In the second and final part of our interview, Bill Roper leaves behind the topic of Champions Online and talks frankly about his time in the games industry and what he’s learnt.

What do you feel you actually learned from the whole Hellgate experience? In any positive ways, what sort of positive things have you brought from the game into Champions?

I was concerned after we had to close down Flagship that I was going to be damaged goods. What I found, really, is that while you learn a lot from your successes, you learn even more from the things that don’t work. Not a week goes by that some game mechanic question will come up, or some business model idea while come up, and I can not only look through what has worked in the past with Blizzard, but at what did and didn’t work with Hellgate. We’ve done interface things, like to get missions across, which I think we did well on Hellgate.

I did like the wheel interface that popped up when you right-clicked on an item, that let you choose whether to sell it, or ditch it, or equip it.

There are some things that we did there that were good. (Laughs) Being able to differentiate what worked and what didn’t work, and grab those elements that did… Even things that were really simple, like with quest text, and highlighting the salient parts for people that wanted to skim through because we know not everybody reads everything. Some players want that immersion and that storyline but a lot will just glance through, so making it easier to grasp the important points when you are skimming was such a simple thing but it worked really well. Also, a lot of what we handled regarding randomisation came up when we’re looking at what to do with the randomised missions in Champions. I think the important part was taking even the negative aspects of what happened with Hellgate and Flagship, and then turning those into positives. Ensuring that those were lessons learned, and that it becomes something that – at least from a personal standpoint – I won’t do again! (Laughs)

At the moment the IP and everything are out of your hands, and the only ones actually working on it are HanbitSoft, who’ve now released their first patch. How do you feel about that?

I didn’t know they’d put the patch out. When closing Flagship, we were able to keep the company open for a good six or seven months longer than we probably should have been able to. We invested our personal money back into the company and tried to get deals going, and did a lot of other business arrangements. The downside to that was when we had to close everything down, we pretty much lost everything at the same time. I know that HanbitSoft swooped in and picked up the IP.

I know a lot of Western gamers are annoyed that they’re not getting supported – they still like the product and want the support – and this patch has highlighted, again, that they’re feeling a bit left out. What’re your thoughts on this?

Putting on my business hat and taking my personal emotions out of it for a minute, they’re a Korean company, and they’re going to try and play to their playerbase, which is Korean and Asian players. They didn’t really have any of the distribution rights in the US or Europe, so I believe they switched over to a free model in Asia and are going to try to create content to bolster that. So I’m sure they’re just looking at it as though they wouldn’t be getting any money out of Western players anyway, so why would they support it? It’s a shame, because we did have a good fanbase who really loved the game, and I’d love it if the game was still there to play. But my guess is that HanbitSoft is just looking at where they have the best footing and can make the most money, and they’re just focusing on those territories.

So as far as you know, having been on the inside, it’s really just not going to appear again in Western territories? I’ve seen that the game is still on shop shelves here.

At this point, I don’t know what Namco and EA will do in terms of the Western market. As it’s still on the shelves, it’s fortunate that there’s still the single-player component. That’s the upside of us trying to do too much – which was a huge negative when we were trying to make the game! We had the single player component, and a multiplayer component, and a subscription component, and Games for Windows Live, and Vista, and so on. We really overreached, trying to do everything that we could. It’s probably best for my sanity that I’m not really connected anymore, just from the standpoint that it was really difficult for a lot of us when everything shut down, and personally it was the first time that I had gone out and done anything that entrepreneurial. I was very personally and emotionally invested in the company and in the game, so when everything ended up shutting down, that was a difficult time for me. I’m proud that we managed to start a company – actually, not just one, but two: Flagship and Ping0. We launched a game, we launched a platform, we did the game development. We just couldn’t turn that corner and get a deal done to either get more games or get the company bought, but it certainly wasn’t from lack of trying. It sounds a little clichéd, but it was just business. There were bigger fish in the water than us, and they had better footing to get what they wanted out of an endgame than we did.

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If you could go back to 2003 or 2004, what would you have done differently?

