Developing Old School Runescape sounds like a challenge of gargantuan proportions. It feels like there’s a conscious effort to preserve the legacy of an MMO straight out of 2007, but also to delight players with new content and ways to play.
When we met producer John Colgrave to talk about Old School at RuneFest 2019, he’d sometimes sound like an excited curator of a digital museum, sharing new content and features as potential exhibits for a carefully managed collection. But it’s deliberate, as everything revealed will be put under player scrutiny leading up to a final poll. If an idea doesn’t score highly enough, it doesn’t go in. Could you imagine other MMOs taking that approach?
Even so, the focus tends to be less on set-piece storytelling that players may only experience once, and more on new experiences that players can enjoy time and again. The latest batch of proposed updates underscore this approach: clan support, group ironman, and Twisted leagues with unique rulesets are all on the slate. That isn’t to say adventuring is being ignored, as the Morytania update will take steps to closing a saga that’s been 17 years in the making.
MMORPG: It feels like first of all, there's this big thing that's happening in Old School Runescape, in terms of revealing a new part of the map to players and stuff like that. Whenever you pull back the covers, it's always kind of a big deal. What's the build up to Morytania and Darkmeyer City been like?
John Colgrave: The build up to Darkmeyer in particular has actually been a story in the making for, I think you're talking 13, 14 years? Not quite as long as the 17 that we closed off with some of the old last year, but Darkmeyer is not actually the final piece yet either. Maybe we'll make it to be the longest running storyline yet. The original Meyer series revolves around just a civilization in this scenario of the Morytania swamp. They're essentially being attacked by the vampyres from the East.
Without going into too many spoilers to the storyline, players essentially help out that small civilization of people to manage the vampyres, and there is a resistance among the vampyre people that are trying to overthrow the current ruling of the area. The city of Darkmeyer has actually been there all along. It just hasn't been revealed yet. Like you say, it's pulling back the curtain. In the buildup, in the last quest series we encountered Lord Drakan, who is the Lord of the vampyre city. I'm not going to try and pronounce it because it's got like eight Is and three Es in it.
It was kind of left on a bit of a hanger, but it was all about hope. Resistance is built on hope. That's why that quest was called A Taste of Hope. It seems that the further it dealt into the next phase of the resistance story, how can you really infiltrate the vampyre city? Again, without trying to reveal too much of the storyline, it gets very juicy and essentially lays the foundation for what would be the final installment of the quest series in the future. I think that captures it.
MMORPG: I think it's important to note that a quest or quest line in RuneScape isn't just what people would normally expect in an MMO which is you go here, you pick up this parcel, you run it across the dirt to the other side of the valley and then deliver it, and that's the quest complete. It's much more like a chapter in a story, isn't it?
Colgrave: Absolutely, yes. We pride ourselves on our quests and stories being a deep, rich narrative experience that take you from one end of the map to the other. Like you say, it's not just a throwaway, collect five X and give it to Y NPC. You might meet an NPC that at first only just wants to send a parcel to another NPC, but actually there's a three-hour long storyline to tell in that. You're meeting characters with rich dialogue, with history and heritage in the game that have stories to tell. It's all about enriching the player's experience and being able to escape into a storyline. It's almost playing your way through a book I guess, is one way to phrase it.
MMORPG: Another British ideais the Ian Livingston ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’ kind of thing where you've got that play through a book. Is that an inspiration?
Colgrave: I wouldn't call it a direct inspiration, but certainly similarities between the two. I think it's just, it's just such a core foundational part of the game in that the quests really mean something and that's, even beyond the storyline. It's beyond just being a good experience or being fun or enjoyable. It's also really rewarding and has, for the most part large impacts on the way you're going to play the game next.
Which is again what Darkmeyer comes to. It's not just about telling you the story. It's about what you get after the story, into the city. What are the new features you can get hold of? How you can get a new way of training agility. For example, for years players have been asking us to do a Dark Graceful. Which is, Graceful's an agility set that lowers your weight so when you're running around you use less energy. Dark Graceful's coming with Darkmeyer, finally. You collect the hallowed marks through the agility activity.
