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.
Eurogamer: That's a lot of people. But that's enough about RuneScape. Let's talk about MechScape! I read that you're planning a reveal soon. Let's not wait; let's do the reveal now!
Henrique Olifiers: [Everybody laughs] So MechScape started as a project three-and-a-half years ago, in January 2006, when the company convinced itself it was secure with MMOs with the success of RuneScape and said, "OK, it's time for us to try another one from scratch and make it the way that we always wanted it to be - learning from all the lessons and experience of RuneScape."
From the beginning we didn't want to make another RuneScape: it can't be another fantasy game, so no more elves no more, no more orcs, no more dragons.
Eurogamer: [Does victory fist.]
Henrique Olifiers: Right. So what's big out there? Sci-fi. Sci-fi is everywhere: TV, movies, comics, but not in MMOs. Why not? We started studying why sci-fi doesn't work in MMOs. We found out some answers and the result is MechScape, which is a sci-fi game, with game mechanics that are completely different from any other MMO out there.
Eurogamer: Can you give us an example of them?
Henrique Olifiers: I can tell you what it is not. For instance: we don't have XP, we don't have skills, it's all different.
Eurogamer: So how's your character going to progress?
Henrique Olifiers: Yeah! Wink wink [laughter]. We brought inspiration from the good old sci-fi games like Masters of Orion, Ascendancy - those games. What is the drive behind those games for the player? I want to search and conquer and explore. That's what we do in MechScape.
Eurogamer: So is it an RPG based around an avatar that goes off and explores? Or is it a spaceship-based affair with lasers?
Henrique Olifiers: We're talking about all of that in MechScape.
Eurogamer: What things did you learn from making RuneScape that will make MechScape better?
Henrique Olifiers: We found out that players are fed up with grinding, and most MMOs are built on top of that because they need to be a long experience. If you have a team of a thousand people who are working overnight, a player can still go past that content faster than they can create it. The only reason why RuneScape is always ahead of the curve is because it's updated weekly and it has nine years [of content] behind it. If you started playing it back then you will run out of content eventually. But the grinding mechanics take your time, keep you there and interested in the game. So we had to be very clever with that and find a way to remove it.
Another thing we found about the game was how the users interact to one another and, as strange as it can sound, in an MMO not everybody wants to play in a multiplayer environment. Most MMO players, they like the multiplayer environment, but solo. Why is that? What is the drive? How can we cater for that? All that we learned and applied to MechScape.
Eurogamer: You're hinting at a lot of clever mechanics hiding under the MechScape blanket. Can we have a peek under your blanket?
Henrique Olifiers: Oh, OK, let me see: one of the things that was very successful in RuneScape were player-owned houses and creating them. That was very big for RuneScape. And so that's something we need to start with. So all the players start with their own bases [in MechScape].
Eurogamer: Snazzy. MechScape also portends to be for a more mature gamer. But how is it aimed at an older audience?
Henrique Olifiers: We started by spending the first months of pre-production only writing the universe, the back-story that underlines the game, so we had a very very strong platform to build the game on. The game is sound and solid from a storyline perspective. It is accessible like RuneScape is; it's easy to get into. But once you are into that the storyline is very engrossing, the characters and the way they express themselves is much more adult and the possibilities that you have strategically as you play the game are more advanced and progress with time.
The gameplay components get very complex, but you can play them in a shallow way. If you want to master it there is so much stuff for you to tweak and experiment with. It enables casual players to engage with it and to understand what's going on, but it goes very deep, very deep.
Eurogamer: Isn't that a bit risky, given the accessibility of RuneScape? Are you narrowing your prospective audience?
Mark Gerhard: I don't know if we've narrowed it, but what we've definitely done is gone tangential. We don't want all our existing RuneScape players to graduate or migrate onto MechScape. We've deliberately gone for a slightly older demographic. And we don't feel a medieval fantasy MMO player will want to play a sci-fi MMO.
So to your first question: is it a risk? Potentially. Doesn't mean we're not going to do it. This is a great project that we're really excited about. In many respects we've pioneered our own way here, but we don't mind that, I think that's what we do.
Eurogamer: Does MechScape resemble any other games out there so we can get a better picture of what it will be like?
Henrique Olifiers: We went to great lengths to make sure that wasn't the case! Ha ha!
Eurogamer: I suppose one of the benefits of making piles of money from RuneScape is that you can afford to take risks. How many more resources are you pouring into MechScape compared with what went into RuneScape?
Mark Gerhard: Tens of millions. But the same into FunOrb. Whether you're aware of it or not, [FunOrb was] probably in development for two, three years before we even launched - so three-and-a-half years total. And that's assumed tens of millions of pounds of investment.
But each product has its own self-contained studio spread across two buildings. That means you're investing a lot into it. But we can.
