It takes guts to scrap a year’s worth of game development and start again from scratch. But that’s exactly what U.K. developer Jagex did back in 2011 with the upcoming free-to-play PC title Transformers Universe.

And now, chief executive officer Mark Gerhard told me Jagex has created something worthy of the Transformers license that’s accessible enough for a 10 year old to pick up and play while being challenging enough for players of competitive online strategy games like League of Legends and Dota 2.

Watching footage at a recent hands-off preview event revealed one side of Transformers Universe: a fast, but also tactical, player-versus-player (PvP) battlefront where bots could transform instantly, race across a 3D map, snipe, heal, shoot lasers, and swing hammers. Choosing which of your Transformer army — all of which Jagex, in collaboration with Hasbro, created especially for the game — you send into battle next is vital in these encounters. But that’s only one aspect of a game that Gerhard says is designed to be a lifestyle.

Definitely not Runescape in robot suits

Jagex chief executive officer Mark Gerhard.

Above: Jagex chief executive officer Mark Gerhard.

Image Credit: Jagex

Jagex is best known for creating the massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG) Runescape. Spanning 13 years and with more than 220 million registered accounts, Runescape made Jagex “domain experts of medieval fantasy MMORPG,” Gerhard told me in an interview after the preview screening.

Having teamed up with Transformers maker Hasbro, everyone naturally expected Jagex “to do Runescape in a robot suit,” said Gerhard. “And that’s actually in truth where we started. We spent a good year on that,” he continued.

But, a year into development, the group decided to start over. “We knew we could do more,” said Gerhard. “We were capable of better.”

Changing the game so fundamentally was a tough call, and Gerhard says that “a lot of people pulled their hair out.” Transformers Universe was no longer an MMORPG; it’s instead what Jagex describes as a massively online tactical action (MOTA) game with competitive and cooperative elements — borrowing mechanics from here and there but creating a whole that offers something unique.

Two years down the line, Gerhard speaks proudly of what Jagex created in Transformers Universe, and the company has big ambitions for the game.

Building a gaming institution

The timing of Transformers Universe’s summer 2014 release couldn’t be much better, given the latest live-action movie — directed by Michael Bay and starring Mark Wahlberg — hits movie theaters around the same time.

But that isn’t a key factor for the game, according to Gerhard. “We build institutions,” he said. “And that’s how we’ve approached this game. We want to build something that’s not just hot for 2014. For us this is a multi-decade license.”

The Transformers brand’s longevity was a huge factor in Jagex’s decision to work with Hasbro. “We picked Transformers, and I think Hasbro picked us to the same extent because we were looking for a brand that was evergreen,” said Gerhard. “I could probably count on one hand evergreen brands that I played with as a kid, and my kids are now playing with,” he added, naming Lego and Transformers in the same breath.

“Runescape has been going for nearly 15 years, and it’s become a multigenerational thing. I look at Transformers with that same lens.”

Hasbro has approved all the new Transformers created by Jagex.

Above: Hasbro has approved all the new Transformers created by Jagex. Meet Mismatch.

Image Credit: Jagex

Casual gaming vs. e-sports

Gerhard says that the PvP side of Transformers Universe, shown to us at the preview event, is very competitive, referring to it as “almost e-sports worthy.”

“I can play this game and be very challenged,” said Gerhard. But, at the same time, “I would also feel very comfortable with my 10 year old playing it, and playing with him, as I do Runescape.”

Creating a game that can support both casual and competitive players is a tough ask, but Jagex feels the range of game modes in Transformers Universe can do just that. Part of this is the PvP matchmaking system, which joins up people of similar experience and ability levels.

In addition to the PvP element, the game will offer a player-versus-environment mode (PvE), which works cooperatively or solo, playing against computer-controlled enemies. This initially serves as a training mode and an introduction to the game but offers enough content in its own right, according to Transformers Universe vice president David Nicholson.

Teamwork and tactics will be key to success in Transformers Universe. Brute force might help at times, though.

Above: Teamwork and tactics will be key to success in Transformers Universe. Brute force might help at times, though.

Image Credit: Jagex

Nicholson shared his thoughts about PvE in a developer roundtable session, saying he thinks of it as the “lean back” version of Transformers Universe — more relaxed than the “lean forward” PvP encounters where intense concentration is everything.

