Right outside of Jagex’s foyer is parked a hulking black tank. At the back of the foyer – just before the entryway to a large, bright three-storey atrium –you’ll see lift doors decorated to look like those of a TARDIS and a Jules Verne submarine. Behind the reception desk, there’s a large flatscreen TV displaying a fast-paced trailer with a constantly increasing number overlaying it. Right now, it’s at over 204 million – the number of accounts that RuneScape has amassed over its nearly 11-year lifespan (though, due to a quirk of legacy registration systems, the figure’s really closer to 208 million). And opposite, above a large and voluptuously contoured purple sofa, are pictures of titanic Transformers in heroic poses.
For many developers such displays of success might seem brash, but at Jagex, tucked away as it is in the depths of a Cambridge science park, it simply comes across as being earnestly proud. And why not? Jagex is probably Europe’s largest independent developer, and trailblazed the MMORPG, the free-to-pay model and the browser game in the west to such fantastic response that it forged its own entirely new kind of gaming audience long before Zynga stepped into the ring.
But compared to the magnitude of its achievements, Jagex is barely known in the industry in which it operates. As you walk around its studio, which houses 450 staff, you get the sense that Jagex manages itself in its own way. There are no corner offices and production floors: QA sits right next to programmers, and artists with web services people. The inevitable awards displayed in the boardroom’s trophy cabinet aren’t the usual crop of flamboyant gold and crystal trinkets from the traditional gaming media. They’re mostly from business institutions, which have recognised the value of this remarkable company far faster than its peers. So, you can understand why Hasbro might entrust one of its most valued brands to Jagex, but perhaps not why it took the toy maker three years to get Jagex to even return the calls which it proposed making a Transformers MMOG.
As its stands, Transformers Universe isn’t quite the MMOG that you’d assume the maker of the spawning, traditional and rather crude-looking RPG RuneScape would produce. Yes, it’s also free-to-play and runs in a browser, but it sports detailed 3D graphics and isn’t a huge world-spanning game built on questing and crafting. Instead, it’s a tight multiplayer action game with a focus on story and collection, and it’s strongly influenced by the leading online games of today: the likes of League Of Legends and World Of Tanks. It’s had a relatively short development time – work only began in earnest early in 2011 – but you get the impression that it’s had a fairly twisting gestation. It was, in fact, a traditional MMORPG with avatars wearing (transforming) robot suits until Alex Horton came along.
Horton is a man who wears thick-rimmed glasses, used to DJ hip-hop and promote clubs, shaves his hair the same length as his stubble, and speaks in a scattershot Southern England drawl. In short, he’s the very image of the kind of urban cognoscente you might find at Rockstar, which is exactly what he was. While at DMA Design as lead animator on GTAIII and Vice City, among many other things, he created the Grand Theft Auto logo, and he was behind the games’ swift but essential carjacking animation. After Vice City, he moved to Rockstar’s New York City HQ to work as art and animation director, and has credits on every Rockstar game up to and including GTAIV.
So when he first saw Transformers Universe last year after joining Jagex as chief creative director, he knew it had to change. Partly because of what would work for the brand – it’s hard to customise an intricate robotic avatar like you can a Tauren or dwarf, and aren’t toy Transformers all about collection? The other part was down to what’s popular in MMOGs today: they’re not only about World Of Warcraft and RuneScape any more. The short-session, highly competitive likes of multiplayer online battle arenas (MOBA) and World Of Tanks are driving a new vision of enormous, connected and deeply committed communities.
“Transformers are about war; they’re about action. They don’t carry gold, bake bread, catch fish, cut down trees. But for all they take away, they throw open so many more opportunities,” says Horton about the reasoning behind the retooling. “Maybe there’s more in a selection of characters and abilities, and the strategy in that, than there is [in] levelling a character endlessly and going through fuck loads of boss battles.”
And so in Transformers Universe you’ll amass a garage of bots designed by Jagex, upgrading their weapons and abilities. From this roster, you’ll select five, and then pick one to take to highly directed scenarios, or battlefields, rather than to ramble across a continuous streaming world. The battlefields are connected by hubs, where you’ll socialise with other players in the faction you’ve chosen – Autobots or Decepticons – and also absorb story points from such familiar NPCs as Optimus Prime. Having set up the premise for the next scenario, they’ll direct you to a portal that takes you into action, battling against both NPCs and other players.