Blizzplanet: Behind the Scenes with Bill Roper

Hellgate: London was announced during E3 2005 by Flagship Studios as an Action-RPG to be published by Namco.  Ever since, the world is on watch for this awesome game.  Players were able to play the game at the Namco Booth in E3, and critics have given Hellgate: London an A+ rating.  One comment I will never forget is—“Hellgate: London already beats most FPS games out there, and it hasn’t even shipped”.  Hellgate: London was nominated for Best RPG of E3 2005 by Game Critics Awards; your Cinematic at E3 was chosen among the Top 10 by; and RPGFan chose Hellgate: London as Best PC Game of E3 2005.  With your track record of games sold with Diablo II and what everyone has seen at E3 and around the globe in most Gaming Networks, it is no surprise that this is the best FPS/Action-RPG.  There are a few things that are a mystery to fans, though,  that haven’t been asked.  Therefore, we want to break the ice on a few topics.  Welcome to Flagship Studios CEO, Bill Roper.

1. How will character customization work in Hellgate: London?

Bill Roper:  While players will be able to customize the basic appearance of their character to a degree upon creation by adjusting elements such as face shapes, skin tone, eye shapes and color and hair style and coloring (the final feature set is as yet undetermined), the real customization comes through playing the game. Hellgate: London is an item-heavy game, meaning that we love kicking out a TON of different weapons, armor, accessories, and so forth during every session. We utilize randomization and dynamic generation in almost every area of the game, and as one example, with over 100 base weapons this means that the potential combinations start numbering in the millions when we?re all done. To allow players to customize their characters, we?re using a ?mod? system that allows specific modification of these randomly created items.

When a base weapon is spawned in the world, there is a chance that it will have ?mod slots? that allows the player to install specific types of additional components onto the weapon. This enables the player to highly customize a great weapon they have found to make it unique to them and supportive of the skills of their character and their preferred game play style.

We are looking at extending this concept into other types of equipment, and even skills. This would allow two characters of the same class that have gone down the same path in terms of how they have structured their skills and equipment to still be quite different from each other.

2. Can you give us a preview of the interface and how it will work out for spells, weapons, energy, cooldowns, etc.?

Bill Roper:  The interface is definitely a work-in-progress, and as with any other game we have made, will continue to evolve over the course of development. Our goal is always to make it intuitive for the user and to provide as much information as possible without cluttering the play area or overwhelming the player.

For Hellgate: London, we have been mixing elements of RPG, MMORPG and FPS interfaces to create a streamlined HUD-style design. Like an MMORPG, We show your character and level in the upper right corner, as well as the status of your health. The bottom of the screen shows your progress through your current level of experience, as well as the skills assigned to your left and right mouse buttons. There is also a ?hot bar? along the bottom where players can assign any number of different elements, from inventory items to skills and spells. This is especially convenient as it allows players to hot-swap weapons during battles for maximum tactical advantage.

We are also displaying certain interface elements only when needed. For example, we show what effects are on a player in the upper right corner of the screen. In the specific case of the Templar, we only show the Vengeance meter (how certain Templar skills are powered) when the character has a skill active that requires it. Elements such as cool down are displayed in the outer ring of the circular icons in the lower corners of the screen, making them universal for skills, spells, or weapons.

As we continue to build and play the game, we will undoubtedly refine the functions and look of the interface, but hopefully you can see that ease of use and non-intrusive visibility are high on our list.

3. Does Hellgate: London offer anything innovative to the genre or to players that are used to Doom 3, Counterstrike/Half-Life 2, Diablo II who feel familiar with first and third-person view modes?

Bill Roper:  We believe that there really isn?t a game out there that is quite like Hellgate: London. Our experience with people actually playing the game at E3 proved that out to us, as well. Hellgate: London is first and foremost an Action-RPG, so in terms of how you gain success in the game, it is much more akin to Diablo II than Half Life 2. We do, however, employ a very different perspective for game play than the Diablo franchise in that we use both first person and close 3rd person views. Although at times the game has a very distinct FPS feel to it, we have gone to great lengths to remove the necessity for players to have pixel-perfect aiming skills or hyper-accurate reflexes to succeed in the game. Killing monsters is all about your character level, your character skills and spells, and the equipment and weapons you?ve managed to acquire.

