Transformers Universe is built upon Transformers Prime, a CG series that premiered in 2010 and is already over 50 episodes strong. As it happens, Prime is a continuity spin-off from High Moon Studios’ Transformers: War For Cybertron, which has the Decepticons using Dark Energon to raise dead Transformers as zombies in order to take over the galaxy. But Jagex is intending Universe to become its own thing. “We need to set ourselves up not just as a business, but with a story that doesn’t have a neat conclusion like a boxed game,” says Horton.
As a result – and this makes a lot of sense in the context of being a constantly updated free-to-play game – it’s best to think of Transformers Universe as a US TV show, with episodes (the battlefields) divided up into seasons. “Like in the way The Wire switched from the ’hood to the docks and back to the ’hood. We can take it to space – why not? When we want to introduce new vehicle modes, we can do that, too. We’re not completing the story, so we can keep ourselves open. There’s no dodgy cliffhanger ending. We’re setting up the premise that this is the war that doesn’t end.”
The story itself is written by Alex De Rakoff, writer-director of 2009 British crime thriller Dead Man Running, and Need For Speed: The Run. “Thematically, we wanted to do something structurally that would allow for our interpretation – it’s true to Transformers, it’s very much a faction war between Autobots versus Decepticons, but a little bit more tense and character-driven,” he says. One of the aspects of the game that differentiates it from the rest of Transformers is that, rather than threatening to invade from the depths of space, the Decepticons have already established a foothold on Earth. That’s because there has to be an element of symmetry between the two factions, so everyone is playing essentially the same game.
Such practicalities aside, however, you’d imagine that Hasbro would be anxious that Universe fits neatly into the franchise’s existing template, and to an extent it is, ensuring that the game doesn’t tread on the toes of the timelines of the Michael Bay films and Prime. “But we need to make ourselves enough space to do our thing,” says Horton.
“It’s interesting because you’re dealing with a franchise that’s been around for decades, and is obviously much-loved,” says De Rakoff. “So my concern going into this was that they would be very controlling and very protective of their IP and characters, but so far they’ve been very collaborative, very responsive.”
Jagex has been able to design all Universe’s new bots, ensuring the needs of the game stay its guiding principle. “It’s not like we went to [Hasbro],” says Horton, “so we don’t have the licensing police on us, and it puts us in a position to challenge them with what it should be. There’s Prime for kids, there are the movies, and we need to be in between, not only on the age scale but to be enough to keep a gamer engaged.”
Anyway, mightn’t new blood working on Transformers generate a whole new spin-off, leading to new toys, cartoons, comics and whatever else? “The answer is absolutely yes,” says James Jones, Hasbro’s VP of digital media and gaming. “Figuring out the ways of doing it, what’s the right timing, [and] what’s the best fit for audiences, product lines and media is something we talk about on a regular basis between the two companies.”
It’s this that lies at the centre of why Jagex wouldn’t return Hasbro’s calls for so long. Hasbro first asked Jagex, which was then focused on building sci-fi MMORPG MechScape (now called Stellar Dawn), whether it would license the game five years ago. “At the time, we were a pretty uncommercial company – well, exclusively inwardly focused on our firstparty titles,” says CEO Mark Gerhard. But Hasbro persisted: “We had a pretty frank conversation: ‘Why don’t you want to talk to us? Why won’t you license it?’” Gerhard’s response was that he wanted a partnership, and that Jagex had to be known for innovation. “We were worried that every time it came to a green light it’d be, ‘No, no, no’. They basically gave us everything we asked for and more.”
And so Transformers Universe isn’t a quick and dirty tie-in. It’s a considered blend of the brand with contemporary gaming trends and Jagex’s experience in online. With the ambition to live up to both Transformers’ fame and RuneScape’s legacy, Transformers Universe also marks a new chapter for this exceptional company, a point at which Jagex will finally publicly stand up in its role as one of the world’s leading online game studios. In many ways, then, Transformers Universe will be Jagex’s cotillion ball.
For more information or to sign up for the beta, visit the official Tranformers Universe website. See issue 248 of Edge for an interview with Jagex CEO Mark Gerhard on the changing nature of MMOGs, breaking into Asia and the benefits of keeping a low profile.