As RuneScape celebrates its 15th anniversary this year, it’s a fascinating time to look at what has been an enduring success story in the MMORPG market. Certainly, it’s World of Warcraft which has found itself entering the public consciousness as the de facto MMORPG, while EVE Online regularly grabs headlines with gigantic space battles, but RuneScape has a few records of its own, such as being the largest free to play MMORPG. Of course, it’s a big anniversary year, and that means that Jagex are pushing the boat out to make it one to remember.
The franchise is expanding in new directions, with the card game Chronicle: RuneScape Legends and a new ‘Idle’ game called, appropriately enough, Idle Adventures. However, there’s big new expansions for both RuneScape and Old School RuneScape – a version of the game which stepped back to the game’s form in 2007 and has 300,000 paying members in its own right.
Most imminent is the release of RuneScape’s new game engine, as Jagex look to transition from Java to what they call ‘NXT’. The two clients will run alongside one another for some time, but NXT will bring the game a much more modern level of fidelity and look of polish, thanks to new water effects, vastly longer draw distances, better textures, and so on.
However, this year will also see the addition of two new raids, including the conclusion of the twelve year long Vampyre Quest storyline. RuneScape’s original creators – the Gower Brothers – will be immortalised in game through the Gower Quest, while there’s also God Wars Dungeon 2, two new land masses to visit and explore, and new mining and smithing skills to the extent that you can literally dedicate yourself to being a smith, creating custom weapons in a system that allows for 5 trillion permutations.
This is the plan of a developer that’s brimming with confidence and experience. Another Guinness Book of Records honour that RuneScape holds is that of being the most updated game, thanks to a Jagex pushing updates out on a weekly basis. There’s several “scrum” teams in the studio working in parallel on projects, pushing for both tiny incremental tweaks and fixes, as well as for these larger and grander efforts.
All of this is done in close collaboration with the community. Jagex have posted design documents for the community to pour over, give feedback on, and ultimately vote on whether they think it’s a good idea, and community ideas can also very easily end up in the game. It’s all enabled by making it incredibly easy for players to vote, with polls in the game. They even picked the release plan for this year.
As Dave Osborne, the current Lead Designer on RuneScape explained “One of the interesting things is that they’ve told us things that we would never have anticipated people liking. So we never would have done this mining and smithing rework in our game, and that’s happened because they’ve put it [high in the polls], so we’re now doing it.”
However, the addition that really caught my imagination and interest – as someone who doesn’t play the game – was one of the two new land masses, the Wushanko Isles.
Taking inspiration from Japanese and Polynesian cultures – sadly not pictured in these screenshots – this really is a foreign land for players both old and new. In fact, this will act as a new starting point. Regardless of how many hours you’ve put into the game, you’ll have to quest and level up to prove your worth in this foreign culture, and that’s something I feel could be an important point for the continued good health of the game.
“This place has always existed, it’s just that their culture is different,” Dave said. “Everything is different, so the player effectively, because they’re doing new things and they’re in a new storyline, they just start on a level playing field. They haven’t become a sailor before, so you’re effectively starting at the lowest tier of sailing. The goes for somebody who’s been playing for 15 years or for somebody who’s just come to the game.
“The same goes for the storyline and exploring. Because we’re moving through this area by area, I’m just as likely to get to a new set of islands as somebody who’s been here for 15 years.
“So it’s like a little kind of sandpit that every player can play in. You can get to a point where you’re segregating, where high level players play with high level players, low level players with low level players, and this brings them all together. We’re really interested in that sandpit type of mentality.”
Intriguingly, this archipelago of islands will also allow for a lot of genuine player exploration. You’ll be on the frontiers, heading off into the unknown to search for new locations that might never have been seen before, and ripe for you to stake your claim for their ownership.
Delving into how this will work, Dave said, “You have a number of scripted islands, where everyone will come to them and you might have a limited sense of exploration, but there’s also a randomly generated set of islands, and they have certain elements on them that are more lucrative than others.
“If my random roll on this island finds something that’s very interesting and very useful, I can stick a flag in it, it’s now permanent and I can now get my friends to come to it. It’s about finding and being the lucky one to have found something lucrative. That’s the kind of thing we want to aim for.”
With this expansion still several months away, it’s not exactly clear how this will work, but it’s a prospect that immediately got my mind whirring away, imagining how it could be a foundation for players to band together and combine into nations, of a sort. I’m certainly getting ahead of what the Wushanko Isles will offer when released, but the potential is there for it to grow, and this naturally fits with the constant iteration and updating that the game sees.
Where many games are cut off after a year or two, and even those in the MMORPG arena struggle to find themselves a long term presence, RuneScape’s longevity is something quite remarkable. In a sense, you could view it as a teenager, which has grown an awful lot over fifteen years, but still has a lot of growing still to do. It certainly seems as though Jagex are working hard to ensure that its best years are ahead of it.