What we learned specifically from E3 was that both RPG and FPS players couldn?t put the game down. RPG gamers immediately were picking up loot, comparing items, equipping their Templar, and wading knee-deep into randomly spawned packs of demons. FPS players went straight into the demon slaying, and at first didn?t seem to really notice all the loot dropping around them. And even though they weren?t immediately taking full advantage of new equipment, they were having a blast. It was also great fun to see a hard-core FPS player?s eyes widen when the huge LEVEL 2 ACHIEVED message came up ion the screen. We really beat people over the head with that at the show since you don?t get a lot of set-up as to what you?re playing when you walk up to a game at E3. I had more than a few Shooter fanatics stop and say, ?I leveled? What can I do with that?? When we?d open the character stat and inventory interface they flipped.

Basically, some gamers found an FPS in their RPG, while others found an RPG in their FPS. All of them were very happy.

4. What properties will the paper-doll have?  In Diablo II, the space was very limited and some items could take 3 to 6 slots.  What is innovative in Hellgate: London concerning the paper-doll?  (off-record: World of Warcraft introduced 5 bags with 16 slots, and each item spends only one slot vs Diablo’s slot-system)

Bill Roper:  We?re currently working on really showing off the character and his/her items through the paper-doll interface. When you mod your weapons, for example, we not only change the geometry of the weapon in the game, but also in the specialized mod interface within the character screen. We?ve done away with the Tetris elements of the inventory screen, having instead divided items into large and small categories. We are also automatically stacking certain types of items (such as med packs) to make organizing your inventory a simpler matter. Th
e inventory system is amongst the long list of interface areas we are co
nstantly tweaking, although it is already quite robust. For example, when you mouse over an item, we present the player with quite detailed information as to the item, how it has been modded and, as a nod to some of our favorite Collectible Card Games, a bit of flavor text that helps place the item in world fiction.

5. How does the Quest System work and how will it provide players with an immersive roleplaying feeling in contrast with the mindless hack-and-slash of other games? What makes Hellgate: London different in the RPG department?

Bill Roper:  More than many RPGs, Hellgate: London revels in its hack-and-slash nature. This is not, however, and excuse for us to ignore story. To push this element of the game, we specifically divide the overarching storyline of the game (Quests) from directed opportunities (Missions, Tasks, Chance Events) so that when people are on a Quest, they know it is an important part of the storyline. We?re using devices such as voice and in-game cinematic sequences to differentiate these sections of the game from the less epic things that NPCs are interested in you doing for them.

An interesting element to tasks and missions are that we are utilizing the ?content over time? philosophy top make these as dynamic as the rest of the world. Usually, when new content is introduced to the player, it is through going to new places. We are bringing content to where the player?s already are through the NPCs and set locations. An example of this would be where as one day a specific NPC might be paying three times the normal price for a specific kind of weapon, the next day he might need fuel mods and will offer you any mod of your choice from his inventory for every 10 you bring him. We also have special NPCs or events that occur within common locations during different times. For example, there may be rumors of a dark stranger who deals in arcane spells making his way to the Covent Garden station via the Underground. You would then learn that he should be arriving on a certain day, and will only be at that location for a set amount of time. This means that players will be able to get something new and special if they time where their character?s are in the world to coincide with these types of events.

6. The PCGamer article mentions support to somewhere between 16 to 32 players instead of providing a fixed number.  I assume this aspect of the game is still in development—not set in stone, and may change the amount of players per game.  Hellgate: London is obviously not a MMORPG, and there most be a limit of players.  How will this game work in Multiplayer?  Do we browse a list of maps and choose a map to join like in Half-Life 2 and anyone who wants to join gets in?

