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Jagex: Developers Need To Understand 'The DNA Of Sociability'

At the Gamasutra-attended Edinburgh Interactive conference today, Jagex CEO Mark Gerhard discussed the multiplayer revolution, noting that hit title Runescape used viral growth rather than real marketing.

August 12, 2011

5 Min Read

Author: by Phill Cameron

Do you know Jagex? How about Runescape? It's a browser-based MMO that's had over 130 million players since its launch in 2001. That's over 10 times as large of World of Warcraft. Jagex is at the Gamasutra-attended Edinburgh Interactive conference, to talk about "The Multiplayer Revolution," a revolution that, from the company's perspective, must've seemed more like a coup, and one that was executed with a finesse that's placed them in a world-record holding position of the number one free to play game in the world. "An MMO isn't just a game," begins CEO of Jagex, Mark Gerhard. "It's a living, breathing community. It's a world." I'd go one step further. I'd say that an MMO is less a world and more a gateway into meeting and cementing the relationships that exist within that space. That social aspect, where people are driven to play the game not because the game itself is compelling, necessarily, but because their friends are there, is why this is a revolution and not merely a feature on the back of a box. "Yes, people come for the entertainment experience, but they also come to socialize with their friends," Gerhard continues. "That's why they stay." It's one of the reasons Runescape has been so wildly successful. At any one time, Gerhard claims, there's a hundred or so people in the game lobby, just chatting. That's a lobby that's not even part of the game, just somewhere to while away the minutes before you can get into the game proper. But people are staying there, when they could be playing, just to talk. "Until a year ago, everything we'd done was organic, viral growth. We didn't have a marketing team. Our players build the company, our players built the community." That's incredible, and it ties into the ideas flying around about gamification yesterday, although this is altogether more wholesome and pleasant. While Runescape may have been one of only a handful of MMOs 10 years ago, now there are thousands, all of them trying to snag players, hooking them in with an entire toolset of different attention traps. Despite all this, only a small number are truly successful, and Gerhard tries to pin down exactly why that is. And it's not because the games themselves are necessarily bad. "You have to understand the DNA of sociability. You can't just buy it. You need to implement the tools in a relevant way to your content." Which, as you might think, means talking to your community. And being prepared when they don't do entirely what you expect. In fact, when your players are subverting your expectations, that's one of the most encouraging things you can see, claims Gerhard. "The biggest spike in traffic we had was when we updated with player-owned housing. There's a lesson there, in allowing virtual worlds space for expression from the players. It wasn't about allowing players to build houses, it was allowing them to have a social space to share with their friends." At this point, Minecraft looms up on the projector, an infinitely recursive Mario and Luigi playing Mario and Luigi playing Mario and Luigi... a giant mural that exists purely because a player wanted it to, wanted to take a picture that went on to become viral. Minecraft isn't an MMO, but it's at its best when it's multiplayer. "If you can take self expression and user generated content and make it mass market, that's scary. That's terrifying for me," Continues Gerhard. I don't think it's genuine terror he's feeling. The intonation in his voice hints that it's more akin to awe than anything, the possibilities so overwhelming that he's barely able to cope. Hyperbole aside, Minecraft, and to a lesser extent Terraria, are picking up where Second Life dropped the ball, by providing something that was accessible as well as expressive. Gerhard's right, though, the possibilities are overwhelming, and, as he himself admits, "the MMO space is still very uncharted in so many aspects." "I think everyone recognizes that we're going online, that multiplayer is a very important factor." He claims that they took Runescape to the consoles, did all the development work to make it compatible before showing it to Sony and Microsoft, only to be told by the latter that they couldn't allow their users to interact with PlayStation users. And so Runescape isn't going to be making an appearance on Xbox. They don't want to fragment their community for the sake of a few million users. A few million. What's a few million to a hundred million or so, right? Throughout the talk, there's an impression that Jagex are pioneers, as cliche as that might sound. They did something that hadn't been done before, and their policy of weekly content updates has ensured that they are continuing to slip into uncharted territory. They've made mistakes in the past, and Gerhard admits that "today, there are thousands of medieval fantasy browser MMOs. We can't make the mistakes as we did in the past. Our player base would hemorrhage." That's the advantage of being a pioneer. You can afford risks. Still, that doesn't mean they're safe. "At the end we're all competing for the same thing: people's time." That's why they build these communities. That's why multiplayer is becoming such a big thing. Keeping your players playing your game, beyond what the game itself inherently compels. You're still playing Call of Duty because your friends are. You're still playing World of Warcraft because your guild needs you to raid. The best thing you can do, as a developer, is have a community that relies on itself to play the game. That's why multiplayer is rising so very quickly to the forefront of gaming. Games are other people.

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