We have every expectation that [MechScape] is going to be a success, because we're gamers and this is the type of game we want to play. But if it's not [a success], that's not going to stop us doing another great project, or another great project, because that's what we do - that's what gets us out of bed in the morning.
Henrique Olifiers: We have the comfort of working on our own time. It's not ready; don't launch - put it back in development until we feel, "OK now it's good, let's launch it." Instead of rushing it or having to put it to deadlines. We have the luxury of doing it right, in our own time.
Eurogamer: That must be liberating.
Henrique Olifiers: Yes [smiles].
Eurogamer: What sort of time-line are we looking at in terms of beta and release?
Henrique Olifiers: We are polishing the game now.
Eurogamer: So is there any date for a beta?
Henrique Olifiers: No, no no. We constantly playtest the game, invite people to help and run focus tests to find out what they like so we can adjust. By the time we feel it's ready to go we're suddenly going to open it and avoid the pitfalls we see so many other MMOs going through by releasing a product they can only get right a year afterwards.
Eurogamer: Would you ever consider ditching Java and doing a proper AAA title?
Mark Gerhard: We don't have the dependencies on Java that I suppose others do because there's very little bar the language and the Java virtual machine that we actually use. Everything else has been built by Jagex. Other developers that are using Java may have genuine tech barriers preventing them doing a more high quality experience. But we solved that years ago.
Not only do we run our own web servers in-house, but [we do] everything from language and model editors to animators and mesh editors. Everything has been built in-house by our own team in our own The only thing we still use that's industry standard is a Unix system our servers run on. Everything else on top is Jagex built. That has solved a lot of problems for us and allowed us to do cool things, as you'll see when MechScape comes out.
We would argue that just because it's in a browser doesn't mean it can't be triple-A. It's by no means trivial to get a game working in a browser, and it's taken us nine years to just know what we know today. And we're still learning. It's just a learning curve that people have to go through and maybe that's why, by comparison, the quality of games out there is not analogous to RuneScape or FunOrb or MechScape.
We'll never go away from the browser model. We, in many respects, pioneered the space. We certainly believe this is the future, and we know by talking to our friends at EA or Activision or anywhere else that this is where they want to be, but they struggle to get there. And that is comforting. But we make sure we remain a moving target, moving forward, so it's tough to catch up.
Make no mistake, we can up the polygons in MechScape dramatically and have parity with any kind of game that's out at the moment. The problem is, that would remove or reduce the accessibility. We still say we want the same experience, but we don't accept the cost in terms of space and bandwidth and everything else. And we had to build the solution to that ourselves.
What we're also doing is making sure we're platform agnostic.
Eurogamer: What about the new Google OS?
Mark Gerhard: Yes, and that's very exciting. We're tracking that, and we're making sure we're one of the first to be there if not the first.
We built a translation tool - a parsing tool, rather, that parses out proprietary code to Wii, to the Xbox 360. So we have the capability to be on all three, but it's now a question of which product, which device? Equally, do we do that or do we go into China? So we've made sure we have the support for that.
For us, triple-A - a console game with the type of polygons you would expect - is very much in our reach. Is that high priority? Should we do a third MMO? Should we put our current MMOs on different platforms? Should we pilot one of our FunOrb games? Should we focus on mobile phones instead? Those are the kind of questions we're asking ourselves. We've certainly got capability in all those areas.
Eurogamer: Is it na´ve for companies to focus on making blockbusters before they have a proven track record?
Mark Gerhard: It all depends on what your definition of blockbusters is. To me, the general definition is a triple-A game has got to have more money spent on in and marketing than any other game. Some of those succeed as a result, but I think it's the 80:20 rule, where 80 of them fail, because they aren't exciting; they're old games repainted.
There's a school of thought that says if you copy something that's successful somewhere else, you'll be able to duplicate that. I would disagree and say, "By copying you have already devalued your product and your potential reach of market." If it's not inventive there's no reason to tell a friend to check it out. It might be more gory or have slightly better graphics, but there's got to be something else to add to it.
Is it dangerous to just kind of try and just create a triple-A? The perception is to take something that works and re-paint it, re-theme it as something else, get it out there. As long as you spend a lot of money on it, it will be a success. I think that's the most dangerous strategy of all.
Henrique Olifiers: MMO development is exponentially more complex than single-player. That's why so many people fail. Right now there are 250 [MMOs] in development around the world, and if a dozen of those actually break even when they're launched, it will be amazing. Most of them are going to fail.
There is some truth to the statement that people are na´ve, because they're going after things they don't fully understand. In that sense it makes sense to start small and build up. If we started Jagex today and set out to create a triple-A MMO we would fail. We succeed because we have failed before, several times in small scale. We learned from those mistakes.