Friday, July 18

R.I.P. Flagship Studios?

Last week, rumors started flying on gamer web sites that Flagship Studios was in trouble. Flagship Studios was started by a group of ex-Blizzard employees (Bill Roper, Max & Erich Schaefer, and David Brevik) who had all worked for Blizzard North and had important roles in the creation of Diablo and Diablo II.

Bill Roper takes a lot of heat from gamers. I see forum posters rant about his alleged "attitude" toward them. I interviewed Bill at E3 a few years ago, when he was still with Blizzard, but not long before he left. We met at the Blizzard booth, and because this was a recorded interview for radio we needed to find a quiet place (at E3, quiet was hard to find... nearly naked girls were easy to find, but finding quiet took some looking).

We ducked into a small closet in the Blizzard exhibit booth, where the crescendo of sound from the show floor muted to a dull roar. I set up my recording gear and asked Bill some questions about upcoming Blizzard games. World of Warcraft was out at the time, but it was new and we had no idea what a cultural force it was going to become. I asked Bill a few things about WoW, but as I recall we mostly discussed Starcraft. As the interview wound down, I said "Bill, I have to ask you about Diablo. WHEN we will hear about Diablo III?" It quickly became apparent to Bill that I not only was familiar with Diablo and Diablo II, but I loved the games.

His whole demeanor changed. Now he wasn't a video game company executive talking to a reporter, he was a guy talking about something he loved. We went on for another twenty minutes talking about the Diablo games. (If you heard my Into Gaming Minute from last week, following the announcement of Diablo III, you'll know just how geeked up I am about Blizzard producing another in the series. The Diablo games are my favorite computer games of all time, bar none.)

I've kept the unedited audio of that interview as a souvenier. I've only done that about a handful of times, out of all the hundreds of interviews I conducted over the years. (Random fact time! One of the others I've kept was a hilarious bit of stuff from Chris Pirillo of Lockergnome fame. Back when I was co-hosting the Computer America show, I met up with the ZDTV staff at CES in Las Vegas and had them record rejoins for the show. You know, those silly "I'm Blah de Blah, and you're listening to Blah Blah Blah" things you hear when a show comes back from commercial? So I got one from Leo Laporte, who was incredibly smooth and did two or three perfect ones right off the top of his head. And then I sat down with Chris. He had this bit he wanted to get out about Lockergnome, but he kept stumbling. Every time he'd stumble, he'd swear. It got more foul and more funny by the moment. Finally he said what he wanted and then he laughed and said "You got some good stuff there, I guess that'll be on the internet." I never did post any of it, but it's really hilarious.)

So other than shameless name-dropping, what's my point? My point is that all of these guys in the business have multiple faces. There's the face they put on when they're talking to the press, or customers, and then there's the REAL face that shows up when they let their guard down. Bill Roper was a warm, friendly, funny man who loved talking about video games with someone who loved the games as much as he did. Bill is a guy who was born to make video games.

And now that might be interrupted for a while. Flagship Studios finally put out a press release confirming some rumors (yes, the entire staff except for legal and the management team has been laid off) and denying some others (no, they have not lost control of the intellectual property rights for their games Hellgate:London and Mythos).

I reviewed Hellgate:London when it was released, and I gave it a generally favorable review. But the game struggled with bugs and crashes after launch, and there was never enough special content for subscribers to keep them happy. When 95% of your online game can be played for free, that last 5% had better be something special if you want people to pay $10 a month to access it. As time went on, more subscriber only content was rolled out, but it was too little, too late (apparently).

I was also beta testing Mythos, and I thought the game had potential (although I didn't consider it nearly as close to a finished product as the devs and other beta testers did -- that's a real problem in video game development, fanboys in the beta testers, but I'll blog about that another time). Mythos devs posted on their forums that for now, the game is mothballed, but they hope to stay together and get the project rolling again.

Hellgate:London is still up and running. I logged in to it last night. For how long is anybody's guess. There is a real sadness that surrounds the implosion of games that you actively played. The long, slow decline of the game "Dark Age of Camelot" was also gloomy for me.

But this is harder, because Hellgate:London only saw the light of day for a short time (not even a year at this writing, launching on Halloween Day in 2007), and the game WAS improving. And it's harder because I like Bill Roper and I spent half an hour in a closet with him once.

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