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Jagex launched its RuneScape massively multiplayer online role-playing game in 2001, and 17 years later, the free-to-play fantasy game is still going strong. The game has been played by more than 250 million people, and it has undergone two major upgrades. In 2013, it release Old School RuneScape to keep original fans happy, and it created a fork that focused on more modern gameplay. A mobile version is coming this year.

In 2016, Cambridge, England-based Jagex was acquired by a Chinese company, Hongtou, which was then purchased by Zhonghi Holding, later renamed Fukong Interactive Entertainment. After all of that financial maneuvering, the company went quiet. Phil Mansell, a longtime employee, became CEO of the company in early 2017, and he kept his head down to focus on remaking both Jagex and RuneScape.

He surfaced at the Game Developers Conference (GDC) in San Francisco to talk more about the focus on RuneScape as not just a live game but a “living game” with an endless open-world story, meaningful social experiences, player empowerment, and a world that stays vibrant. Here’s an edited transcript of our interview.

Above: Jagex CEO Phil Mansell.

Image Credit: Dean Takahashi

GamesBeat: How are things going for the company?

Phil Mansell: They’re going very well. We’re a year into our reboot at the moment. Part what we’re doing at GDC is starting to talk with partners or peers within the industry about what we’re doing, laying the groundwork for where we’re taking the company.

We went through a bit of a reset at the beginning of last year. The ownership changed hands in 2016, and when that finished — I’d run a lot of the company for a few years, and I was promoted to the CEO position at the beginning of last year. It was a great opportunity. Our board of directors asked us what we wanted to do with the company. It wasn’t imposed on us. The question was, what do we want Jagex to be in the future? What do we want to stand for and build for in the future?

We thought a lot about the things that we’re good at, things we’ve done with the RuneScape games, lots of things we’ve done with our community engagement and empowerment. We’ve run very contemporary live operations with our development and marketing teams. All of our games have been around for quite a long time. We thought about this, as well as what’s going on in the rest of the industry, and tried to find a pairing.

One thing that fascinated me the most was the relationship in supply and demand behaviors between publishers and players. On the publisher side, games have become much more expensive to make. As each year goes on, it costs more to acquire users. You need a counterweight to that. You need more revenue coming in if you’re going to spend more making a game. That’s where live services has come from and why that has so much momentum.

The other side of it was what players wanted. We’ve been in these sorts of games for a long time, and we’ve seen the virtues. Players like to attain mastery of what they’re playing, become part of a community, make friends. There are all these positive experiences they get from certain types of community-based online games.

Above: RuneScape on mobile.

Image Credit: Jagex

GamesBeat: How did you go about this?

Mansell: We asked ourselves, “Our specialty is in live games. How relevant is that to where the industry’s going?” We thought it’s phenomenally relevant because if both publishers and players benefit from this increase in live games and free-to-play and that kind of thing, then it’s only going to continue and accelerate. We were in the right place, but we needed to make sure we could stay competitive and have something unique and special to offer and focus our company around.

What came out of this was, we did a lot of workshops with our staff. We wanted them to be part of the process. We came up with the statement that we wanted to be among the best in the world at making and publishing live games. We wanted to push the boundaries of them. We didn’t want to just do live games. We wanted to do living games. That’s the statement of intent, wanting to set an ambition for ourselves to keep pushing forward and not just be happy with the status quo.

We’ve done various bits of innovation in our pocket of the market. We’re doing influencer engagement and interactive community live streams. We’re doing real-life events. We were pretty early with where some of this stuff has gone. We were early with some esports stuff. We wanted to make sure we understood what was most special for players about this sort of super-live game, so we could continue to push those boundaries.

People talk about these kinds of games and ask, “What’s the difference between a living game and just a live game?”

We have five criteria, things we do quite well at ourselves and things we saw looking around the industry. What are the best online games publishers and developers doing? Having a clear design sense to make a game evergreen in its structure and its mechanics. We’ve been running RuneScape for 17 years. We’ve learned our lessons the hard way. If you want a game that can be played almost indefinitely and that you can update every week, that’s very challenging. You need to make sure it doesn’t become repetitive or become too complicated with all these things you’re adding to it to keep it fresh. That’s a design discipline in itself.

Above: RuneScape has more than 200 million players to date.

Image Credit: Jagex

GamesBeat: How do you tell open-ended stories?

Mansell: You have to have resolution and flow in narrative, but you can’t have hard stops. How do you have progression systems that are effectively indefinite but still give you meaningful progress? These are the paradigms that are actually quite challenging, but we’re lucky in that we’ve problem solved our way through some of these over time. We’ll need to again with new games we’re making.

