In the Transformers war, it’s Autobots versus Decepticons. Two sides, one battle. But balancing an online game — based on a 30-year-old toy, comic, and movie franchise — where players make such a defining choice is tough.

At a recent preview event in London, Jagex revealed its vision for Transformers Universe, a free-to-play online game that pits teams of players against each other in fast, frantic but tactical combat across a range of maps and terrains. With competitive and cooperative elements in place, the developer hopes it will appeal to both hardcore and casual gamers.

Jagex chief executive officer Mark Gerhard told GamesBeat that the two-team nature of Transformers Universe has been the subject of much internal debate, sharing his plans for balancing and letting us in to a secret or two in the process.

Autobots versus Decepticons

“I think Hasbro would say that it’s almost a religious choice,” said Gerhard, during an interview after the preview screening. “You’re either a Decepticon or an Autobot.”

At first, Jagex thought that player balance would favor Optimus Prime’s side. “Conventional wisdom would say everyone wants to be an Autobot, because they’re the good guys,” said Gerhard. “Maybe 70-30.“

But what they’ve actually found, from players signing up to join the closed beta test, is the opposite. “What we discovered is that the bad-ass Decepticons are pretty cool, and actually there seems to be almost like an edge or a tone to it. We’re worried it’s going to be 60-40 in favor of Decepticons”

So, if there are significantly more players on one team signed up, what’s that going to look like for players?

Gerhard explained that battle times  — the time you’re waiting to join a game — will help balance this. “Say right now the battle time for an Autobot is 1 minute and 7 seconds — a Decepticon might be 49 seconds,” said Gerhard. “Or something like that.”

Jagex won’t know actual player distributions this summer’s launch. “It’ll be very cool at the end of the day to see what the number are,” said Gerhard. “My instincts are Decepticons will be slightly more popular.”

Transformers Universe is a free-to-play title due out  summer 2014.

Above: Transformers Universe is a free-to-play game due out this summer.

Image Credit: Jagex

For players who don’t approach Transformers with such religious fervor, Gerhard explained they will have an option to switch sides.

“There is a wall that you can climb over to be both sides,” he said. “Were not going to lock you in one forever.”

“It’s a high wall,” he added, “but I think a lot of people keep climbing it because you’re going to want to play on both sides.”

Gerhard wouldn’t go into detail about the team-switching process and whether it was time or experience limited. “You can swap over, but were not offering it as a choice every time,” was all he would say.

Gerhard himself signed up as an Autobot commander initially, but he has played the beta mostly as a Decepticon tank. He didn’t clarify if this was a tank in the literal or metaphorical sense. “Maybe I’m one of those guys that crosses over to both sides,” he said.

Building two Transformer armies

Transformers Universe vice president David Nicholson.

Above: Transformers Universe vice president David Nicholson.

Image Credit: Jagex

The core concept in Transformers Universe is that you’re a commander, tasked with deploying and controlling a squad of Transformers. Jagex chief creative officer Alex Horton likened it to a trading card game, where you’re collecting the best selection of bots that you can get. Choosing which Transformer to send into battle at any one point will be key to success.

“Different bots have different roles,” explained Transformers Universe vice president David Nicholson in a round table session. “Really, you want to have a stable full of bots that can cover any scenario,” he said. Or, if you prefer, you can take one type of bot — say, a healing type — and collect together different bots of that one type.

“You start with a small number of bots that we give you,” Nicholson said. “As you progress, through going out and completing some of the battles, or doing well in battles, we’ll reward you with in-game currency [Energon].” Players can earn Energon in solo or cooperative modes as well as in player-versus-player battles, or they can buy it with real money.

You can then buy individual bots with Energon or use it to improve an existing bot. “You don’t unlock them on specific achievements,” said Nicholson, “… apart from very, very special bots later on.”

Jagex has created all the original Transformers featured in the game — such as Duststorm, Firebreaker, and Showdown — from scratch, working closely with brand owner Hasbro.

“The IP [intellectual property] has been going for the last 30 years,” said art director Gerard Miley, pointing out that Jagex was free to draw on the entire range of Transformer generations for inspiration. “Universe is a key word,” he added, while also noting the key influence of the Transformers Prime animated television series. “The DNA of Prime is in our game,” he said.

Hasbro has no Transformers manual to use when creating a new bot, “so it’s really just studying the visual language of it,” said Miley. “Using clever shapes and a little bit of trickery to get the transformations working.”

“Each one’s got its own unique back story and great transformation,” Nicholson said. Each also has a “big show-off move,” unique weapons, and different special abilities, he explained.

“The variety of bots from a visual perspective is very important,” Miley said. “You’ve got the vehicles but they represent their personalities. Their personalities represent their combat style, and so on.”

The legendary Transformers Optimus Prime and Megatron will be playable in the Transformers Universe.

Above: The legendary Transformers Optimus Prime and Megatron will be playable in Transformers Universe.

Image Credit: Hub Network

The legendary Transformers

Neither Miley nor Nicholson would put a figure on the number of playable Transformers we’d see at launch this summer, only willing to put it at somewhere between 10 and a hundred.

Right now, all the Transformers are land-based, but that’s not all Jagex has in store. “You’ve got little fast male and female bikes,” said Miley, “then you’ve got trucks and cars, then you can go even bigger again — we haven’t shown a snip of what we’re doing.”

While Miley and Nicholson wouldn’t reveal any further details, Mark Gerhard wasn’t so coy. “We’re going to start flying,” he said. “We’re going to do some really cool things. [But] not all that’s going to be ready by summer.”

“We will also be featuring your legendary Transformers,” Gerhard told me, “like Optimus [Prime], Bumblebee, [and] Megatron, into the game itself.”

When I asked him if they’d be part of the story, and not playable characters, Gerhard was quite clear. “They’ll be playable, too,” he revealed.

Hasbro is bringing the new Transformers Universe creations to toy stores.

Above: Hasbro is bringing the new Transformers Universe creations to toy stores.

Image Credit: Jagex

From screen to toy store

Working so closely with Hasbro has yielded some great cross-promotion opportunities for Transformers Universe.

“It’s been a tremendous relationship,” said Gerhard. “They’ve been really blown away by how we’ve paid homage to the brand.”

With that in mind, Gerhard told me that Hasbro “has taken a number of bots we’ve created and turned them into a toy line.”

The toys won’t interact with the game, as we’ve seen with titles like Skylanders and Disney Infinity, but their presence on toy store shelves will be a great boost to the Transformers Universe brand as well as vindicating the quality of Jagex’s original Transformer designs.

While Hasbro itself is “superkeen” to promote the game on this toy line, Gerhard is wary that most of the people who buy the toys are quite young. He wants the game itself to be well received within the industry and with older gamers before leveraging the “extra footfall” that the toy line would create. “I think it’s a fantastic enhancer,” he said.

What’s been revealed of Transformers Universe so far backs up Alex Horton’s claim that this is “not just another licensed game to go on the bonfire of licensed games.” Indeed, Jagex is hoping that it will be around for the next ten years or more. “Everything we’re doing,” said Gerhard, “the lore we’re creating, is to set up the next decade”

This is part two of our Transformers Universe preview. To read about e-sports potential, microtransactions, and crossing gaming platforms, go here.