The flurry of online games dropping their subscription fees over the last year or so might make the free-to-play model seem like a fresh new trend in PC gaming, but it's nothing that Jagex haven't done before, way back in 2001, with their browser-based MMO, Runescape. With relatively low-fi graphics and low marketing profile it's easy to forget how quietly huge it is. With 130 million unique users since its launch, Runescape is one of the most popular MMOs in the world and The Citadel update is the most ambitious update in the game's ten year history.
The new additions plan to build on the update that added clan support earlier this year. Citadels are huge floating castles, created to give clans their own place to hang out, make use of private facilities, take votes in the senate hall and hatch plots in private tents. I travelled to Jagex HQ in Cambridge to see what else had been added, and found that the best was yet to come. Within these floating islands, clans can create their own battle arenas, with custom rules and layouts, and then invite other Clans into their custom deathtraps to do battle, have a race or kick back and play a little chess.
Each clan has access to four different arenas, blank slates in which they can place blocks, spawn points, NPCs and dangerous objects like spike traps, slippery patches of ice and conveyor belts. The tools let you assign points values for carrying flags back to certain points, and for killing enemy players. The editor is flexible enough to let players create their own game modes, from standard deathmatch to capture the flag, or even race tracks and co-op dungeons.
Jumping into the editor reveals a straightforward interface. By dragging blocks onto a grid, it's easy to place walls and traps quickly. A series of drop down menus lets me decide a ruleset for the game, but I'm not alone. Multiple players can edit a map at the same time, and I'm in the arena with a few other inquisitive games journos.
"Who's written LOL on the floor?" someone asks. That was me. But it's part of a vague plan. I plonk a ranger spawn point in the middle of the "O" wall and surround it with spikes and a bit of ice. It looks dangerous. That was the plan.
Tinkering with the editor is addictive, and seeing our collective map take shape was strangely satisfying, even in spite of the chaotic layout. When four games journalists are instructed to "go mad" with an arena creator, the results are never going to be pretty, and our arena quickly became known among the concerned developers and ourselves as "The Abomination."
The time comes to try out a test map, a pre-created game mode constructed by one of Runescape's QA testers, but it's clear after about three seconds that something has gone wrong. There is a building where the only entrance is blocked by a conveyor belt that throws you out of the building. Inside, there are goblins. NPC wizards are everywhere. A ranger is trapped forlornly inside a wall that forms the letter "O." We are inside The Abomination. We wade through the madness, trying to find members of the other team and kill them before the goblins get us.
I find another human, a knight with a big sword. He tries to hit me but steps on a conveyor belt and is sent sailing away slowly. A wizard hits me in the face. The ranger I spawned rotates mournfully. I have scored a point! I don't know how.
It's mad. It's complete chaos, in fact, but it's our slice of chaos, which somehow makes it more interesting than any preset arena. I ask the head of Runescape, Christoph Vietzke about the appeal of user made levels. "It is fun to do that, to build it yourself and feel a little bit like a game designer," he says.
"User generated content gives us the framework to say "here, be your own boss. Do what you want." "Players really appreciate that, especially players who are not that keen on writing code, or writing a computer game, but want to be creative. It's perfect for them because it's a first step."
At the moment, there's no search function for players to find and rank new arenas. Clans will have to invite other clans into matches one at a time. Any interesting new game modes will be relying on word of mouth to spread, but there's still potential for the community to create some wild new rule sets that prove enormously popular. Could Runescape get its own DotA? And would Jagex consider endorsing official versions of the best maps?
"Yeah, one of the ideas that we have is having competitions to find what is the most exciting gameplay, and making that available to everybody," says Cristoph. "We have two preset maps that are in there, we could easily imagine changing those to the most popular ones voted for by the community."
The floating citadels and battlefield creation tools are available to subscribers for now, and Jagex haven't yet decided how far they'll run with improvements to the level editor. They're waiting to see how many players enjoy the new additions before piling on new updates. It's typical of Jagex' philosophy, to see what players are looking for, and then try and expand on those areas until players are happy. It's an approach that has worked for the last ten years with Runescape. It will be fascinating to see what state the game's in when we hit 2021. One thing's for sure. Nobody will be playing Abomination mode.
Runescape is free to play, and can be started from your browser on the Runescape site .