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Bill Roper (English)

Hellgate: London

Update 8/6/2007: Hellgate will be released on Nov 1st 2007

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Bill Roper played a leading part in every big Blizzard franchise prior to World of WarCraft. In 2003, he founded Flagship Studios. Their first product is supposed to ship in summer 2007 — and to beat Diablo 2 in every single aspect. I talked to Bill about Hellgate: London, Blizzard, Vivendi and the PC as the gaming platform of the future.

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Joerg: Bill, you’ve started working in the industry and for Blizzard in 1994 as the composer for Blackthorne.

Bill Roper: Yes, on the PC side.

Joerg: I remember reviewing Blackthorne for PC Player. Nobody knew about Blizzard, then. Since then, you’ve been working, mostly as the producer, on the WarCraft, StarCraft and Diablo franchises. That’s quite a career!

Bill Roper: It’s been good so far, I’ve been having a good time.

Joerg: So why on earth did you decide to leave Blizzard in 2003?

Bill Roper: We weren’t really looking to leave, to be honest, we were more interested in trying to find a way to work within the structure at Blizzard. There was a lot going on at that time, rumours about the sale of Blizzard. It was totally unclear what was going to occur, we were getting mixed signals. Our guys would come to us and say: “We’ve heard that we are gonna bought by Microsoft”. Or “we will be sold on the stock market”. We basically approached Vivendi and said: We need to know what’s going on! The problem was that we were getting nothing back, so finally, in an effort to show how serious we were about this, we send in letters of resignation: “We will resign if you do not include us in that process!”. And all we wanted to was to be able talk to someone in France! But they decided not to tell us.

Joerg: ‘We’ would be Blizzard North at that time?

Bill Roper: It happened to everyone, but those of us who sent word were Dave Brevik, Erich and Max Schaefer and myself, bascially the management of Blizzard North at that time.

Joerg: What was the answer of Vivendi?

Bill Roper: We never got one directly from Vivendi, that was part of the problem. So even with the resignations, the answer came back through the usual channels. So we heard from Mike Morheim down south that he had been told by the guys from New York who had been told by the guys in France

Joerg: That really gives you the impression that you’re important for the company.

Bill Roper: That’s always the challenge for a multi-national company. At that time, Vivendi Universal Games was not doing anywhere near as well as it is now. They didn’t know about their own future four years ago. things today are obviously very different, they had a lot of personnel changes there. But at that time the owners of the companies didn’t really know what to do with them, and that was extremely difficult for teams like us that wanted to focus on producing good games. It ended like this: they kept the resignations, we left, and the next day, we started Flagship.

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Joerg: Blizzard is now a very settled, very successful company, World of WarCraft might be the most successful game in existence. Do you have second thoughts about leaving, today?

Bill Roper: Not at all. We’re glad how things developed. We never had any doubts about Blizzard’s ability to make great games. It definitely didn’t come as any surprise to us that they would have a smashing success with World of WarCraft. Well, I think everybody’s surprised exactly how big it got. But that’s also something which was part of the history of Blizzard: We were always doing internal projections, but the games always did go over the top. But no, we never had any second thoughts, we did what we did. For the last three and a half years, we were having a fantastic time here at Flagship, we’re making a product which we would never had been making at Blizzard, we love having a smaller company, we love “being masters of the ship” again. It’s great!

Joerg: Apart from Flagship obviously being smaller, what else is different?

Bill Roper: At Blizzard, they have three great franchises that they, right now, find very difficult to service. Obviously World of WarCraft is an amazing product, so that is were the vast majority of their attention goes toward. But they also have the StarCraft franchise and the Diablo franchise, and both are fantastic. But it is difficult to really put a lot of focus near the places. With us, it’s nice to be able to focus on one or two things again. It’s nice to come in in the morning and to know exactly what you’re going to be working on.

Joerg: And it’s one game, and not 10 at the same time.

Bill Roper: Yeah. Otherwise, you start to feel guilty as a developer: We’ve got all these fans, and these other things we’ve done, and we’re not giving them anything right now. You’re also starting to feel a little locked in. World of WarCraft was great it took the WarCraft franchise and broke it out from being real time strategy. But now, those guys have been working probably close to 6 or 8 years now.

Joerg: Maybe for all their professional life.

Bill Roper: Yes. There are guys who have been at Blizzard for five years and they’ve probably never worked on anything else. From a creative standpoint, that can be fantastic. To be able to constantly evolve things, to play with stuff. But at the same time, there is something really rejuvenating about being able to do something else from scratch. To create new characters and new mythologies and all that. So that’s what’s really exciting for us, too: to launch a new franchise with Hellgate.