Bill Roper:  We haven?t set any limits so far as to the number players in any Station or individualized instance of the game as this will be more of a function of what is fun and balance rather than a specific technological limitation. Hellgate: London will be able to be completed by a single character since the game has a stand-alone component. Once players get online and start teaming-up with other adventurers, we will dynamically scale the challenges in different areas based on the number of characters in a party. We will place party size ranges on areas, so while some may be designed for 1-4 players, others can support 8, 12, 20, 50 and so on. We are dedicated to providing areas that support large ?raid sized? groups so that guilds can schedule events and players who reach the upper limits of their class have special challenges awaiting them.

As for how the game will work in multiplayer, Guild Wars is a great example of the direction we?re heading. There are no lists of names or chat rooms with avatars like an FPS or even Diablo. Characters exists in the world at all times, and we?ll be working hard to streamline ways for player?s to hook up with their friends, get into individually generated areas (instances) and work cooperatively to cut a swath through the demonic hordes that have overtaken London. Basically, we?re keeping the economy and community that make MMORPGs so vibrant while doing away with the elements that pull you out of the world (spawn camping, standing in line to kill some named boss) or are, quite frankly, boring (spending 10-15 minutes running or taking some form of transportation to get to an area before you can actually start playing.) We love bringing people from all around the world together to play games ? and the faster we can get them into a compelling play experience, the better.

7. What I have read so far about Hellgate: London, it is a mix of Role-playing, FPS a la Doom 3 and some Half-life 2/Halo 2 multiplayer arena combo action.  There is another type of genre, like Xmen: Next Dimension which has a different type of fighting features and modes.

Xmen: Next Dimension by example has:
–  Arcade mode:  where you fight one computer-controlled opponent after the other in three-round matches.
– Practice Mode:  for experimenting with moves and combos
– Survival mode:  that challenges you to defeat as many opponents as possible without getting knocked out.  Usually survival mode gives you access to playing one hidden character per class, if you win.
– Deathmatch Mode:  One-on-One player vs player
– Arena mode:  Multiplayer Everyone vs Everyone or Team 1 vs Team 2

Which combat modes from above can we expect in Hellgate: London?

Bill Roper:  We have not specifically designed out a host of combat modes for the game ? or at least not any that we are sure enough about to talk about. We do have some ideas on how to make the competitive without having to fall back on a complicated PvP system with its own ranking and rewards and so on. We?ve tossed around ideas such as races, collection quests, scavenger hunts, area defense against increasingly difficult waves of monsters, and few more. As we continue to develop and play the multiplayer portion of the game, these modes will evolve and the ones that we can?t stop playing will be the ones that get in.

8. Is Flagship Studios considering LAN, tournaments, ladder support?

Bill Roper:  We are very interested in making Hellgate: London a game that can be played in tournaments and has a system with which players can compare themselves against each other. We are also creating a dedicated online destination for players, as well as discussing how we will support ?open? play as opposed to our secure client/server model.

9.  Internet/computer rental locations—best known as “Internet cafe” offer gameplay of Doom 3, Half-Life 2, Tribes, Unreal, Quake and other games.  With Blizzard, because of the high proprietary restraints and CD-key Authentication it wasn’t possible for Internet cafes to offer online support to unless the player brought his own CD to the internet cafe.  Most Blizzard games are played via LAN at internet cafes instead. Will Flagship Studios be more flexible? What type of support will internet cafes have?—(Korea online gaming is mostly via internet cafe) and we know that HanbitSoft will distribute the game on Asia.

Bill Roper:  Actually, there are numerous models that can be employed to allow cyber-caf?s to run multiple users from a single CD, and this is one area where our association with HanbitSoft in Korea really pays off. They have an excellent relationship with the PC Game Baangs (their name for cyber-caf?s) that they established during the introduction of StarCraft and Diablo II to the Korean market. We are focused on creating an online model that will support many different approaches to getting the game into player?s hands, as well as supporting the business models of cyber-caf?s. This is essential for us not only because people in different parts of
the world have very different locations and methods for getting and playing
the game, but also because we know that the business of distribution is in a state of evolution, and we don?t want to limit our opportunities, or dictate how players can get their Hellgate: London experience.

10. Will Hellgate: London have a Game editor where players can create their own maps? The game offers random generated paths and landscape… (i.e. Warcraft 3 is 3D and still has a World Editor).  Can players create their own Campaigns and quests via a Game Editor?

