When Runescape launched in 2001, it is likely that Jagex had no idea the type of success the game would achieve. Twelve years, 200 million accounts, and two world records later, there is no denying that Runescape evolved into a worldwide phenomenon. Yet MMO players seem divided by those that have played the game and those that refuse to. Until this last week I was the latter. Now that I've given it a chance, I wish I could pull that division down.
Runescape's early life existed alongside heavy hitters like Everquest and Dark Age of Camelot. Against such competition, Runescape seemed empty. The animations and depth of gameplay just couldn't compare, and with no subscription fee, the game didn't seem to be much of an MMO. Thus, the earliest core MMO players wrote Runescape off. It wasn't a “real” MMO with no client or monthly surcharge.
Yet while the card carrying masses were turning their noses up, the next generation of MMO players drew in like bugs to an oil lamp. Kids too young for credit cards (or those with parents who didn't yet trust the internet, *ahem* Dad...) discovered a virtual world for the first time. And while the years and games rolled by, the refrain remains: Runescape is the MMO that starts millions of players loving MMOs, and the experience has only gotten better and deeper with time.
It quickly became apparent that I would have trouble seeing all the game had to offer. Jesse, my brother, is an old pro, so I asked for his help in exploring its depths. He's been trying to get me to play for years, so I'm thankful for him as my tour guide these last two weeks.
For those new to Runescape, imagine an isometric world with cartoon sensibilities. Realism isn't the rule but neither is silliness. The game strikes a balance between the two, even with the Java-based graphics showing their age. Movement is click-based and the camera can be rotated and zoomed in with the arrow buttons. It's awkward at first, all of it, but Runescape 3 promises to fix these and is currently in beta.
Runescape's world is a sprawling sandbox. There are missions and story quests that provide structured content but the game is what you make of it. There are no classes or levels, and character creation is really a matter of choosing a look, but the game's 25 skills specializes your character in any way you see fit. To name a few, there are: attack, defense, ranged; pottery, leathercrafting, weaponsmithing; summoning, dungeoneering, farming, fishing, and thieving. If building is more your style, you can build and furnish your own house with construction. Like most sandboxes, Runescape encourages you to set your own goals and chase them.
“The missions won't get you max skills,” Jesse warns. “There's a lot of grinding.” When I played it didn't feel grindy but I could tell that it was a question of when and not if.
To describe what it's like to play Runescape, let me give you an early scenario. One of my first goals was to craft a set of weapons and armor. A tutorial mission sent me into a mine and I decided to linger and gathering ore to smelt into bars. Mining, like all gathering, means clicking the node and watching a sadly choppy animation. Crafting is the same but at a crafting station.
After I made a nice sword, I needed armor. That meant gathering leather in a nearby cow pasture. Though I initially worried my choice of a bow in the tutorial locked me as a ranged character, I soon found that several melee abilities when I equipped the sword, including a powerful auto-attack buff. When mobs die, everything they are, skin, bone, and inventory, drops to the ground. It's good to pick up everything at first because nearly all of it has a use. Burying bones, for example, rewards you with prayer points to be spent on buffs. Meat can be cooked. Hides, as I confirmed in meeting my first goal, are tanned and made into armor.
When I was done, I decided to follow up on some story quests. The first few had me fishing, cooking and milling flower, but the next was pure fun. I was sent to poison a fat bureaucrat’s pie to steal his seal and open the town larder. Quests are fully voiced and this one in particular was well-done and funny. I could have gone on but decided to follow Jesse further into the game.
Our first stop was a dungeon where he fought a three-headed dragon. To me it seemed basic, like a whittling down of auto-attacks. Runescape isn't flashy, so it's entirely possible he may have been using abilities and I just didn't notice. I asked him about it. A lot of the content, he says, is simple but there are bosses which require movement and strategy. Group content is sparse. Most bosses can be done alone with a lesser amount requiring cooperation. There are no items sets and no progression, so no raiding, but big monsters do drop treasure and can be quite dangerous. As if to punctuate the point, he died to an inopportune fire blast and cursed not bringing a fire resist potion.
After a PvE death, you're allowed to choose three items to keep. After that you choose a respawn and have five minutes to get back to your corpse before anyone can loot it. In the Wildness, the game's PvP zone, that's reduced to one item and looting is immediate. It sounds harsh but it's a cornerstone of the community. When Jagex removed it to curb RMT, players reacted in outcry until its return.
Later, we traveled to a hub city. Players were everywhere and, as you might expect, there were gold sellers. Jesse even pinpointed a bot within a seconds. “It's not so bad here,” he told me. “But on the old school server, 60- to 80-percent of players are selling gold. They're [subscribers] though, so why should Jagex ban them?” This year, Jagex opened up a members-only “classic” server running an old version on the game where gold-selling is still profitable. Players running bot scripts have taken advantage of it despite Jagex's regular bot-sweeps.
On both servers there is a culture of money-play. On the old server, players buy it and sell it, risking bans with each illicit transaction. On the new server, gambling has become popular. He describes “flower games” where the colors of planted crops are numbered and played like poker. Dice games and naked boxing are also common. The roots of the playerbase run deep and they have learned to make their own fun outside the rules of the game.
Giving Runescape a chance was enlightening and I being so closed-minded these last twelve years. There is no doubt, Runescape is a full-fledged MMO worthy of any fan's time. That said, the promises of Runescape 3.0 couldn't come soon enough. I would be lying if I said that there wasn't an air of desperation to the constant pressures of membership. Nine entire skills are gated behind a subscription and you are regularly given “members only” items and recipes. Can Runescape compete against AAA games in the free-to-play space? Jagex wants us to believe it can and version three looks promising. When it arrives, you can bet that we'll be stopping back for another visit.
Christopher Coke / Chris is one of those MMO players who didn't have a credit card for games like Everquest. Sadly, he played MUDs and lived in a world of imagination. He is still hospitalized to this day. Follow him on Twitter: @GameByNight.
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