The promotion of Phil Mansell to CEO at the beginning of 2017 marked the start of a new era for Jagex. The studio has reinvented itself several times over its 17 year history and Mansell jokes that he reigns over the Third Age of the company. And as all Tolkien fans know, the Third Age is always the best age.
Over that time one thing has remained constant: the ongoing success of RuneScape. Mansell plans to continue this, but the future of Jagex will diversify with a new focus on being the home of ‘living games’. This new direction for the company came from extensive market research and analysis after the studio was purchased by a Chinese company.
“I was made CEO at the beginning of 2017,” Mansell explains. “It was a great point for all of us, not just our Chinese purchasers, but everyone at the studio to really assess what we wanted to do as a company. Because our new owners were saying ‘This is great, but where are you guys going next?’. Which is an awesome situation to be in. So we did a good amount of introspection, but we also looked out at the market as well. What do we think we’re good at? What do we want to do in the future, and how does that map to trends in the market?
“What came out of that was insight about ourselves as well as what the market was doing. To really distillate them down, the market insights told us that it costs more to make games with every year that passes. Even the quality of indie titles now is crazy, let alone where you see triple-A games going. It’s incredibly expensive to stay competitive. What that means is, if you’re going to survive and be competitive, you need to capture as much value and revenue from your users as possible.
“Over the last five years traditional games publishers have more and more moved to live games. Obviously people like us have been doing it a long time, but now you see, for example, FIFA Ultimate Team. FIFA, one of the most stalwart, traditional games, being almost completely rebooted with a free to play, collection, gatcha, panini sticker model. Post-Clash of Clans, everything is social. All of these things are adding up.”
BEYOND LIVE GAMES
This shift in the industry is becoming practically ubiquitous. To the extent that there is an outcry lamenting the ‘death of single player games’. Things are perhaps not that drastic yet, with the likes of Mario Odyssey, Zelda: Breath of the Wild and Horizon Zero Dawn selling very well in 2017, but there’s a large, hungry percentage of gamers who are desperate for more League of Legends, PUBG and Rainbow Six: Siege.
“The other thing we realised was that players are on this trip as well. We all feel it anecdotally, but there’s a lot of analyst research that backs it up. Players are putting more time and more money into fewer and fewer games. I feel it as well and we see it from our players, you want the game to give you something back. You want the game to recognise your time investment, you want it to help you make friends, to give you lots of cool things to play with.
“On the player side, you’ve got that demand. I think that’s why you’re seeing the rise of live games. Over the last two or three years, everyone’s been talking about it. But certainly over the last five years the foundations were laid. EA has it as its main strategy, Ubisoft has it as its main strategy. The more core gaming parts of Activision have it. And then if you look over at China at Tencent and others, that is their business.
“For us that was really interesting, there’s this wave that is progressively moving forward. We’ve been in that race and we’ve been innovating in our own way here and there, we’re one of the first UK devs to build a proper broadcast studio in our office. We do livestreaming, we sponsor esportsy kind of events, we try to do competitive gaming with MMORPGs, which is a bit weird, but we’ve figured out a massively accelerated way for 2,000 people to compete for a grand prize. We’ve found a way to do that.”
With all this market research, Jagex started trying to figure out ways to position itself less as just another company investing in the live games trend, but instead leapfrogging into the evolved version of the phenomenon. It’s solution? Living games.
“There’s live games, but if you can push it, then you’re into ‘living games,” explains Mansell. “That’s the next level. That’s the way we’re describing it and that’s aspirationally what we want Jagex to be. The home of ‘living games’. So if you are a player – and there are a lot of players who want this kind of experience – you know
you can come to see what Jagex has to offer.
“We’ve not got there yet. We’ve got quite a lot to do. A very small number of other companies are pushing on that wavefront as well, but there’s no one else who is specialising in it, I don’t think, and we think that’s where we can really focus. Building the skills ourselves.”
According to Jagex there are five key pillars for creating living games experiences and they are all areas where the studio has been building its expertise since the launch of RuneScape. But areas that need to be taken to the next level.
“So that was in our head,” Mansell says. “How do we not only adapt, but jump the queue? How do we get to the front of that wave of live games that’s going ahead? And that grew into our aspiration for living games. The idea that if you look at what people would call a live game at the moment… For some people that’s how they market it, maybe being more digital first, using influencers, and so on. For devs, maybe it’s having updates to the game. Having social features. There’s a wavefront of what is accepted as a live game. We said ‘This is our thing, we want to really lead the market on it’. So how do you push each of those to the next level? That’s become our credence.
“We have five pillars of that. The first is designing a game to be evergreen. It’s a different mindset if you’re a game designer. Really thinking about a game that is fundamentally inexhaustible. You have content and you have systems that can go on indefinitely, but still have depth and satisfaction for players.”
“Then there’s having really meaningful social features. Not just asynchronous trading of items, but talking with people, making friends, having rivalries. The emotional connection that keeps you coming back. Because you want to talk to these people, they’re part of your social circle. It’s been around for a while in MMORPGs, but it’s starting to proliferate out. There’s more design thinking around making that work.
“Then there’s keeping a game that feels truly alive, updating it all the time, where things are constantly different in the world. You’re not just waiting for a monthly content drop. Making it feel like a world that is alive.
“There’s also the idea that in order to foster a community, you first of all give them a real say. That’s also a bit of a change in thinking, being more customer centric. We pushed the boundary on that with our old school RuneScape game. We need a majority vote for any change to the game.
Players are putting more time and more money into fewer and fewer games.
Phil Mansell, Jagex
“Anything that’s not a bug fix. If we haven’t got a 75 per cent voting majority, it doesn’t go in the game. That’s pretty radical. And that’s a relatively conservative game, so our constitution matches that. But we use it in all the things we do, whether it’s surveys, players visiting us, our user insight and analytics. Really understanding the player and giving them a voice is part of this credence.
“The final thing is accepting that the community that you’re fostering shouldn’t just exist in your game. Whether they’re making content about your game and it spills out onto the internet, you need to support that in a way that’s really about what the player’s doing. That can go all the way into running real life events. We run big player gatherings at our office, we do them around the world, we have our big annual fan convention in London which we did in September, called Runefest. Thousands of players come, all of our staff come, we tell them about what’s coming, they all have a massive party. There’s a few other MMO companies that do that.”
All of this is relevant to RuneScape specifically, and that’s where Jagex cut its teeth in these areas, but it’s more important to the company’s forthcoming projects, where they’ll be developing these living game ideals from the ground up.
“We’ve got a next-gen MMO that we’re in the early stages of building,” says Mansell. “And we’ve got what we call our Workshop team, which is a fast, rapid prototype ideation group. That’s coming up with loads of cool ideas. Some of those ideas we are working with dev partners to build out of prototype stage. You wouldn’t be able to search for Jagex and find them, but we’ve probably got eight or nine games with active work being done on them.”