Bill Roper:  We currently don?t have plans for a Game editor, for the same reasons MMORPGs don?t make them available. Unlike an FPS where the game play can be greatly extended through additional community-created maps or content, RPGs require the following of specific power and difficulty curves, and player-created content can drastically skew this unfairly. We do know that there are some great mods done for RPGs (Neverwinter Nights is a wonderful example) but when online play is a major component of the game, this gets tricky. We will certainly keep the mod community in mind as we continue to develop the game, and who knows ? maybe we?ll come up with a great idea!

11. Based on your support and legacy with Diablo II, your games have traditionally offered the Modding community a viability to create their own mods and total conversions. Will this be the case with Hellgate: London?  Do you have a message that may make the modding community be excited as to look forward to buy Hellgate: London?  (Note: A 3dMax plug-in tool is downloadable from Blizzard for the modding community as well—Will any type of plugin be available to Hellgate players?)

Bill Roper:  Modding is always a tricky question, and with a game that has such a focus on secure online play as Hellgate: London, this becomes even more-so. A few of the crew at Flagship are very into the mod community, so while we currently don?t have anything specifically on the boards to support modding, at the very least, I would be surprised if we programmatically did anything to prevent it. This will certainly remain a topic of discussion and brainstorming around the office, so we?ll just have to see what happens.

12. Ever since Flagship Studio announced Hellgate: London, Mac users and their communities have been expecting an official announcement that may confirm if the game will be released for the Mac OS X.  I am personally a Mac user for over 10 years.  Played StarCraft, Warcraft 3,  Doom 2,  Tomb Raider and other games on my mac.  I got my Diablo and Diablo II last Christmas as well.

Based on your past work in Blizzard North, you usually finish and polish the game.  When everything works as intended and bugs have been—at most—ironed out by the QA Department, the game goes into the next step which is making the Mac version.  Once the mac version is finished, the game goes Gold, and taken into the CD Production stage for release as a PC/Mac hybrid game.

So I am not surprised that there has not been an official announcement of a Mac version. Hellgate: London is still in development and has not reached the post-QA(Quality Assurance) status. Your FAQ section doesn’t rule out the shipment of a PC/Mac hybrid.  We just need a confirmation that Hellgate: London will ship a PC/Mac hybrid when the game goes Gold.  This could hype the Mac playerbase to be more alert about your game.  What is Flagship Studios’ plan for the Mac? —Note that Apple decided to develop Intel based computers, which obviously means the Mac community will be split into IBM-based chip Mac users and Intel Mac users. Sounds like a software-side compatibility issue may arising soon, which developers need to consider when making games.

Bill Roper:  Macintosh gamers are a dedicated and passionate group, and we made a point while at Blizzard to bring them games on their platform of choice. We have yet to make a decision in regards to how the Mac will be supported, but we?ve already started conversations with the Apple game evangelists to talk about what they have up their sleeves over the next months and years. Apple?s switch to an Intel-based chipset makes some elements of creating a Mac version much simpler for PC developers, but a focus of Flagship has been to stay a small, focused team. All I can say is that we are seriously evaluating our Macintosh plans and as soon as we come to a concrete decision one way or the other, we?ll let you all know.

13. Doom 3, America’s Army, Heretic, Myth II, Neverwinter Nights, Quake 3 arena, Unreal Tournament 2003, and Wolfstein are among the many games that have gone Linux.  Hellgate: London will obviously be attractive to players of those games.  What is Flagship Studios? standpoint with Linux now that you are an independent Game Developing studio?  Will a Linux version of Hellgate: London be possible in the future or considered internally?

Bill Roper:  The issue of a Linux version of the game follows many of the same thought processes as a Macintosh version, except that the install base is even smaller, although no less passionate about their OS. It is less an issue of being ?anti-Linux? than of trying to maintain a focus on the majority of your gamers. Just as we can?t support every video card, we?ll do our best to hit the vast majority of them to ensure that as many players can have fun with Hellgate: London as possible.

