This article was originally published in PC Gamer UK issue 252 .
RuneScape is more than 12 years old. It's one of the world's longest-running and enduringly popular MMOs, and yet it's not a game that gets talked about very much. There are reasons for that: a long silence on the part of its developers, Jagex, one of the largest independent studios in Britain – they've traditionally preferred to work with their community directly. Then there's the prevalent feeling that browser games are less legitimate than a program you need to install, a notion that the last decade in games has shown to be totally outdated. Finally there's the relatively insular and self-sustaining nature of the game's community: a central core of passionate people for whom RuneScape is their game, to the exclusion of other MMOs.
“On one level, it's been great,” says Jagex CEO Mark Gerhard, who has been with the company since 2009. “When your friend told you [about RuneScape] it was like 'wow, I've just discovered something'. Perhaps that was a better moment than if you'd approached it cynically because it had been advertised to you – I don't know. But I think we missed out a bit, as an organisation, to get players to understand what we're passionate about and the kind of experiences we want to give them.”
In truth, there are as many RuneScapes as there are people who have played it. For many, it was the free MMO that they played on the lunchroom computers at school; for others, it is one of the most hardcore levelling challenges out there.
An entire community of players built a PvP scene around the ruleset of the game circa 2007, and their protests at subsequent changes to the combat system led Jagex to set up an alternative, time-capsule version of the game for them to play – a situation that represents both the developer's willingness to be lead by their players, and the challenge of trying to please everyone for 12 years. “[Those players] are more connected to a game that existed some time ago,” explains design director Mark Ogilvie. “I don't have a problem with that. If they still want to play that game, that's absolutely fine.”
The majority of players, Ogilvie argues, want to see change. “They want to see something that is reacting all the time – otherwise, they wouldn't be consuming content at the rate they do.”
Jagex have stuck to a gruelling weekly update schedule for close to the entirety of RuneScape's life, adding new quests, minigames (selfcontained challenges) and building on the story of the world of Gielinor. In that time, several updates have gone further – making major changes to game systems and the underlying Java-based engine that Jagex have built from scratch. These include 2008's RuneScape HD, a top-down upgrade to the game's visuals. Last year's 'evolution of combat' update brought battle up to speed with modern MMOs, adding active skills and a hotbar. None, however, have gone as far or changed as much as 2004's RuneScape 2, which saw the game move from sprites to full 3D in a new rendering engine with rethought mechanics.
RuneScape 3 is due in the next few months, and it's the biggest change to the game – for players and Jagex alike – since that time. “Every few years we want to do something really big, really special, something that's a significant step forward,” says executive producer Phil Mansell. “We want to make a big improvement to the game on every single front.” In order to shore up the game against changing web standards and to enable Jagex to take greater advantage of modern hardware, RuneScape has been totally rebuilt for a new engine. While the Java client will still be supported, the developers have spent the last year working on a new version of the game powered by HTML5. This means no Java updates to install and consistent performance across devices – including tablets. The game will no longer be as CPU-intensive as it once was, with rendering now liable to be handed off to graphics hardware: a change that pays dividends for the game's visuals across the board. Dynamic lighting, shadows, normal maps and reflective water are all supported, and the game's customary 'wall of mist' effect caused by a low draw distance can effectively be pushed back to the horizon.
I'm shown the HTML5 version of RuneScape running on a conference room computer. There's optimisation work to be done still, but the difference is striking. In terms of pure fidelity, the game is still some way behind the technical standard set by modern client-based games, but it is nonetheless very impressive to see a streaming browser game achieve a level of quality we'd have accepted from a boxed product a few years ago. The change also has huge ramifications for the game itself.
Outside Shantay Pass, in the deserts near the city of Al Kharid, there's a top-end combat minigame set in a massive edifice called The Dominion Tower. It's the size of a small town, bright red – and until RuneScape 3 it has been possible to run past it 20 yards away and not realise it was there. With the draw distance extended, Gielinor becomes a different place. Jagex now have the power to tell a story through the environment in a way that they simply haven't had before.
It also means that they're capable of bringing the camera down to the player's level. Traditionally, RuneScape has been controlled from a top-down perspective with limited mobility. As part of a suite of changes to the RuneScape 3 interface, the camera can now be dropped right down to close third-person – greatly enhancing the game's sense of place.
