War of Legends Interview (PC)

Jagex is the successful UK publisher behind the massively popular Java MMORPG RuneScape, which currently has well over 6 million active subscribers. The company, officially founded in 2001 has developed a reputation for producing quality free-to-play games winning multiple awards, the most recent of which was a Golden Joystick for 'Best UK Developer'.

We gave Jagex CEO Mark Gerhard to chat about their latest acquisition, War of Legends, a flash-based MMO/RTS from a developer based in Shanghai, China who are currently working on another title for Jagex in addition to War of Legends.

We talked about the new game, the challenges facing UK publishers and that Golden Joystick win.

Strategy Informer: If you could just tell us a bit about War of Legends and the process behind being an online publisher to begin with.

Mark Gerhard: It's a completely flash-based RTS that looks really, really gorgeous and it's built on a Windows platform that's a departure from our own existing proprietary tech and infrastructure, but that's okay. I think our publishing arm is very happy to take from all platform types. The key thing was, we liked the game, so the first thing we did is play it and say, “Cool. This is exactly the kind of game we'd make.” And then the question was, can we actually add value to this publishing relationship? The guys relished it and said, “Great. We'll do it on that basis, and the rest we'll take care of as it is.” 

Not having to work on any particular type of tech, meant we could go for a frictionless online experience that should be very lightweight, easy to access, and the game is exactly that. No one wants to wait and even with improved broadband speeds, to have to wait for a 200-300MB They want it now – instant gratification. The game does exactly that.

This is obviously our first, third-party published title. Before that, we've only published our own stuff and it occurred to us that we're the UK's largest independent developer and publisher, and I suppose we've never really leveraged that any further than our own catalogue. We recently did an iPhone game and we started whispering to our community that we had just done this and it went to number one in the charts in the UK and USA over Christmas and New Year. When I last looked, it was at about 3.5 million downloads or something like that. It juts reaffirmed that once the Jagex community really get behind something, it can really move the needle in a really spectacular way.

We're really excited about that kind of prospect, but that doesn't mean a shift in focus for Jagex. We're always going to be a developer first and foremost, and aside from RuneScape, we've got another two major MMOs in development. We've got a ton of other games being developed by our Game Labs team – everything from iPhone games through to social networking games, so that's not going to change, but at the same time we also recognise that it was hard for us ten years ago getting online. None of the traditional publishers would touch us. They didn't understand the online space and so out of necessity, we were forced to self-publish. In fact, there are a lot of publishers that still don't understand the online space, but that's a different problem!

We've learned all of the lessons, being an online publisher for the last ten years and now we really want to help developers who are in a similar place – they've got a great product and a talented team, but they just can't get beyond that, and we have the expertise to help them. I guess it's best to frame us as a developer's publisher.

We've worked with the guys behind War of Legends now for the last six months or so, not just helping to translate and ship it, but actually culturally adapting the game and making it relevant for a Western audience. We've had a lot of input in terms of usability, accessibility etc. etc. So, I think we're approaching this in the same way we normally would perform publishing duties on our own games anyway, but with the mindset that – like everything we do at Jagex – this has a ten-year plan. We're not just going to support it for six months and then shift focus to something else, we're going to publish this in the West effectively for the next decade I expect.

There are a few other titles we're working on right now that we're hoping to bring to market this year and War of Legends is very exciting being the first of those.

Strategy Informer: And War of Legends is as fully-featured as any RTS then?

Mark Gerhard: Oh yeah. Absolutely. Our approach has always been – and RuneScape is the best example for this – to offer something completely free. RuneScape's done something like 17,000 hours of free game time. It's genuinely the world's biggest free MMO and we like that, because we're gamers ourselves, we like to be able to give that much away and we've always argued that if you find that rewarding, then there's a value-added subscription service. In the case of War of Legends, it's just a time/money trade-off, but all the games that we do, will always be a fully-featured, free game that has value-added features worth paying for.

Strategy Informer: What does War of Legends have to offer that other full-price RTS offerings don't already offer?

Mark Gerhard: Well, I would like to say that there are a lot of competitive products out there going head-to-head with War of Legends, I think you're right. With our help, it's a better product overall that we're putting out there and it's certainly going to be comparable in terms of gaming experience, but it's going to be slicker, more polished and a load of the stuff that has come across from Asia – we haven't just translated it and then rammed it out there. We've spent an enormous amount of time working with the developers to make sure that it's not only robust, but also that it plays as well as any of those types of game like you'd expect from a quality game developed in the west. I think that's the first part, I think the second part is, Jagex has obviously got a history of doing epically-sized things with their community, and I have every expectation that this will be the same. The acid-test will be following the Beta that started on January 19th.

Strategy Informer: Can you tell us a bit about the game's story, set amid Chinese legend?

Mark Gerhard: The game's already running quite successfully in China. It's based on the Legend of Feng-Sheng. We've obviously kept the game true to its roots, but as I said, we've adjusted it slightly for our audience in the West who are all very familiar with playing games that are Medieval, Arthurian knight age almost, whereas in Asia, games tend to be almost always religiously and folklore based. It's kept that core Asian element, but at the same time it's been tweaked to make it more subtle, I suppose.

