Jan 27 2008

An open letter to the Hellgate: London community

I like Diablo-style RPGs. It’s not something I consider a weakness. But even I have to admit that Hellgate: London is a miserable pile of, uh, bugs. It’s a buggy game. While the majority of the game works great, when you really look at it, there are still a wide and varied collection of show-stoppers, tragedies and, at best, very annoying problems. But as much as I love to bitch, even I have a limit to how much trolling I can take.

So today the Hellgate: London community pushed a little too far and I posted this on the official forums:

Okay, look. Basically when you make a game you’ve got a choice:

You can work on the game for free, take a decade to make it and then release it with no paid support and pay for distribution out of pocket. But your end product is exactly what you want, for better or worse. Anybody here who’s old enough to remember Battlecruiser 3000 A.D. knows exactly what I’m talking about here.

Or you can get a product out in less than two years, get paid during production so you can continue to feed yourself and your family, and have it show up on shelves in actual stores. The tradeoff is that you have to go with a publishing company.

A publishing company like EA.

Now, you don’t get to choose when you’re a good ways into the game and it’s looking good and successful. You have to choose about a third of the way (or less) into pre-production. Make a living or be an “Artist.” 99% of normal people choose to make a living. It’s an easy choice when you have to put food on your table.

Many of you who are still living with your parents may have a hard time identifying with that choice.

So when EA turns around and says, “Hey, take out the swear words and reduce the gore and release the game on Halloween a full half a year before it’s ready,” you say yes. Because if you say no they point at your contract. And if you keep saying no, they terminate your contract and sue you until you’re even worse off than you were before you decided to become a game developer.

When EA takes away your QA team and leaves you with one person, you suck it up. When EA only gives you a budget big enough to afford one server on a slow-ass connection (especially when other assets are dedicated to supporting your other free RPG), you suck it up.

This is what you do when you’re a new developer. Nobody cares who did what with Blizzard. Nobody cares how good your product looks or how fun it is. Nobody cares what a good filker your CEO is. All those things are far too insubstantial when it comes to publishing video games. What matters is: “How much money have you made your previous publishers?”

Do you really think someone at Flagship programmed up a bunch of gore and then said “No, it’s too awesome. It should suck more.” No, you don’t; you’re not stupid. When you think about it, it’s obviously someone outside the company making those choices.

Now I’m not saying that EA is solely responsible for HG:L’s current awkward condition. Clearly some of the blame lies with FSS; there are bugs I’ve encountered in this game that are clearly the result of oversight or poor design. But please don’t think they weren’t listening during Beta when we were all screaming that the game wasn’t ready. They knew it wasn’t ready. But EA needed to shove it out the door and start making some money off their investment, so they shoved. You could say it was their right as a publishing company. You could also say that it might prove to be the death of this game.

Flagship Studios doesn’t like bugs any more than any of you like them. They like gore and excitement and good, solid game play and puppies and rainbows and everything else. But when your boss at work tells you to do something, you do it. You do it because he signs your paychecks.

These guys are working as hard as they can, to the best of their abilities. If you want this game to become a good, solid product, go ahead and keep contributing.

But be constructive! Six polls in one forum asking people to vote about how hard the game sucks isn’t going to get anybody anywhere. It’s whining. It’s trolling. It’s ignorant and I’d like to think we’re all above it.

When I bought the retail version of Hellgate: London I bought it after I’d played the beta. I knew full well how buggy the game was, so I wasn’t too surprised when the retail version didn’t work when I first installed it. I had to pull some pretty serious Kung Fu just to get it to run badly. Nowadays I’m still limping along at best. And I feel like I got screwed with my pants on, just as (nearly) everyone else here does.

But I’m not mad at Flagship. Not nearly as mad as I am at Electronic Arts.

I mean, this is the company that produces a new Madden game every year. A game identical to the previous year’s edition except for very, very minor changes. They charge full price for it. And people buy it. Millions of people. So this company has a very skewed idea of what acceptable business behavior is like. And if Hellgate: London gets shut down a month from now because everybody got fed up with playing beta-quality product that wasn’t getting fixed and canceled their subscriptions, none of the movers and shakers at EA would even bat an eyelash. Because HG:L’s just a “niche” game for them, something with which to make a quick buck off the PC gaming market and then throw away. It’s their little summer action romantic comedy starring Will Smith; it’s not art, it’s not something you talk about for weeks after you’ve seen it. For EA, Hellgate: London’s the equivalent of a popcorn flick.

So if we keep whining and moaning, and enough people cancel their subscriptions, nobody at EA will care. Flagship Studios will get shut down and many hard working gamers like you and I will loose their jobs. The people who actually gave this game (and us) the shaft will keep on making millions off their next NBA / Medal of Honor / Need for Speed / Tiger Woods / Sims regurgitation.

Okay, I’m done with you. Go back to flaming.