UK-based developer-publisher Jagex is best known for its sleeper hit MMO, the Java-based RuneScape. Though it lacks the hefty graphics and complex mechanics of other comparable products, RuneScape claims some 6 million users, due in part to the fact the game employed the free-to-play business model before many others got on board the emerging trend.
Now, the company's planning a new online gaming service through which they hope to continue that winning streak, and Gamasutra gets the full details from Jagex development head Mark Faulkner, with help from corporate communications head Niall O'Malley.
Courting The 'Hard Casual'
The new service, FunOrb, will be an online portal that Jagex hopes will build on RuneScape's success with both the "hard casual" gamer and with non-traditional business models. Faulkner explains, "The terminology I like is 'time-pressured gamer.' It's not really the casual marketplace."
The Jagex team still considers their accessible, browser-based MMO somewhat of a "casual" product, despite its swords and sorcery. And, according to O'Malley, the accessibility trend is broad-reaching. "There's been a sea change in the industry in the way everyone's regarding different genres of gamers and the way in which people spend spare time," he noted.
O'Malley refers to RuneScape's audience as precisely that "hard casual" crowd - combining the desire for accessibility and low barrier to entry with enjoyment of complex, more traditional gameplay mechanics, the very demographic Jagex is targeting with the launch of FunOrb in February 2008.
Like RuneScape, all of the FunOrb games will be browser-based, using the same type of Java compression that Jagex uses to make RuneScape a fast download. Faulkner explains that endowing more complex games with that same kind of instant accessibility is a priority for FunOrb. "It's not like services on the internet, who offer a large volume of content but not much depth," He says. "We're really trying to focus on depth we provide the end user."
Continues Faulkner, "Each game, you can really spend time playing, if that's what you want to do. We want to give players the ability to just dip in on a five minute lunch break. But if they have two or three hours, they'll also find plenty of things to do that will be great fun. We're looking at the sort of game that five, six or seven years ago, they would have been putting in a box and selling on retail shelves. With the new technology, we can deliver this through the browser. Easily, there are 10 to 15 hours worth of solid gameplay really aimed more at the hardcore gaming market. We also like to think there's something for everybody."
Jagex also plans to continue with the free-to-play business model for FunOrb. Users can log on for free, Faulkner says, and have access to about 40 percent of the site's content. Initial levels, for example, are available to all players, who then have the option of paying a monthly fee -- $3.00 per month - to access the full content. And consistent with the focus on emerging trends and increased accessibility, Jagex is also planning a community focus on the site, adding forums and social networking, in-game chat, and leaderboards.
This low-priced subscription model is one O'Malley says has brought success for RuneScape -- some 1 million of RuneScape's users are paying subscribers, while the free userbase is monetized via ad revenue.
Focus On Community
"There's a huge element of community focus," O'Malley says. "It's something that's becoming more and more expected and important with the likes of Facebook and MySpace." The increased community focus means more multiplayer-focused games, too, although there will also be single-player experiences available.
"Our technology is designed around enabling multiplayer," Faulkner adds. "But there will be a number of single-player games. "It's all about generating the gaming community and enabling gamers to go to FunOrb to find their friends, be able to interact and talk, and play games. We'll be populating the service more and more with new features as time goes on."
Hearkening back to the team's background in developing Java minigames - the company name, "Jagex," means "Java gaming experts," Faulkner says the team will be working on "High-spec games with short loading times, using our tested java compression technology. Which means any PC, whether at the library or office or home, can log on and be part of the community. We're expecting tens of thousands in the first few months, we've a dedicated team improving multiplayer features, and we'll be adding a few games every month."
A few games every month? Among all of these emergent player trends that Jagex is addressing - accessibility, social focus, and the free-to-play business model - there's yet another on which FunOrb is hinging its success. Perhaps somewhat ambitiously, Jagex plans to keep the site's content fresh on an episodically regular basis, aiming to add one new game every two weeks, to be precise, building on the 18 titles with which FunOrb plans to launch.
"We reckon they represent about 50 hours of solid gameplay if you know exactly what you're doing," says Faulkner. "We design all our games for multiple repeat playability." The Jagex team hopes that the achievement-based community focus will also help engage users. By meeting certain criteria, players can earn a special designating prestige icon, "orb points" or "orb coins." The points help build a player's global high score and standing on the leaderboard.
As for the Orb Coins, they can be used to purchase customizable items, different avatars, color schemes and wallpapers. Though these types of small vanity items suggest a microtransactions-based business model, O'Malley says there are no plans at this time to implement such a feature for FunOrb, meaning the Orb Coins can only be earned through play. To help monetize the site, Jagex says all players will be exposed to some advertising - paying subscribers will see less ads on the site and none at all during gameplay itself.
Can Jagex find the same surprise success with the FunOrb portal using the take-aways from RuneScape's proliferation? Jagex is planning for a high user volume. And just as the team's veteran Java developers are heading back to their roots, they hope that, by offering accessibility, a social experience and modern business models, former hardcore casual gamers with less time for gameplay these days will return to theirs by getting engaged with FunOrb.