I can't pronounce hallowed sepulcher enough times in a sentence. You collect enough of those, you can recolor your Graceful set Dark. It fits in with the area, but it's those small details that as a product manager, I wouldn't say you wouldn't care but they're less valuable in terms of core engagement features. Community is the heart of everything that we're doing on Old School. Being able to, not just give them the content they're asking for, but attach something that has real purpose, real meaning, and really adds depth to the game is what we're all about.
MMORPG: Because otherwise, you'd uncover the area. You'd unlock the city. You'd complete the quest and unlock the city. It'd be like, "Well, so what? I've just, a new city where I can do things the same as the old cities that I've already uncovered." Having that reason to go back there and to do that thing, it means it's much more meaningful. There's much more purpose behind it.
Colgrave: Exactly, yes. RuneScape's such a huge game, having been around for so long and Old School's no different. Being able to add niche value to the various aspects of the game. There's so many different, thousands of permutations your account could take up in terms of progression that you have to drop them in at the right area so that they're adding value to certain types of accounts at certain times.
MMORPG: I can understand. The other thing that really struck me with this is in terms of that community feel. Having clans now being a big thing. You said you're adding full-on clan support with up to 500 players in the clan, stuff like that. What makes it more than just ticking off a features list, do you think?
Colgrave: For me it's, let me find the right way to phrase this. It's about, clans are a unique feature. Like I said earlier, they're kind of minimum viable products feature for most MMOs? I guess we're lucky that Old School hasn't had any support for that, yet clans still continue to thrive within our community. It's that sense of togetherness that we want to harness and promote, but still make it integral to the game without interfering with its integrity.
It's not just about give you somewhere to chat. It's about giving you a full suite of tools to effectively manage your clan the way you want to, rather than us telling you how you should manage a clan. It's just about facilitating how you want to run yours, because clans are so diverse. You've got PVM players that just do nothing but raids all day long, and they're the best at that.
Make sure they've got the tools to organize their raids at the right time, to communicate with each other. You've got PVP clans that need a huge amount of organization to be able to move 30 to 50 troops around the wilderness at certain times and attacking the right people at the right time. At the same time you've got this more friendly clans that are just about enjoying a good social experience together.
Again, this is not a crux of RuneScape. This is existence, is that beyond the game there's that underlying permanent social current. It's always moving and something you can ever really watch, but you're always going to be aware of it. Clans for us, it's just about bringing that to the surface a little more and just facilitating what our players really want from it.
MMORPG: Also, it helps create new forms of game play. Ironman's always been a really strong, important part of Old School RuneScape. With Old School being a tough challenge, Ironman makes it even tougher. How do you think players are going to interact with Group Ironman?
Colgrave: Group Ironman for me is, it's interesting. Actually, I'm curious to see how this unfolds within itself because we've had these requests for Group Ironman since we did the original Ironman launch in 2014, but there's been no definition of what that looks like. Our attempt to do that is being revealed at RuneFest this year.
It is a new game mode, so if you're an existing Ironman we're not allowing you to just form groups of Group Ironman because we'll have a new high score race across each of the segments of group size. If you're a group of two, there's a set of high scores for you. Same for three, groups of four and groups of five. It's fresh accounts and there's actually very little relation to an Ironman account in the vein that, if you are a Group Ironman, you're a Group Ironman.
You're not an Ironman and you can't become an Ironman. The dynamics of the group play within itself, actually Ironman you have to do everything alone, which is the nature of the game with itself but everybody has their likes and dislikes about everything. Old School's no different. You've got your skills that you enjoy training and your skills that you really don't enjoy training.
Perhaps you can find someone that doesn't like the skills that you enjoy training and really likes the skills that you don't enjoy training. You can just form a pair, halving the amount of effort required to make your progress through the game. For me, you can't beat a good high score race, particularly with Old School. We see it with Ironman. We saw it when we were running Deadman. Everybody loves to compete to be at the top. We're going to have five new high score races all at once, and I can't wait to see how player strategy develops in this new paradigm of game play.
MMORPG: Do you think we're going to get a lot of people running around during RuneFest trying to form their Group Ironman teams?
