Long was the road and hard – in memoriam Hellgate London

Hellgate Alliance mousepad

I was thinking I should wait until Halloween to post this. In a parallel universe where Flagship Studios didn’t flagship all of us, that’d be Hellgate: London’s 8th anniversary – presupposing, of course, the staying power to outlast the first few years. Which is more food for thought.

But since pondering the commercial viability of an idealized version of a long-dead flop is odd even by my standards, I’ll just reminisce.

For I was, if only for a brief few months, one of the Hellgate Alliance – the Southeast Asian swath of the playerbase, under IAHGames. It was the first time since my days in the local Unreal Tournament league, back in the early 2000s, that I found myself a part of a gaming community suffused with that homely camaraderie you can’t find in conventional, global, online-only ones.

And damned if it wasn’t a rolling good time. To this day, a Hellgate Alliance mousepad (the one in the picture above) sits beside my PC at home. I met interesting people, and took a few of those meetings into real life. Even got to reconnect with an old friend from the army.

That was the little slice of heaven in Hellgate. But while I remember it, I cannot forget the fire and brimstone.

The game sucked

Let’s get the painfully obvious out of the way. Community aside, nothing saves a bad game. And Hellgate was beyond bad – it was unfinished.

I’m not going to waste time riffing about Hellgate’s suckage. A far superior writer already slammed that out of the park while the game still breathed: Agamemnon, of the now sadly defunct Agamemnon’s Domain. He has said that the Hellgate fiasco was only his start in blogging, but what a hell (fear teh pun) of a start! Three Months Later remains one of the best game blogs I’ve ever read for sheer entertainment value – a 16-post salvo of smart, snark-infused commentary tearing the game to pieces.

But as bad as old Ag had it, I think I had it worse. Playing on the other side of the world from him, I didn’t just endure an unpolished game plagued by random Network Errors™. Like the dimwit on the bank heist crew chosen to slow the cops down during the getaway, I had to endure the dawning realization that my Hellgate career, like the entirety of my region’s playerbase, was forsaken from the get-go.

No support but life support

If I wanted, I think I could dig up a detailed explanation of what happened, but the skinny of it is distributorship issues (or so I was led to believe). This piece from Bio Break’s Syp works well enough as a rundown.

Writing now, it’s easy to simply look back and say that with a shrug. Then, in the thick of the fight, we of the Alliance knew frustration. Days turned into weeks. Weeks became months. The post count on forum threads calling for an official response ballooned. And still we fought on without the coveted patch.

‘The patch’. That was all we knew it as. It was meant to change things. Put things right. From the day it was announced to the global community, hope sprang like… well, only hope can. It rapidly took on a Holy Grailish quality among the Asian playerbase. A content update that promised to fix all the bugs, and slap on some measure of the polish the game shipped without. Who could wait?

Yet wait we did.

Our brethren in the States and elsewhere got ‘the patch’ on schedule (and even more, afterwards). For us in Asia, it got delayed. We went on logging, leveling new alts, grinding and crafting. And checked the forums. Day after day. Nothing.

(At least, nothing that I remember seven years on. Our excellent community managers may well have been responding, promising an update as soon as it came – but if they did, it dwells not in my memory. In any case, they were as much victims as us.)

Hellgate box

The beginning of the end

It was an utterly untenable situation – especially with an Asian playerbase. Many of us were Singaporean, and we’re not exactly famous for patience.

As I watched, people began to leave. Some few, their determination holding fast amid the growing gloom, started petitions. Others simply left trails of their displeasure, like snail slime, in their forum signatures with every post. And, most shockingly, those that took to the global forums to raise awareness of the Alliance’s plight got the banhammer, for ‘irrelevance’ to the US/EU community. (Another red flag up Flagship’s mainmast!)

In-game, chat channels began to fill with a mockery of the Templar battle cry For the Living. “For the Patch!!” we shouted instead, and fought on.

I shouted the words with them, but my digital voice was hollow. Mid-2008 was a lousy time. The great recession was looming, and I was in my third, fruitless month of job-hunting since finishing my mandatory two years of military service. “Just three months”, you say? Well, in this society, failing to quickly land your first, gainful, post-army employment, after a lifetime of formal education, is practically a social taboo. Even if the job market is shafted to begin with.

