As part of our LGBTQ+ History Month content series, SAE spoke to Lead Content Developer James Crowther about his work at Jagex Limited, the Cambridge-based video game developer and publisher. The company is best known for producing RuneScape and Old School RuneScape, collectively known as the world's largest free-to-play massively multiplayer online role-playing games.
We spoke to James about his experiences as a gay man working in the videogame industry; the company’s diversity and inclusion efforts, and the creative opportunities that fantasy realms such as RuneScape create in terms of representation. He also shared some top tips for aspiring game developers, so keep reading to learn how to secure that all-important graduate role in the games industry.
Could you tell us a bit about your route into the games industry and how you came to end up working at Jagex?
I originally studied physics at university. While I was studying that, university courses started to crop up around the country for videogame design. So I finished my physics degree and went okay, “I don't know what I want to do with my life. So let's look into video game design.” And so I went to Bradford and I studied that. Because it was the early days of videogame design, the course itself wasn't—sorry, Bradford—that useful in the grand scheme of things. It taught me a wide range of bits and bobs of stuff, but it did give me some of that insight into the industry; we had a couple of people come in to talk to us about the games they were working on. When I finished uni I went into a rubbish, normal job first. One of my university colleagues was working at Jagex, and I saw some of what they were doing, and there were job openings at Jagex. I applied originally for a content dev position. But as I said, I didn’t quite have the skills at this stage and so I didn't get that position. But there were other positions open. I went for a player support role and got that.
Player support at Jagex, particularly back then, involved a lot of password requests. Whenever someone sends an offence report in a game, like “this person was rude to me”, all of those were looked at by a real physical person; we didn't have automated systems back then because Andrew Gower believed in people doing it. So every single password request was us looking through it and checking things. I'm sure when it first started that was quite a small number. But by the time we got there, RuneScape had really kicked off so we were getting 1000s of these reports a day.
I started there and then from that, community management positions opened up. And there was one in particular for a site called FunOrb, which was a collection of minigames. They needed community management to look over that and keep in touch with things. And that's what I got position as and stepped in to do. It was good fun, we got to make good communication with the players, we got to see a lot of different types of games, get involved in lots of Java games. FunOrb was a subscription based system for mini games, which meant people would expect to have regular new mini games pretty regularly. The team was quick, don't get me wrong, they were really quick at making games. But there became a point where the desire from players couldn't match the speed at which they could work. And so one of the things that I did was I created a forum based role playing system, it was all done using the timestamp and all this kind of gubbins. So the players always had a game because we could update that. We could control that, we could write new content, create new things, write really regularly. It helped to bring some of the games that players were missing in, but it was doubly fortunate for me, because it was that allowed me to have another go at applying for the Content Developer position.
Which, thankfully, now that I actually understood how games worked I was successful in getting that position. So I got in the door and began making content for RuneScape, which is where I've been for the past 10 years now. And about I think it was 5 years ago, I got promoted to Lead Content Developer, which means as well as making the game and content, I also have a team of people who I help develop and look after and make sure they're doing the work they need to do, but also making sure they have the support they need including mental health support where we can, etc. And generally helping them try and see how we can get them on the career path they want to go as well as doing the minutiae like, “Yes, you're allowed to have a holiday, I'll put it into the system”, you know, that kind of thing.
What does your day-to-day look like now then?
I would argue that most of my time is probably still spent on making content. So for example, at the moment, I'm about to launch a quest — RuneScape quests are a bit different from other MMO quests. They're not just “you go here, kill 10 rats”; we write cohesive stories, narratives with self contained storylines, beginning, middle, end and puzzles and gameplay within it. But the rest of my time is spent on admin tasks for being a lead; checking in on my guys and making sure they've got what they need, and also talking to the leads in various departments to make sure that devs as a whole get the support they need. As well as sticking my nose in all the other places, like the narrative bits and the diversity group.
How much of your role is technical compared to creative?
Content developer at Jagex is a really interesting role — it's a good solid mixture of both. We need to be technical and creative. So a lot of other companies would have writers to write all the dialogue on stuff, right? We don't do that, we have us writing it. So it's a good solid mixture, it depends very much on the project. But like the quest I just finished — I wrote some of the dialogue, I scripted a bunch of the scenes, I did a lot of the behind the scenes programming code for it, as well as write out the design and the plan for it.
It sounds like you have to be quite a T-shaped person in terms of your skill sets. A lot of games studios who give guest masterclasses at SAE stress the importance of specialising, but it sounds like Jagex looks for people with broader skill sets. Is this true?
Being a specialist and being really good at one particular thing is great. But it means you've only got a very narrow thing that you've been working on. One thing that Jagex does differently to a lot of games studios is the jobs here are pretty stable and long term. I've been at Jagex for 14 years now, and a Content Developer for 10. And that is quite rare in the games industry. If you specialise, you can do one thing. But that’s only going to be useful over a short period of time, right? Whereas if you can be a specialist in a wide range of things, you'll find you actually improve in the other areas anyway. So by being more T-shaped, you end up being able to go into multiple different roles afterwards. Since we use in-house, we also have that additional thing of problem-solving and finding creative workarounds to things. When everyone's using standard stuff, like you know Blueprint, most people know how to use that so you can easily be replaced. Whereas someone who knows how to think outside the box and find solutions is arguably more valuable. So there's something to be said for specialising in the wider industry. But if you want to get into Jagex being T-shaped is good!
