Runescape, the classic fantasy MMO, has been out of the limelight for some time now. Its impact is undeniably huge though, even today. It was the trailblazer for what we now call live games and helped propagate RPG mechanics into practically every single other core game type.
Now, the once PC-centric genre is making a comeback on mobile platforms. With huge eastern RPGs totting up massive profits in China and nearby regions, while also making early incursions into western markets.
However, Jagex is all set to fight for its home territory and beyond by bringing its long-running Runescape titles to mobile later this year, amid a flurry of other new business activities.
JOURNEY TO THE EAST
Jagex kept its head down for many years, but last year it shot back into industry consciousness on the back of a $300m acquisition by Chinese investor Fukong Interactive. With that, it’s put the last few years behind it and is looking firmly at the future and the next generation of live games, which again draws eyes to the east.
“Fantasy Westward Journey in China and Lineage M in South Korea were PC games that were nicely ported and they allow the mobile generation to come in and start playing them. The games are legitimised by their history and heritage,” Jagex CEO Phil Mansell tells us.
“Where they’re lacking is that western heritage IP, which has that brand resonance with the audience,” VP of product management Neil McClarty adds. “There’s not many people in the west that can tackle that and have that benefit that we would have with Runescape. Whether it’s us or World of Warcraft, there’s only a few who would have that heritage that would grab the attention of people.”
And that’s something that Jagex can certainly claim with a huge lapsed player base to market to. Many of those lapsed players look ready to return to the game, too.
McClarty continues: “Runescape has over 260m lifetime players and a lot of them have aged out of being core PC gamers, and we’ve done a lot of market research on this, they would really love to come back to that game that was their formative online game experience in their late teens. They now want that on their mobile phones and to get back in touch with that community.”
MEET AND BETA
The company’s early beta tests have been encouraging, McClarty tells us: “We’ve started to do some very small closed betas with a couple of thousand people playing for a week or so, and you can see on our social media people playing Runescape on their phone while sitting at the bar, on the bus, at the back of a lecture hall.”
“We’ve seen people organise their own meetups already,” Mansell adds, and he goes on tell us that’s a great sign of an engaged community in their experience. “For me that’s a yardstick, if you can get your community to interact in real life you’ve moved it from being a hobby to being a lifestyle.”
And the game will be the first western MMO to be playable fully interoperably between PC and mobile, with players being able to pick up the game on their phone exactly where they left on their PC.
“If you can get your community to interact in real life you’ve moved it from being a hobby to being a lifestyle.”
“Because the game is interoperable we’ve seen very strong retention metrics, levels you don’t get from a new game. Some of the players are existing players who are expanding their engagement rather than going from zero to whatever. They’re already in there,” Mansell tells us.
He feels the game is already in good shape for the shorter bursts of play that mobile engenders: “We’re not looking to fundamentally restructure the game… you can [already] go in and play for a few minutes. We have designed content in the PC game that has loops of sub-five minutes, sub-two minutes, so that’s already there.
“In the middle of this year we’ll be doing more open tests, soft launches. We want to see that behaviour, see if it changes, see if we need to do anything to assist players if they’re playing shorter sessions. We’re looking to explore those things as we start doing full open tests later in the year. “
FARMING IT OUT
Jagex has just finished its first full year under Mansell as CEO. “Last year we worked with the whole company to do a bit of soul searching, to find out what we wanted, what we felt we were good at, and running big online communities and worlds is part of that,” he tells us.
The company is now very clear on what it feels it should do next, both in terms of its next-gen of games and in wider business opportunities. With the mobile release of Runescape being just one part of a trident of new initiatives. For starters, Jagex wants to take its expertise and start farming it out to others.
“Leveraging what we’ve got and what we know, we can scale to help other people, we can be an enabler, an investor, a partner to help other people get there as well,” says Mansell.
“We recognised that we have this big infrastructure for running online games, we’ve got the physical infrastructure around the world to host games globally, we’ve learnt to cope with hackers and DDOS attacks. We have a very resilient network.
“We also have community and marketing and people who understand grassroots publishing, who we can utilise not just for our own games but to help other devs that love live games, who know how to make the experience but don’t know how to reach an audience and run a global service,” he adds.
“We’re quite early days on that, we’ve been bringing in some heavyweight talent over the last six months to build that up, and we’re starting to have early conversations with potential partners, but that’s a very exciting place for us as well. We want to bring our publishing expertise to more than just our own internal products.”
Jagex has been thinking hard, trying to “codify what we think is the next level of operating live games,” Mansell tells us. “We came to look at where we want to go in the future, what we want our identity and specialism to be and how we can be part of that wavefront moving forward.”
And it came up with a definition for the next generation of live games, what Mansell calls ‘living games’: “We want to make a statement that things are going to continue to advance and we want to leapfrog forward and be at that point before most others and be among the best at doing that.”
Jagex has boiled down its living game to five key pillars, which Mansell outlines: “It has to be evergreen. Your objective is to design a game that can run indefinitely.” It must “empower players” and give them a say: “If your players are influencing your game and your service it’s much more likely to reflect what’s going to work for them.”
You have to “make sure the game feels alive, it’s not just updating the game, though that is part of it. But when you come into the game world it has to feel vibrant. It’s not always predictable.”
There have to be “deep social features in the game,” he continues: “The best social tool systems allow players to share the same space, to interact with each other in meaningful ways. What you want is players to develop emotional connections not just to your game but to other players and a wider community.”
The fifth pillar is to “let the game spill out” onto social networks and into the real world, so players are meeting socially and strengthening those in-game bonds.
“Five aspirational pillars; we’re lucky that we’ve done quite a lot of those but I know we can do more and do better. These five principles are lenses through which we look at our current existing titles, the extension of those titles, and new IP,” Mansell says.
With all that in mind, Jagex has “a next-gen MMO team that’s been working for a year on some really cool stuff,” Mansell says. “We’ve got some smaller creative R&D teams building some new games, and we have other initiatives. Lots of new stuff we’re not ready to announce but we’re making significant investment in new living games. We’re not looking at MMOs the same way they exist in the market at the moment, we think we can bring innovation and accessibility in a community-centric way.”
“Though the games might look a bit old, we like to think of them as 17 years in the making rather than 17 years old. We run them in a very progressive way, not just the latest techniques, but some of things where we’ve been pioneers.”
And Mansell is keen that it continues: “I hope that in five or ten years we’ll have been part of defining what the next big things are, as everyone in the industry looks to improve their services and innovate and I’m excited for us to be part of that cycle. Not just to be at the forefront now but to keep pushing ourselves, be recognised as among the best at these living games, these persistent, community-driven online games.”