The RuneScape studio on its unique approach to propriety tech
Mention Jagex, and for most, RuneScape springs to mind immediately. People certainly know what the Cambridge studio has created, but the developer’s lead IP – an MMO with unique youth appeal launched in 2001 – is so successful it has rather eclipsed the way the company operates.
Press a little further, and people might mutter something about FunOrb or the time Jon Hare joined the team, but in reality relatively little is known about the company by all but the keenest industry observers.
“Historically we’ve said very little and done very little publically,” admits CEO Mark Gerhard. “One of the problems that creates is that it leaves people to make up their own mythos about what Jagex is, and what we do and how we do it.”
The reason for the team’s hush isn’t that they’re media shy, but rather they’ve been busy. RuneScape keeps a huge team of programmers, artists, online security staff and moderators working quite literally day and night at Jagex’s sprawling facility, thanks to the enthusiasm of the record-breaking free MMO’s userbase.
A similarly huge group generate more accessible games for the FunOrb portal, while dozens who were at work on the canned MechScape MMO rework the fruits of their labour for a new project.
Over 400 are now employed at Jagex, and that number is increasingly consistently.
It isn’t that Jagex is completely without recognition; quite the opposite is true. In 2009 it was awarded the UK Developer of the Year gong at high profile consumer event the Golden Joysticks. “I’ve never seen ten people simultaneously spit their champagne out,” jokes Gerhard on remembering the reaction of fellow attendees at the extravagant ceremony.
“As far as the industry goes, we’re still a bit of an enigma.
People don’t realise that we’re this large, quirky company based in Cambridge. When people think of British games, perhaps they think of the traditional options like Codemasters and Lionhead; the studios that are publically more vocal.”
Developers often season their profiles with terms like ‘quirky’, making it easy to dismiss Jagex’s claim to individuality. However when Develop visits their bustling creative hub, it becomes apparent that the company – established in 1999 and officially founded by Andrew and Paul Gower in 2001 – certainly boasts a distinct approach to building and maintaining games.
“Operationally we’re totally different from any other studio I’ve ever seen, even to the point that we’ve built our own tools to change the way we handle the development processes,” says Gerhard. “The content developers have access to all the tools to create their own content, whereas at other studios normally it’s much more of a production line.”
Jagex’s list of proprietary and customised tech is a truly impressive one. Everything relating directly to development side is proprietary, as are numerous tools, the cryptography, compression, protocol, bug tracking and web-servers. The studio has even conceived its own kernel for Unix, and down to the byte level, if it can be proprietary, it invariably is. Gerhard meekly admits the email software is now bought in from the outside world, but not so long ago, even that was a custom app.
The idea is that at almost every level of a game’s development, staff of any discipline can access the tools to realise their vision. With tools available to all their developers, and teams working as autonomous, de-coupled units, Jagex hopes to avoid the ‘production line’ model that it believes curses some other studios.
LOST IN TRANSLATION
“Every time something gets lost in translation as it goes from one team to the next team as someone does the coding, and someone comes back and does the graphics and then somebody does the QA,” say Gerhard of more typical development houses’ structures. “In our mind that’s slightly disjointed. What we’ve done is we‘ve built our own tools with usability in mind. So, for example, the same guys writing the story can use these tools to very quickly put together the entire game, and ask ‘Is it fun? Does it work?’ It remains creative-centric.”
As apparently avid gamers who Gerhard reveals have never worked anywhere else, the Gowers’ founding influence still prevails, and is seen by the staff as the root of Jagex’s continued individuality.
“It’s an inverted triangle compared to any other company I’ve seen, in terms of how we do stuff. Very often we have to re-invent the wheel because what we just don’t fit into the traditional business model. We like it,” says Gerhard with a contented smile.
Gerhard insists Jagex’s atypical structure and approach isn’t a case of being contrary to convention for the sake of standing out, and it’s a business model not without its challenges. In an industry full of well-established round holes, being a square peg can often create a great deal of work, particularly when it comes to recruitment.
“It does take a substantial amount of re-education, because people coming into our family are going to spend pretty much a year being trained,” admits Gerhard. “At the end of the day it doesn’t matter if you’re a computer science graduate – if you are we’ll spend three months teaching you to forget everything you’ve earned, six months teaching you our own tech, and another three months of intensive mentorship.
“It’s a big investment, but no one has ever left our game engine team or our tools team – we’ve had 100 per cent retention.”
Despite the challenges, Gerhard and his colleagues remain proud of their position in the sector, and their commitment to the player. The CEO is quick to admit his employees and players come first, before any reputation in the wider industry.
“Typically, for everyone else I think it’s the other way round,” he suggests. Furthermore, in the face of an increasingly investment funded sector, he is happy to admit Jagex is not motivated by building for a sale or chasing market share.
YE OLDE DEVELOPMENT SHOP
“It’s probably best described as an old fashioned business, in terms of the values. We’re built on integrity and great product. The customer is our focus and things are done for the long term.”
Despite evoking an image of some post-war family business in a fabled era when people held street parties and borrowed sugar from neighbours, Jagex is growing in size. Along with its ever-increasing head count, its catalogue of IP is eternally growing.
A separate building in Cambridge houses the team behind online gaming portal FunOrb, which deftly blends hardcore retro gaming and casual titles. With almost 40 games published on FunOrb at the time of Develop’s visit, and 60 potential projects underway, the portal is certainly proliferating. It also acts as a testing ground for Jagex to toy with ideas in the public domain, and every title underway for FunOrb has the potential to become a large-scale game for Jagex. An atmosphere of experimentation is actively encouraged at the company, and R&D remains a prime interest within the walls of Jagex.
There’s also been some recent internal activity at the developer, with Rob Smith, who previously handled operational duties, team management and efficiency, being promoted to COO.
“We looked at the core facets of what I did and I’m now working with the game design teams to ensure that RuneScape continues to be a success, and that we’re continuing to grow our other games,” explains Smith. “As everyone is so busy, in some ways I’m here to step back and take at look at what’s working well and who might work well as a team and bring those teams together.”
“He’s the oil between all the gears of the machine,” adds Gerhard, who explains with great pride that Jagex consists of a very flat management structure, once again bucking industry trends. In a company where there’s an apparent sense of employee equality, only three levels exist, from the army of games makers up to the senior staff.
As Gerhard plays enthusiastic tour guide to Develop’s visit, making introductions in the security office, the moderating rooms and the numerous socialising areas that staff can use at weekends with friends, he makes passing reference to the fact the developer plans to occasionally publish games by other indies.
Things are clearly going very well at the home of RuneScape, and an approach Gerhard describes as “a deep sense of pragmatism, and even intellectualism” certainly seems to be working very well in Jagex’s corner of Cambridge. In every room new developments are underway. There’s even a space reserved for employees to work on labours of love independent of Jagex.
However a glance into the personal project area shows the desktops are vacant for now. Everybody really does seem enamoured by the myriad projects underway at Jagex. What Gerhard calls ‘tribe spirit’ prevails, and is certainly working for the quirky Cambridge studio nobody knows anything about.