At Westwood College’s recent Legends of Gaming round table, I had a chance to sit down with an actual legend of gaming, ex-Blizzard producer, Flaship founder and current Cryptic head Bill Roper. Roper helped build a string of some of the most successful, influential games in history. He was a producer on Warcraft: Orcs & Humans, Diablo, and Starcraft; senior producer on Diablo II; the executive producer of Warcraft II: Beyond the Dark Portal; and worked on many, many other titles. Since his days at Blizzard, Roper formed Flagship Studios, the company that created Hellgate: London. After Flagship dissolved, Roper joined Cryptic studios as design director and executive producer. Cryptic is working on both Champions Online and Star Trek Online, two of the most eagerly awaited MMOs out there. I’d say the “legend” descriptor fits the man like a glove.
While eating ballpark pizza at Angel Stadium of Anaheim, the site of the "Legends" round table, Roper and I talked about the lessons he learned from the less-than-stellar success of Hellgate: London, whether console versions of Champions Online and Star Trek Online are in the works and how it's possible to share the MMO market with World of Warcraft.
The involvement of Bill Roper and other high-profile Blizzard developers in multiplayer fantasy-action RPG Hellgate: London pushed gamers’ expectations to a fever pitch, but when the game was released on Halloween 2007, it didn't exactly set the world on fire. While Hellgate wasn't panned by reviewers, it didn't fair well commercially. According to Roper, Flagship’s attempt to make a game that gave something to everyone was key to Hellgate’s fate.
“We really tried to do far too much with the game,” Roper said. “We were a single-player game with a free online component and a subscription part. And we shipped in 14 languages simultaneously. And we were part of Games For Windows. And we were Vista compatible. And we were doing a game that was an RPG that had FPS elements.”
According to Roper, he learned more from Hellgate's failure than his numerous successes, and those lessons will be applied to upcoming MMOs Champions Online and Star Trek Online. “It all goes toward making better games in the future,” Roper said. “Every day at Cryptic, something comes up where I say, ‘No. No, that isn’t going to work, and here’s why it didn’t work when we did it before.’”
Maybe one of the most important lessons to learn for an MMO producer, though, is how to deal with World of Warcraft. Blizzard’s 800-pound gorilla of a game is much more successful than any MMO ever released, and as such, it defines the genre. According to Roper, competing with WoW isn’t part of Cryptic's plan. “Why would you be trying to compete with WoW? They have, for all intents and purposes, unlimited resources and unlimited time. The game’s already five years in, in terms of complexity, completeness and testing. Any game that comes out is going to pale in comparison by default.”
Instead of trying to beat Blizzard at its own video game, Roper plans to take advantage of the expanded market for MMOs that WoW has created, while using expectations shaped by World of Warcraft to create a minimum launch level experience for players. “I think there’s a shift in perception because of World of Warcraft," Roper said. “There are now so many more people who have been exposed to the concept of an MMO or who have tried an MMO. So with Champions Online, we are trying to tap into that MMO market that’s there. The City Of… games showed that there's a market that’s excited about a superhero genre MMO. I think we have a big opportunity. There’s a huge awareness of the superhero genre.”
As you’d probably expect, Roper and Cryptic are well-aware of a segment of the gaming population that has yet to be adequately served by MMOs: console owners. Roper says his company has been in talks with the major platform owners, and, while there are no concrete, announced plans to bring a Cryptic MMO to a console, it’s being actively explored. “We’d love to get on consoles,” Roper said. “We’ve spun Xbox builds of Champions, so we know the tech and engineering works. I’d love to be able to bring an MMO onto the console. I think it’s a huge possibility that’s out there… I think Microsoft and Sony are really seeing the potential that’s there and are trying to sort through how to make it work. I think it’s been ongoing for years, trying to get MMOs to work and be interesting to all parties from a business stance... Once those hurdles get jumped, I’m looking forward to getting on consoles.”