Exclusive Andrew Gower interview

Andrew Gower, Jagex, Runescape

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.

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15 comments ↓

#1 woodins on 08.18.09 at 12:02 pm

Congrats on all his previous successes and good luck with all his future endeavours.

The last of his generation? Being a bit of a gaming geek for several years now, guys like Andrew Goyer who started of coding on the Spectrum, Amiga etc. were kind of heroes of mine back in the day. Now that this generation of UK “bedroom coders” are dying off, who is gonna take their place? The UK government still refuse to take this industry seriously, and give no decent tax breaks as opposed to France and Canada (could Ubisoft doen what they did without that?). Is it no wonder we are falling further and further down the international development table? How are the next Andrew Goyers expected to come through?

#2 Philip Whitehouse on 08.18.09 at 12:04 pm

Well done for getting an interview Bruce. Thanks for the great questions as well.

I think it’s going to be interesting to see what Mechscape is like. Certainly, given the vision that hindsight gives you, some of the design philosophies in RuneScape are somewhat artificial. Limited perhaps by technology and the ideas originally, RS still presents a worthwhile game.

Hopefully, now that the game world places more emphasis on lore and backstory, MechScape will present a coherent, involving and developing game.

For a couple of guys in back bedroom, RuneScape is an awesome project. It’s managed to survive the period of transition from hobby MUD to commercially-backed MMO.

Certainly Andrew presents a far better approach to MMO building than the almost suicidal Damon Crow (http://www.gamepro.com/article/news/66148/mmo-designer-vows-to-dethrone-world-of-warcraft/).

Thanks Bruce & Andrew,

#3 Luke Knight on 08.18.09 at 10:53 pm

I find it very interesting how MechScape’s real name hasn’t been revealed yet. It is unprecedented in gaming history for a game to reach internal testing and still have a code-name.

Andrew mentions that MechScape will be made in light of the experience gained from RuneScape. What this means is to avoid the mistakes made with RuneScape. However, if we go on just this philosophy, then MechScape will be a modern-day RuneScape. Since MechScape is also said to be vastly different from RuneScape, there is room for new unforseen problems to arise. In plain words, MechScape may have gameplay flaws. We won’t know until the gamers get to actually try it out. Often, developers don’t see or expect these problems. Look what happened to Age of Conan.

#4 Dan on 08.19.09 at 8:31 am

Very interesting read; the questions asked really gave some insight into Andrew’s life and the company as a whole.

As a 20 year old who happens to play the game I can say that they’ve made quite a bit of progress throughout the last few years (at least as far as the game is concerned!).
That said, their PR needs a lot of work. ^_^ It’s unfortunate that they don’t have the time for players.

I’m personally looking forward to the new game because I imagine that they’ll have some rather innovative content (especially since they’re strongly opposed to things such as gold farming and macroing, and will have likely designed the game around preventing or diminishing the chance that these things will occur).

#5 bk on 08.19.09 at 4:59 pm

I’m not sure if you care about fair use, but this site is quoting your whole interview here:
http://www.zybez.net/community/index.php?showtopic=1287199&st=0&p=11817226&#entry11817226

They link to you at the bottom, but only after showing the entire interview.

Also, the lead in on their main page: http://www.zybez.net, made me assume it was their interview.

#6 Bruce on 08.19.09 at 5:18 pm

Thanks bk
They aren’t the only ones: http://es.gamernook.com/news/view/post/58245/

Several sites seem to think that it is OK to breach my copyright like this. It happens to most of my articles. Which, I suppose, is quite flattering.

#7 Sparhawke on 08.19.09 at 10:26 pm

I love Runescape and though I dont get to play funorb as much as I want i still remember most of the games on the amiga, I am an oldie too lol

I look forward to Mechscape and cant wait till we can finally “announce” it on Sals lol

#8 Osaka on 08.20.09 at 1:02 pm

JAGEX, STOP ‘IMPROVING’ MechScape, get it out already! You can just Q&A what you have now and do what you have to improve as an update!!! We want to explore that seemingly awesome game NOW, any updates can be done later, but we don’t want to wait till later to play it.
So please Q&A this and leave any improvements content-wise (if there is any tech-wise then DO IT :D) as updates to come in future months! :)

#9 Adam Needum on 08.30.09 at 9:30 am

MechScape better be awesome when it is released, after all of this waiting that we’ve done for it…

Great interview Bruce, thanks for sharing!

#10 Meili on 09.03.09 at 4:24 pm

Well this is a very nice interview.

You know, as an old player from when Runescape was still very small (and totally free), I am not entirely sure that Jagex has really learned *that much* from their mistakes.

A lot of their updates often have bugs or not well-thought-out content that later needs to be fixed.

Summoning, for example, was so horrendously impractical and unattractive that players pretty much ignored the new content. They had to update this new skill to make it worthwhile.

I am not a developer, of course, just a player but it seems to me that Jagex is not too in touch with their playerbase.

Currently I play Maplestory and, unlike Jagex, they never have to “fix” new skills or content, apart from your regular bugs, of course.

#11 Eric on 09.28.09 at 1:15 am

Very interesting article, I actually had the pleasure to contact Mr. Gower recently. Pleasant guy.

#12 toomas on 02.27.10 at 2:35 pm

hey man that runescape game is awesome
weeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeryyyyyyyyyyy cool i play it every day

#13 seth larcomb on 07.21.10 at 12:18 am

I need to talk to you Andrew I see something alot of people want runescape to do and i see a way to achieve it but i must talk to you! Its about RT1 if you guy’s still have the engine we can combine the rt5 and rt1 to make rt6 a first/3rd person mmorpg like WoW alot of people would like to see something like this and it would be cool if you would do it unfortunatly yes i know your game is on a grid and we would have to free it from that but the basics of the game are geniouse to say the least!

#14 Jeremy on 09.16.10 at 12:59 am

Is there a way to contact him, or the runescape team? Besides the forums, which i sadly cannot post on, and besides the Jagex website, because i do not belong in any of those categories. Is there a specific e-mail that he will answer to? If there is a way, send me an e-mail at jmpetrotto@gmail.com with a subject of Jagex. Thanks!

#15 Srlancelot39 on 09.22.10 at 7:18 pm

Awesome interview! I’ve seen soo many fake interviews with Andrew Gower so it’s nice to read a real one! I specifically agree with his statement that he didnt set out to make a massive online game that would make money but rather just built it up as he learned more. I experienced this first hand with my game “Grail Quest” that I made as a project for grade 12. The game is massive now, and if I had tried to make it what it is now from the beginning, it would have been overwhelming. Even today I look back at it wondering how I got it to come together! (you can download Grail Quest from my site if it listed it, if not here it is: http://sites.google.com/site/seanscomputerscience/games/grail-quest/ )
Thanks for this quality interview Bruce!

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