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Ten Years of Design, Growth & Refinement

Adam Tingle Posted:
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For over a decade, RuneScape has been delivering java-based MMOing on a scale unrivalled by most. It has won awards, obtained Guinness World Records, and generally redefined the way we play online games. To be succinct, the game's heritage is nothing short of spectacular, and as time progresses it only gets more impressive.

Love or hate it, RuneScape and its developer Jagex have had a profound effect upon genre for the past ten years. From its innovative subscription model, to the groundbreaking use of technology found in its browser client, this is a game that has influenced and continues to do so as time goes by. To honor one of the industry’s "indie" greats, today we are going to look back at the past ten years of RuneScape, tipping our hats in the name of Guthix, and pondering the ranges of Gielinor.

Gower Power

In 1999, Andrew and Paul Gower decided that they would attempt to do something. Oh sure, most early 20-something's might spend the majority of their time playing PlayStation, eating Doritos, and lamenting the fact that their genitals are woefully under touched, but not this pair. Looking at the fledgling successes of the, still young, MMORPG genre, they decided they would create their own game, but make it different; easier to connect with, and without the annoying need for expensive computers or an ungodly knowledge of GPUs.

And so RuneScape was born, and utilising Java technology, it became one of the world's first in-browser MMOs. Launching in 2001, the initial handful of years were fraught with difficulty, but the small development team pushed ahead, learning on the job, and improving as they went along.

"Initially, the game was created to be functional, and quests were small and intended to distract players for a short time. It was learning on the job, and most things were an exercise in us actually trying to see what our engine could do" Andrew Gower told the audience at RuneFest.

Jagex's MMO grew organically with long term visions and goals to achieve. Initially the world that was created was a blank slate - any lore, mythology, and storytelling that the game has developed over the years was absent, and as Paul Gower admits a lot of inspiration for the quests were "borrowed" from other sources. RuneScape too was restrained by the technological restrictions of its engine. The map size was limited by circumstance, and to create the illusion of a vast world the developers had to use various tricks to fool the player.

Paul Gower elaborated: "Way back in the old days of the game, we had to get around the fact that Gielinor just wasn't that big. To address this we created fences around zones with limited entrances, and in effect players had to run ages to get anywhere, zig-zagging around the map, even though it wasn't all that big".

Images shown of RuneScape at this time paint a stark contrast to how it looks now. Ugly and low resolution visuals sum up a game well and truly in the midst of development, but in this, the clues of where the game would end up are evident, and the art style can be found in its modest origins.

The game also lacked in animation, combat was static, and any real sort of tension was absent. "Initially players stood against an enemy and just watched the health bar slip down, until one of them died. When we added animations in, and developed the combat system, things began to get interesting".

Getting There is Easy, Staying on Top is Hard

These days when MMORPGs are released into the world in an unfinished state, most cry murder and declare their undying hate for the developers, but Jagex attempted things differently. While a true exercise in ongoing development, RuneScape was launched to the public for free initially and a year later in February 2002 a subscription fee was introduced to those willing to fund further additions. The monthly payment was half that of a traditional service, and those who subscribed received additional content, and access to other areas.

This "premium" service that Jagex introduced would prove to be one of the game's most valuable assets. As time went by, the world began to split into subscriber and free areas, while both sides of the payment fence were continually catered for. Having a free-to-play aspect of RuneScape is key to its success - it serves as a trial for anyone wishing to try the "full" game, whilst also building up a huge community of those who either can't afford, or don't want to subscribe to an MMO.

In many ways, Jagex created the "F2P" model that most of the industry is now clutching desperately at. Almost more than 8 years ago the developer realised that its game would be best suited to out innovating the competition rather than fighting toe to toe in the traditional market. Judging by the some 150+ million accounts created since its inception, RuneScape won.

But a legion of free players will only get you so far, and realising this the Gower brothers and company couldn't rest for long - getting them is easy, making them stay is hard. Over the next couple of years, Jagex grew bigger and bigger, expanding their ambitions and scope for the game. Elements such as the Grand Exchange appeared, merchants became more sophisticated, skills were added, and the magic system was entirely revamped.