Hellgate, for all its flaws, had become a source of relief from the vexation. I could have left – found other games. Or, you know, figured out what was really off about the situation. But I clung on. Being part of the Hellgate Alliance meant something. I didn’t know (and still don’t know) what, really.

Then the gloom lifted. I got an offer at long last. And, rejuvenated, finally able to step back and view the game objectively, I accepted the simple truth that it was doomed, and abandoned ship. By then, the Alliance I knew was all but gone – its key influencers having long since given Flagship the finger.

For myself, as I pushed off, it wasn’t a finger I raised but a final salute. Hellgate was over for me. And while I did not regret the time I sunk there, or even the hopes, the road up out of this hell was, contrary to Milton, short and easy.

My takeaways

I’m aware I’ve been somewhat of an unreliable narrator. After all, I rely only on my own, faded memories for this telling – I have every reason to believe I misremember certain bits. But as I have not the inclination to Google-fu my way to the facts (assuming they still exist somewhere), and, in this case, what I took away is of more relevance than what exactly happened – there it is.

The first thing I gained from my time in demon-infested London was a substantial boost to my hype resistance. I had not realized how much of the “from the makers of Diablo” kool-aid I had drunk until I emerged anew into the light. Since then, I have rarely invested in any game, MMO or otherwise, without waiting and analyzing for a goodly time first. (Shroud of the Avatar, I’ve got my eye on you.)

The second thing Hellgate left me was the experience of taking online friendships into real life. They didn’t survive Hellgate’s shutdown, and I have never since repeated the experience in any other game community (indeed, I have since avoided local gaming circles, due to irreconcilable ideological differences), but all the same, it’s not something I’ll easily forget.

And the third and last: a heightened sensitivity to devs’ direction in an MMO. Before Hellgate, the game and the people therein were all that mattered. After it, I adopted the attitude of a manager parceling out bonuses for the year: watching for signs of, say, a shift in policy or the onset of maintenance mode. This served me well in LoTRO, especially when Riders of Rohan hit (who still remembers the brouhaha over the expansion pricing?).

Every time I see recruitment efforts for an Asian gaming community, I remember Hellgate: London. And I’m thankful for what Flagship taught me. But would I want to go through that hell again? No.

Well, yes if it gives me something to think (and write) about.


2 Responses to “Long was the road and hard – in memoriam Hellgate London”

  1. I bought the collector’s edition of Hellgate: London from a local game store, sight unseen.

    Played the offline version for a while, getting very confused at the “story” since it seemed to consist of English sentences, but didn’t have any continuity or make any sense whatsoever from NPC to NPC, or indeed, even within an individual NPC’s quest speech.

    Then I discovered later that it doomed me to only making an account on the SEA server – NA server, what’s that? You have NA or EU or Aussie friends, you say? Sorry, you’re screwed, we have your money already and no, you can’t play with them.

    That was a costly 80 bucks that forever locked in the lesson of do-your-prior-research before purchasing anything, especially with regards to region-locking.

    My only consolation was a nasty phone call to IAHgames to bitch about shady consumer practices (ie. Not stating outright that there were region locks) and oh, a Dark Horse comic that had a far better story than the game – as in it had an actual beginning, middle and end, even if it mostly consisted of “iconic characters” meeting up, getting to and fighting a big bad in a central church location somewhere.

    • A fellow flagshippee, eh? Welcome.

      I didn’t get the collector’s edition, but someone I knew did, and I agree with you that the comic was way better than the game (which isn’t saying much anyway). Mel Odom’s tie-in novel trilogy wasn’t bad at first, either, but the ending was so rushed and sloppy, I actually wrote to him inquiring as to why (needless to say, he never deigned to reply).

      Like you, region locks are one of the biggest factors keeping me away from certain games these days. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I’m not comfortable paying for a game that doesn’t fully support my region. I might still enjoy it, but that ‘pariah’ feeling seldom leads to happy endings.


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