Be sure to read Adam Tingle's interview with Mark Ogilvie and Adam Tuckwell.
In December 2007, Jagex Studios took the bold move of altering the Wilderness area of RuneScape and also modifying the trade system: thus effectively ending the freedom to exchange any object with another. While these modifications to the world’s most popular F2P MMO were not entirely well received, they were done for reasons of preserving game play being hindered by gold merchants and other such undesirables. Now three years later, the Cambridge-based developer has opened its ears to popular opinion and a unified voice has been heard to say “we want the Wilderness and Free Trade back!” Now in an apparent act of solidarity with Gary Barlow, Jagex has decided that whatever they said, whatever they did, they didn't mean it, they just want the Wilderness back for good.
Gangster's Gamers' Paradise
Being MMORPG.com’s go-to guy for all matters Great Britain (at least that’s what they tell me when they want me to do bad things) I had the very special privilege of hitting the road and heading to Jagex Studios for a visit regarding all things RuneScape. Being a long-term user of the aforementioned game, and having a general preconception of the city of Cambridge, I was expecting to find an establishment occupied by pale-faced programmers sat upon grass embankments chinking china-tea-cups, scoffing down scones all the while discussing the fineries of Star Trek and C++ Script– Instead what I found when approaching the blue tinted doors of my destination was a shiny black tank embellished with the words Jagex Studios.
To untrained and unassuming eye, one may mistake the developer's headquarters for a small-time weapons research facility - only when exploring the interior of the studio do you find a place built with a the ideals of a 13-year old gamer. Pool tables, arcade cabs, consoles, novelty cut-out goblins, a mountain of pizza boxes, and an area devoted to lunch-time, multiplayer-antics. At some point during my visit I decided that this was a place I could say I was truly happy.
Upon my arrival I was met by PR manager Adam Tuckwell who informed me that I was to have an audience with Mark Ogilvie, the games lead designer, to talk all things wilderness and beyond. After being led into the bowels of Jagex Studios and passing by many arcade machines, I was told to take a seat in a room filled with every item that could induce a full-blown nerdgasm: a huge TV, comfortable leather sofas, an Xbox 360 complete with Kinnect – and even Warhammer models in the corner. I was seriously contemplating never leaving this place.
After a short wait and with a cup of English breakfast tea in hand, I was greeted by the sight of RuneScape’s lead designer Mark Ogilvie who appeared to be carrying with him a massive world-map. “The old Wilderness is back!” says Mark slapping his prop and grinning broadly. For those unaware in ways of Jagex’s MMO, the ‘old’ Wilderness was a place of open PvP with full-loot privileges and a general vibe that said “shit-your-pants-tense” or something equally as poetic.
“I literally spent Tuesday morning getting the crap beaten out of me and losing all my gear” Mark tells me - the Wilderness’ hospitality obviously reaches as far as lead designers. “It’s just so great to experience the open PvP-stuff of the Wilderness again, and the players are just loving it at the moment”. There is obviously a lot of excitement in the air about the recent return of some much-loved game play but of course the big question was, why take it away in the first place?
The 'Old Wilderness' RIP
“So we changed the Wilderness and Free Trade around the end of 2007, beginning of 2008. We effectively got to a point where we were very aware of the impact of bots and real world trading was having on our game” Mark answers. Being that RuneScape caters for the 'freebie' market, it is understandable that gold-selling impacts game play but rarely do we see a developer go as far as dismantling certain aspects to protect it. Mark goes on to explain " We realized that these changes were not a very popular thing to do, we knew that the Wilderness attracted a certain type of gamer and customer, but, we were unable to accept the amount of damage being done to our game".
The real world trading issue is something that has plagued MMOs for quite some time. All a player has to do is to log-in to a game such as Aion or even World of Warcraft to be bombarded by a thousand gold selling adverts. And the sad matter about this is that even the biggest MMO companies such as Blizzard are no strangers to hacked accounts and other such nuisances. So while it is not the popular move, the actions taken by Jagex to ensure the players experience isn't ruined is amiable if not greatly appreciated.
"At the time the best thing for us to do was identify all the ways where wealth can trade between players" Mark explains "now that would be me trading objects to you, that would be me dying somewhere and you picking up my stuff, that would be us killing each other in the wilderness or dueling. We said 'ok, if we want to stop real world trading, and cripple bots, this is what we have to do' we had to change all in-game player interactions in terms of wealth" Apparently my idea that work at Jagex was all about Domino's Pizza and Xbox was wrong...
It was at the point of analyzing trade and player interactions that Jagex decided that the trade system would have change as Mark tells me "We had to figure out what everyone's earning potential is in terms of what level they are, how much gold they can make - and we decided we had to make changes to everywhere where this could happen" It seems almost tragic that a small minority of people force companies such as Jagex to take such drastic action.
Following the developers decision, RuneScape went through changes not essentially for the better in terms of game play and also a loss in how the Wilderness functioned; so did the game lose a lot of its audience due to this? I put this to Mark "I would say no, because we always have such a high rate of new users coming - it was basically a swap so in effect the population stayed the same" I found this a little difficult to believe but the designer would not be drawn on detailing any decline in population.
So knowing the reasons and history behind why exactly RuneScape had to change, why now does Mark and his team feel confident to revert back? "So in the last few years, we have been thinking how can we bring this game play back safely - we introduced other elements such as Bounty Hunter and also various different mini-games and activities such as 'Clan Wars' and 'Fist of Guthix'. Being honest though? None of these were really as good as what we had originally" Mark says without mincing words. A developer who is honest about the state of their game is a very rare thing indeed.
"So, recently we started exploring other angles, we starting saying 'can we deal with the bots in other ways, can we deal with real-world trading in other ways? Can we be more aggressive and go after gold-farming sites, people who sell gold, can we be more aggressive in the ways that we deal with bots? So some of those things we've managed to get in with the update we have done this week" Mark details. While the developer wont readily admit it, the changes from 2007 seem be something that the Jagex has concentrated on and tried to remedy for quite some time if not since they were originally altered.
When asked whether it was always the plan to bring back the Wilderness, Mark had this to say " We didn't think we could bring it back safely. So basically the only time we have said 'yes we can bring back' is when we had adequately come up with solutions to the problems that we had - there are various technical and legal proceedings we can go through and we feel now the Wilderness is back safely and the game isn't suffering" Mark also got a little personal and revealed a driving reason behind bring back the Wilderness" I miss that [PvP] community - the PK group are a vocal gang and they can be very mean, but they are a good bunch and I do miss them" At least there is one developer out there that likes PK'ers, you set of murderous bastards.