I suspect Jagex are off your radar. They were off mine. While I was more than aware of their enormous success with the free MMO Runescape, I never quite filed it as something directly relevant to my interests in PC Games. A chance meeting with their recent brilliant arcade football game Kickabout League made me reconsider, so I grasped the chance to hook up at Develop with their CEO Mark Gehard, the Head of their new not-revealed MMO Mechscape Henrique Olifiers and PR Manager Adam Tuckwell. I come away with the impression of a proud, ambitious and iconoclastic company with a lot of big ideas. An MMO which looks at Master of Orion rather than Ultima as its inspiration? Picking up where Sensible Software left of? Real Men Programmers Do It In 64Mb? PC as pure populism, and taking that seriously? And not playing the hype game at all? It's time Jagex got on your radar. You start here...
RPS: Runescape's been going ages, but your latest venture – FunOrb - has been going for a year and a half. A games portal. Why? What's your aim with it?
Mark Gerhard: Jagex is staffed by gamers. When interviewing a developer, it's not just “can you do the job?” - because there's a skew of developers who can – but “Show us your hobbies, your interests. How do you develop games?”. Your indie game, whatever. We're always looking to make games we want to play – which is the success story with Runescape. FunOrb was the same kind of thinking, and perhaps showing our age a bit. We've been doing this for nine years, and all of a sudden, despite family and everything else, we still want to play good games. Those 16-bit classics, if you will. But getting out the old Amiga is a hassle. We wanted to create a service for time-pressured gamers, people like us, who can go back to playing those great games, as well as us being able to innovate and create new games. That was the thinking. Also, speed. With Mechscape, we're looking at 3, 4 years, maybe more. With FunOrb, while still making a great game, we're looking at 9-12 months. With a relatively big team, we roughly get a new game a month. We can experiment a bit more. I don't want to say “be more creative”, but when you know you can be quite agile, you feel more free to experiment.
RPS: What sort of demographics play your game?
Mark Gerhard: We know what the players tell us – and given the population size, you can say that's largely true. FunOrb was designed to be us. Literally, the people around here [Gestures to the Develop bar]. Given that we've done no promotions, what we've found a year into its launch... we've found that the average age of a Runescape player is 16. The average age of a FunOrb player, funnily enough, is 17. But we want it to be 25-35, even 45. That's kind of the aspiration. While we have a substantial community, we want to grow it into this demographic.
Adam Tuckwell: I think Kickabout is the great example of a game we've polished to quite a high level, but also shows what we're trying to do. We're not trying to make really quick flash games with no depth or substance. We're trying to make quality games which can be played and dropped into quite quickly. Since we haven't done much promotional marketing, we mainly have the Runescape audience playing – but now that the portal is developing, we attract people and hopefully get the message out there that there's market of people out there. And our games have this relatively steep curve. You have to be relatively competent in games generally to progress – but we mean them to be played in a casual way. With Kickabout, you're about to play a 4 minute match, and then go off again. That's the kind of thing we're going for. It doesn't have to be a sport title. We like to have this core competency, that you have to be a gamer to enjoy it. There's very little out there for that sort of person. We're looking at the sort of person who has all the consoles at home, and may not have time to play them. We also don't want to make sure it's not just remakes of old IPs. There's room to innovate. Like Lexicominos, which is a lot like Tetris with words.
Mark Gerhard: We'll also bring along some of the classic IPs. One of the reasons for Jon [Hare, Sensible Software Designer and general iconic Amiga-era figure] joining us was that on the game design side to make completely new games which aren't just spiritual successors... but we're also looking to bring back some of the classic IPs and license them, and make FunOrb the home for that.
RPS: People's expectations of a webgame is the odd one. While the vast majority are the same as they ever were, we're increasingly seeing things like Bow Street Runner which have production values up with anything. With you, you're talking about taking games that'd have been a full release in 1991 on the Amiga and doing them on this format.
