There are times when I'm really, really glad I'm not trying to keep up to the second with developments, and this is one of them.
Flagship Studios publishes Hellgate: London, a game of demon-hunting in near-future London, and Mythos, an MMO set in the usual sort of fantasy world. Hellgate: London is a commercial purchase, Mythos a free download, but both offer options beyond the basic set for additional payment. Hellgate: London in particular launched with ambitious plans to be viable out of the box but aiming to lure folks into one of various subscription options that would give them best (sometimes the only) access to new places to go, things to see, and tools to kill them with.
The emphasis on micropayments seems to work for some projects and not others. From all accounts, Guild Wars is doing very well with it. (It's one of the few PC games I've played in recent years, and I felt the balance was done nicely - I did shell out for some goodies, but didn't ever feel that I had to in order to had a good time. I was baited but good, I'd have to say, and I mean that as a compliment, not an insult.) Unfortunately, Hellgate: London in particular seems to be one of those where the word is "not". It's had troubles from day 1, with subscription services not working right, players of all kinds unhappy at the speed at which new material arrived, and reviews sliding from initially favorable into increasingly negative territory.
So it wasn't much of a surprise when, on July 11, lots of computer game news sites reported that Flagship has laid off nearly everyone and that control of its games would be passing to partners - to Korean publisher HanbitSoft in the case of Mythos, which seems to have its biggest audience in Korea, and to Comerica Bank in the case of Hellgate: London, since Comerica had provided financial support with sales and distribution rights as collateral. The Gamasutra article on the subject is as clear and unhysterical as any I'm aware of; Gamasutra has a habit of doing this kind of quick journalism well.
Then things got complicated...
HanbitSoft put out a press release saying that, yes, they were taking over control of Mythos and that they were going to work with Comerica to see if they could provide some Hellgate: London support, too. Flagship management, however, promptly responded with an official announcement that they were very much still alive and still in control of their games. (Okay, the dueling announcements mostly talk about IPs, but I have this thing about reducing all creative endeavors to "intellectual properties". I'll rant about that another time. We are in any event talking about control of games and the rights to sell them and to make new stuff for them.)
The original article about this at IGN's Voodoo Extreme news section is up to 26, count 'em, 26 updates as of the time I clicked the Save button for this article. It could well be more by the time you read it.
What's actually going on? Well, as nearly as I can tell, what's going to be happening is litigation. Flagship has definitely laid off a whole lot of people; it appears that only a small core of management staff remains. That means no new content. They've taken down the web pages used both to subscribe and to unsubscribe, and they've announced that they're not going to be charging anyone for subscriptions at least for the time being. But the control issues? Beats me. I went to check with my own industry sources and got "beats me" and variations in response, too. So this really is one of those stories to be continued.
[Image is taken from the Library of Congress' Flickr collection and is in the public domain.]