Interview: Jagexâ??s Mark Gerhard

Despite the vigilant work done by NPD, Chart-Track et al, games sales analysts remain trapped in the dark ages of tracking nothing beyond physical, boxed products. It’s a scenario which makes digital distribution, and free-to-play models, something of a secret success.

Every week in the UK, and every month in the US, we are not reminded of these facts:RuneScape, the longstanding free-to-play MMORPG, now enjoys over 8.5 million active subscribers. One of those subscribers has played the free edition of the game for over 13,500 hours.Tthe company behind RuneScape, Cambridge-based Jagex, recently launched its own Java-based casual games portal FunOrb. Now, just a little over a year since it launched, FunOrb has clocked its one millionth account holder.

Faced with such encouraging popularity, Develop sits down with company CEO Mark Gerhard to talk about the company’s plans for expansion, and the potential of the free-to-play model itself.

Jagex is known as a pioneer of free to-play games, but has the model itself reached the levels of popularity many had expected it to?

I think we have. When we started out the whole industry was fixated on classic retail distribution, and no one really understood the free-to-play model, or even the online model.

Today we see the complete opposite, with some of the biggest names in gaming wanting to do what we have done.

Many companies are not quite following our own model. If we look at some of the companies that have tried to copy what we do, like Sony and Free Realms, these companies are releasing just a free demo for the membership component and monetizing component of the game.

We feel that the Jagex model, and certainly RuneScape, is different to this. We have released a comprehensive free game for our fans.

Just to give you a sense of scale, the free game has got over 13,500 hours of gameplay to it; we know this because that’s how much time our most-dedicated free-to-play player has spent on the game so far, and that person has still not maxed out all her skills.

So people have seen that the free-to-play model works, but typically companies implement it in the wrong way, and only offer a few hours of free play. As a result of that, our competitors have not seen the success that we have, and I suspect they probably won’t.

I think something we’ve been very true to throughout is that we have two individual games; a free game and a members’ game. For the most ardent fans, membership is the only option, but for those not paying we want to make sure people have access to a self-sustained game, not a demo.

I had heard that 60% of RuneScape was for members only.
We look at the whole game as a globe. A mass the size of the Americas is free, but obviously there are other continents available for members only. The free-to-play game has 25 quests, the members’ version has 150. So yes it is significantly larger from that aspect.

How is your plan to expand to consoles progressing?
Before we spoke to various platform holders we did some research ourselves to see if our propositions can technically work – which obviously saves a lot of time.

We have working proof of concepts on some of our products, and different parts of our games on different systems. Which one we go with is another question entirely; do we put this MMO on this console, do we put all of them on another – these are all questions that we have to consider.

We’re a games studio and technology company above all else. Of our 400 staff, about 250 are technical, and that’s because we build our own tools for whatever we need. So we do a load of R&D, and the challenge for us was if we could write a software package that would take our code and output it to a C# version for the 360, Wii and PS3.

This was in fact one of my first primary aims when joining Jagex, and we discovered that the answer was yes, we can put our code on consoles.

Making it technically possible is one thing, but how do the platform holders look at the free-to-play model?
Well, that’s a very good point, because that’s where we’re facing challenges right now and these are the topics of discussion we are having with platform holders.

My aim is that there will be a completely free game on all the consoles out there, where we preserve the current free-to-play model. I think this is where the industry should go, but I don’t think that’s where they want it to go, given that everything that goes on WiiWare, PSN and XBLA has a price tag on it in some form.

Therefore I think that the free-to-play games will probably be charged at a nominal fee, so you pay to download it and, if you want, pay to receive the premium version of the game.

That’s the thinking at the moment, though things are very much up in the air.

But of course, my preference will be to lobby these companies, to tell them that they need to catch up with today’s tastes and provide free games if you want to compete in this area.

How much luck are you having in pitching the free-to-play model to each platform holder?

I really can’t go into specifics; I wouldn’t like to talk about individual companies while we’re still discussing things and while nothing has been set in stone yet.

Former Jagex CEO Geoff Iddison said that he wanted to merge the premium subscription model with micropayments. How do you feel about the idea?

I don’t think you can take a game like RuneScape and retrofit microtransactions into it. The game’s just too big, and I don’t think it would add value for our players. Obviously that system could be more remunerative, but I think it would price a player experience too far up.

Why do you think free-to-play models are so tightly associated with MMOs?
I think that many people feel an MMO means you’re going to be spending a significant amount of time on a product, and so I think the free-to-play model compliments that more because it allows players to ask ‘do I want to spend a significant amount of time on this’.

You have previously mentioned your ambitions to expand into the Asian markets, how is that progressing?

The technology is in place now; RuneScape can support various different languages now. Our next step is a commercial one. We ‘re thinking about where next; be it eastern Europe, Asia, South America, and so on. The honest answer; the jury’s still out on that one.

Develop’s interview with Mark Gerhard comes as part of our special series of interviews with some of the world’s largest and most celebrated independent developers

Previous entries in our series includes Crytek’s Cevat Yerli, Rebellion’s Kingsley Brothers (pt 2), Grin’s Andersson brothers (pt 2), High Voltage’s Eric Nofsinger and Starbreeze’s Johan Kristiansson.

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