With RuneScape developer Jagex announcing that it now has one million subcribers to the $5/month browser-based MMO, Gamasutra conducted a rare interview with Jagex co-founder and lead developer Andrew Gower about the UK-based firm's stealth success.
An official release announcing the one million figure notes that the firm "...has attracted popularity across the globe with strong subscriber communities in the United States, United Kingdom, Canada, Australia and Scandinavia." Jagex also recently launched a new German-language RuneScape beta.
The web browser-based RuneScape, for which the core audience is estimated to be from 14-24, is free in its basic, ad-supported version. However, players need to pay a subscription fee in order to receive the majority of the game updates, access to the full extent of the game world, and the ability to post to the official forums.
With a recent survey claiming that Jagex's RuneScape is the number two-grossing MMO title worldwide, we quizzed Gower about the genesis of the title, how the firm has got to one million subscribers without making a big splash in the mainstream game biz, and the company's plans for the future.
How did RuneScape start, and how has the game evolved over time?
Andrew Gower: I've always been into writing games, and have been making games since I was 7 - I played Dungeons & Dragons with my dad and brothers.
When I went to university, I discovered text-based MUDs, or multi-user dungeons. I loved the fact that these sorts of games had all these players playing at once - even when you were not playing, the world carried on without you. Because of this, I began creating my own text-based MUD, but I quickly realized that with so many of them out there, there was no way that mine would ever get noticed. So I began to search for a way to make mine stand out, and the obvious way, of course, was to add graphics.
With my game, I was trying to emulate text MUDs at the time, purely as a hobby. I worked on it on and off over a number of years...and I believe I started from scratch 3 or 4 times. I finally launched a version of the game after a left university in 2001. The basic plan was to run it for free, but to pay for my hobby through advertising. However, when the dot com bubble began to collapse, advertising dried up, and there was no way to pay for the game's server.
This was really unfortunate because just the week before I had got 3 big servers for the game, and now was left with no way to pay for them. I began asking players for donations, but quickly decided that this was not the best way to go about it - to rely on people's sympathy.
This is how the members thing came about, with awarding premium items for members. Of course, when you begin to have people pay for things, things become quite a bit more complicated than they did when things were free, and I realized that I needed a proper commercial side of things in order to run it as a business.
At this point I was quite desperate, because I couldn't afford to keep up with the game, and without funding, all of the previous work would have gone down the drain. And it wasn't as if we were offering a lot for subscribers, maybe 10 percent on top of the original game.
Basically what we did was calculate how many people we'd need to keep going, and came up with 5000. Thankfully, we managed to get like 2000 subscribers in the first hour, and had our 5000 in the first week. Once we had people paying, we were able to reinvest back into the game. The more we invested, the faster it grew.
What do you feel has been the biggest differentiating factor behind RuneScape's popularity in making it to the one million subscriber milestone?
AG: I think one of the biggest things is the game's continual updates. We're constantly adding to the game, bringing new stuff in and improving it. It's interesting, but with each addition, we see surges of growth.
We saw a huge surge with our recent addition of player houses, and again with our recent graphics update. The fact that we keep updating it, adding more to the experience, I think is key. Plus, people like having things to look forward to.
Do you plan on using the same underlying engine going forward - are there newer ones in the works?
AG: We plan to continue to use this same engine. We have been very pleased with the technology we've used with RuneScape, and we'll continue to develop future products and games using this same engine.
Are the game's demographics shifting over time as it grows in size – is it skewing younger or older?
AG: We don't actually collect any demographic information on our users. We're actually more focused on our product than marketing, so it's hard to say. Some of the users believe that our game is played more by younger players, but I'm not entirely convinced that that is true. It might just be the fact that the younger players are more vocal, while more adult players play quieter and keep to themselves.
AG: Ah, well, it's a fairly recent relationship, but of course advertising revenue is a very important part of what we we are doing. Advertising was originally our only revenue source, and these ads basically allow us to run the free version of the game. With the free version, we basically break even, but of course this version is very important to us as it brings in new players and introduces more people to the game.
As far as WildTangent goes, they are doing a pretty good job. They are better than some of the other companies we've work with, which served up generic advertisements. WildTangent actually goes out and servers up ads that are targeted to our players.
What are Jagex's plans are for the future? Does the company plan to stick with browser-based MMOs, or is it ever looking to expand in other ways?
AG: We are quite happy with the online space, but always looking to diversify. As it stands, we don't want to move away from our strengths too much, especially since everything we have done up to this point has been engineered to support this one type of product.