What happens at the studio when a game doesn't sell as well as was hoped? Imagine being at Flagship Studios after Hellgate: London's launch stumbles, which 1UP identified as "one of the top 5 worst PC game launches of all time." Angry PC gamers even invented a special term, "Flagshipped," to refer to when a company overpromises and doesn't deliver.
If you think morale might suffer on the team, a blog entry from Flagship Studios audio and gameplay manager Guy Somberg suggests you might be right. Somberg said on his blog that work had become "depressing" because of fan response to Hellgate's issues. (The original post has since been pulled, but MMO fansite IncGamers retrieved it.)
Although Somberg wrote that he loved being part of Flagship, he also expressed a fair bit of worry about many of his colleagues moving on from their jobs:
Thing is, the way things are going I'm likely to be the only programmer still working on Hellgate left from the original crew. I've heard rumours that other programmers and artists are thinking of leaving.
And with Somberg himself writing that he was "getting burned out on Hellgate," Kotaku decided to reach out to Flagship Studios and see what was really going on.
We first heard back from Flagship's marketing communications manager, web manager and writer Ivan Sulic, who said while he couldn't speak about Somberg's emotions, he guessed they were "like anyone who spent a lot of time and effort on something that wasn't received as well as hoped... And then a few of our friends and coworkers left. It's a bummer."
Bummers aside, though, Sulic said that nobody's been taken off or left the Hellgate team except for systems programmer Peter Hu, who's been able to work on some other projects now that the game is well underway. Said Sulic, "Everything else is pretty much business as usual."
Said Sulic, "We've actually had very few people leave. Flagship is still fully staffed and working on both Hellgate and Mythos... I think we have about 100 employees now."
Some people have moved on from Flagship, said Sulic, due to simply moving up on their career paths or being tired of windy San Francisco, but said those departures don't constitute cause for alarm. "People finish a game, want to work on something else, and then leave to do just that. It's pretty typical in this industry. I don't know the exact number, but we couldn't have had more than five or six departures. Still, if those five or six dudes are people you work with everyday, it can't feel great."
And Somberg himself joined the conversation. "Ivan said it quite well," he said. "Things here at Flagship are running business as usual. We've just put a build of Chronicle 2 onto our test center, which has represented a lot of hard work from everybody at the company, myself included."
Somberg said he'd written that blog post on a day when he felt "frustrated and overwhelmed," but that after some hot chocolate, a few hours' game time and some sleep, he felt better.
Said Somberg, "I was surprised and disappointed at the community's response to my words, which were more directed at my family and friends to describe my state of mind at the time, than to give any sort of insight into the company. Personally, I think that the 'Towers of Hanoi' series of posts on my blog is far more interesting and worthy of commentary and analysis."
"I'm sorry to have caused such a ruckus over such a small thing."
On the bright side of things for the Hellgate team is the fact that the game is performing so well in Asia. The studio said it had the best Korean game launch in 3 years, leading to Hellgate becoming the ninth most popular online game in an MMO-saturated region.
It's often easy for us as gamers to criticize the studios when they make mistakes, and to feel vengeful when we're disappointed. It's probably best for us all to keep in mind that behind every big publisher's title is a team of developers who hoped to provide the best experience they could, human beings who feel bummed out when the results aren't what they hoped.