14. Something that I liked from the PCGamer article about Hellgate: London is the mention of relics as a stat modifier, similar to how runes could be added into socketed-weapons and socketed-armor in Diablo II to increase stats.  How will the relic-system work in Hellgate: London, and how will it affect or impact our gear?  How will the horadric-cube equivalent in Hellgate: London work and how will players be rewarded?

Bill Roper:  Relics are a type of item that can be used to Mod a piece of equipment. Not every weapon (as an example) can use every type of Mod, and each base type has a maximum number of potential slots for Mods. Each type of Mod draws from a specific set of possible effects it can apply to items and, just like equipment, Mods have their own levels of rarity and randomized properties. We have discussed the possibility of players creating specific relics or super-mods, but as of this time we don?t have anything like the Horadric cube in the works. We DO have to keep trying to find new ways to do things, after all.

15. Will items dropped from creatures be managed server-side like a MMORPG?  If not, what counter-measures are you foreseeing against third-party software to protect Multiplayer?  We have a concern on hacks and dupes, so we wish to make sure this game will offer security, fairness and reliability to all players. Many FPS games have suffered from these abuses in the past.  As well as from bots or shoot-through-wall hacks.

Bill Roper:  Items dropped in secure multiplayer games will be determined from the server to prevent hacking or cheating. This is one of the reasons the vast majority of players like the client/server system because they know that when they get (or see) a really great item, it was actually found in the game and not whipped up via some cheat. As with any game, thousands of nefarious people will work hard to find ways to skirt the system, and it is a never-ending battle for our programmers to keep the game play experience as in-line with our design as possible.

Security is, and always will be, a major concern for any online game, and we are already working on some solutions that we hope will be a very pleasant surprise to gamers.

16. With Hanbitsoft to cover Asia, we see you are preparing to expand worldwide.  What other markets and languages(i.e. Spanish) have Namco and Flagship studios plann
ed to expand? Will each zone have its own server?

Bill Roper

We are approaching Hellgate: London with the same dedication to quality and worldwide support as we have any of the games on which we have worked. This includes localizing and distributing the game in numerous markets. Namco is focused on preparing and releasing the game in the USA, South America, all across Europe, into Australia and, of course, Japan. HanbitSoft is taking on the rest of Asia, including Korea, China, Taiwan, the Philippines, Malaysia and a host of others. We are already looking at localization partners, and both Namco and HanbitSoft have extensive experience in bringing gamers around the world a title that is as native as it can be. We love seeing and hearing our games in other languages, too, so we are huge supporters of making sure that every gamer has a great experience and that language is not a barrier.

17. What are the biggest obstacles the developers have faced during the making of Hellgate: London, from creative design to the current stages?  And what is your plan and vision for this game?

Bill Roper:  I think our biggest challenge is in realistically limiting ourselves. We have so many fantastic ideas for the game that if we tried to cram them all in, we?d probably never ship! We know that this is the most important game of our careers since we are launching not only our new company, but a new game idea and world at the same time. The game has to be as robust and polished as possible, meeting all of our and the player?s expectations for Hellgate: London. Balancing that with the realities that we don?t have the amazing freedom to take years and years to do a game that we did at Blizzard has pushed us to perhaps be even more creative in many ways.

18. I watched the E3 2005 Movie Teaser, and I can tell by the high quality of its 3D Animation, that the game will have great cinematics and graphics.  I noticed that your capability as a studio have increased with a smaller production team.  It is just less than two years ago when Flagship Studio was founded, and we witnessed, what I rate, the best Cinematic ever.  How is the 3D animation team doing so far with the in-game Cinematics, and how will they play through the RPG-storyline?

Bill Roper:  The teaser that we created for E3 really exceeded our expectations in many ways, and certainly grabbed a lot of attention from people that saw it at the show. We worked with the extremely talented people at Blur Studios who brought every ounce of their Academy-Award nominate talents to bear on the project. One of the philosophies we have at Flagship is to find excellent partners that we can work with in order to realize our vision for the Hellgate: London world and our game. This is especially important since we want to keep our core company size as small as we can. By finding companies like Blur, we think we?re well on our way to achieving our goals.