Adam Tuckwell: Web-gaming really is the future. We see people come in with the cloud-tech, and it's the sort of thing we've been doing for the last ten years. Technology is all our own, and we work really hard to make as many people as possible can play our games. You can play our games with a dial-up Internet connection, as the download is very small. We want everyone to be able to play it. We're trying to make gaming more accessible. But we're also trying to show that you can have a genuine gaming experience in your browser. And we're passionate about free-gaming. In Runescape, the girl who has the highest level in the free game has played for over 15,000 hours... and she's never paid. She's only just finished leveling her character. That's a huge level of gameplay for free. We're trying to show that webgaming isn't about these quick games that are produced really quickly, have no depth or content and don't really appeal to gamers.
RPS: So... now after Runescape, Mechscape. Why now?
Mark Gerhard: Why Mechscape... after 4 years of making and running Runscape, we got to a point where we thought maybe we know what we're doing. We knew what we'd do differently. That's kind of what spawned Mechscape. A blank piece of paper and “How would we do it this time?”.
RPS: Okay... I know you're not showing it yet, and aren't talking about it in detail. Can you say what it isn't?
Henrique Olifiers: It's not Runescape in space. We started the whole process looking at the MMO space and realising that the world doesn't need another Fantasy game. No elves, no orcs. So Sci-fi. Sci-fi is popular in movies, in comics, in single-player games... so why not here. That lead us to develop some new game mechanics which no other game uses. The reason why many Sci-fi MMOs haven't worked is because they're fantasy games dressed up to look like Sci-fi games. We looked at seminal games like Master of Orion and Ascendancy, and look at worked in those games, and make MMO mechanics inspired by those mechanics, in the way which Garriott created mechanics in Ultima Online inspired by the traditional Ultima games. Our seed was completely different. The end result is a game which looks and plays like no other MMO out there, from the mechanics, to how you interact with the other players...
RPS: Any idea when we'll be seeing this?
Henrique Olifiers: We are in the final polishing phases of the project. While we don't talk about dates, we want to ship it when we're ready. We're getting there.
RPS: You know, one day I'd love a developer to answer that question with “We're going to ship it well before we're ready. We just don't care any more”.
Henrique Olifiers: The problem in the MMO space is they actually do that. They release in a state and then play catch-up for a year. That's what we don't want to do. It's very easy to get into that. The game's fun? Let's go. But no, there's a lot of things to get right before we unleash the full thing.
RPS: When the rest of the industry works on hyping a game literally years before it's available, the non-info before release is really quite novel. What makes you take this approach?
Mark Gerhard: Learning various lessons with Runescape, we did bits of content and we told the players we were doing it, but when we launched, even though it was great content, it wasn't appreciated by the players. We'd set ourselves up to underwhelm. It wasn't deliberate, but it had become hyped. And then we did other stuff, like Player Houses. We kept schtum and did a surprise update. The players loved it. What we learned from all of that. Two things: if you get someone excited by something, they want to be able to access it now. We only want to start talking when it's actually there. I know that's very anti the Industry tradition... but we kind of believe in doing it our own way. It's not that we think we know best, but we've had a few experiences which have taught us it's probably wiser to go out there with one big splash. Up until a few months ago, everything we've done is totally viral. Something interesting to tell your friends down the pub. But if they've all heard the same press release, what have you got to talk about? It's unusual and may be risky, but.... we'll see.
Adam Tuckwell: We're in a good position. We've worked on a game that we think is brilliant, but is very, very different. We're launching a browser MMO, which again is quite rare. We're in a position where as a privately owned company, we don't have publishers breathing down our necks. We don't have to overhype the product beforehand to keep Shareholders happy. We're able to make a game which will impress people with the content.
RPS: Okay. MechScape. Can you tell me something you don't have?