(Laughs) Probably hundreds of little things and a few big ones. I think, with perfect hindsight, there’d be some major changes to the game. We would have done one business model or the other, and we would have focused on having a persistent world as opposed to instanced gameplay. I really don’t know if that model can exist. People are so used to how MMOs play now, with a persistent world and then having some instances that you go to… We were certainly changing Mythos over to that, to be a persistent game, as opposed to having a hub and then going out and doing the instances. I think there were things from a business side that we could’ve approached better, and they cross into development too. Doing less and doing it better would’ve helped us. There were some areas that we should have done more in, and I would have preferred to spend time and effort to do more in the areas where had deficits, rather than do things like Games for Windows in Vista. It’s a big stretch for a company even as experienced as we were to be doing that out of the gate. Our experience may actually have hurt us a little bit because we came from the place where all things are possible, so we used that same mentality to make our first product, and although tried to be somewhat realistic, we ultimately just went for it on every possible level – and after awhile you realise you just can’t get everything done.

To go further back in your career, you worked on Diablo, and that’s coming up on a third sequel. How do you think it’s been handled?

Ultimately they’re going to do a great job, because Blizzard always does a great job on products. I was interested by the big explosion that happened online when they released the first gameplay footage and screenshots, when that vocal minority was outraged that it didn’t have that dark, gothic, gritty look. But that actually made sense, because it’s not Blizzard North doing it anymore. That’s the art style that the guys down at Irvine do. So it looks to me as what I would’ve expected from those guys, handling the Diablo universe. I always thought that was a real strength between having development teams in Irvine and San Mateo. Blizzard North had a different art direction, a different style, and different thought processes towards mechanics that were all very solid, and allowed the Diablo games to expand out on their own in a lot of different ways. I think that what you’re seeing now is that mechanic being taken over by the guys in Irvine because it’s involves them now, and so it’s going to have that flavour. I want it to be great because I love Diablo, and I want another one.

Blizzard North had previously been working on the third Diablo, from what I understand?

There was definitely work on it up north, but whenever something switches to a different team or a different lead, they pretty much tend to scrap everything.

So everything was just thrown out, and started again?

I would guess so, but I have no actual knowledge of what they did or didn’t do, as that was well after we were gone. But I wouldn’t be surprised – there’s hardly anybody from the original team or even the Diablo 2 team that’s there – so my guess would be that they thought “Great, we have this awesome thing that we’re working on,” so the designers and artists there would now be able to put their visions into the Diablo universe. Nothing that I’ve seen looks like anything I ever did with the game, so I would imagine they got rid of the vast majority of what I did when I was there.

From your comments I get the feeling you’d prefer the Diablo 1 or Diablo 2 art style.

I don’t dislike how it looks now. I didn’t look at it and have the appalled reaction a lot of people did, I just appreciated that it had a very distinct look. The Diablo games looked different to the Craft games, and I liked the fact that it was very dark, gothic fantasy. I just think that it’s nice to be able to have different worlds represented with very different visuals. One of the things I liked about Champions before I worked here was the fact that they made the decision to give the game this four-colour comic look. Now that I work here, I know that it permeates everything. The gameplay, the action combat, and the dialogue: everything is all about bringing four-colour comics to the MMO space. It’s the same thing, the dedication of style. If you look at World of Warcraft it’s very much the same. They chose an art direction, and they executed it to the full. When WoW came out, there were plenty of people who didn’t like the way it looked, and I think that with Diablo 3 there’ll be some people who don’t like it and prefer the look of the first two Diablo games. When they first released the the videos and the screenshots, there was definitely an uprising from certain sections of Blizzard and Diablo fans, but Blizzard does what it’s going to do so I’m sure that all those people who were really upset will still be in line with the rest of us, getting a copy! As long as it’s good and cohesive and takes the stories that they’re telling, I’m okay if it doesn’t look exactly like it did before, although I did like that really dark, edgy, gothic look.

Are you still in touch with Max and Eric (Schaefer) – (Original Diablo developers / Blizzard North Execs)?

Actually, I am. We live very close to each other, we were plotting getting together for dinner, I know their families really well and will probably see them over the Easter holidays for Easter dinner and things like that. One of the things that survived Flagship was that the founders were friends. We were all good friends when we started the company and that didn’t change when things didn’t work out, so it’s nice to know that friendship can survive business!
Read the first part of our interview about Champions Online here.

Paul Younger
Founder and Editor of PC Invasion. Founder of the world's first gaming cafe and Veteran PC gamer of over 22 years.

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