The development team also looked towards unconventional methods of keeping the player base engaged, mainly that of the, now signature, mini-game. The first to appear was Gnome Ball, a ditsy little distraction that proved popular amongst the community. Andrew explains further "when we were in the midst of developing RuneScape 2, effectively the bi-monthly updates crawled to a standstill - so in a bid to keep the audience engaged and happy with further content, we focused on smaller additions, one being Gnome Ball".

This illuminates another success of RuneScape: its ability to allow players to step back from the humdrum grind of the genre, and allow them to wallow in the virtual world that has been created for their pleasure. We call it "fluff" but in essence, it is this kind of distracting activity that keeps an audience captivated and immersed within the experience. Jagex have continually shown awareness of the need for such an aspect within their game, and since the advent of mini-games, these additions have only grown in number until the point where a player could spend weeks within the game without touching traditional pursuits.

And this idea of giving players more than grind is prevalent within the development team. Lead Designer Mark Ogilvie tells the audience "we don't want you to just rush through quests to get skills; we want you to skill-up to enjoy quests and really take in the adventure".

As the game has progressed, the notion of capturing an immersive and "adventurous" feeling is key. In comparison with other MMORPGs, RuneScape echoes the idea of the Ultima Online "sandbox" more closely than any other, and many ways has surpassed the aforementioned game.

Things Can Only Get Better

By the time RuneScape had truly began to come into its own as an MMORPG experience, it had already seen a wealth of development and refinement, whilst its development team had gained valuable insight into design, sometimes the hard way. Paul explained, "As time progressed our tools became more sophisticated, and so we could be more bold with the game. An example of this is the mountains within the game. We started out with a glorified hill, and now we have mountain ranges several map tiles big".

With many years of arduous refinement behind them, suddenly the game began to take giant leaps in terms of gameplay, as well as seeing slight obstacles such as the rise in exploiters and gold farmers - even leading to the loss of the PvP-centric Wilderness area and Free Trade. But RuneScape continued to grow and expand to fill the gaps that unforeseeable events had caused: the result being a wealth of activities to engage with and some truly inspired design such as Dungeoneering.

Of course to the casual onlooker, the biggest leap forward for the game came with the 2008 addition, RuneScape HD. Having stumbled slightly due to its browser-platform, the experience became as gorgeous and interesting as its peers. The rather ugly look of the game became dignified and artistic, its visuals packing a charm in their own right - and this is something the developers have continually added to with future hints of even greater eye candy.

As you can see, RuneScape is a testament to the dedication, care, and ongoing development of Jagex, and the input of its audience. In an age where global publishers ram lacklustre products down the throats of consumers, RuneScape remains a truly organic, grass roots MMO that was built for an audience wanting to slip into an immersive adventure.

Even now at a decade in age, the game continues to thrive and its population is as strong ever. How many MMORPGs make it to such an age with so many active users? And it in no way looks like slowing down. What does the future hold for RuneScape? According to Jagex's COO Daniel Clough: more refinement, more development, and even more exciting content.

"Things are looking very interesting for RuneScape in the coming months. The additions the team are working on are looking astounding and the future looks very bright indeed" Daniel explains. One thing that is hard to shift from a list of desires is RuneScape transition onto other platforms, but Jagex's man refuses to give anything away "we have looked into this, the iPad, XBLA etc, but we have no plans as of yet to head in that direction. I'd love to see it on an Apple device, who wouldn't? But this isn't something we are planning just yet".

The disappointment is palpable, but I guess many can sit back in the knowledge that this very fine game is still available on the browser. It has been a long ten years of development for RuneScape, and certainly more is still to come, watching it unfold in the past has been exciting.  Watching it grow now from strength to strength will certainly equal it. If you haven't tried it out, I suggest you join the 150+ million that have - a leading light in the genre and one that promises to burn brightly still for a while longer. MMORPG.com salutes RuneScape, Jagex, and community.


Adam Tingle