How I accidentally became a Runescape coal baron

This article first appeared in PC Gamer UK issue 233.

"What are you doing, Matt?” asked my friend. It was March 2002 and he had spotted me through the window of our college computer room. Why wasn't I in the pub with the rest of our friends? I explained that I was playing a free fantasy MMO called Runescape. Technically, that was true. It was certainly true enough to suffice as an answer for now.

“Oh. Right.” He was clearly unimpressed by the low-resolution 3D blobs trundling around the screen. “Is it to do with killing dragons and goblins?” “Yes,” I lied. “It's just a bit of fun.” I wasn't happy that my new friends at college thought I was spending all my free time killing waves of magical monsters, but it was better than the truth. The truth was that, driven by impatience and greed, I had found myself running a coal mining business fuelled by child labour.

In my defence, I didn't intend for it to end up this way. I don't think anyone living in rural Cheshire ever really intends to get into child exploitation. I never really planned to start buying Rage Against the Machine albums, and I wouldn't recommend that either.

None of what I achieved back then could be carried out today, anyway. In 2007, Runescape's developers introduced the Grand Exchange, a marketplace in which players are able to easily buy and sell their goods for fair and reasonable prices. Back in 2002, though, Runescape was a wild new world. Outside of the game's NPC shops, buying and selling items usually relied on players simply standing on the streets for hours at a time, shouting their best offers at anyone who'd listen. It was a world ripe with opportunity for deceit.

I wasn't always a manipulative git. My earliest obsession with Runescape was driven by a confused fascination. My younger brother had started playing shortly after the game first went online in 2001, and initially I was happy to watch over his shoulder as he mindlessly pottered around this strange and muddy world of unappealing shapes and colours.

Most of his exploration revolved around an area known as 'the Wilderness', an anything-goes PvP zone that was especially deadly for low-level players unaware of the dangers. My brother explained that if you were quick, you could nip across the border and grab bits of unwanted loot from the corpse of the winner's victim. The trinkets were cheap, but he seemed to enjoy playing the part of a professional vulture.

Mostly though, he'd be in the windmill. “I'm making pies,” he said, picking up two freshly spawned tins from the kitchen floor.

“You collect grain from outside, then grind it in the mill to make flour,” he explained. “Then you get clay to make a jug, and fill it with water to turn the flour into pastry. You put that into the tin with some berries or meat, then it goes in the oven and you sometimes get a good pie.” This specific distinction explained the abandoned black discs that covered the kitchen floor, and why none of the other players seemed interested in scavenging them.

Part of me knew I should stay away, but there was something strangely compelling about an MMO that wouldn't give you the ability to make a pie until you'd burnt about 15 of the bastards. In February of 2002, my character Magicpants was born.

At first, Magicpants just wanted to be a warrior. After hours of constant battle, he learned the true cost of warfare: fruity pies. Healing up naturally took ages, so it was always best to stock up on tasty cakes before dashing into the field. Pies were expensive to buy though, so most of the world's bravest warriors would run out in to the Wilderness, fight for a while, and then retire to the kitchen to master the art of pastry. It was odd. The elves in The Lord of the Rings might have had a penchant for magical chunks of bread, but you can hardly imagine Legolas nipping off to make a cheeky Bakewell tart. After seeing the carbon-coated carpet of the windmill's kitchen, I decided I'd be better off risking death.

Unfortunately, this meant that I often found myself biting off more than I could chew. Fights were tough, and weren't made any easier by a zoomed-in interface that made it almost impossible to move and talk at the same time. To compensate, players would boil down messages to impenetrable acronyms that, even now, make very little sense. Sporadic bursts of movement paired with exclamations of “HH” usually translated as: “Oh God, help me! I'm being killed by a goblin!” Few players ever worked out these cries, causing me to fall again and again to depressingly avoidable deaths.

After one too many, I realised why so few people in the game seemed capable of social interaction.

Go to page two for the rise of the Magicpants empire.