Developers and publishers often talk of great partnerships, but often that boils down to the developers making the game and the publisher selling it. Complementary skills for sure but ones that were executed more in turn rather than in tandem.
Ongoing live games often displaced the publisher role, with the developer instead skilling-up to take charge of marketing, UA and monetisation – which can be a pretty steep hill to climb. But surely there’s a better way?
Runescape creator Jagex certainly thinks so. And so leveraged 20 years of experience in running live games, or living games as the company calls its titles, to launch Jagex Partners – a third-party publishing arm announced back at Gamescom 2018.
The aim was to utilise its hard-won skills in running such games for the benefit of third-party developers. But living games are a long-term business, and so Jagex hasn’t rushed into anything, taking almost two years to announce its first partnership under the initiative.
And that partner is Flying Wild Hog, the Polish developer of visceral action-packed titles – best known for the jaw-dropping action and wisecracking humour of the Shadow Warrior franchise – though this new title comes is the first out of its Krakow studio which was setup in 2016.
Runescape’s quirky fantasy and Shadow Warrior’s blood-soaked action are unlikely bedfellows on the surface but the partnership of their creators’ skills makes a lot of sense.
A MATCH MADE IN KRAKOW
Jeff Pabst, VP third-party and partnerships, starts by explaining that working relationship: “We found a partner in the Hogs that makes great games, they know how to make fun games, they have a very clear style, and they had an ambition and a desire to make online multiplayer titles. They brought in people to help do that, they had a really clear vision on the product. But they needed a partner who had experience in building that community involvement and engagement, the live ops experience, and all the stuff that Jagex does in spades.
“And so we’re hoping it’s one plus one equals three, because we’re going to bring a lot of what we consider our DNA secret sauce, and they’re gonna bring in a lot of theirs. And we’re looking to make a great title out of that,” Pabst formulates.
Michal Szustak, CEO of Flying Wild Hogs is on the same page: “The [Jagex] guys love the game. So it was an easy start, basically. We think it’s a great fit, we’ve an experienced team, we love making action-explosive games. And they were looking for something that can engage players for many, many years to come. When we understood that they had 20 years of experience making community-based living games, that was like ‘wow, that’s the best partner that we can find’.”
And that partnership, that relationship, has to work well given the long-term nature of such titles, Pabst adds: “We’ve been willing to take the time to invest in that relationship. Because with a living game, it’s not fire and forget, put it in a box and walk away, instead we’ll run that game for hopefully years to come. So you want to make sure you have the right partnership.”
Jagex visited the team in Krakow many times before the pandemic prevented such trips. The studio is now one of three for Flying Wild Hog, with the business having started in Warsaw and more recently having opened an outfit in Rzeszów too. The developer was acquired by Supernova Capital, co-founded by Paul Wedgwood, in March of last year.
Pabst continues: “It’s a true partnership. So when we have a back and forth, and they’re bringing something to the table, we have a deep discussion about it, and they take the lead on the things that we think they’re going to definitely be better at. And then we bring in our expertise… the first couple of conversations we had in Krakow, there was a lot of ‘Aha!’ moments on both sides of the table, which is just a fantastic experience.”
We wonder if some of that bond comes from both parties being developers at heart?
“This partnership has been founded on mutual respect and understanding,” Pabst replies. We share many values and a vision for this game, and yes a lot of that comes from the fact that Jagex is a developer as well as a publisher. One of our key strengths – and something that’s vital to the success of a living game – is the close cooperation and integration of game development, live ops and the disciplines you would traditionally classify as publishing such as community management and player support.”
PUTTING THE ACTION IN A-RPG
The game itself is still under wraps, we do know that it’s being built using Unreal Engine 4 – as is the upcoming Shadow Warrior 3 – and is described by the partnership as “a rich, deep, connected and customisable multiplayer action-RPG gaming experience of high adventure and explosive action set in a sci-fi universe.”