The second area is about empowering players. The more players have a say in the game that’s being made, the more stake they feel they have in it. They feel genuine emotional investment, which means they’re happier with the game, more loyal. This also has another virtue, which is that if you genuinely listen to what players are saying, and you can adapt the game to what they’re asking for, the game itself should better reflect their preference. If you listen, you make a better product through that feedback cycle.

The third thing was about making vibrant and alive and evolving game experiences and game worlds. A lot of games, the way the levels are set out, the way they’re constructed, they are fundamentally very static. If you create something that’s more of a world — it’s more unpredictable, there are new things happening — not just event systems but the emergence you get from interesting game worlds — it’s somewhere that feels alive and feels like an exciting place to exist. Not just visit and complete a level but really immerse yourself in the game.

Updating the game, keeping it fresh and exciting, is incredibly important. When we think about that, it’s not updating every quarter. It’s updating a few times a week. That becomes a bit more like real life, with new interesting and unpredictable things happening all the time.

GamesBeat: On that topic, I remember Trion doing dynamic events in Rift, for example. They’d have a rift open up somewhere in the world, and everybody had to go patch it up. Is that the sort of thing you’re thinking of?

Mansell: Yes, it’s a very gentle step in the right direction. We think a lot more about, how do you have genuine narrative and adventure storytelling evolve on a day-to-day and week-to-week basis? You can create systemic events, and we do that as well. It helps. But they can be a bit hollow. The challenge is to change the world, add to it in a way that doesn’t feel predictable. If you do three of those events, you know what you’re in for. At that point, you need a new system, a new feature in the game to keep it interesting. That’s why I say I think it’s the right kind of thing, but there are many more steps we can take down that front.

The fourth of the five pillars in living games is meaningful social experiences, connecting players together in a meaningful way. There’s a big difference between deep social connection, where you’re in the same game world as someone else and facing perils together, problem solving, tackling opportunities together — that’s different from being auto-joined into a clan after 10 minutes where you don’t know anyone. Just seeing an asynchronous list of people on a screen. Those things are better than nothing, but they’re a long way from the genuine emotional connection a player can get with other people in the game. Not just one-to-one connections but clan connections, wider social groups. Not even just friends but rivalries and deep competition between communities. Those things make it really exciting.

And the fifth pillar is kind of an extension to that in a way, which is to take the community experience outside the game. Communities often do this themselves, but we’ve found that if we empower the players to do it, support them, and encourage them, they can be out on social media. They can be on Reddit and game forums. You can help content creators. You can give them tools and support their endeavors. That makes a big difference.

We also found that when we helped reach into the real world as well — whether it’s inviting players to our studio, organizing player meet-ups — we do a big annual fan convention. We do a lot of live streams that mesh the real world and the virtual world, whether it’s charity events or in-game activities that blur those boundaries. It means your core users can develop a really close affinity with not just the game but the community. It moves the game over a threshold from being a hobby for people into genuinely part of their lives.

We sum up our ambition as to become the home of living games, to have this as a specialty in the company. We want to be known for this in our existing games, our new games, the games we can work on with partners. We don’t want to be all things to all people but have a specialty. We can, among the next few years, become the best in the world at something.

Above: RuneScape.

Image Credit: Jagex

GamesBeat: Tell us about the business strategy.

Mansell: That’s coming into our business strategy as well. We have three prongs. The first is the most obvious, which is to continue to nurture and protect our RuneScape games. We have two games: the contemporary version, just called RuneScape, and a retro version on the code base from 11 years ago, Old School RuneScape. They both do very well. We’re going to keep building, incrementally modernizing, and innovating with those.

The big move there is to take those games on to mobile. They were browser based back in the day. We’ve moved them into client games in more recent years, modernizing the technology. Bringing them to mobile isn’t a port. It’s actually allowing players to take part in the same universe with the same accounts, the same characters, the same virtual bank accounts. They can play on PC at one moment, log off, go out for a walk, get on a bus, go to work, and then continue playing on their mobile device.

We’re in closed beta for these at the moment. We’ve had a hugely positive reception for the idea. We have 260 million registered accounts over the games’ lifetime, and as you can expect, a lot of players who used to play the game have aged out of playing PC games. But a lot of them tell us that if they can play the game on mobile, they’d love to come back. They love the world and the experience, but they’ve grown up. They have families and jobs and commutes. They can’t put five hours into an MMORPG every night.

We’re fortunate in that RuneScape is quite a flexible game. You can play for five or 10 minutes and have a rewarding experience. We think that on mobile means our existing players can play more because they can just add it into their life, or it can bring back lapsed players who resume their account from 10 years ago and learn the game again and keep playing. It also opens the door to a whole new set of players who are mobile-first gamers and didn’t play on the PC originally. We’re almost certainly going to be the first big MMORPG in the West to be on mobile, let alone be completely interoperable and have cross play between devices.