I want to pick up on the fact you’ve been at Jagex for so long, particularly in the context of LGBTQ+ history month and your role at the company as a prominent LGBTQ+ spokesman, as it were. How has Jagex and the company changed over the time that you've been there? And what positive changes have you seen that have emerged from the workplace?
Jagex has never been particularly problematic in regards to LGBT things. As with every largely male dominated industry, there’s always been little bits of lad culture. But Jagex has really taken on board what’s happening in the wider games industry — looking at representation etc. We’ve had a diversity group for a while now, and their remit is look for areas we can improve and help out. Particularly adding more and more LGBT stuff into games and being more open about it. Of course, writing in LGBT characters in a game that was built in the early 2000s was politically tricky, not from Jagex’s point of view, but for the world in general. We tried to make it subtle to begin with, but as we’ve gone on we’ve realised we can be more blatant, which is why one of our prominent gods is openly gay. We’ve made it very clear there’s no homophobia within our game — you’ve got a world with magic, you don’t need any of that nonsense, right? We’ve made a point of trying to look at some of the stuff that we've done in the past and started to unravel it. There’s a quest from the earliest parts of the game called Throne of Miscellenia. In this quest you have to marry into a Viking family. Previously the game locked your partner so if you are a male character, you’d only marry a woman and vice versa. We do still have a binary gender system because of how the game was coded — we’re looking into it, but it’s hard coding in the engine — but we looked at that and said “that doesn't really line up with the kind of goals we want and the ideals that we have as the company”, so we've now gone through and we've changed it so you get that choice. You can change your gender in the game quite easily with a character called the Makeover Mage. Previously if you went back having swapped gender and spoke to your spouse, they would grumble at you, demand you turn back etc. At the time they thought it was amusing, they thought they were catching a trick that players would try and do, as opposed to actually thinking, “why would people change genders?”, that kind of thing. And so we've gone through and we've changed all that now. So now you can marry who you like, and if you change gender, they don't care. I think they make some small comment to acknowledge the change, but not in any derogatory kind of way, just like “Oh have you done something with your hair?” kind of thing.
The diversity group is also building connections — we were going to take place in Pride 2020, but then COVID happened. We’ve partnered with diversity advisors. Jagex is certainly making a concerted effort now. It's never been a problem. It's never been particularly homophobic or problematic, like some places have been, but it's now actually reaching out and making those strides which is really positive.
I think you’ve definitely picked up there on the fact that the games industry has been criticised more generally for not being inclusive. Was Jagex’s friendly and inclusive work culture what attracted you originally to the studio, as a gay man?
It was pure coincidence, but it’s part of the reason why I think I’ve stayed so long. It has always felt like a pretty friendly place where you don’t need to worry about things. Even our community is getting better! We had a game called Old School as well, and a few years ago Old School did a Pride event in-game and the community was really quite unpleasant. But one thing I love to highlight is how RS3’s community responded: when that was going on Old School, on their own Reddit they had this lovely background that had a rainbow flag over the door of Menaphos that said “Everyone’s welcome”. It was really simple, but a really lovely response.
That is really nice! I think fantasy as a genre offers a lot of comfort and escapism to the LGBTQ+ community. Was that part of what attracted you to work on RuneScape, in particular?
Yeah, I think so. Maybe not overtly. It's the whole “getting to be who you want to be”, getting to represent yourself how you want to be represented, which a lot of other games don't necessarily do. Like Witcher 3 is a prime example of a really wonderful world, good story and everything. And I really struggled to get into that game because I had to be Geralt. I didn't want to be Geralt. It’s the whole thing of “it’s magic” — it’s a setting where all these rules and things that make my life realistically difficult aren't there, I don't need to worry about them.
In terms of our own student community, they're going to be the next generation of programmers and also animators, what can they be doing to make sure that they're designing with inclusivity in mind?
LGBT people literally exist. They have existed since the dawn of the human race. So the thing about diversity and inclusivity is, some people think that it means “Oh, you're pandering”, but you're not doing that at all, what you're doing is you're making the games accessible to a wider audience. So for every time you include sexuality, gender, race, disability, anytime you include those as an option that people can represent themselves as, you're increasing your audience, you're increasing the reach of your game.
