Few games from the turn of the century are still around. Sure, the Mario and Halo franchises are doing just fine, but they have done so through multiple sequels and expensive marketing budgets. The massively multiplayer online role-playing game RuneScape, however, has survived and thrived by helping to define the free-to-play business model and through dedication to community.
RuneScape is now more than 15 years old. It is a sandbox online game in which players explore a fantasy world that predates the 2004 launch of World of Warcraft. It doesn’t have a strict narrative or playstyle — instead, the Jagex development studio built a medieval environment in which players can choose to battle monsters, go on quests, or spend time with friends. In 2013, after years of updating the core RuneScape, Jagex released Old School RuneScape, which is a different fork of the game that more closely resembles its 2007 state. The studio now has more than 200 million total registered players for its games.
After providing the Old School, the company has found a way to serve nostalgic audiences while simultaneously attracting new players. This has fans, as well as Jagex itself, looking back on its history. And I interviewed Jagex chief operating officer and acting executive officer Phil Mansell to look back on where the company came from and where it is today.
The three ages of Jagex
When Mansell and the rest of Jagex talk about their history, they actually think about it in terms of a fantasy realm with distinct eras.
“We’ve gone through the three ages of our lifetime,” Mansell said in a conversation with GamesBeat. “The first age was the Founders era. The founders [Andrew and Paul Gower] were from Cambridge here in the UK. Went to the university, built their little startup around this very simple, basic online game, RuneScape that grew and grew and grew in the mid-2000s. It was one of the first western free to play games that you could find. It grew to a big expansive game you could play with a browser.”
Mansell says that RuneScape was a social network before social networks. It combined its deep role-playing systems and world-building with social gameplay. That mixture attracted a mammoth audience that was too big for the founding Jagex team to fully comprehend.
“That led into the second age of Jagex, where the Gowers sold to a venture capital, private equity firm that took the company to the next level,” said Mansell. “The company was founded in 2000. The game was released in 2001. That first age was the first nine or 10 years, with a minority investment in 2005 and then the full founder exit in 2010. They had this second age of privately held, venture capital funded, sort of looking for that second album.”
That venture-backed period was defined by the pressure the development team felt to deliver. Private equity firms aren’t looking to hold onto a business for reliable, predictable profits. Those kinds of outfits want to fatten an acquisition up with the goal of earning major money on the back end through a sale.
“The company tried lots of fairly big, risky maneuvers to get that big second album, but it had to be at least as big as RuneScape, which is a pretty big ask,” said Mansell. “Some stuff worked and some stuff didn’t.”
But the RuneScape followup never came, and the private equity owners wanted out.
“It got to a point in 2016 where one of the private-equity companies had been in for 10 years, the other two for five or six,” Mansell recalled. “They said, we’re coming toward the end of our horizon. Maybe we need to look for some new ownership. The end of that second age was, okay, the company is tidied up, we’ve stopped doing the big risky attempts at the second album, let’s clean ourselves up and get comfortable with doing RuneScape.”
Jagex was, at this point, a sturdy going concern with sustainable and high margins fueled by subscriptions and microtransactions. That attracted Chinese firm Zhongji Holdings, which is now Constructive Entertainment, to come in and acquire Jagex.
“I think of that as a the start of the third age,” said Mansell. “We’re continuing to invest in RuneScape and doing some new games here at Jagex as well. We’re also looking at expanding the company and the group of companies through investments. We can also grow organically and make smart purchases, complementary purchases and investments to supercharge Jagex. We’re not putting the wrong type of pressure through our internal studios. We’re pretty optimistic.”
The modern era
In April, Jagex released a feature-length documentary on YouTube that tells the history of RuneScape. It has more than 640,000 views.
That film tells the story of Jagex reclaiming its core mission and dedication for RuneScape in recent years, which Mansell credits for the company’s consistent growth and revenues. But Jagex’s ongoing success goes deeper than simply maintaining its foundational game.
“I know everyone says it, but I think we have a really good claim to it: We’re really the live ops specialists,” Mansell said. “We pay a huge amount of attention to our players. We genuinely obsess over what our players are doing and saying and thinking, how they’re behaving.”
When it comes to Old School RuneScape, the community is hyperinvolved. Players vote on every update and help to decide what goes into the experience.
“There’s that level of involvement and agency and empowerment for the players,” said Mansell. “Everything we do — even in our main RuneScape game, which we’ve pet-named RuneScape 3, we do player surveys.”
Jagex will ask players what content they want to see. The developer will also share its design documents, invite players on studio tours, and hold annual fan conventions.
“Like a lot of free-to-play companies, we also love our data. We love our analytics,” said Mansell. “We have a really smart data-science team. We’re taking the best of our player obsession — the softer, touchy-feely stuff around dialogue with our players and understanding them on the human level – but also understanding them on a behavioral level with our data analytics, machine learning, data science as well. By having both of those sides — the left brain, right brain approach to understanding our customers – we’ve been able to make the best decisions, tune our games, and make sure we’re giving our players what they want the most. We’re being super creative, but also quite pragmatic. That combination has worked out well for us.”
The RuneScape yet to come
The future of RuneScape and Jagex could take a number of paths, according to its CEO. One potential way is to grow RuneScape into more of an esport. The company is already working with esports organization ESL on a competition involving the MMORPG.
“People are skeptical, but we say, no, we’ve found a way to make an RPG work as an esport,” said Mansell. “We don’t mean the traditional arena endgame that some RPGs have as a tournament mode. We actually have this super accelerated high risk version of Old School RuneScape that plays out in a seasonal format, where the top 2,000 ranked players at the end of the season battle it out in the final hour in a sort of battle royale, last man standing affair. But it’s still long form gameplay.”
RuneScape’s esports events are coming to the U.S. in July. But that’s only one of Jagex’s current pursuits. The developer is also thinking about expanding Jagex to new platforms.
“We’re PC-based at the moment, but we have companion apps on mobile,” said Mansell. “We think we can do more on that front.”
The studio is even considering truly out-there gaming platforms. Jagex has already experimented with a game on Amazon’s Echo. It used the Alexa voice assistant as its input.
“We’re finding new ways of sharing the universe and our storytelling skills, spreading out on different platforms,” said Mansell.
But the real key to the future of Jagex and RuneScape is potentially traditional growth.
“We’re going international as well,” said Mansell. “Having been acquired by a Chinese-owned gaming group, we’re obviously the western hub of that, but we also want to expand ourselves in Asia as well. We’re looking at new regions and new platforms, as well as enriching the games we already have.”
And after all of that, we’ll try to catch up with Jagex and RuneScape in another 15 years.