Phil Mansell, Jagex’s CEO, explains the space the title sits in: “If you look at things like Diablo or Path of Exile, phenomenally successful games, but really dark, medieval, fantasy worlds, almost horror fantasy to some degree.
“There’s a lot of really popular sci-fi games but less so in action RPG… that’s where we think there’s a really big latent demand that isn’t being met that the partnership can really satiate.” He certainly has a point, there are a few outliers tending more towards twin-stick shooting (such as the excellent Helldivers), but certainly nothing in the Diablo style that really dominates the space.
Even without the exact details, it’s clear that this game is a long way from the Hogs’ home turf. But Flying Wild Hog CEO Szustak points out that we shouldn’t pigeon-hole the developer.
“One of our core values is actually experimentation. We call ourselves a gameplay laboratory, we’re trying to find something new, to build something new in video games.”
And he notes that the Krakow studio has its own character: “Krakow team are a separate studio, they have their own ideas, and they decided to follow this path, to create something entirely new, but using the expertise of the [wider] studio, building an action-packed game.”
So while it will draw on the Hogs action pedigree, we shouldn’t expect anything so visceral?
“I would say action and fun. I wouldn’t say visceral. I think that the new project will be much more accessible for a broader audience. Similar to Runescape. Because, a broad community is something that we want to build for the game.”
A GAME OF RISK
A live game with a broad community of players, evolving over many years, while remaining highly profitable, is the goal for many games developers around the world. However, we all know that for every hardy perennial there’s many more that fail to take root. So what is the plan to give the new title the best possible chance to flourish?
Jagex’s Mansell starts with the basics, it’s just got to be a great game: “I think that with any successful game, especially live or living games, you have to have a piece of core gameplay that is just phenomenally fun. Whether it’s mouse and keyboard, or controller, or touchscreen, it feels amazing in your hands, and it has that tactile satisfaction you want to keep playing.
“Whether it’s mouse and keyboard, or controller, or touchscreen, it feels amazing in your hands, and it has that tactile satisfaction you want to keep playing.”
“That was the first thing we could see… that this game had in spades… It’s just so goddamn fun in your hands. And what they were building as a skill set was that longer-form gameplay, the meta game that goes on top of that. But having a game that you know you’d love to play, and you don’t want to put down, and you think about when you’re going to play it again, that’s like the perfect start point for these things.
All very promising, but even great games sometimes fail to find their audience. And arguably while Jagex has huge experience in running games, it’s been a while since it launched a successful new IP.
Mansell believes that Jagex do now possess that skill: “In terms of our skill set to launch, part of what we’ve been doing at Jagex in recent years, and especially with Jagex Partners is building a phenomenal set of talented people who do have amazing skills in launching games.
“Jeff [Pabst] has phenomenal levels of experience, not even including the team that he’s built, and the resources he’s got to hand at Jagex. We’ve got people who’ve launched games to tens and hundreds of millions of players. So we’re very confident in that now,” he states.
Pabst himself sums it up very neatly: “The collective team has done this hundreds of times, but the team collectively have not done it.”
“The sort of philosophy that we have as a team is we look at it as a marathon, not a sprint,” Pabst continues. “A marathon starts well before the consumer ever touches the game. What are the next steps that we can do to ensure success? Where are the areas that we need to invest in earlier on to make sure that we’re ready when that thing happens?
“It’s the games business, so yes there’s risk but we want to make sure that we minimise the risk and address those things. And again, we have a very complementary and great partner in terms of the way that we’re looking at the game and the way we’re looking at the market so it gives us a lot of confidence and excitement.
To which Mansell ass: “A chemistry worked between our companies and how we saw what you’d call product-market fit. They’re very experimental. We’re very customer orientated. So it really matched together well.”
And from the Hogs’ perspective, Jagex itself represents the minimisation of risk, says Michal Kuk, the head of the Krakow studio.
