Jagex CEO Phil Mansell on taking Runescape mobile and the advent of living games
The Cambridge Science Park company has ambitious growth plans and is working on a next-generation title
Phil Mansell is clearly enjoying what is pretty much his perfect job.
“I’m incredibly fortunate,” he says. “I love online games, fantasy worlds and role-playing games. I’m extremely lucky that I got to run Runescape for a number of years and now I get to run the company.”
Runescape, Jagex’s flagship online role-playing game, has attracted more than 250 million players during its illustrious 17-year history and counts its players each month in the millions.
Phil has had hands-on roles in its ever-evolving development during his six years at Jagex and was appointed chief executive officer in January last year, following the sale of the Cambridge Science Park company to Chinese owners in 2016.
As a fan and a player of Runescape though, surely he’s tempted to suggest ideas for its development still?
“I try not to – seagull management is not great!” he replies. “I might occasionally suggest an idea but the designers working on our games really know what’s best.
“In a management role, where people don’t say no to you quite as much, you have to keep a level head. A lot of ideas come from the players as well.”
Having held posts including lead designer, executive producer and vice president of studios, stepping into the CEO’s shoes left by Rod Cousens was a natural step for Phil.
“It’s been a challenge but a really good one,” he says. “We’re very fortunate as a company. We are in a very good place. We have long-standing games titles that are still doing really well.
“Normally people expect that if you launch a new movie, book or whatever, there’s a spike of interest and then it tails off. Our games went through that 10 or 15 years ago. But in the last five years we’ve had a renaissance with our games.
“We changed the way we work and really reconnected with our customers. We tried to channel the creativity of the company back into the games as well as modernise ourselves and be much more data-centric – we’re very open-minded and look for insights about our customers and how to do better for them.
“Although they’ve been around for a while, we’ve kept updating our games and kept them modern. We’ve got more players now than we’ve had for the last seven or eight years.”
Runescape was born on January 4, 2001, the creation of brothers Andrew and Paul Gower, and is recognised by Guinness World Records as the world’s most popular free-to-play massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG).
“I can’t think of another game that’s been around that long that is still successful – certainly one that’s growing,” says Phil.
And that trajectory will surely continue with plans to bring Runescape, and its retro sibling, Old School Runescape, to our mobiles.
“Both are in closed beta testing. We are halfway through,” Phil reveals. “All the fundamental technology works and it’s fun to play. But you’ve got to make it work on so many different phones and different operating systems. We don’t want it to just work, we want it to feel right for a mobile phone.
“To take a product that’s been around for quite a long time, although we’ve been evolving it, and make it feel like a native app – something that’s been made for phones – is our ultimate aim.”
Jagex has yet to confirm which will hit mobile first.
“They are neck-and-neck – we’ll see which launches first,” says Phil. “They are both on a good track – we’re looking at mid-year.”
But this is more than just a mobile release. It is expected to break new ground.
“We are hoping we will be the first, big Western online game to be completely interoperable,” says Phil.
This means you’ll be able to pick the game up on your phone exactly where you left it on your PC – offering genuine “lifestyle convenience” for those players who have grown up with Runescape, only to find jobs, families and life get in the way of hardcore gaming time.
“We don’t want to make it more shallow – we want the full PC experience on your mobile. We’re close already which gives us confidence we can do it,” says Phil.
“If this works for us, this is definitely likely to be a strategy for us in the future. Interoperability, or ‘cross-play’ between platforms, is going to become more popular and could be a unique skill for us. We can be real pioneers in this.
“It’s only really in Korea and China that mobile-to-PC cross-play happens for online games. There are almost none in the West – not big online games.”
Half a million people registered when Jagex announced its beta sign-ups – a simple illustration of the demand.
And Jagex is very fond of asking its players – a couple of million of them are subscribers – what they think.
“We try to be as player-obsessed as we can,” says Phil. “We do opinion surveys every month or two – not just customer satisfaction but opinion on the quests and monsters we put in the game.
“We collect data anonymously on our games so we understand where people are struggling or things that are too easy so we can balance it.
“Old School’s constitution is that it’s run by the players. Any change that isn’t a bug fix has to be voted in. Unless 75 per cent are happy, it doesn’t change so it moves at the comfort level of the player base.”
