In July 2003, Max Schaefer, his brother Erich and David Brevik – creators of that most revered brand of action-roleplaying, the Diablo series – resigned from Blizzard Entertainment, along with vice president Bill Roper. Amid a frenzy of press and gamer inquiry, the newly free agents sat down in Brevik’s house and tried to work out what they were going to do with the rest of their lives. “And we realised all we knew how to do was make games,” Schaefer laughs. “We didn’t really give it a lot of thought at the time. We didn’t want to get regular jobs, so, obviously, we had to make another company. So we sat there just talking about ideas, before we hit on what we wanted to do. It only took a couple of days, really.”
The new freedom – and responsibility – was daunting, but the group preferred that to the deal they were getting at Blizzard. So it was settled: the new company would be called Flagship Studios, and the idea they hit on at Brevik’s house was what would become Hellgate: London. According to Roper, London was chosen for its association with the Knights Templar and its extensive Tube network. And, initially at least, their goal was fairly straightforward and sensible.
“Our fundamental, primary idea,” Schaefer says, “and our most crystallised thought, was to introduce firstperson shooter elements into a proper MMO. We wanted to make an MMO world where you could play it like you were playing Counter-Strike, or any firstperson shooter. That involved some cool mechanics – the immersiveness of the worlds, that camera mechanic – and just working that into the MMO.”
Flagship had been attracting unpleasant rumours for some time, but in August 2008 the company officially closed its doors. Hellgate’s concept artist, Jason Felix, remembers: “Someone from upper management had a brief talk with some of us, saying: ‘Just hear what they have to say, but everything will be fine’. It was weird because at that moment, it was a statement of reassurance – but yet it forecast a negative feeling. I expected the following day that perhaps half the company would be laid off, but to have the entire staff unemployed was shocking.”
Hellgate: London was simply a case of trying to do too much with not enough, but can you really blame them? Coming from Blizzard, the development land of milk and honey, to a new studio and limited funds was always going to be a shock, and it’s commendable that they tried to create something unique. Flagship has been punished for its ambition in accordance with history. You have to hope that future games from the fractured team will lead them to the glory some of them once knew, and they all deserve.