who got this idea first: was it EA or Flagship? EA's online history makes it easy to assume they were the source of this utter failure of an idea.
What was so bad about the idea? Well if you ever unsubscribed, you lost access to the areas, items, or even characters that you created using any of the content beyond the core. Content updates that you paid for would get shut off if you ever stopped subscribing. This meant (among other things) that someone who subscribed from the first day and unsubscribed 8 months later (spending $80 in subscriptions) would have less content than someone who picked the game out of the bargain bin a year later and subscribed for a single month.
Obviously this sytem was not very well thought out. It would have made a lot more sense to simply sell updates as micro transactions that people could have paid a one time fee for. That sort of thing is very common, and games like Guild Wars have already proven that customers are more than happy to pay repeatedly for content add ons delivered in that manner.
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According to EA, What Caused the Failure?
What follows are reasons the game failed in the words of EA's own David DeMartini.
"We're certainly sad with the results for Flagship and what's happened with Hellgate, because at the time we signed it, we were trying to get involved in a very complicated relationship between Namco and Flagship.
We were coming late to the party, and trying to do whatever we could to sprinkle the game magic on the project and get it headed in the right direction.
I think that's an example where all three parties had the best interest of the game in mind, and sometimes the game doesn't work out. Hellgate is still an incredible concept."
"We were co-publishing with Namco. I'm not going to dodge a bullet -- we had people who were actively working with them on the title.
We thought it would have been slightly higher quality than it turned out to be, and I think the problem with the game was that by the time it got really good, we were four to six months post-release. That was too late; we'd lost the fanbase.
It was strictly an issue of the gameplay and game quality needing to be higher at the start. Unfortunately, Flagship was in a situation where they weren't in a position to hold the game any longer, and the situation kind of took over."
"The guys who worked on it spent thousands of hours trying to make that concept work, and sometimes we just don't see something. Sometimes, we just didn't take enough time. Sometimes, things don't work out the way you expect. It's kind of like a film with all big stars -- on the script, it should be successful, but the movie doesn't turn out as good as everybody hoped. That's why EAP takes a portfolio approach with its games. You have to place a lot of bets, and hope for a lot of hits."
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Failure to Learn One's Lesson?
It is extremely interesting and disappointing that nowhere does Mr. DeMartini even mention the incredibly foolhardy monthly subscription system for Hellgate: London. One has to wonder if this is how EA manages such consistent failures in the online gaming space. Earth and Beyond, The Sims Online, and multiple canceled Ultima Online 2 games are all evidence of a complete inability to do anything in the MMORPG/online gaming arena. A company that fails to accept its own history is doomed to repeat it. Electronic Arts continues to prove this maxim over and over again.