There was a time in the last six months when my wife and I needed a break from the World of Warcraft. I keep up on the gaming internets and came across news that a former project leader (Bill Roper) had left Blizzard and went to found his own company (Flagship Studios). This company’s first game is Hellgate London (HGL), a top-tier online multiplayer game in the spirit of Diablo, by the producer of Diablo. It’s post-apocalyptic, magic-using, gun-shooting, demon-fighting. It’s leveling up and getting better gear. When I list it here, it STILL sounds like a no-lose prospect.
After trying the beta, we were skeptical due to the amount of bugs. We didn’t have a lot of experience with beta versions, so we believed the company’s constant reassurances that they were ironing those bugs out. We figured this must be how it’s done. So my wife and I each got the Collector’s Edition of HGL, because the CE came with a minipet and we’re suckers for minipets. My best friend did, too. We’re all gamers, we were looking forward to dive into a new game that we could all play together.
Unfortunately, HGL sucked.
I could go into great detail explaining why it sucks, but to choose one iconic example, anytime you have around a 50% chance to lock up your machine (not your game, your machine) from ascending an escalator in the main city that you are frequently required to pass through… you should look into delaying the release of the game. This is just one problem of maybe 100 that were painfully obvious and stupid, and directly impacted gameplay. I started to keep a list, but gave up.
I’m sure there are many reasons that the game was released long before it was ready… no official word from the company, of course. From them, we got impassioned letters (now offline) to the community along the lines of “Seriously, we’re working as hard as we can to fix this!” However, their best intentions don’t mean that this pile of incomplete game fragments was worthy of trading for my perfectly functional pile of cash.
The game had frequent crashing, bugs of all kinds (gameplay, network, ui, game balance, controls, video, audio, you name it) that make it unplayable. An example: there’s a character class called Engineer which is the design cousin of a Marksman. A Marksman is your generic first-person shooter. The Engineer is just like the Marksman, except less effective but to compensate they get a robot pet whose equipment/upgrades vanish every time you log out… and a baseline pet has marginal utility. Whoops! Ha ha. They hadn’t got to fixing that by the time I left, which tells you something of the severity of other problems they had going on.
Meanwhile, the company continued to say tantalizing things about upcoming fixes (yay!) while trying to sucker people into their subscription scheme (what?!). Rule of thumb: don’t ask for more money until you’ve delivered on what you originally sold.
And speaking of the subscription: halfway through a horrible launch of an obviously unfinished game, with huge, obvious bugs that prevent the basic playing of the game, HGL comically barreled ahead with their first subscription event! This of course meant shutting off the world servers for a surprisingly long time because… something went wrong in switching on the event! On the bright side, due to lack of subscriptions (you don’t say!) they decided to make the first event free for everyone, not just subscribers. The event had something to do with Halloween, but one of the key parts was that you had to collect random pieces of crap to assemble into a new voodoo-doll minipet. Sweet! Let me give that a shot. Okay, I need 6, 3, and 1 pieces of different kinds of doodads. Hey, I’ve got my 6! Time passes. Hey, I’ve got my 3! End of game. Hey I’ve got 50 of what I need 6 of! These things stack in twos? What a pain in the ass. Time passes. Ok, I’ve owned a couple hundred of these things, and my inventory has to be cleared out all the damn time. Ok, I’m all set with this event, let me get back to the story… oh wait, I can’t avoid them? They’re everywhere! My inventory is at the mercy of voodoo doll doodads!
So there was hardly a part of the game that worked correctly and steadily. But wait, there’s more!
Never mind the broken game implementation, the company compounded this with broken game design. An example! As your character progresses, you can gain special abilities equivalent to talents in world of warcraft, and when you select certain abilities you unlock the ability to purchase even better special abilities. Pretty standard stuff. Unlike world of warcraft, however, these selections could never, ever be reassigned. Your character was locked into these choices for all time. Now, remember that the game was incredibly unbalanced in month one. Once they got over things like, you know, not crashing all the time and other core things, they were going to reexamine the gameplay and rebalance it. Part of this rebalance was an obvious reconfiguring/shuffling/overhauling the abilities… wow, so not only is it broken, but you’re telling me that I’m stuck with these beta versions? Gosh, I hope you give me a good character when you redesign me! The implicit answer is “This game is hardcore, just start over with a new character and then choose very carefully.”
Well, no. (By the way, are you crazy? I gave you money.)
And so, having seen the competition, my wife and I returned to the loving embrace of World of Warcraft, which is still fantastic and getting consistently better in virtually every way as it goes along. When I rebuilt/upgraded her computer and then mine, HGL didn’t get the reinstall. I’ve written off Bill Roper, Flagship Studios, Ping0, and of course everything to do with HGL. An amazing waste of money. In fact, this experience has become the hype cure-all:
“Wow, I’m really looking forward to D&D 4e,” I say. “Maybe I should preorder it.”
“You think it’ll be as good as HGL?” my friend says.
And I grumble while he laughs, and he’s right.
(Although I did preorder D&D 4e. Mearls for Overlord.)