Runescape dev announces new sci-fi MMORPG

Develop 2010: Jagex CEO Mark Gerhard talks about how his company makes free-to-play games; announces latest massively multiplayer online endeavour, Stellar Dawn.

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Who was there: Mark Gerhard is the chief executive officer of free-to-play massively multiplayer online role-playing developer Jagex, based in Cambridge, UK. The developer has enjoyed great success with Runescape, which holds the Guinness World Record for the biggest free-to-play MMORPG. The company is now also moving into mobile games.

Runescape will soon have a sci-fi sibling.
Runescape will soon have a sci-fi sibling.

What he said: Gerhard's Develop session was accompanied by the announcement of the company's latest game. Stellar Dawn will be a sci-fi MMORPG, due for release in 2011, and will be the studio's biggest game to date, according to Gerhard. The title is currently entering the final stages of development, and a closed beta will be made available ahead of release.

Gerhard's lecture, though, was dedicated to explaining the company's road to success. He recounted approaching big publishers to see if they'd be interested in Jagex's free-to-play business model. "We went to EA and said we've got amazing free games, and they said, 'f*** off,'" he explained. "We went back and said we've got a million players and they said 'bulls***'", he continued. "The necessity turned us into a publisher," he said, explaining his decision to self-publish as a result.

Despite the success of Runescape and the overall growth of the company in general, Gerhard claimed that, "2010 will be a pretty flat year for us financially". "That's OK--we're building games that become an institution," he explained, elaborating on his long-term view to games publishing. "Free should mean free…[but] our most ardent fans will always pay for value-added content."

Another of the key themes of his talk was his approach to human resources and the significant investment the company makes in developing its staff. "We have a learning lab--all our competitors' SDKs are there. We find that roughly 10 percent of our industrial placements decide to write content for themselves, and that's the acid test because that's the passion project. We'll then invest in them further." Again, a long-term plan is key to this approach. "You have to make sure your employee retention is 100 percent if you're making this sort of investment," he said.

As for the future, Jagex is keen to produce more MMORPGs, partner with third-party publishers, and continue to experiment. One of the company's employees created the iPhone/iPod game Bouncedown in the employee's spare time, and after putting it on the App Store and promoting it to the Jagex community, it achieved 4.5 million downloads in the first six weeks, reaching the top of the charts. "Not even EA and Activision can get to the top anymore," boasted Gerhard.

The takeaway: Jagex will continue to specialise in free-to-play MMOGs, such as the upcoming Stellar Dawn. It depends on its hardcore fans to finance its games and market its upcoming products. Employee investment and retention is key to the company's success. "Crucially, we're always recruiting," says Gerhard.

Quote: "One of the most valuable people you can [hire] is a self-taught indie developer. It doesn't even matter if they're s***."

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