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Flagship's Roper on Hellgate: London's Future

Hellgate: London is promised to be regularly updated after its release, to offer worthwhile exclusive content for those who opt into its $9.95 subscription fee, and to still be a fully-featured online experience for those who do not. It's a tall order. How does developer Flagship Studios plan to pull it off?

In the final days before the game's release, I met with Flagship Studios' Bill Roper in a small San Francisco sandwich shop to discuss just that. Roper briefed me on the immediate Halloween content and the seasonal content that will immediately follow, the first major content expansion for subscribers coming in December, responses to criticisms of the beta, plans for other near-future additions, the possibility of a full retail expansion, and the team's attitude towards incorporating fan feedback.

December's "Patch 1"
The first major set of new subscriber content will come in Patch 1, an ambitious package set to release this December. For some context, the tweak-heavy Patch 0 that will go live when the game launches weighs in at around 30MB, while Patch 1 is closer to 300MB. In general, Flagship plans to release that level of new material approximately every three months, meaning Patch 1 is coming earlier than it would have. Roper said Flagship felt a December release made sense for the first new content expansion, slotting into the holiday season and providing an initial example of what players can expect long-term.

Patch 1 will add a new hub, the first to be located outside the city of London. It deals with Stonehenge which, unlike the city of London itself, has proven to be impervious to demon attacks. Roper showed me some artwork of the Stonehenge locale, which has the iconic standing stones remaining untouched despite the surrounding earth being utterly destroyed. The henges themselves will serve as transportation portals for players among the various new areas, as humanity attempts to figure out how to harness the power contained within them to push the demonic incursion back.

Along with the new hub and surrounding areas will of course be new monsters, items, quests, and even potentially new classes; the latter has been promised to come to subscribers in content patches, though it is not clear if Patch 1 will include new classes. Unsurprisingly, Flagship isn't providing many further details just yet, with the main game not even yet on store shelves.

How does Flagship plan to maintain its stated quarterly schedule? "We're already hiring up again," he responded, adding that the upcoming Guy Fawkes content (see below) has been a good testbed for how long it takes to create various types of content. Flagship developers plan to work on multiple patches concurrently. "We don't want to be in crunch mode week after week," said Roper.

Auction Houses and Mail
Without actually touching on the question of whether Hellgate is an MMO, the game will be getting some more traditionally MMO-like features, such as item auction houses and in-game mail. Such features will be available for all users, both subscribers and non-subscribers.

When will we be seeing these additions? "As soon as possible," promised Roper, clarifying that with those kinds of broad game features Flagship will not be waiting to slot them into the normal patch schedule. Whenever they're ready, they'll be in--hopefully before Patch 1.

Launch Tweaks and Responses to Criticism
I shared with Roper one of the chief criticisms of Hellgate: London's beta phase, the overly repetitive nature of the environments. He was aware of the concerns, and in fact had a rebuttal to those holding them. "We have as many, if not a few more, locations than in Diablo II," he said, but pointed out that they are not separated in the same hard-edged "act" structure of that game. He also noted that beta players have still yet to see the fourth and fifth acts, present in the shipping game but not the beta, which he describes as wildly different from the first three.

Still, in an attempt to ameliorate those complaints, Flagship has readjusted the environment flow, grouping environments more according to their theme, and hopefully providing an experience that feels better separated into discrete acts. This tweak will be enabled once Patch 0 goes live and the game is officially launched.

A main frustration of mine with Hellgate has been its approach to weapon stats and comparisons--items include a fairly long list of attributes and statistics, but boil them down into a single "power rating" that can be arguably difficult to use as a practical real-world metric. I asked Roper if there are any plans to provide a more straightforward "damage per second" rating on weapons or characters. To my surprise, he answered that Flagship is actually trying to look for solutions to that very problem, but it is more complex than many players may think.

"It's really hard," he explained. "The weapons all work so differently. Is it direct damage? Is it splash? What about modding? Do we have four DPS [damage per second] numbers depending on the weapon's damage types? So we tried to have this big number instead, but it's kind of a bitch because there are so many mods you can put on things. We spent a lot of time on that."

I pressed him further regarding the team's willingness to modify basic game systems such as the way Hellgate displays damage. "If someone comes up with a better way to do it, we'll look at it," he said. In general, he noted, Flagship is open to hearing and implementing fan feedback if appropriate.

Turn the page for details on Flagship's attitude towards Hellgate's subscriber content versus non-subscriber content, potential ideas for retail expansions, and upcoming seasonal content.