“We have been talking with Jagex for a long time, and during that time, we already built our team around this partnership. And basically, you said that there’s a huge risk with developing and releasing live games. So from our standpoint, to lower the risk was to find a perfect partner who has the best experience of the market, so Jagex is one of the best partners for us. And it’s one of the most experienced publishers with over 20 years of experience with living games. That was our plan to lower the risk.”
One possible advantage that Jagex possesses is its huge Runescape audience, over 1.1m paying subscribers alone in 2019. But can it, and will it, try and market the new game to this group?
“We think its vitally important to market the right game to the right audience,” says Pabst. “Naturally, we’ll seek to build and engage the audience for this game using the experience of 20 years of working with the RuneScape community. While we certainly hope there are many RuneScape players who will be interested in this new game, we won’t be assuming anything and will be mindful of how we talk to them about it.”
Another key point is that Runescape pre-dates platforms such as Epic Game Store, and even Steam. Jagex has great experience in building and retaining a community away from the usual PC storefronts, something it’s keen to leverage for the new title.
“We welcome the fact that there are strong players in the publishing and distribution market for PC games,” says Pabst. “Ultimately, if independent studios can benefit from platforms and publishers that allow their visions to become reality then the player benefits, and so does the wider industry.
“We believe we offer something different: Jagex Partners, with its combination of expertise, heritage and focus is the go-to publisher for living games developers, offering publishing services and a platform covering everything from marketing, brand, community and user acquisition to analytics, data science and distribution,” so expect Jagex to take its own path, promoting the game outside of the usual platforms.
“We believe we offer something different: Jagex Partners, with its combination of expertise, heritage and focus is the go-to publisher for living games developers.”
But not exclusively so, Pabst notes: “There’s nothing to say that, alongside our own platform, that the games we publish with partners won’t happily be available to play or buy via Epic, Steam or any other existing or future sales or publishing platform.”
Indeed, as for the first time Jagex will also be working with console platforms, something that in the distant past it spoke out on to us, as at the time consoles didn’t really get free-to-play or the need for full cross-platform play – areas where they’ve now caught up with Jagex’s thinking.
“The game will be available on PC and console,” Pabst tells us. “Together with Flying Wild Hog we want to make sure as many players can access the game on the platform they prefer. We’ll have more specific detail in the coming months on platform availability.”
With 2021 set as a launch date, the game will soon start to enter private, alpha and beta testing phases. At present though, the Hogs are benefiting from having a sizable headcount at Jagex able to play the game and feedback to the developer in private, Mansell tells us.
“There are many people at Jagex playing the game. So we provide internal feedback and the Hogs have a great understanding of what ‘good’ looks like as well, obviously it becomes critical to get that feedback from players. I think both of us align around how important that is. So the type of content, the weight of content, the roadmap we have post launch, I think both Hogs and Jagex, have got a good understanding of that, but it’s the player community feedback that will make us really sure.
“You need to launch successfully, of course, but it starts earlier. You’ve got to be listening to the players. You’ve got to be experimenting. And I think the values of our companies align incredibly well there,” say Mansell.
With the Hogs having set out on this path in 2016, with the birth of the Krakow studio, and with almost two years of working with Jagex as well, it’s certainly not rushing to launch says Krakow team’s Kuk:
“My standpoint is basically we’re releasing the game when we decide it’s ready to be released. And it gives us the confidence that the game will be fun and really exciting to the players. So that’s why next year, we just want to make sure.”
And having looked at “hundreds of games” to date, the enthusiasm around the project from both sides is sky-high going into this critical phase, and that’s despite the recent turbulent times and rather unpredictable immediate future.
“We want to bring the game out when it’s ready and it’s best. And I think some of our best conversations with the Hogs have been around the set of features where we need to focus. We have a plan. We want to stick to the plan, but we want to make sure we’re releasing the best product for the consumer at the best time,” Pabst concludes.