The company was among the first to have a broadcast-quality livestreaming studio and continues its conversation with players there.
“Our developers – our mods – sit on the couch and stream video to the players, answer questions and debate ideas,” says Phil. “Some players get really involved and write ideas for stories and locations.”
There’s no doubting the staff share the players’ passion.
“We have a staff high score table,” reveals Phil. “Half of the people here actively play Runescape or Old School Runescape. You cannot cheat!”
Phil made the top 30 out of 150 in the table – but his more senior job is taking its toll on his playing time. Perhaps the mobile version will help him…
Embracing the explosion in mobile gaming is a natural move for Jagex, but the company has been working on how it will position itself in the coming years since it was acquired by Chinese investors in 2016, following a period in which it successfully refocused its business back on its core principles.
Jagex is now part of Fukong Interactive Entertainment, previously known as Zhongji Holding, which purchased the company from the American investors to which the founders sold their shares. At the end of 2016, Jagex announced healthy revenues of £74.4million and operating profit of £28.1million.
“With me coming in as CEO and our ownership change, which gave us a new lease of life, we’ve been thinking about where we want to go as company. What’s going to be our identity?
“We thought about our history, what we thought we were good at and what all the other gaming companies were doing,” says Phil.
The concept of ‘live games’ is now well established in the industry to describe online titles that are periodically updated. Jagex, however, has been doing that for 17 years.
“We’ve really been pioneers in it for a long time. We want to keep being pioneers,” says Phil, who now talks of ‘living games’ instead.
“There’s this next level, pushing-the-boundaries feeling,” he explains. “If live games are something online and updated, ours will be the extreme end of that – games that give players a voice so they can shape what they are.
“It means you design them from the outset to last indefinitely. A lot of games these days are still designed with endings.
“It’s also about the world of the game feeling like it’s living. Maybe there are day and night cycles, maybe it has an ecology. A lot of games don’t change from one month to the next, or only superficially.”
Jagex sees itself acting as a service provider for others wanting to embrace the living games concept.
“We want to open it up as a service for smaller developers who are great at making games but find that turning those into worldwide services is very complicated – it requires a lot of infrastructure, investment and capital,” notes Phil.
Meanwhile, it is busy working on a new massively multiplayer online (MMO) game – details of which are strictly under wraps.
But Phil reveals: “We’re a year in. We want to do something genuinely ground-breaking. Even today, Runescape stands out in the market. Big open worlds where you can do whatever you want but which also have an authored story… this kind of interactive story almost no-one has done. We still have that niche.
“We want to find equivalent innovations and experiences for players that continue to set us apart. We’ve learned a lot and want to apply that to something fresh and do something next-generation.”
Now Fukong Interactive’s Western arm, the new ownership has made Jagex “more ambitious”, says Phil.
“They deal with Asian markets and we deal with Western markets, which alone is more ambitious,” he adds. “They are doing some Runescape-like games to introduce the world, the characters in to China. They are reinterpreting the Runescape universe for China.
“With our next-generation MMO we intend to work with them to make a Chinese version of it. By the time that comes out, these other games will have warmed up and introduced everything to the Chinese audience.”
Jagex’s world is already fantastical. But you sense it’s about to go to another level.
‘If I could wave my magic wand, I’d add 100 people’
Jagex is not alone among Cambridge technology companies in needing more staff but its numbers are quite striking.
The company currently employs 320 and anticipates growing that number to 400 this year.
“If I could wave my magic wand, I would add at least 100,” says Phil. “Realistically, in terms of the intake we could find and handle, we could probably add 70-80. And there’s more growth beyond that.
“We are looking for staff to make our new games, build out our publishing and commercial teams to help publish other people’s living games around the world and we’re creating some technologies to do that.
“And for our technology platform – the system on which new games and other people’s games wlll run on we’re doing big upgrades and building new things there, especially within software engineering, network engineering and network operations.”
The previous owners were going to sub-let the ground floor at Jagex’s HQ. Not any more.
Staff employed at Jagex can enjoy an on-site bar, gaming caves, an extraordinary lecture theatre and a company that does a lot for charity – this year, it is supporting CPSL Mind, The Prince’s Trust and YMCA Right Here.
More by this authorPaul Brackley