“I wanted us to make a hobby,” said Nicholson. “So anyone can pick this up. A 10-year-old kid who’s not that good at gaming can run around and will be doing damage, will be knocking out Terracons [man-made weapons designed to fight off the Transformers].

“But also, if you’ve just transitioned off DOTA or League of Legends, you can drop in and go, ‘I get it. I understand that.’”

The third, currently less clear, element to Transformers Universe is what Gerhard calls a “persistent synchronous world,” which will “allow other devices to stretch the game.” Gerhard mentioned the potential of companion apps for the title, but he remained tight-lipped about precise details.

As for Jagex’s e-sports ambitions, David Nicholson told me: “I don’t think it’s right for a company, unless you’re very, very laser-focused on that … to say you have ambitions for e-sports. I think the community’s going to tell us if this is an e-sports game.” With a spectator mode in place, however, some of the groundwork has already been done.

Balancing microtransactions

With any free-to-play title comes the sometimes thorny issue of microtransactions.

Gerhard said that Jagex drew on its Runescape experience to help manage this. “We try to modulate that very carefully to protect the integrity of the game but still offer people choice,” he said.

According to Gerhard, Transformers Universe is not a pay-to-win title. It simply offers a tradeoff between time and money.

Everything you can buy in the experience you can also earn with game time, according to Gerhard. The in-game currency is Energon, which trickles into your base. Players can also earn it through PvP games, PvE scenarios, or they can buy extra Energon directly.

Gerhard said, “If I think of my 10 year old, he has all the time in the world. He would play a lot. Through his play he would be able to earn, effectively, what I could buy. If I’m lucky, I’ll get one hour in the evening between work and everything else, and I’m very happy to kind of accelerate certain parts of my gameplay. Not buying powers — buying commodities that my son would have accumulated through play.”

Transformers Universe will have a range of PvP and PvE modes.

Above: Transformers Universe will have a range of PvP and PvE modes.

Image Credit: Jagex

Crossing gaming platforms

With talk of potential companion apps, I wondered whether Transformers Universe will be playable on platforms other than PC. “I think so,” said Gerhard.

Taking care not to give too much away, he expanded on this: “What I would say is, again, just like Runescape, the entire game is in the cloud. We do a lot of clever stuff to make it feel like it’s delivered locally, but absolutely everything’s being done on the server. Your laptop is just doing controller input, audio, and graphics rendering. Nothing else. Therefore, it’s actually quite lightweight, and we can take it to lots of other exciting places.”

“Right now, we look at some of the other platforms as a utility that augments the game. The next jump would be the game. Then, the delicate balancing of how to ensure that different platforms are still competitive with each other. Because we want to have one community. One global universe.”

“There’s work being done,” Gerhard added.

Jagex has created an entire new line-up of Transformers for the game.

Above: Different Transformers will appear in different seasons of the game.

Image Credit: Jagex

Stay tuned

The concept of television shows and seasons cropped up a lot during the preview. Mark Gerhard said that with Runescape Jagex sees itself as a broadcaster as much as a game developer: “There’s new content every week, new challenges. We do our best to continue to delight and surprise our players.”

These same ideas, which ultimately support player engagement, will apply to Transformers Universe.

“If we were making an HBO TV show, we’ve just finished the first season,” said chief creative officer Alex Horton at the start of the preview.

Gerhard also pointed out that the game would be very episodic in terms of story content, much like Breaking Bad and similar shows. He dropped some hints on what we might see in later seasons. “We want to literally put the universe in Transformers,” he told me. “We want to take this to space. We want to go back in time. There are some amazing things we have planned. We’re going to start flying. We’re going to do some very cool things.”

He’s hoping that plenty of gamers, across a broad spectrum, are coming along for the ride. “There’s a certain psychographic that just says it’s cool,” he said. “And we are that psychographic. We like kick-ass robots who transform and blow stuff up.”

This is part one of our Transformers Universe preview. To read about balancing the game, creating new Transformers, toy lines, and legendary Transformers, go here.

More information:

Hasbro, Inc. (NASDAQ: HAS) is a branded play company dedicated to fulfilling the fundamental need for play for children and families through the creative expression of the Company's world class brand portfolio, including TRANSFORMERS, ... read more »

agex Games Studio is a multi-award winning games developer based in Cambridge, England. The studio has a long-standing reputation for developing hugely popular, accessible, free-to-play games and for providing an unbeatable community e... read more »

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