You may never have heard of RuneScape, but the free-to-play MMO has over 10 million players and has made Jagex a lot of money. So much, in fact, that the company employs around 400 people across two Cambridge studios (and one London branch) and claims to be one of the biggest online publishers not only in the UK, but in the whole of Europe.
This Blizzard-like financial muscle will soon also be flexed by MechScape: a new, more adult-orientated MMO. Jagex expects a beta next year, but will not be rushed, and can afford not to be. With the technology already in place and the experience of RuneScape under its belt, the company is brimming with confidence - albeit in a refreshingly humble and typically English way. To find out more about the quiet giant, we had tea with CEO Mark Gerhard and MechScape designer Henrique Olifiers, who probably drive fast sports cars to work.
Eurogamer: Jon Hare [formerly of Sensible Software, among others] joined Jagex recently. What affect has that had?
Mark Gerhard: Jagex has three sub-studios. There's the RuneScape studio, MechScape studio and FunOrb studio. And FunOrb, where Jon will probably spend most of his time, was really designed for time-pressured gaming. It is for people like us with busy jobs, families, who still want to play those great games but don't necessarily have the time to invest tens of hours a week. FunOrb has got spirit successors of various classic games. We're looking to bring in some extra licences for some of those great games.
Eurogamer: Can you tell us which ones?
Mark Gerhard: So we're talking to lots of people about this right now. But for us it's also a great platform to try new ideas. We love to invent and innovate. With that hat on, Jon will probably contribute to what's already a very strong team there on the game design side. So it's an exciting time. FunOrb has, a year after its launch, hit three million accounts. And that's unique [users].
Eurogamer: What kinds of games are on FunOrb?
Mark Gerhard: We don't want to call them retro games, but it is pretty much those classic games from the eighties. But we're trying to re-inspire. If you look at something like Arcanists, which is one of the most popular games on the site, that's, I would say, a spiritual successor to Worms, with magic - a new take on it. But it's multiplayer: you get like six guys battling it out anywhere in the world. It's leaps ahead of the AI you could have got even with the best game, like Worms, at the time. It's that type of stuff that we like to do.
Eurogamer: Another thing I discovered recently, that surprised me, was that you're one of the biggest publishers in the UK, making tons of money and buying sports cars. Are you the biggest publisher in the UK?
Mark Gerhard: Probably, or Europe, in terms of the stuff we do. The thing for us is that Jagex likes to just get on and do things. We've got strong views on what will be fun. We've got this pioneering R&D spirit in terms of tech. And for us it's really, "Let's just do this." And that's why a lot of people discover there's this real, serious publisher/developer in Cambridge. We don't say much about it.
Eurogamer: Your flagship title is RuneScape. Is that making you piles and piles of money? Is it making more money than World of Warcraft?
Mark Gerhard: Possibly. An honest answer is we don't measure the success of the business based on financial returns. The company is very strong financially, and it is thanks to RuneScape, but for us it's all about active players. It doesn't matter to us really if they're free or paying for the expansion - as long as it's going North we really don't care.
Eurogamer: To recap: RuneScape is free but there's the option to unlock more content at a premium?
Mark Gerhard: RuneScape is completely free. It's a free game; it's the world's biggest free game. We're in the Guinness Book of Records for being the world's biggest free game. But that's in terms of active players. There's also nine years of content there and we're making more content every week. I'm not sure of the number, but it has over a million lines of scripted content, so it's an epic game.
It was free for almost four years, and then thanks to the dotcom bubble bursting and us not being able to pay our way on adverts, saying, "What are we going to do? Well, let's create a premium content kind of thing and hopefully someone will pay for it." And overnight 20 per cent of our players just switched. And that ratio is something that's been there in whatever we do. Whether it's FunOrb, whether it's anything else, we expect that ultimately 20 per cent will take the member's expansion packs. But we're very, very conscious that every game has to be completely free: no demo, no trial - it's a completely free game. If you like it, if you want more, then there's the expansion pack too.
Eurogamer: So how many people are playing RuneScape?
Mark Gerhard: More than 10 million. It depends if you're taking a day, a week, three months. We did another stat for the Guinness Book of World Records that was total active unique [users] over time, and that was just over 105 million. So 105 million people have touched it.