Jagex on 8Realms: lolcats, addiction and browser games
Jagex, developers of stunningly-successful free-to-play MMO RuneScape employ around 400 of Britain's best and brightest developers out in Cambridge, UK. One of the many projects they're working on, aside from their next huge MMO Stellar Dawn, is 8Realms, a deep browser strategy title. We caught up with Claire Blackshaw, the lead developer on the project.
PC Gamer: What does the name 8Realms signify?
8Realms is actually in two parts. The first is a reference to the 8 Ages of the game, hence ‘8’, the second refers to your dominion or rule in the game, hence ‘Realms’. And 8Ages just didn’t quite roll off the tongue, nothing rolls quite as well as an ‘R’
PC Gamer: The Jagex employees seem to play a lot of board games - what have you learnt from them; are there any board games whose mechanics have been particularly inspirational?
How long do you have? We brought a lot of the mechanics from the more diplomatic board games. The combat mechanics draw from a few brawl card games I’ve been playing, which add depth and flexibility in a fairly simple fashion. Though that’s mostly under the hood. I think the biggest thing we used is our experience of playing diplomatic board games more than mechanics themselves. That great feeling when you are trying to negotiate a takedown of someone you are playing against, or the wonderful hands in the air innocence of the turtling player.
PC Gamer: For a long time you've been content to focus on the development of Stellar Dawn; why is Jagex moving into this field now?
We’ve always been exploring what’s possible. We’ve had a few games in the mobile environment, Bouncedown in particularly was very successful. We also have access to all the consoles and are exploring options on other platforms. Our web tech was started several years back for our websites and recently expanded to games. We have had other ventures, like FunOrb, which generated a wide range of IP for us and have explored several different genres. With the developments on Stellar Dawn, Transformers and 8Realms what you are seeing is the culmination of several years of work behind closed doors, we’ve been busy, just not loud.
PC Gamer: 8Realms seems like a solid, attractive-looking social game along the lines of Immortal Cities: Nile Online, Evony or Lord of Ultima. What's its USP, that distinguishes it from these?
Attitude, we are setting out to make a solid competitive strategy game. Putting the game first, getting the mechanics right and then putting on that polish. We are using Micro-transactions to augment the experience and they will never dull the competitive edge. I could list off our mechanics like; repeating trade, population mood, map control, the 40+ unique wonders, the 300+ research items, the list goes on, however they are just the parts of a bigger machine.
We wanted to make a brilliant strategy game we can enjoy, at this time we are quite modest in our mechanics but we have a lot planned to add-on depending what works well in the beta. I could tell you more but we really want beta to work as beta should, so we want your readers to get involved and help us to shape 8Realms into a fantastic product.
PC Gamer: These strategic browser games don't often seem to attract the demographic of PC Gamer readers. Why do you think that is? How is 8Realms different?
Honestly, I think it’s because most of these games are about who has the biggest wallet or friends list and they tend to go on and on, without end. We have a defined set of goals, a rough idea of how long each game will last and ultimately each game will have a winner.
I think it’s less about the back-of-the-box feature list and more about the execution. If we can refine our balance and mechanics ensure there is enough strategic choice in the game so that our players are exercising their minds to achieve victory; then we are succeeding.
PC Gamer: Is your flashless browser engine something unique to Jagex? Will you be rolling out a lot more games using this tech? How does it work with more action-oriented titles?
The browser is an interesting space, what is possible now would have blown our minds just two years ago. The key issue is the gap between the cutting edge and what’s widely deployed. Many people are exploring this, especially with the introduction of HTML5. I think most of the excitement is outside the traditional game development environment at the moment, but more and more game devs are going to start to sit up and take notice of HTML as a platform. Twitch gaming is possible in the browser right now.
I play around with WebGL and dev-branch browser and just think of what we could be doing in the future. So I think we will be less and less limited and our technology, which is mostly server-side, puts us in a good position to capitalise on that.
We will always choose the right tech for the game, be that pure browser, Java or something else.
PC Gamer: You deal with drop-out by having a consequenceless starting area for new players - do you think you might lose players at the break point between realms? At the end point of games?
You are always going to lose a few players, either to real life situations or because the game is not for them. Obviously we want to minimize the loss and more importantly minimise the impact of loss on other players. Our staging area, the bubble we call it, is our protection against that. The first age of the game is instanced in such a fashion that your play experience does not affect others. This fits nicely into the lore of the world; as your tribal village is scared of the wider world there are dragons out there don’t you know. It takes between two and three play sessions for the average player to finish this first stage before they are moved onto the main servers. This method of progression allows us to removes most the deadwood from our servers and world maps to make the game more enjoyable for others.
PC Gamer: How will you be expanding Jagex's userbase outside of the players who started on Runescape?
We have very strong relationships with our loyal fans, but with 8Realms, Stellar Dawn and Transformers we will attract a lot of new players into the Jagex world. They are all very different games with different styles that will appeal to a wide range of people.
PC Gamer: Some of the standard design tricks for making games "sticky" are somewhat amoral in that they promote addiction-like behaviours; how have you made 8Realms compelling whilst avoiding addiction?
Haha, now that’s a fine line. Is adding sugar, cheese and chocolate to food evil? We don’t use any social or monetisation gating which require you to spam your friends and we never allow money to unbalance the game. There is a distinct absence of clickable cows or lost puppies!
That being said I know a handful of people who have lost sleep in our internal playtests to gain an edge or launch an assault when someone is sleeping.
Overall I would say the biggest anti-addiction point is there is no infinite grind, also because of how the mechanics work the optimal play requires between 15-30 minutes of time throughout the day. True you may spend a lot more time planning and scheming but really the game is a fairly light time commitment.
PC Gamer: PLEASE STATE ANY HILARIOUS ANECDOTES FROM DEVELOPMENT IN THE SPACE PROVIDED
Oh dear, well three turning points occurred for me during development. The first was in the early days when we started a small dev test game; there are luxuries in the game you can fight over, and one of these luxuries was, at the time, a giant clam on the map. The moment a dev stood up and shouted, “hands off my clams” was the moment I knew people cared.
Another time my dev team and I were in the cinema and someone pulled out their iPad to check on their settlement and again I knew the game was working as a portable experience. Finally, during internal Alpha testing, I walked into another dev department upstairs and found a group of guys scheming to take out a co-worker. I knew the meta-game was in action.
Mostly it’s just us bouncing off the walls, eating pizza, screaming at our screens and putting lol-cats in the game. But it is brilliant and we all love it.