Joerg: But let’s be honest: If Hellgate will be the success you hope it will be, you will make a second part, a third, add-ons, and so on, so you will be in the same scheme again.

Bill Roper: Yes, that’s right, and that’s our hope, too: that you get a game good enough that people want to have more. One of the challenges is that, at Blizzard, everything we did was a giant AAA game, a huge product. That’s great, and that’s what we’re trying to achieve with Hellgate, but we’re also looking on other projects, like casual games, to do things a little smaller. These products can be really great for gamers, you’re reaching out to a broader base with different game ideas. And these products usually take between 12 to 18 months to finish. It will be really nice ­– if everything works out – when, even as we will serve Hellgate for years and years and years, people can break off from the team to work on something completely different for six months. To recharge their batteries. Because, when you’re working on a game for 3 or 4 years, that’s a long time before you actually see a result. And before you are able to share it with people. Of course, internally we see a lot. The challenge comes to me when I’m talking to my friends and they say: “Well, we want to see your game.” And I have to say: I’m doing something, it’s just gonna take a while.

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Joerg: When critics say that Hellgate is just another Diablo clone with different graphics and a different scenario – what is your answer, apart from perhaps hitting them?

Bill Roper: It’s okay if people compare what we’re doing at the core with Diablo – Diablo is a fantastic game. A lot of the core gameplay concepts are definitely part of what Hellgate is. The massive amounts of randomization, tons of loot, collectability, rarity levels. So in this respect, we are very happy with comparisons. Beyond that, we’re doing so much more that it’s difficult to even quantify it. We’ve added the concept of randomizing to almost every single aspect in the game. This allows us to increase the enjoyability of the game, and to add more and more and more content after the game is released. We’ve actually added randomization to rarity locations the game uses to create your game level. For example, you might have been various times to the Underground tubes beneath London. But this time you’re going through, you find an access code which opens a doorway which you never have seen before. And later, when you continue through the level, you find a boss monster which drops a key card which opens that doorway. You go through and find a mini dungeon which has a special reward in it.

Joerg: And this could happen the third time you’ll explore that kind of level?

Bill Roper: It could happen the first time or the n’th time. It’s a “rarity level”, it’s like item drops, whether or not they have mod slots or are magical or epic or legendary or a set. We have all these kinds of rarity with items, same thing happens with levels. You might have been in an outdoor park type of setting a bunch of times, but this time you notice the sky is red and fiery, and every time the monsters drop a rare item, it has fire attribute statistics, because you are in a fire rarity version of the level. We have tried to build on our experiences from Diablo and to have more randomization, but which feels less random. Our levels really feel like they are supposed to be that way. We have probably the most experience with randomization in the whole industry. And on top of that we add rarity levels. So for example, this time to you go through an area, you get a message from a wounded templar, and he is marked on your automap. And when you find him, he has a side quest for you. So our aim is that even when you feel like you’ve gone through that type of level many times before, there is always something new which could happen, which is more than just a new level layout or the exact kind of monsters you encounter. And this is something which you really miss in an MMO: Once you’ve explored an area…

Joerg: … you never really need to come back, or it’s even pointless to come back because you no longer get experience from there.

Bill Roper: Exactly, and that’s “level grinding” to me. When you have to repeat a repetitive function and there’s no surprise to it. Like having to kill these spiders in this swamp area so that I become level 25 so that I can go on to the next area. There’s no exploration, there’s nothing new. And that’s great in Hellgate: If I go to a new area and I feel it’s too hard, I can go back into that area and it will be randomized differently. New monsters, new layouts, new treasure. So you are always exploring, even if you’re repeating an area.

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Joerg: What other differences are there to Diablo?

Bill Roper: The way the classes work and interact. When you play Hellgate in multiplayer mode, it feels like and MMO and not like a “lobby”. It’s a huge difference. In Diablo 2 you would go online and have a chat room, and then you would go out with your friends and play the game. In Hellgate, you meet people and trade and form groups and you’re the character you’ve created all the time. Today, we couldn’t launch a Battle.Net anymore, because the expectations from the players are so much higher in terms of interactivity.

Joerg: So it’s the “old” multiplayer mode, but with lots of additions and new graphics?

Bill Roper: It really is much more, it really is an MMO experience. It’s client-server-based, it 24/7 customer service, you’re buying and selling items, you go to auction houses, you’re forming guilds. All those things you would expect from an MMO environment. Another huge difference between Hellgate and Diablo 2 is that we constructed Hellgate to provide “continuous content”. We expect many of the players to feel very dedicated to the game, they will probably play it for months and years. And we want to be able on our end to add content for them, like new areas and new boss monsters and classes, and to grow the game all the time. We already had this desire when we made Diablo 2, but we didn’t have the tools for it.

