In the midst of riots, Eurozone financial wobbles, and of course the launch of the UK X Factor (minus Simon Cowell) the boys and girls working on RuneScape have been very busy. The world’s most popular free-to-play MMORPG has expanded once again, and this time it has flung its arms wide, painted on a warm Java rendered smile, and declared to the world its love of clans.
It has been a busy year for Jagex: RuneScape has continued its decade-long march of updates and graphical enhancements, but the Cambridge-based developer has also re-implemented Free Trade, the Wilderness, and now added Clan Citadels. This most recent expansion to the, already expansive, MMO allows clans (guilds) to create their own customizable headquarters; complete with meeting rooms, senate, and even dance floor. To add a further layer of intrigue, these citadels can be customized to fit the tastes of the owner, and also upgraded by taking part in communal tasks such as resource collecting.
But haven’t we seen those instanced houses before? So what exactly is new here? Sure we have seen clan housing in other games, but Jagex are here to prove that lasting in this genre for ten years is achieved by being able to dig deep into pockets of creativity, thumb passed the usual fluff and loose change, and pull out some truly innovative ideas. To sprinkle on a delicious topping to the citadel ensemble is the ability to create custom battlegrounds, achieved by using extensive creation tools, multiple game types, and enough block building to make MineCraft blush. There is definitely a reason why RuneScape holds claim as one of the world’s most popular MMORPGs, and it looks likely to hold on for a while longer.
Recently I had the chance to head down to Jagex Games Studio to check out what they are achieving with their Clan Citadel update. Presented with a rather expensive looking desktop PC, and a premade character, I began wandering around an example Citadel. The first thing to notice is just how good this game looks given that it is developed to play in browser. As I admire the lighting animations while they dance and flicker upon the walls, senior game designer Chihiro Yamada sits beside me smiling “we are constantly updating and improving the look of the game; with RuneScape we are on the cutting edge of [Java\Browser based] technology, and we like to think that with all the bells and whistles turned on, this is a very good looking game”.
Stopping just short of licking the screen, I navigate my character around the citadel courtyard, and into the keep. Situated within this structure is a wide and open senate, in which players can debate issues ranging from game related, to even real life. Chihiro and the rest of RuneScape crew are keen to emphasise the use of the citadel content in whichever way players wish. Rather than clan communities focusing solely on raid or PvP content, the developers want to create a place in which players can both achieve the more ‘stabby’ side of things, while also having the tools to socialise and create an almost second life within their game.
Exploring further, I discover that the citadel holds a further 3 floors, each filled with specific function rooms. I am told that these can be upgraded by resource collection to hold a total of 7. It seems important for the crew at Jagex to give players a multi-faceted experience within the citadels, and rather than it being simply a place to hang out, it gives even more purpose to clans. Senior content developer Ash Bridges explains "Throughout RuneScape the community has directed the game in a sense; for instance we didn't have the tools for 'official' clans, but they sprung up regardless. In a sense the citadel and battleground additions are a way of us giving back to those organizations, and helping them along with whatever goal, social or combat driven, they want".
From exploring the area briefly, there are certainly many activities to engage with, and neglecting the function rooms, the citadel also offers 'hotspots' which are essentially resource nodes, which clans communally work to both add skill points and help with the maintenance and overall progression of the citadel. Ash explains "We wanted to give clans activities to engage with, and the idea of resource collecting fits with the idea of RuneScape as a whole. So while they are engaging in collecting wood, or coal etc, they are also skilling up - but at a slower rate than if they were on the 'main' world of the game". Central to the idea of the citadel is the idea of maintenance – ignore resource collection and your structures will slowly degrade; engage with it and you will upgrade the overall tier of your headquarters - this coming with its own advantages.
Throughout my tour of the newly implemented features, both Chihiro and Ash were keen to express that they wanted the citadels to add some identity, and further accessibility for clans, but in a way that doesn't infringe on the already established formula. Most MMO players are aware of the scourge of instanced content; the likes seen in EverQuest 2, where guilds disappear off the face of the world map each contented in their private homes. By making skill progression slower in the citadel, the Jagex team hope to keep clans happy and serene with a place to hang out whilst also keeping them populating the 'real' world for their everyday progression.
After running several laps around the various sights of the citadel courtyard, I found myself straying towards the most exciting part of the expansion: the clan battleground. Accessed via an NPC which gives you options of joining battlegrounds or editing them, I opted for the latter to try my hand on the creative front. The clan battlefield is an instanced zone, and once using the creation tools, you can make any type of experience you so wish. The options for sculpting are extensive, and building is a simple matter of dragging objects onto the menu overview, and letting your imagination run rampant.
The amount of choice on offer is astounding - from capture the flag style affairs to football, to even puzzle areas; it feels like Jagex has handed over the development tools, smiled broadly and walked out of the room like a proud parent. Players are fully in control, and from simple constructive creations, to unique mini-games, it will be very interesting to see where the community go with these tools.
As I attempt to blot the ‘classic’ school boy penis upon the battleground, Chihiro notices what I’m up to “When we designed the battleground aspects, we knew that we were trying something different. One of the most exciting things about it is that we don’t know exactly where the community are going to drive it, and so we are in a time of really discovering what this expansion is going to mean to the game. We could have made it more structured, perhaps added competitions and ladders, but at the moment we want our community to run rampant with the code”.
Without resorting to hyperbole, it is truly astonishing what freedoms come with this editor. The amount of gameplay to be had from battlefields feels truly endless: capture the flag, death matches, mazes, puzzles: hell with enough imagination you could make your own D&D settings complete with AI monsters and TeamSpeak voice over’s. It is safe to say that there is nothing quite like this in the current MMO market.
Getting to the technical side of things, the battlefield editor holds up to 4 saved creations, each playable with your friends. Trying my hand at one of the premade creations with a small number of other journalists, I was hurtled into a small scale map of killing enough enemies to reach the limit of 20. The map was a fairly simple creation, AI enemies patrolled the perimeter of a small castle-like structure, and it was up to one hardy adventurer to defeat, maim, and destroy as many people as possible. The gauntlet had been well and truly thrown down.
Equipping a trusty bow and arrow (which I had noticed worked surprisingly well from sneaking a look at a peers monitor) I adopted the role of “RuneScape Angel of Death”. I stalked the map filling everything I saw with arrows, and ran away like a giggling child when melee characters approached. More fell to my arrows, and eventually the game submitted into victory: my victory. Well I wasn’t going to let the MMORPG.com side down was I?
RuneScape’s Citadel expansion is truly one the most exciting developments of recent times. Aside from having a fully persistent and deep headquarters for clans to go and socialise, the battleground editor is a truly remarkable addition. While there are not, as of yet, any plans for ladders or leagues, or even the ability to share creations, Jagex are fully aware that the aforementioned is a truly groundbreaking concept. Time will tell exactly where it will find its niche, whether it be in bloody death matches, or crazy new RuneScape sports, but for those along for the ride, it will be a hell of a journey finding out. Jagex are proudly displaying that the UK can keep up with the big boys of the MMORPG genre, and this expansion proudly explains why. Check it out.