The Heroes of Hellgate London

Hellgate: London was the Hindenburg of video games. It had majestic ambitions and equally great things were expected of it. High expectations were set in the hearts and minds of fans and gamers alike–Hellgate was set to soar high above the clouds, as a pinnacle of action RPGs and a worthy successor to the throne held by none other than Diablo II.

Yet all it managed to do was to crash and burn. It disappointed fans from day one. And as for me, I was more than a fan. I also happened to work for the publisher.

My first glimpse of Hellgate: London took place during my visit to Flagship Studios in the month of May, 2007. Organized by Electronic Arts and Flagship Studios, administrators of the Hellgate’s most popular fansites were invited to participate in what was officially called Community Day. Unofficially, we didn’t care what it was called. We were just too excited about the prospect of finally meeting each other in person and seeing the game. For us fans of Hellgate, having spent the three prior years in a closely knit community that spanned several fansites and several continents, the chance for us to finally meet up in person was an opportunity that none of us wanted to pass up.

Having flown a distance of 8,000 miles in 26 hours, I should have felt fatigued by the trip, but my excitement kept me awake and energized across the three days I spent in San Francisco.

We stayed at the Marriott in SOMA, close to Flagship’s offices which was across the San Francisco Giants ballpark. Having gotten our room keys and completed our impromptu meet and greet session at the hotel’s lobby, the first thing we did was to play a game of Munchkin to settle in as we talked about Hellgate: London.

Conceptualized as a hybrid between first person shooter and action RPG with strong online capabilities, Hellgate: London was described as Half Life 2 meets Diablo II meets Guild Wars. It was to be a combination of all the best aspects of our favorite games. It’s what the developers and the previews had been telling us that the game would be like. Many of us originated from the Guild Wars and Diablo communities, so Hellgate’s design seemed like a step forward to all of us; we were excited to see the actual game and experience it for ourselves.

Luckily, time flew by and we were called down by an EA representative to meet some of the game’s designers. We walked to a nearby restaurant, the Thirsty Bear, we were treated to an awesome dinner with almost unlimited servings of every Spanish dish the place had to offer. We satisfied ourselves with wine, beer, and other beverages as the dishes kept flowing in.

There, we spent more time talking about the game and how the company could reconcile the Web 2.0 craze with its product, with ideas like social networking and online character profiles. It was a flirtation with awesome; we were being listened to, and we had a lot to say. Unfortunately, as it turned out, none of these features would ever see implementation, as the game itself suffered from no social features–not even basic ones. It lacked standard, core functions of an online game like a versatile guild system or an instant party finder, forcing players to spend 30 minutes in one of the game’s many instanced hubs spamming the letters “LFG” (Looking for Group) just to join a cooperative game.

After our dinner, the group of us went out for a night on the town with the game’s creators. We met up with some of the Hellgate: London development crew and went to a club where we would spend from sundown to sunrise drinking, talking, and dancing. Although Hellgate was still fresh on our minds, the night had little to do with the game that brought us together. We talked about other video games, fantasy novels, and current events. In the back of our minds, though, the purpose of the outing still lingered; tomorrow would be the first time we would play the game. We burned through the hours at the club at a rapid pace, drunk on a special mixture of alcohol and anticipation.

The next morning, we spoke over breakfast and later played a game of hackey sack in front of the hotel as we waited for our tour bus. When the bus arrived, we got on. It was only minutes now until we would be inside the offices and seeing Hellgate: London for the first time. One of the game’s lead developers chatted our ears off during the ride. Speaking to him provided me with my first ever discussion about critical game design theory with someone who sounded like he actually knew what he was talking about.

He did. He was one of the lead designers of Diablo II.

When we arrived at the offices, we were given a brief tour of the red brick studio, where I had a chance to pore over the concept art of one of the artists for both Hellgate: London and their other work in progress, Mythos. As a group, we discovered how sound engineering was performed, and how the game’s level and quest designers created templates and scripted events for the game. The developers weren’t uptight nor concerned about their privacy, so they let us roam relatively freely throughout the offices.

Ushered into a meeting room that had a projector on the wall and a tray full of delicious turkey sandwiches, we were treated to a Q&A session with the game’s designers, where we could ask about all the things that the readers of our fansites were dying to find out. Left unattended, the tray of sandwiches was invaded by the company dog, which took a sniff of the whole tray and licked a few slices. I’m pretty sure I saw him do that, but I didn’t want to get him in trouble so I didn’t tell anyone about it.

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