Polish developer Flying Wild Hog is venturing outside of its comfort zone.
Since 2009, it's been making first-person shooters in the form of the well-received Shadow Warrior series and cyberpunk outing Hard Reset. The company certainly isn't abandoning this space, with Shadow Warrior 3 due next year, but the team was keen to avoid being pigeon-holed and offer something that appeals to a broader audience.
To achieve this goal, Flying Wild Hog opened a new studio in the city of Kraków back in 2016 with staff dedicated to creating something unlike any of the other titles in its portfolio. It is perhaps the company's most ambitious project to date, not only branching into a new genre -- multiplayer action-RPG -- and business model -- free-to--play -- but also with the goal of creating a live service game it can update and maintain for years.
"We wanted to become the masters of action games, but one of our core pillars is the need for experimentation," CEO Michał Szustak tells GamesIndustry.biz. "We felt it was time to expand our portfolio, to find a new genre to fit in. That was the purpose of moving some senior people from Warsaw to Krakow to start a new studio.
"From the beginning, we worked on something totally new, different from what we've done before but still based on our explosive gameplay. So we set up a team in Warsaw who were, from the beginning, designing something as a living game."
Michał Kuk, game director and head of the Kraków studio, adds: "We've proven that we're masters of the second-to-second, minute-to-minute and hour-to-hour [gameplay] when you look at Hard Reset or Shadow Warrior 1 or 2. We wanted to go further with our experience and knowledge, so we decided to open the studio to create games we can make better day-to-day, month-to-month and year-to-year."
The scope of the project is beyond anything Flying Wild Hog has developed before. Even among its 250 employees, the studio's experience with live ops is limited at best, so the company searched for a partner that could help them. Which is how, 18 months ago, the team began collaborating with Jagex Partners, the RuneScape developer's new publishing arm.
Jagex Partners began life back in 2018, with the goal of helping to bring more live service titles -- or "living games," as Jagex often calls them -- to market. After seeing hundreds of other titles, Flying Wild Hog's multiplayer sci-fi action RPG was the first to be signed by the new publishing label.
"You cannot just transform an action game into a living game without understanding what lies beneath and how to engage with players for a long time"
Michał Szustak, Flying Wild Hog
While details of the game won't be revealed just yet -- although both companies promise an unveiling is coming soon -- Jagex CEO Phil Mansell says it is a "perfect fit... [that] speaks to the intent of Jagex Partners." It demonstrates how the label works: bringing together the expertise of talented developers, in this case specialising in single-player action games, with the 20-plus years of live games experience at the RuneScape studio.
"We have looked at quite a few games, and there are some that got away from us, that we would have liked to publish," says Jeff Pabst, vice president for third party and partnerships. "There were others that we decided not to. But working with the Hogs, the quality over quantity, the quality of the gameplay, and the talent of the development team were all big tick marks.
"There was also a lot of chemistry between us and the Hogs. The culture and the fun [at the studio], and their ethos really matched well with what we're trying to get done here at Jagex Partners."
Flying Wild Hog's shift towards live games is perhaps unsurprising; the entire industry has been moving in that direction for years. The biggest games of today, such as Fortnite and PUBG, thrive by constantly evolving, but while this proves there is demand for such experience, it presents the Polish developer with more competition than it has faced to date. How can a newcomer to the field of live games hope to stand out and, as Jagex puts it, become the new favourite game for millions of people?
"From my point of view, Jagex is the guarantee of making that happen," says Kuk. "I'm pretty sure we're going to deliver an awesome experience for players but that's just half of the cake. To make sure the game will not only be live but living, we needed to find the right partner and Jagex will help us make sure the game is a living product.
"The game we're working on is something completely new from a market standpoint. There is no direct competition for this game. We're not going to compete with other huge live games like Destiny or Fortnite. That lowers the risk. So we're not that afraid of the competition."
Mansell adds: "As a sci-fi action RPG, there's a lot of demand that's underserved in that area but obviously you have to execute on it really well. Flying Wild Hog is a talented team and when you take an experimental and player-orientated mindset, that's how you get incredible confidence that the game can be super successful."
Szustak notes that Jagex has now been working with Flying Wild Hog for 18 months, and has helped guide the game's design from an early stage to something that can sustain and satisfy a community for more than a few hours or days.
"That's a crucial element of making this game a success," he says. "You cannot just transform an action game into a living game without understanding what lies beneath and how to engage with players for a long time."
Kuk admits this has been an interesting learning curve. While it's no more complicated than learning how to master the second-to-second gameplay, the problems of engaging players over the longer term are different and, as such, require a totally different mindset.
Fortunately, Pabst reports the two companies were more than willing to learn from each other: "There were a lot of conversations early on where we didn't understand each other, but over time the Hogs have been really great at saying they don't understand something and wanting to learn, but also teaching us about what a Hogs game is and what we can't mess with.
"We've proven that we're masters of the second-to-second [gameplay]. We wanted to go further [and] create games we can make better day-to-day, month-to-month and year-to-year"
Michał Kuk, Flying Wild Hog
"It was a mindset change more than anything, it was about getting over that hump. As we continued, we found areas of opportunity both for the game and for our companies and that gave us confidence."
Having Jagex in its corner to provide expertise also gives Flying Wild Hog confidence about the long-term vision of its game. Rather than a publishing deal that primarily brings the game to market, this is the start of a collaboration that will help build the game over many years.
"We call it Jagex Partners because it's a partnership," says Pabst. "We joke that this is a marriage, not Tinder. That's part of the reason for the year-and-a-half gestation. We need to make sure we both understand what that relationship looks like, start to bring that chemistry and that trust, and start to build out the investments on each side that need to go forward."
Growing a community around the game will be the key, and both Flying Wild Hog and Jagex stress that this will be a two-way effort. While they are unable to share details at this time, it's made clear that the players will be integral to guiding the game's development in future. And while Jagex has the most experience with this, the RuneScape studio will suggest strategy but leave the execution to Flying Wild Hog -- especially since the Polish developer will retain rights to the IP.
"What's going to happen after the game launches is more important for us," says Szustak. "Fortnite started as a completely different game, so we don't expect what we release next year to be the final face of the game. It's going to evolve over time and adapt to community needs.
He adds: "We don't perceive Jagex as publishers of the game, we perceive them as partners we can work with over the next 20 years to make sure it stays interesting and engaging for the players."
For Flying Wild Hog, this game will be a new beginning. For Jagex, it's a crucial step on a journey it's been taking since 2018. With the first Partners deal now out in the open, it's unlikely to be long before another is announced, although Mansell remains fairly tight-lipped.
"We continue to talk with other people, but this is the only one we're talking about," he says. "It has the absolute lion's share of our attention. One thing we make sure of with Jagex Partners is whoever we work with, they're not competing for our resources, they're not competing with RuneScape or other deals. Jeff's team and the teams he calls on all have dedicated staff."