E308: Runescape HD and the role of Jagex in the MMO Industry

Michael Zenke
M. Zenke|07.16.08

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Michael Zenke
July 16th, 2008
E308: Runescape HD and the role of Jagex in the MMO Industry
We sat down Tuesday morning to talk with the people at Jagex, the US-based company that develops the wildly popular Runescape MMO. They're a company in the midst of growing from a one-game studio to a multi-game mini-empire. Alongside the casual game service FunOrb and the newly announced in-development title Mechscape, these titles combine to portend a unique future for this Korean-inspired American company.

The company sees itself as offering a real alternative to the client-based high-end graphics experience we're used to in massive games. Join us as we chat with Jagex CEO Geoff Iddison and developer Henrique Olifiers about the newest update to the game and the future of Jagex as an organization.

Jagex has been around since 2001, and despite that the company considers itself very much 'in startup mode'. The company was build around Runescape as the flagship product, which itself is built on a browser-based technology that the company uses across its games.

The biggest news out of Jagex of late is Runescape HD, a brand-new and updated look to the previously somewhat primitive graphics presentation. It was developed over a period of 18 months, and the company sees it as an incredibly important step for the company. When we asked them about why a graphics upgrade was required at this point in time, the response was simply "timing". Jagex sees itself as playing the graphics game in the opposite direction of companies like Funcom. Instead of 'future proofing' their game by making the system requirements as high as possible, the team aims for a different sweet spot. They aim for the point where technology is as widespread as possible, which is why the HD initiative is only happening now. Every computer released today will have some kind of 3D rendering component , thus making it the right time to explore that realm.

Most interestingly, Iddison claimed that their technology is future proof in 'the other direction' as well. They have the option to completely change the backend elements behind the scenes, with little downloading holding up the players. If they wanted to, they claim, they could make a seamless upgrade with almost no one the wiser.

The folks behind the game are tremendously proud of it, and happily rattle off numbers showing the game's success. The game has had roughly six million active players over the last month, with about a million subscribers at the moment. They release new content for the title regularly every two weeks, and charge about five dollars for the membership privileges. They see themselves as 'best in class' for browser based games, and that the rest of the industry will eventually go in this direction. IE: they've beaten the crowd to the punch. 135 million accounts have been created in the game since it was released, making it in Iddison's words, "the biggest MMO by far."

The developers feel very strongly that player feedback has aided them in making the game what it is today. The game's two week patch cycle allows them to make quick improvements to the title. The HD change brought about some strange graphical tweaks, for example, and Jagex was able to act on those immediately when they were determined to be of concern.

The game's business model is almost singular in the United States, combining the best of subscriptions, free-to-play elements, and browser-based gaming. They view the model as the purest form of getting players into the game. They're constantly looking to get the title into new areas of the world, including emerging markets, and the no-pay model is an ideal way to get their offering into the right hands. They view the business model as a form of defense as well, allowing them some degree of shielding. If anyone else wants to enter the browser-based MMO space, they'll need to match the Runescape price of 'free' in order to compete. They also are considering, behind the scenes, the possibility of adding some microtransactions to the game at some point in the future.

When asked about comparisons to companies like Nexon, and other Korean free-to-play offerings, the Jagex folks see the need for a client as a defining element. They have what they refer to as the ultimate in portability. If you want to play Runescape in a new location, it's as simple as firing up a web browser. "That's a competitive edge we have no plans to move away from."

We noted that there are only a few MMO developers at E3 this week, and asked why Jagex was one of them. They replied that, in fact, this is the first press event like this they've attended. They have a lot to 'cry about', as they put it, and wanted to be sure to sing its praises. "We think we have a strong product, and a fundamental improvement to the product that addresses a lot of the concerns we've heard about it prior to today."

Make sure to check out the few words we wrestled out of them about Mechscape, and their insight into the FunOrb project.
Did you enjoy this? Check out all of our E3 coverage as the week rolls forward, and stay tuned for more on DC Universe Online!
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