Runescape developer Jagex has finally detailed its long in gestation third-party publishing arm.
The department has been formally titled Jagex Partners, and it's revealed some of the key players that make up its eight-person third-party team.
Jagex first revealed its intentions to publish games in 2017 - specialising in cross-platform online titles - and has been gradually building the team ever since.
Former NCsoft, Trion Worlds, Microsoft and Sega exec Jeff Pabst has been named VP of third-party publishing. Simon Bull, who boasts two decades of experience at EA, Trion and NCSoft, is head of third-party marketing. Meanwhile, Sarah Tilley (ex-CCP) has joined as head of third-party product management. The department falls under the remit of Publishing SVP John Burns.
"Over the last seven months we've been working towards this point," Simon Bull tells GamesIndustry.biz. "We are now bringing on people with good third-party experience. Reaching out to developers who we know, others have come to us, and it's been building good processes to manage those relationships.
"That's the not-very-exciting housekeeping-type thing we have to do, because when we go public the floodgates are going to open. We know there has been a huge amount of new games being developed - because the development tools are relatively easy to come by and there are a lot of talented people - so it's about deciding what that workflow looks like, and then what a deal will look like and what services we'll supply."
Jagex Partners' unique selling point in a market awash with digital publishers is its live game expertise. Or, as Jagex likes to call them, living games (you can read more about that here). The firm offers the typical marketing, PR, and sales support, alongside operational services such as monetisation design, billing systems, 24/7 customer support, data science, security and so on.
"We're going to find out that some of these things resonate more than others. And we're going to learn things from these developers, which will inform how we're going to do things," says Jeff Pabst. "The way that the market has gone in the last five to eight years, you really do have to assess this from a completely different perspective than historically. The amount of content that is out there, and the democratisation of development through funding and access to tools, has created a whole lot of really cool ideas that just need to be gestated and brought to life. The people doing that... not all of them have that skillset."
"There are loads of really good games, but also loads of single player platformers, and couch co-op battlers... the competitive pressures push more of those developers online and to be more service-based."
Phil Mansell, Jagex
Jagex CEO Phil Mansell adds: "If you play this a few years into the future, what's the next step of the trends that we're seeing? There's almost a saturation of small to mid-sized indie content. There are loads of really good games, but also loads of single player platformers, and couch co-op battlers... the competitive pressures push more of those developers online and to be more service-based... maybe not this year, or next year, but certainly this is where the industry is trending in the long term."
Bull continues: "These developers are looking for people who can help them on their journey. For a variety of reasons, whether they've done it before and it hasn't worked out for them, or they've done it before but it didn't go the way they would like, or they've never done it before but they think they can only take it so far. For us, that's very attractive. We have skills that reside here to manage that part of the business."
Many of the developers, Pabst says, simply don't want to worry about how to handle a DDoS attack or a community livestream.
"If you're a small developer trying to build a community, that means you're not building the game as much. We've talked to the guys who have been doing that and the word that they often use is 'tired' [laughs]. Because you have to be on the live-stream at this time, and participate in a bunch of different things."
Bull adds: "It's the bureaucracy. They don't want to worry about what their PEGI rating might be, or understanding the complexities of launching in China with all that paperwork. That's not their thing. They realise that they just want to make great games. That's the opportunity we see."
Although Jagex Partners has only just officially launched, the company has already seen around 100 games. And developers have varied from big 50+ teams with multiple offices, to small two-person outfits. It hopes to meet a few more studios at Gamescom next week, and also attending the GamesIndustry.biz Investment Summit in September.
Funding is not an advertised part of Jagex Partners' offering, although the company can offer financial support, too.
"We would look to provide development funding or invest in a developer depending on the deal," Pabst says. "But it's not being positioned as an investment in developer time play. It is a publishing partner business."
Bull explains: "Bringing it to market, continuing development, some of that has to happen in advance of any money coming in. Marketing, acquiring users, creating the assets, building out activity, attending events... that takes money, and again that is something we can definitely help with. How it is spent and how that is split, it depends on where the project is. If it's further out and it's a smaller team and they're struggling because it's moving faster than expected, then maybe we front-load it to help them finish the game. If they're a bit further down the line and really what they need help with is acquiring users, that's where we can make a difference."
The firm currently isn't offering development support. Pabst is keen to stress that Partners won't be dragging people away from the RuneScape team.
"We're not going to draw resource from the dev team. It's the institutional knowledge that we are going to be drawing on pretty heavily."
Bull again: "But in the longer term, I could easily see - and it's definitely in our thinking - that we would be able to combine some development knowledge. If there's a team who maybe has a good IP or a good nucleus of an idea, but need help taking it forward, I could see fitting ourselves into that scenario. In the short-term, the next two to three years, that's not going to be our main focus."
Bull says flexibility is a big focus for Jagex Partners. It won't have set terms or requirements; it will be decided on a deal-by-deal basis.
Not that the company is expecting to sign hundreds of games. Indeed, Jagex Partners only expects to pick up a handful of projects initially.
"One or two in the near term, and then as we grow, try and add a few at a time," Pabst details. "I don't see us, even in three or five years, having a 30-game slate.
"I don't see us, even in three or five years, having a 30-game slate.
Jeff Pabst, Jagex
Bull: "We could easily have a situation where we have one or two games in flight, maybe a game in release, a game going through early testing, and then another one that is about three years out and we're doing some early elements like monetisation design... the sort of elements that are critical early on in development as it is difficult to back-end some of that stuff. So I could see us in two or three years having four or five things on-going at various stages."
Pabst again: "But we're trying to be realistic and focus on the short term, doing it right and doing it well. And then seeing if there's anything that lets us go beyond."
Jagex's ideal titles are mid-tier online PC products - although it's not all about PC as cross-platform is something the team is especially keen on. Jagex feels its experience with esports, community events, implementing player feedback and so on is something that other developers can use to turn their online games into "living games".
"Keeping the community engaged and excited is where you can lose that momentum," adds Mansell. "But it's also the game, the overall service, how you're talking with the players, how what the players is doing is connecting back into the game... those are the things that is the secret sauce in how you build and nurture a community. Those are the things we've learnt from doing it directly."
He continues: "There is going to be a lot of competition for players and competition for the skills needed to look after those communities. A lot of people are starting from scratch when building and maintaining communities at large scale over many years. It's not easy. There's a huge amount of learning and it changes every year - tastes change, technologies change, media changes, players change. That's where we've had a lot of interest, developers who know they need a community asking us: 'How do you do community?' We've got good answers on that."
The level of title that Jagex Partners is most interested in is just below AAA, but above indie. Mansell mentions PUBG and Fortnite and No Man's Sky as the sort of products that they're hoping to discover and turn into the big 'living' game of tomorrow.
"PUBG and Fortnite are great examples," Mansell says. "That's in an area of the market that you wouldn't necessarily call AAA. But they also aren't little indie games. They were kind-of mid-sized very online community driven games. That is what we've always been and where I think there is a huge opportunity as well. That area of the market is hugely exciting."
Pabst concludes: "We're looking at games that can become living games. Which means we want to find a game and clear all of the obstacles from it so that it can run for 17+ years. I'm not saying that they will all run for that long. There's a lot of underpromising and overdelivering on the team. But yeah, if we found the next PUBG, I don't think we'd be unhappy."
Jagex is among the speakers at next month's GamesIndustry.biz Investment Summit, alongside Fig, Humble Bundle, Take-Two, London Venture Partners and more. Click here for further details.