It's a persistent world game, so it continues to spin even when you're offline. It features everything from strategy, construction and resource management, through to PvP and such. It's a good blend of game types and mechanics. It'll be our first game to feature micro-transactions, so even on that, we've worked very closely with the developer to ensure that those micro-transactions are really well-balanced, so it's literally just a time/money trade off. If someone wants to play free continuously, they should have the same advantage as someone who say, like you and I wanted to login for five minutes, queue up our orders and logout again, then that ability to queue up orders is going to cost you.

It's a game that's kept its integrity. I think its been really well-balanced and it's going to appeal more to Generation-X – you know, the 21 – 45 year old gamer – just in terms of gameplay or complexity. Obviously, there's a substantial slice of the RuneScape audience who also fit that demographic, so we're really looking to reach out to new people who aren't necessarily in the Jagex community.

Strategy Informer: War of Legends is another free-to-play title like RuneScape. Having experience with this type of product, do you think this is a model you could ever see working on home consoles?

Mark Gerhard: (Laughs) Yeah, that's a great question! Absolutely, and it's no secret to say that Jagex is a Microsoft-authorised developer, a Nintendo-authorised developer and a Sony-authorised developer, but we don't have any product for any of the consoles and that's not because we haven't managed to put our platform on it. In fact, we have and we can offer almost any of our games on those consoles in a very short space if we wanted to. Our challenge is actually commercial with these guys. The issue we have is all three console providers are scared shitless about offering free games and free-to-play content that's going to erode their existing model.

And the other challenge we have, which is obviously a non-starter is that they would want us to segment our community. Bear in mind that a 360 or Wii player can't play against each other or a PC player and all three have the same position. They will not let their console community interact with other console communities, and we've been saying, “look guys, that is not an option. We want a global community that's platform-agnostic and you can be part of this movement.” I think there's a deep desire to be, but I don't think that they can get past those two fundamental things of actually offering something for free and not ring-fencing it for their community.

When that changes and I think there will be a “smell the coffee” moment by the way, but I think it's probably going to come from eroding margins and loss of market share that's going to provoke the question rather than a strategic decision where they realise it's a great idea and they should do it.

Strategy Informer: It seems very optimistic and ambitious to propose that Nintendo, Sony and Microsoft share their communities. What do you think would be the solution to make it happen?

Mark Gerhard: Well, the solution right now is to leave them alone. We only have one position, which is to build an online community that is platform agnostic. Microsoft or Nintendo may say, we've got - I don't know – 12 million connected consoles in the UK and we'd say that's cool but we've got 112 million active users on PC. That number isn't that important. In that light, we wouldn't be prepared to change our strategy, because they're not big enough or important enough. We've told them that and everyone appreciates that kind of feedback, but I do think – as I say – that they're very quickly going to wake up to this, but I don't think it's going to be because Jagex has been telling them so. I think it's going to be because they see more and more people playing these social, casual games separate from console, so the jury's out. Let's see which one wakes up first. If I was a betting man I'd say it's going to be Sony, just because they're probably hurting more than the other two are.

Strategy Informer: What would you say are the biggest challenges in being a UK-based publisher/developer in the current climate?

Mark Gerhard: Well, we've got a government that's taxing us to death and one of the other challenges is talent acquisition. We take most of our staff from universities as graduates – for 90 percent of our staff it's their first job – if you take a graduate coming in, we actually spend a good three months teaching them to forget everything they've just learned and then another six months teaching them our proprietary framework, design patterns and everything else, then another three months of intense mentorship, so there's a good twelve months of investment before they actually start writing code. That's okay because we take a long-term view with everything we do. Take my core technology team for example - game engines, R&D and tools – we've been using them for nearly ten years and so we get the benefit back in the long term. But one of our biggest challenges is just actually getting people from the engineering and science fields out of universities and then attracting them into game development, where most would normally go into city banking jobs – although I imagine that's lost it's appeal lately!

Our other challenge is seeing countries like Canada and France offering enormous tax breaks and obviously they can pay people good salaries and have university campuses just for games, which is attracting a lot of the great UK talent out of the country. So, getting talent and retaining talent is probably 90 percent of what we think about, but I think that if at the end of the day, you have a great game, if you have something that stands out from the rest of the market, then success and everything else will follow. Beyond all the operational challenges we face, it's more important to have a game that speaks for itself.

I think one thing to add, quite poignantly is that for almost ten years, we've never had a marketing or PR team. Everything we've done to date has been organic, relying on the quality of our games and with our publishing arm growing in strength, we've now got a communications team and we're building a marketing team around this. But you always believe that if you have something that's good, special, extraordinary, it's going to pay dividends at the end of the day. And we'll get around tax, talent and all those other challenges by virtue of that aspect.

Strategy Informer: Finally, congratulations on your Golden Joystick victory.

Mark Gerhard: Thank-you! Thank-you very much! Every time I think of it, I still get a chuckle! We were sitting right next to Codemasters at the awards, and obviously everyone from the industry was there, and I've never seen like ten people literally spit champagne at each other. It was literally like, “Who the hell are these guys?!” which was actually pretty cool. We're happy to be kinda underground and not known and focus on what's really important and just get on with it. But thank-you very much!

War of Legends started its Beta on January 19th, which is currently ongoing.