In regards to in-game cinematics, we were very fortunate to hire a character artist internally who also happened to have done a good deal of these on a previous project for another game company. We?ve got some very basic controls in the game now to create in-game movies, and as we move along through development, these tools will be made robust enough to support our quest system. A VERY early version of what we?ll be able to do could be seen when we did a simple fly-in to the opening area in the E3 demo. A group of randomly generated Templar are fighting a pack of randomly spawned monsters as we glide the camera in, and then down to your character that is positioned in a burned building just below the action. You come up the stairs into the thick of the fight, jumping the player immediately into the action. Obviously, we?ll be adding a lot more to these types of moments, including dialogue and NPC interaction.

19. Your 3D Animation team is pretty fast without sacrificing quality.  We have seen movies, that become games later, as with Fantastic Four and Van Helsing.  And we have seen games becoming movies.  Has Flagship
Studios considered creating a Movie of Hellgate: London showing the background storyline or a line of pocketbooks?  or 3D Movies?  Your team can really make Pixar bite the dust at this point, after watching that Movie teaser.

Bill Roper:  We spent 5 days last week visiting with a host of companies and individuals in the book, film, television, comics, collectibles, action figure and even CCG and board game fields. We sent a crew down to Comic Con specifically to start talking with people about the world of Hellgate: London. We like to build a world, and then at Flagship, we set a game within that world. But more importantly, we can take that world design into other areas because it is a complete and rich place where hundreds of stories can be told across any number of media. We?d all love to see a lot of great projects come from the demon infested place we?re crafting, so keep your fingers crossed!

20. Finally, we watched the E3 2004 Video Teaser again.  It was released shortly after Namco signed as publisher of Flagship Studios? games.  What highlights the most of that video teaser is the sentence:

?The quest to revolutionize PC Gaming is about to begin?

Those are bold words.  Basically, your goal with this game is to set a new standard of PC Gaming and developing.  Setting apart games as ?before and after Hellgate: London?.  Many critics have pointed out the similarities of your game with Half-Life 2, Doom 3 and even Halo 2.  Can we expect features that may be considered innovative in the field of first and third-person mode games?  The PCGamer quotes:

“The heavenly graphics – powered by an engine built in-house, since none of the existing 3D engines could support the game’s level of randomization ? will certainly make adventuring in the Hellgate universe an all-new play experience.”

Could you elaborate on how you will revolutionize PC Gaming?

Bill Roper:  Flagship Studios wants to show what a focused group of top-flight developers can do, and that it is the talent of these individuals that define what makes a great game. The relationship between publishers and developers has become extremely stratified, but as many have seen just having an intellectual property or a popular license without the right developers behind it does not guarantee success. Both the developer and the publisher bring their particular expertise to the table, and an equitable relationship that recognizes both sides of that equation needs to arise. Marketing and sales forces and PR teams are an important of the process, and you need them to reach as many people as possible, but without a great game, they don?t mean anything to the gamers they are trying to reach. With Hellgate: London, we want to show what a motivated, energized core group of developers can do, and that it can be done in an environment that fosters creativity and productivity in all ways.

I personally consider myself to be extremely fortunate to be working with the group we have assembled, creating the game that we are. We are striving to make an evolutionary jump in the realm of RPGs, much like we did when Diablo came out. My hope is that Hellgate: London becomes definitive in the field, so that when people talk about action-RPGs, they will have to consider the work we?ve done. The biggest challenge is to make sure that those comparisons are positive ones, but I honestly cannot imagine starting a new adventure with a better group than the one here.

Living in a world of 21th Century Knights and Templars, roleplaying as Sir Lancelot or Sir Fragalot sounds to me like a lot of fun.  Thanks,  Sir Bill Roper for sharing some time with us to address these topics of interest for all FPS/RPG players worldwide.  We are looking forward to play this game in Beta and Re
tail.  Special thanks to Bob Moseley(Flagship Web Admin) and Tricia G
ray(Public Relations), and to our programmer DarkNemesis.  Kudos to the guys at Flagship Studios, Namco, Hanbitsoft and Blur!

Watch the Hellgate: London Cinematic

Hellgate: London Homepage