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Jagex's wild child: Alex Horton

From Rockstar to the Runescape studio, the CCO reveals his new game

"I'm a bit wild, I'm foul mouthed, I'm quite abrasive, but I think people know there's a lot of love in it," laughs Alex Horton, Jagex's brutally honest, manically enthusiastic chief creative officer.

"People are like 'why do you work with such fucking dorky people?' And I'm like 'why? Because I'm a fucking hipster. I rate them more than you people!' They're hardcore. I found initially it was really different and I've actually found a good crew of cats and we're going to do some interesting stuff. I don't screw with the Runescapers, they do their thing."

Horton is in San Francisco showing off his latest project for the company: Block N Load, a "spiritual successor" to little known Jagex title Ace Of Spades, acquired by the company in 2012. He came to Jagex after almost six years at Rockstar and another three at CGI and design consultancy Inky Laburnham, and still retains sensibilities from both.

A lazy way to describe the new game is Minecraft meets Team Fortress; an online, multiplayer first-person shooter that's all explosions and turrets and glue pits. The game is pretty far along in development - a beta test will start next month - but this is the first time it's been seen by press.

"there's absolutely no point in making a free-to-play game that ain't sticky"

"At one time we were about to go reveal, beta, release in six weeks time because the marketing element was like 'we're going to go for a big launch,'" explains Horton.

"And I'm like, but we're fucking nobodies. Let's be honest, we're Jagex, no one's like 'ooh it's a Jagex game, let's come out for that.' So who knows, this could go really badly wrong but the reality is we want a beta that goes open and to let people stream and play it."

The game will be priced at $20... initially. Horton admits straight away that the game is likely to go free-to-play if it gets traction with players, a decision that Jagex left up to his team rather than the accountants.

"We made the decision - it was us, absolutely. I'll let you in on a secret: it's designed so it can go free-to-play. In success we will, but there's something I've learnt and I'm not going to tell you how but it's not that hard to work out, and a bunch of us know now, there's absolutely no point in making a free-to-play game that ain't sticky," he says.

"If these things get that popular we want to democratize it but right now if anyone is being an accountant it's me and the producer saying at $20 we can recoup this. So we're kind of being the businessmen ourselves in terms of just being responsible because otherwise we could stick it up as free-to-play and not get anything."

He adds that designing for free-to-play is a whole different ballgame too. In his words, "It's shitloads harder and takes a lot longer," and he didn't want to wait another year to see the game hit the market. That's also why the company is distributing the game through the old faithful Steam.

"When I was at Rockstar? [I was like] 'Fuck Nintendo.' But now I just think it's the ultimate and it's classic all-time gaming to me"

"There were some elements in our organisation that said we should be self-publishing and it's like, let's not get into all that acquisition stuff right now. We'll go to a place where it belongs and maybe console and we'll see what happens," he says.

"We have no credibility in the console world but if we get some suction over on Steam then I think people will be like 'oh, it's real.' There's a bunch of us with console backgrounds, we know how to get things through submission and everything else. It's a good place to test, that's what we think."

There are plenty of challenges to create a team shooter for the market, especially now that Blizzard's Overwatch is lurking on the horizon complete with battle gorillas, but as a creative guy Horton says he really sweated over the look of the game. He's aiming for the 16-24 demographic, not the ten-year-olds.

"The one thing we've had to really deal with and why we put those characters in - and those characters used to actually be really foul-mouthed as well - it was anything to get the age up. I couldn't help but try to put mental personality into everything I do because I think that's where the laughs are, but it was trying to give it a bit of that Beavis And Butthead, Adult Swim vibe to age it up and to try and get that appeal there."

It's been a struggle, trying to find a balance between the look that he wants and the tone, but he seems to have found it now. The world is colourful but not in a PlaySkool way, and the characters are cute but not kiddy.

"There are times it's looked super kiddy and really neon and the thing for me is... everyone thinks I'm out of my fucking mind, [because] I want the levels to be cloud castles in the sky like Mario and they're like 'what is it with you and Mario?' And I hated Mario. When I was at Rockstar? [I was like] 'Fuck Nintendo.' But now I just think it's the ultimate and it's classic all-time gaming to me. But people don't think like that, they think it's [for] kids."

The game already has a potential audience in the old Ace Of Spades players, but their relationship with Jagex (who acquired the game in 2012) hasn't always been a comfortable one; while Horton welcomes them with open arms, he's clearly got his eyes on the Twitchers.

"If [Ace Of Spades players] want to come play then we'd love them to and they should and we'll incentivise them across. Some of them are going to want to stay, they're going to want to have their little club. Good for them, and we'll continue to support that for them," he explains.

"But there are many ways to acquire now that don't involve advertising. We think we've got a fun game to watch so there's a pretty good clue in that... It's the stuff that's going on in eSports but we're not trying to be an eSport. If people really get into our thing that'll be cool, let's see where we go, but we wanted something that's kind of fun to watch."

The game is due for release next year and Horton already knows how he'll judge its success. Rather than honing in just on sales figures, he wants to know how many people will play three games, or five, or seven.

"That's the number I'm most nervous about, how many people get past five games, because we've got a feeling that once you do - you felt what it was like playing three times right? You got into it. So the signs are there but it's entertainment, you just don't fucking know."

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Rachel Weber avatar
Rachel Weber: Rachel Weber has been with GamesIndustry since 2011 and specialises in news-writing and investigative journalism. She has more than five years of consumer experience, having previously worked for Future Publishing in the UK.
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