The first thing to do is to throw out your own prejudice and even internalised prejudice. Make sure you aren’t perpetuating harmful stereotypes. Just have fun. That’s how I got Armadyl, the openly gay god. He’s one of the more popular gods — everyone calls him Daddy Bird — we’ve also got a character called Angof who is a transgender elf. She’s this powerful, strong, driven character with a strong sense of self. We made the transgender thing an acknowledgement of her character, but we didn’t want it to define her. I think I could have done it better now in hindsight, but I’m still proud of her. We launched a Valentine’s quest a couple of weeks ago — it’s a romance quest about two thieves, a lesbian couple. They are just really nicely written and we didn’t make a whole thing about them being gay. So my advice to students would be not to think too much about it, write the character that feels right. Branch out when you can, because diversity makes your stuff better. There is a bit of fear among writers about only writing what you know. Which is both good advice on the one hand and terrible advice on another. Because of course, you're only going to write yourself, and that's not good, and that doesn't get representation for anyone. So my advice would be to write believable characters, bring in race, bring in a sexuality, run it by someone you know, just to check. There are plenty of people on the internet who are happy to offer advice and I'm sure you've got friends who are either people of colour or LGBT and just run it by them to get that authenticity stamp on it. But the first advice is just write it — with the caveat of “if you're writing something you think might be offensive, it's probably offensive!”.
In terms of your position, you're openly gay in the workforce. But a lot of people are not comfortable being open about their sexuality at work still, which is obviously very unfortunate. Do you have any advice to young creatives, whether it's in the games industry, or generally about how to be open about your sexuality and start those conversations about things that are important to you in the workplace?
I was closeted for a long time. I think I came out properly in my mid 20s. It was so anticlimactic when I finally did. And I think that's my main advice; it isn't as big a deal as you think it is inside. Just be yourself, and actually it won’t be as scary as you think it’ll be. There are still bigots out there, but it’s generally worse for them to be bigots to you nowadays! There are people you can talk to, such as your HR team as you have legal protection. Don’t let it be a thing that holds you back. But be professional — there’s no advantage to screaming at a colleague “You’re a homophobic bigot!”, even if it’s true. As long as you're presenting everything in a positive, professional manner, no one's going to ignore you. They're going to listen to you and if you've got that expertise, and you've got that additional knowledge that they don't have, anyone worth their salt will listen. There is no advantage in sticking your fingers in your ears and going “I know everything” if you don't know the subject, right? Particularly in any decent games company that is doing well, they know what they’re doing and will listen. Come out to friends first, and then often businesses will have an LGBT space you can be a part of. Find a support network.
With the current home-working situation, people have found their personal lives thrust into the spotlight regardless of whether or not they wanted it to be. How has Jagex adapted to COVID, and how have you found it?
It’s been tough because it’s been tough for everyone. The management have really chosen to support people — they broke everything down into key priorities. Priority zero was “keep everyone safe”. They brought in lots of hand sanitizers and had regular deep cleans every night back in December 2019-Jan 2020. When lockdown came on the horizon, Jagex told everyone to work from home. If people couldn’t work from home, they were still paid. Priority one was “make sure everyone is paid and can do their job”. Then they got all the systems up and running so people could work from home. We’ve all been working from home since March 2020. There have been occasions where they’ve said people can come back to the office, but they've been making it a very slow release, to make sure that they've got all the social distancing needed. There are some people who work at the office, but they are separate from each other. They’ve also been doing stuff with mental health, such as random coffee with someone — they have a Zoom randomiser and you get put with a random person to chat for 10 minutes over a cup of tea. We have private healthcare as one of the Jagex benefits and they’ve taken out additional counselling services. There’s also goodie boxes every now and again, with some really fun stuff in them. We’ve had hot chocolate kits, Halloween treats etc. so Jagex has been super good over lockdown. As a manager it’s difficult at the moment to keep on top of mental health because there’s the underlying problem of the world. The games industry attracts more naturally anxious types, so we’ve been supporting and doing what we can. But Jagex has been great, overall.
It sounds like they’ve been doing their best to ensure everyone has the support they need. Do you think you’ll return to the office eventually, or will there be a permanent shift in how you work?
Jagex has said there will be no definite return to the office until 2022. Even if the government lets people return, they’ve said people won’t have to come back until then if they don’t want to. Working from home is clearly working for some people, it’s clearly not working for others. A lot of people are missing that connection; they’re missing the ability to work more directly with people… sit in an office, brainstorming on a noticeboard… things that seem so daft, but you really miss them, particularly in the creative industry. But I do think they’ll be looking at building in more flexibility e.g. working from home a couple of days a week.
Yeah that makes sense, especially in terms of inclusivity and trying to attract more people to the games industry. What’s the most important thing that students can do to ensure they are employable as graduates?
Make games. Break games down — know what you’re talking about. A degree will get your CV looked at but won’t necessarily get you through the door — you need to show your ability to build games. Make games, mod games, play games, break games down.
In terms of a showreel, what makes a good one?
Be creative, don’t just remake existing games, don’t copy a tutorial and put that in your showreel. Make something fun, and make a variety. Show interesting game mechanics: how could you adapt the core of an existing game into something unique and different? Think about showcasing your storytelling if you want to be a narrative designer. Remember that on a showreel people are only going to look at the early part of a game — frontload the best content, upfront things. Show the best of your game e.g. make a cinematic or trailer.
Thanks so much to James for taking the time to chat to us, it was really fascinating to hear about his journey at Jagex and we hope to hear from him again soon!