Runescape 3 preview: how one of the world's longest-running MMOs plans to hand control to its players

“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.