Browser MMOs are very fashionable just now, but the market was led by Andrew Gower’s Runescape, which is in the Guinness book of Records, and the company Jagex, which he founded. Jagex is based in Cambridge and with around 400 staff they are the biggest independent UK developer. In addition to Runescape they have the FunOrb online gaming portal and a second MMO under development.
Q: Cunning and Devious games, developing for the Atari ST from 1995 was your first foray into the industry. Was this a deliberate career choice or did you drift into the industry?
A: I’ve been programming computers games in one form or another since I was age 7 (1985), originally starting out on the ZX Spectrum, and I knew from about age 10 that I wanted a career in computer games. The games I made in 1995 were a bit of a milestone in that they were the first games I wrote in assembler and were the first ones I felt were good enough to actually release to the public. They were also the first ones I made any money from. So yes it was a deliberate career choice, although it didn’t turn out quite how I expected!
Q: You are the founder of Jagex, the most successful British owned games studio. You must be very proud of this achievement. What were the main hurdles you had to overcome?
A: The biggest hurdles have generally been to do with that the fact that I’ve always tried to pioneer new things, and not just copy what is already being done. However this has often meant that the tools and technology we need don’t exist either, so rather than being able to use off the shelf products to create our games we’ve always had to develop our own tool chains, game engines, etc.. When starting out with RuneScape there wasn’t much like it, so before I could even start making the game I had to build a whole load of supporting technology to determine if a game of that complexity was even possible at all in the browser. Also as one of the earliest MMOs we’ve had to learn the hard way how to manage a live, and evolving game, how to support the community etc.. It’s been one continual learning experience.
Q: With RuneScape you went for server based browser gaming many years before it became fashionable. Now the hottest technology is cloud computing and netbooks. How far do you think that the games industry will eventually move to your way of doing things?
A: I think the industry will continue to diversify, and make increasingly varied games for increasingly diverse platforms, and the appropriate technology to use will therefore be equally diverse. I don’t think things like browser games will totally replace retail games any time soon. As each has its own unique strengths and weaknesses. I personally play both and enjoy them both, for different reasons. I’m going to be controversial and say I don’t really buy all the talk of convergence, it seems to me the number of different technologies, and the number of ways of making games and doing business is increasing, not the opposite.
Q: You are personally responsible for a lot of game design and advanced technology to make a game with millions of global players work. What advice would you give to a schoolboy who wanted to follow in your footsteps?
A: Well what worked for me was sticking to what I had a real passion for, and what I was good at. I never sat down and said to myself ‘I want to make a hugely successful game and make lots of money’, that was never the aim, and I think if it had been it wouldn’t have worked. I also think it is important to have realistic goals, if my initial objective had been to create a game as massive as RuneScape it would have seemed like an impossible task, I’d have been totally daunted and would never have got anywhere. Instead focus on what you can realistically do, make a simple game, certainly don’t start with an MMO. And importantly set an achievable goal you will enjoy. Make a simple game for the love of making that simple game as well as you possibly can, and seeing just how well you can make it. Just because it’s simple and achievable doesn’t mean it can’t be beautifully crafted and something to be proud of.
Q: When I worked with Richard Darling he hated being on the Sunday Times Rich List, yet Jez San in his interview for Bruceongames brought the subject up himself! How do you feel about being on there each year?
A: I really don’t like it. I’m just a normal guy who lives a rather normal life, with a passion for creating games, and wish people would focus on the games I’m making rather than me! Also people don’t realise that the value is very much an ‘in theory’ figure, based on the value of my studio, rather than being money in my bank account that I could actually spend. I feel these ‘on paper/in theory’ valuations really just give people the wrong idea. For me it’s really not about the money anyway.
Q: A lot of your gaming heritage is on the FunOrb game portal. How do you see the more casual side of gaming developing, especially with the influence of the Wii?
A: Well the first thing I should say is that I don’t see FunOrb as a casual gaming portal And we’re trying very hard NOT to make it ‘wii like’. One of the perceptions we are challenging is that if game is accessible, lightweight, and doesn’t have a huge manual to read before you play, then it MUST also be ‘casual’.
It seems to be that is ignoring a huge gap in-between ‘core’ and ‘casual’. The perception seems to be that games must be either massive budget (And therefore very high risk and so not very innovative), or exceedingly low budget casual games, with no depth or lasting gameplay, targeted at non-gamers. FunOrb is trying to fill the gap in between the two with games that aren’t all just the same ‘low risk’ FPS/RTS formula over and over again, but ARE still proper games designed for gamers, that are very deep, and (at the end) present a real challenge even to a seasoned gamer.
FunOrb is targeted at the sort of people who used to enjoy playing games on the Atari-ST or the Amiga, who say to themselves ‘why they don’t they make games like they used to?’. Those 16-bit games were never considered ‘casual’. They were very certainly targeted at gamers. But they were far more varied, were quick to pick up and play, and didn’t require a huge commitment to get started.
Q: It is inevitable that MMOs migrate onto many new games platforms. Already we have Free Realms coming to the PS3. And Android looks like a fantastic mobile platform. Where do you see this going?
A: Yes I think MMOs will migrate onto every (internet enabled) games platform. We’re pretty well positioned to take advantage of that, because we have a lot of experience making games for low spec devices.
Q: Finally, it is an open secret that Jagex has the working title MechScape under development, aimed at different demographics and introducing new state of the art technology. Is there any specific direction you are going in with this game? And when are we likely to see it ready?
A: We’re deliberately keeping pretty quiet about MechScape, because we want to surprise people, and also want people to enjoy exploring it for themselves and seeing what we have created without lots of spoilers. It’s very much a game of exploration and discovery and has beautiful art direction and back-story which I’m not going to give away The original rational for creating it was very much ‘if we made a new MMO we could do it so much better given everything we have learned doing RuneScape’. So we did! RuneScape grew very organically, whereas MechScape was created with the benefit of years of experience so is much more cohesive. In terms of when it’s ready…, the version in the office is now pretty much feature complete, it’s fully playable and is due to enter the final internal testing and polishing shortly, which is massive milestone for us. How long the testing takes depends on how much we decide we still want to improve, it could be a little while longer because we’re not going to rush it, and aren’t going to launch it until it’s awesome.