Massively multiplayer online games are hugely popular, but what happened to that last part? The final piece of acronym puzzle that invoked wizard hats, billowing silk robes, and dice beyond count? We caught up with RuneScape lead designer, Mark Ogilvie, to discuss his influences and why the RPG factor is hugely important to Jagex's game.
MMORPG.com: You have mentioned that RuneScape isn't like other games but more actually shares more common traits with pen and paper RPGs and board games, can you expand on that?
Mark Ogilvie: I think it's about how we started as a company. We were inspired by board games and more traditional forms of gaming, and I think the fact we launched on a browser made it so we couldn't sell the game on the graphical qualities alone - we had to make things like gameplay, storytelling, and the narrative more important. And I think over the years in the computer games industry, those nuggets of quality gameplay you might find in a board game, they get forgotten about, and people consider them to be backward - and I don't think that's really fair. I'd much rather consider those things, such as table-top RPGs, as much more important to us than the rest of the industry.
MMORPG.com: There is a tendency within the industry to follow trends and capitalise on products that break through into the mainstream, is design from Jagex's point-of-view different to this?
Mark Ogilvie: Completely. We're personally motivated to put our own stamp on the market, and that really comes through in the content - and because we do weekly releases we can try things that may or may not work, and if it doesn't then it doesn't matter. So if an update fails, we haven't tried to do that, but there's always next week when we can get it right and try something else that's new. Basically, the attention of the user base continually shifts, it ebbs and flows, so it allows us to indulge ourselves to try new ideas and see if it works. A lot of the things we have done in the game have just come from us internally try crazy little things that have been successful.
MMORPG.com: You have said that RuneScape is more inspired games from the 90s such as Ultima Online and that your MMORPG is another life, not just a game, is this important in terms of design?
Mark Ogilvie: Absolutely, 100 percent. It is really important that you think about the player's journey through the game as a series of experiences, but experiences that knit together. I don't like games that limit the player in the content that they can access. I see that almost as a crude way to have someone play through the game time and time again: have more accounts, pay more money, etc. I'd much rather give players the freedom to play however they want. And also, why would you assume that customers are always in the same mood? You might wake up one day and say I just want to fight people, or another say I want to be involved in a community, or even play a mini-game. I think in this regard, we're more closely like earlier games because we give so much choice, and try to be so much at once, not really thinking about what will sell particularly, but how a player might want to interact with our game on any particular occasion.
MMORPG.com: So would you, as designers, describe yourself more as Dungeon Masters reacting to what players wish to do?
Mark Ogilvie: Definitely, absolutely 100 percent. I've been roleplaying all my life - right now I'm running a Napoleonic RPG using the GURP system. So at the moment they are just at the beginning of the Battle of Waterloo, and I'm slowly introducing magic and fantastical elements like that. I love the fact I've written a story and that my players go off in a completely different direction. It keeps me on my toes. As a dungeon master you have lots of different things to make that game world more believable, and I see RuneScape as the ultimate experience of that. It's not just having a couple of people in your party as once, it's thousands, and because of this weekly update schedule, we can change the game, iterate, and do what the players want.
Obviously we can't listen to every individual voice out there, but all of those in-game actions are being recorded on a computer, and we can use that data to guide us in how to develop the game in the future. And it isn't just what actions they are doing, but their emotional responses, how they make decisions and so on. Basically, we want to give them, the players, the power to control the world, and we design it to fit them. The worst dungeon master is the one that says "you can't do that" we want to be the opposite of that. We want this to be the ultimate immersive experience that the players are in control of.
MMORPG.com: Thank you for your time!
Adam Tingle / Adam Tingle is a columnist and general man-about-town for MMORPG.com, RTSGuru.com, and FPSGuru.com. He enjoys toilet humour, EverQuest-themed nostalgia, and pointing out he's British: bother him at @adamtingle