“There is part of the community you’ll never be able to please,” says Mark Gerhard, the CEO of one of Britain’s most successful games studios.
His company, Jagex, has become an elite force in the UK. That’s mainly due to flagship MMO Runescape – launched in 2001 – that Jagex claims is, today, the world’s most popular free-to-play MMO.
Runescape made ₤38 million in twelve months leading up to March 2009, and keeps content fresh through a constant stream of updates and patches.
“In fact now,” said Gerhard, “I think Runescape is the only MMO that’s continued to grow.”
But each time Jagex updates Runescape, it’s taking a risk, Gerhard said.
“No one in the MMO space succeeds by standing still,” he said, “so you have to constantly refresh what you’re offering. At the same time, you have to be very careful about how you read into the feedback from your updates.”
Some people are just angry, Gerhard said. Customers will complain no matter what you do.
“We give people extra free content, some people complain that ‘oh you’re just trying to buy our loyalty’,” he said.
Speaking on stage at Edinburgh Interactive, Gerhard urged developers to listen to feedback but not make rash decisions from it. Hold out and see if your updates stick, he said.
“You’re always going to have trolls, but those who love your updates are completely silent. You have to measure all this feedback. Part of it is quantitative, part of it is qualitative, part of it is gut instinct.”
And it’s also important to get reactions out of the people who are quietly enjoying your game, he said.
“Create the forum threads, stimulate the debate, sometimes kick the hornets’ nest. Don’t just address the trolls.”
INNOVATE BUT INVESTIGATE
Gerhard’s driving point was that new and innovative content is what will keep an MMO alive.
“The one thing I worry about in the industry is not the lack of creativity. It’s the lack of innovation,” he said.
“We released a Runescape update called Citadels, where players can create their own battlefields to fight in. Should we have done it? It’s never been done before. It’s never been tested before. People were saying should we should look at what World of Warcraft was doing instead.
“If you are going to make a game that’s just like World of Warcraft, it won’t be as successful as World of Warcraft. It’ll be second place, at best," he said.
"You have to innovate, not looking at what others are doing."
Opening up the floor for questions, Gerhard was asked whether Jagex had considered microtransactions for Runescape.
“We’ve certainly thought about it. We’ve certainly heavily debated it internally,” he said.
“There’s a lot of opportunity in the micropayments space, [but] we’ve had conversations with the community and the response has been overwhelmingly negative.”
While instinct works, Gerhard said, there are some obvious hazard signs that studios should heed.
“The average play span of a Runescape player is about 6 years, that’s long, we don’t want to hurt that. If you want to build something in the long term, you have to have a strong relationship with your fans.
“That’s why we got into the third-party publishing space, where we do have microtransactions,” he concluded.