Joerg: You mentioned repetitive actions, but of course Diablo (and presumably Hellgate) is all about repetitive action: clicking, killing, clicking, collecting and so on. And still, there is some kind of strange magic “flow” which keeps you going. How can you develop this in a planned way, what’s the trick? Or does it just come from endless testing?

Bill Roper: It’s all of that. We have formulas we use. It all comes down to that you want to set different goals. Kill a monster – that’s a goal, it takes 5 or 7 seconds to achieve this goal. You have the goal of gaining your next level, that takes much longer.

Joerg: But how do you get those timings right?

Bill Roper: You need to have a goal that just keeps you playing for the next couple of minutes. Hey, I am almost level X! Hey, there’s an item I want to identify! A new area! A new quest! There’s always something that’s just that step away. “I’ll just do that. And I’ll just do that. And that…”. But planning those timings only gets you so far. Beyond that, we play the game constantly. And as we get into alpha and then into beta, and start to get feedback from players, there’s a lot of fine tuning going on of the overall pace of the game. There always has to be a goal, but that goal needs to change all the time or it gets boring. Of course, the most time you’re killing monsters, but you are also completing quests, follow the story line, get skill points for your character. And, as a big difference to MMO games, we don’t really see Hellgate as a race to the level cap. We haven’t really set a level cap for Hellgate yet. If treated correctly, it’s just another goal, it shouldn’t be the main goal. Because when it’s “I gotta hit 50!”, the problem is, that after making it to level 50, they feel like they’re done. We want to be the level cap to be just one major goal, but not as the end of the game.

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Joerg: Let’s come to the “flow” in your own workdays. You’re CEO of Flagship studios – what are the things you like best and what things do you not like at all?

Bill Roper: The thing I enjoy most is the diversity. A couple of days ago I was in a producer meeting where we talked about all the areas in the game, about timelines to get them down and milestones coming up. That was more a strategic planning session. Last week I was very involved in the creative process. At GDC I spend a lot of time with other game developers in the industry. We show the game to the press. Next Friday, I am doing some voice recording for some the Hellgate characters.

Joerg: That’s something which you’ve always did, starting in the old WarCraft times.

Bill Roper: Yes, that’s something I enjoy doing. So every day has a new challenge, and that’s what I like the most about my job.

Joerg: Hellgate: London is a PC only game. So why is that, and what do you think games will look like in a couple of years, and on what machines will they run on? Will there still be “consoles” and “PCs”, or will there be just internet clients where everything runs on?

Bill Roper: Every console manufacturer, Sony, Nintendo, Microsoft, they all have their own visions about what entertainment should look like, so there will always be diversity in the machines which are designed to run around the television. Games get made for the PC for some different reasons. One, it’s an evolving machine. Ed Fries said a handful of years ago: “Consoles are snapshots of the best the PC has to offer at that time.” And six months later, the PC is in the front again. This generation of consoles might last longer than the traditional three or four years. We’ll see. That would be fine with me, I think we designers didn’t even get everything out of the PS2. The PC always had the lead in terms of online play. And I think another huge advantage is the controls. The fact that you have a mouse and a keyboard offer you a lot of variety compared to what the consoles can do with their controllers. And the console controllers have become much more complex that they used to be ­ remember the one-button-pad? On the PC the challenge is to not make your controls too complicated, but to make use of the fact that you have some very precise tools at your disposal.

Joerg: That doesn’t sound like you’re planning to do a console game very soon.

Bill Roper: Well, we always play console games. And certainly with EA as publishing partner, we have talked about what we could do with the Hellgate universe in the console space. I think of all the games we have ever worked on, Hellgate is the most portable. I don’t like the term “portable”, because you would have to completely redesign the interface and rethink the game balance, so that it becomes a fun console game. I also think that there is a lot of room within the Hellgate universe to create a completely new console game. That is what we wanted to do: To create a world we could take to other platforms and to other media. That’s why we are so excited about the comic books and the novel and the collectible figures. Hellgate really has translated across to other media.

Joerg: Will you finish Hellgate in time?

Bill Roper: We were shooting for the summer, and we are on target. We don’t like to announce release windows, we’re not really good with them.

Joerg: But by the end of summer 2007, Hellgate will be out?

Bill Roper: That is the dream and the goal we’re working 18 hours a day for.

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Interview (c) Jörg Langer