Henrique Olifiers: For instance, something that's very strong in other MMOs: XP and levels. We don't have any of that, as a result of what we've done. We've created these new mechanics which work in such a different way that you don't even feel like you're playing an MMO. I had a few external people in. People who've never see the game. Not family members or anything like that. If they hated the game, they'd have said. They sat and played, and eventually the monitor said let's take a break as you've been playing for an hour... and you can see on the camera, they didn't believe it. It cannot be 5 o'clock. That kind of thing. The game plays like the old strategy games which you can spend all night and not realise time is passing, because you're not doing the same thing over and over.
RPS: You've hired ex-Sensible Supremo Jon Hare. How's it going?
Mark Gerhard: Only six days or seven days. He certainly gets us. The DNA and culture which made us. We're really excited about what good things can come of it, but it's obviously early days.
RPS: It seems kinda symbolic of the sort of games you're trying to reach. But you're not actually just re-making these games at all, at least in a 1:1 fashion. It's not a retro thing. It's more like picking off where the work left off.
Mark Gerhard: If you take one of the most popular games – Arcanists, which is basically a spiritual successor to worms with magic and everything else. Taken that great mechanic, and added multiplayer facets to it and everything else and a huge variety of different weapons you can use. It was meant to be a 30 minutes a week thing, but I end up playing for hours after hour after hour after hour. We look at what bit was fun – and try and work out how it could be improved by bringing a multiplayer dimension to it or something else. Or we look at one game which we think was slightly weak, and missed the next level or next big power-up... and, hey, let's try it [With adding that next level or power-up].
RPS: You seem quite proud of your technical achievements.
Henrique Olifiers: We try things which no-one else does. Like procedural texturing. No-one does that any more, and it used to be a big thing back in the day of the demo scene. Why don't we do that with a game?
Mark Gerhard: If you think an Funorb game takes 9 to 18 months to build. There's no doubt that we could build it in half the time if we didn't have this almost anal dedication to performance and tuning. We make sure we have compatibility back to Java 1.1. We have to make the whole game fit in a 64Mb memory-heap. And most people would say “Just tell them to upgrade. Get a faster computer. It's not our problem”. And just that will take another two, maybe 3 months of tuning. We have the luxuary of being able to do that, but it's a symptom of the company's DNA.
RPS: This speaks a lot of what we view as “technical prowess” as consumers, but it's not exactly companies like you which come to mind when the phrase is said. But it's something that you clearly concentrate on hugely.
Mark Gerhard: When I first joined the company, I got really excited and went to the board and said – there's twenty products here you could patent. Let's do it. We've got an enterprise web server which we run the world's second biggest forum with 2.8 million posts a week, which runs on a 2.4 Celeronwith a gig of RAM. It's a home computer 10 years ago, which runs the world's second biggest forum. That's our tech.
They came back: we create games. They needed to build that to do /this/. In essence, technology allows us to do what we do here, but there's probably hundred of patents we could have made... but it doesn't matter.
Adam Tuckwell: The fact users don't always tell is a compliment as well. We released a new version of runescape last year, which allowed the graphics to be massively accelerated. Still running through the browser. We showed it to the other Devs at E3, and they thought it was too good to be in the browser. That's fantastic. There are people who saw our products ten years ago, when they did look more basic, which cast their assumptions... but we're constantly reforming what we do. It proves immensely successful.
Henrique Olifiers: Our aims are sometimes misjudged. There's no reason we couldn't make graphics as good as any box product with the current engine... except we wouldn't reach the audience we want. Even with a lightweight hardware accelerated client which works with a 32Mb 3D card and a 1Ghz Machine... only 30% of our players are able to actually use it, as they have outdated drives and so on. The industry misjudges the potential of the users to run their games.
Mark Gerhard: The traditional game publishing seems to be the way you make a story is to say it'll only work on the latest 3D card. Rather than going whether you hit the spot. Are you still accessible? You may get great game reviews. It may be groundbreaking. But can I play it at work? Can I play it at home? Can I play it at School?
Adam Tuckwell: And we're totally okay with all the rest of the industry doing that.
[Fade to laughter.]