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Subscribers and Non-subscribers
It's something of a balancing act deciding how to split up features between subscribers and non-subscribers. "Even as the game goes on after months and years, we want to make sure the free players don't get forgotten," said Roper, "but on the flip side, we want the subscribers to feel like they have a reason to be paying, getting the cool new areas and monsters and everything."

The way this seems to be working out is that subscribers will be getting the ambitious new content, such as Patch 1, while both tiers of users will be getting broader game-wide features such as PvP duel and free-for-all combat, guild support, auction houses, and mail. The catch is that, while non-subscribers will be able to use all these things, subscribers will often have a greater level of control over them.

For example, any player can join a guild, but only subscribers can create and administer guilds--though some features, such as in-game mail, are likely to be more universal. Features such as the auction house may or may not have subscriber-specific abilities; Flagship is likely to work out such distinctions closer to the release of those components.

Also planned for both subs and non-subs is an Xbox 360-like achievement system, which will reward players with points for completing various tasks ranging from the mundane to the impressive--killing some number of zombies, identifying some number of items, completing three quests with no armor, killing a difficult boss with a certain low-level weapon, and so on. These achievement points will eventually be able to be spent on special rewards; Flagship is toying with the idea of having two tiers of available rewards, one for subscribers and one for non-subscribers.

Retail Expansion Plans
Diablo II, and indeed nearly every other modern Blizzard title, has seen a retail expansion package. Does Flagship have similar plans? "I think we would consider a retail expansion," Roper said. "I think it would be geared towards some kind of entirely new experience, some completely new story or something. We might look into other new locations."

I asked if the subtitle "London" implies there will be future content as diverse as Hellgate: New York or Hellgate: Shanghai. "I'd love to see this conflict in other parts of the world," he answered, "and see what their archetypes are, and their demons."

Still, Roper clarified that one reason Diablo II had a traditional expansion was simply because there was no real mechanism to update the game and add originally planned features--indeed, longtime fans may remember that guild support, promised before the game was released, never even made it into the expansion. Hellgate's capability to be updated extends patch content, and will be used for regular class and weapon balance post-release.

"A lot of this stuff we actually wanted to get into D2, but we had no mechanism to just update stuff," said Roper. "We knew the skills in D2 were far from perfect, but we had no way to fix them until the XP, then again in patch 1.10."

All Hallow's Eve
Hellgate is officially launching on October 31, and it will come with a spate of Halloween-themed content intended to offer both accessible goodies as well as more difficult rewards for players willing to invest more time. A fairly simply repeatable "trick or treat" quest will grant players randomly selected treat items.

Some treats are non-functional, while others offer buffs; sugar bombs appopriately increase players' speed for a limited time. Others are entirely visual: ghost candy gives players the translucent glowing effect seen when retrieving your corpse, and dragon's breath candy douses your character in flame.

The medium tier of Halloween content is the Zombot, a purely decorational zombie robot companion that will accompany you if you collect and assemble all of his parts. Some components are generic items such as scrap, obtained by breaking down weapons as normal, while other unique items like Zombot's Ticker will only drop during the week of Halloween festivities. The best part: Zombot features a Thriller-like dance animation.

Finally, on the upper end there is the All Hallow's Visage, a rare helm that will spawn only during Halloween week. It is the first non-weapon equipment to feature particle effects, and looks very much like Ghost Rider's fiery skull. It comes with its own unique color set that can be applied to the rest of your character's equipment after donning it.

Remember, Remember the Fifth of November
On November 5, in recognition of the foiling of Guy Fawkes and the other members of the 17th-century Gunpowder Plot that attempted to blow up England's Houses of Parliament and assassinate King James, Flagship will be launching a week of Fawkes-themed content.

For the duration of the celebration, players will have a chance to acquire Fawkes' Flame Guards, a set of rare flaming gloves. The Fawkes property, which gives weapons or armor an increased chance to ignite and which adds a visible smoldering effect to the equipment, also has a chance of spawning on drops. When entering non-hub areas, there is a chance that levels will spawn as "bonfire" versions of themselves, featuring fiery skies and higher chances to spawn Fawkes-related items.

Flagship has created some 30 to 40 in-game recipes for a number of candies traditionally eaten on Guy Fawkes Night (some call it "Guy Fox Day," apparently), including bonfire toffee and toffee apples. They seem to be more varied and useful than the Halloween candies, with a tiering system that sees some rarer recipes combining multiple common recipes to create particularly powerful consumables. One of the more easily-obtainable recipes produces grenades; Roper explained that the team wanted to give non-Marksmen the opportunity to hurl grenades from time to time.

Flagship Studios' Hellgate: London will launch on October 31 in North America, with an Australian release following November 1 and a European release on November 2. The game is published by Electronic Arts and Namco Bandai Games.