RuneScape's UI has grown continually since the game's release. Almost every update – and there have been a lot of them – has necessitated some new feature. As a result there's a lot of fat in the existing system, and navigating it as a new player can be confusing. RuneScape 3 will feature an entirely new, totally customisable interface system. Windows can be freely moved, resized, and swapped out for other options. The system will launch with a range of selected presets – including a classic style for veterans – and players will be able to create and save their own. It'll now be possible to have one interface for when you're fishing, one for when you're dungeoneering, and another for PvP – or a minimal UI for when you're playing in a smaller window. Impressively, the UI dynamically reconfigures to match window size, maintaining the principles of the basic layout but matching a wide variety of possible dimensions – bear in mind that, as a browser game, RuneScape isn't bound to traditional monitor aspect ratios.
“There's a need to evolve what RuneScape is and how you interact with it,” explains senior game designer James Sweatman. “Everything is getting more accessible, more usable – gamers are a lot more suited to the games that are around now, and RuneScape needed to be part of that generational shift.”
To an extent, the changes to RuneScape's engine and interface are about futureproofing – or, at least, about catching up. RuneScape 3's ace in the hole, the thing that will not only define it to the community but which also has the potential to bring a new audience to the game, is the way that Jagex are using their existing weekly update regimen to tell an ongoing, developer-supported story in a way that hasn't been attempted before. “We're the quiet dudes in Cambridge who just get on with it,” Mansell says. “RuneScape 3 is going to be where we talk to the wider world, step up our game a bit.”
Step one is advancing the age in which the game is set. To date, every event that players have experienced has taken place in the same in-game year. The world has effectively been on pause, and Mansell describes RuneScape 3 as “pushing play” – moving Gielinor into its sixth age, and a wildly different status quo. In an event earlier this year, the god of balance, Guthix, was killed. Without his protection, the world is open to exploitation by a pantheon of rival gods representing the best and worst of mortal life: good, evil, war, trade, and so on. Starting with a series of devastating events following RuneScape 3's launch, the conflicts between these gods will determine the shape and fate of the world – and the outcome of those conflicts will be determined by players.
Every week, players will be asked to respond to some new disaster or event. The way in which they respond – the tasks they complete, the gods they favour, and the votes they cast on the game's community site – will then be pored over by Jagex, who will update the game in the following weeks to reflect the actions of players. The structure of the game's narrative will focus on this war between the gods. “We're allowing ourselves to use it to tell more episodic stories,” Mansell says. “We're going to have one central storyline, and every piece of content we do will relate to that story thread.”
“It means that narrative isn't something that's just associated with quests,” Mark Ogilvie continues. “It's associated with everything you do. That's exciting. I'm not aware of a game that has given players that level of power.”
Ogilvie describes the process of measuring player behaviour as “like counting green Waitrose tokens” – referring to the way that the supermarket chain uses plastic coins to allow customers to vote where its charity money gets spent. RuneScape 3 will work similarly, using in-game stat-gathering to direct development. In a sense, using user data to guide ongoing development isn't new: it's common sense, and it's what Jagex already do. However, using it to directly guide narrative is smart. The RuneScape community has always been passionate, and one of the best demonstrations of that energy is the game's long history of rioting: over the years, players have gathered to protest everything from PvP changes to bug fixes. They're vocal and they already believe that in-game action can lead to in-game change, but in the past, the gods they've been revolting against have been the game's developers.
In a sense, the death of Guthix mirrors Jagex's own withdrawal as the game's primary creative power. “We have ten years of history of this amazing place,” says Ogilvie, “and we're giving [the community] the power to decide what happens to it.”
I asked Mark if the parallel between the new player-driven content system and the game's history of protest was deliberate. He tells me they want to encourage players “to riot about a positive thing. Rather than rioting about their resistance to a mechanical change, encourage them to riot about a change that's actually going on in the game world – and use community power to change it. They have this energy, this desire to say 'I believe this and you will listen' – why wouldn't you use that?”
From being a somewhat detached tale of warring factions, RuneScape's narrative is becoming about the ongoing history of the game itself. “Our gods represent different emotions, but those emotions lead nicely to differently aspects of gameplay,” Ogilvie says. “Generally speaking a player-killer is more likely to follow Zamorak, because Zamorak overthrew his master and stabbed him in the face with a holy relic. They love to stab things in the face.”
This doesn't mean that Jagex won't use their forums to keep in touch with the community. “We're not stopping them from talking to us. We're encouraging them to form communities around [ideas]. Even if they're not interested in narrative, there's a reason for them to fight.” This, again, is smart – tying player motivations to in-game forces gives those forces the potential to challenge players in a real sense.
Jagex are trying something truly ambitious with RuneScape 3, and it's worthy of close attention. The new RuneScape is built around a set of ideas – player power, persistent change and community-building – rather than a fixed goal for the future. “It doesn't need to have an end point, but it needs a purpose,” says Mansell. “That allows you to embrace whatever the players throw at you.