Colgrave: Probably. I'd be amazed actually, if a lot of the people at RuneFest don't already have a group planned. We've never denied doing Group Ironman. We've never revealed it, either. But I think in, certainly in our dedicated players' minds, it's been inevitable in some fashion. I'm really excited. I want to see the reaction now that we're painting a picture of how the functionality and the features shape up. Trying to vie for the, "You're the best at the game. I really want you in my group," and that kind of stuff. It's the sort of tomfoolery that comes with those dynamics. This should be really fun to watch. Again, it all links back to the community, which is what the center of all of our decision making ...
MMORPG: Then the thing that amazes me is that you're still working out ways to keep fresh with the Old School leagues, as well. You've said that you're going to go with this time-limited challenges with a twisted rule set. You've mentioned a couple of them, but they sound really interesting. How far can you push the boat in terms of crazy stuff that you might be able to do?
Colgrave: That's a question we've asked ourselves a lot in the last couple of months, actually. Leagues was born from a, we had this concept of wanting to do another seasonal type of content. One reason we did mobile is that our players are growing up. They have less time to dedicate to playing the game. We can't all sit there for 16 hours in front of a computer screen anymore. We have work, children, all that kind of fun stuff.
Doing seasonal content allows players to drift in and out as their lifestyle suits. We didn't just want to copy paste the game and make it faster, because it's boring. It's been done. There's no real attraction so we thought, "What's the most extreme thing we could do with the game?" We wound up back from that. For Leagues, we've still got Accelerated XP because it's time limited and there's only so much repetition players enjoy.
We're trying to speed up a little bit, but with the modifiers, we've really tried to think outside the box and think, "Okay, what are the really annoying things in the game that we can just get rid of with some of these power ups?" Because they're separate to the main game, we don't have balancing concerns. We also wanted to focus on a lot of player choice, as well. We want them to make really hard strategic choices at certain points that they cannot go back on.
I can't speak for all Old School players at all, but many of them I know like to think they know everything about the game inside and out. They are walking wikis and experts about the game. Even more so than we are, but I wanted to challenge them. If we change that paradigm, can you really keep up? Do you still make the right decisions? If you haven't, what are you going to do about it? Because you can't go back and change it. That's where multiple Leagues was born. I think that captures it.
MMORPG: It's also a kind of thing where it's not just racing through the league. It almost feels like everyone can get something from it, in this point system you're talking about, as well.
Colgrave: That was our goal. Again, we understand that players don't have the 16 hours a day to compete. Saying, "Here's a high score race" only appeals to so many. It does appeal to some, but doesn't capture the wider audience. Our goal was to do engagement based rewarding mechanics so that even if you can only commit five minutes a week, there's still something in there for you and it's still adding value to your experience. For us, being able to transfer your points and progress back to the main game and you can translate that into some tangible rewards, this is a huge new feature for us. It speaks to a lot of players, and given our announcement last week, it seems to have done just that.
MMORPG: Do you think that League seasons will always stay the same length, or do you think you'll mix up both the length and the content?
Colgrave: We're keeping an open mind as we go through it. We're very much treating the first one as quite experimental. We want to learn from that because it's a new paradigm for us, as well as our players. We're not certain what's going to work and what isn't. At the moment, I couldn't really say what the next one's going to look like, but I can say that we're intending to have more. The rule set in particular, we do expect to shift quite dramatically into future seasons.
This one is very much a, it's Ironman on the continent of Zeah and all the content within that. The next one might not be Ironman at all. It might be PVP based. It might not be area locked, it might be. We may even theme it around some other packaged content so that with the Morytania expansion we could do a blood league that focused on Morytania. Something like that might work out, but ultimately we want our players to be enjoying it. We need to see them get their hands on the first one and feedback and help us shape up what the next one could be.
MMORPG: Great. Do you think that there's any results from all of this experimentation that might feed back into the main game?
Colgrave: Absolutely. We like to develop with an open mind. Mostly because a lot of our ideas can get shot down by the community and our poll system, right? We embrace that. We don't start designing a concept and thinking it's going to be the the greatest thing since, I guess our last release of content. We try to conceptualize in themes and areas, and let the content almost shape itself through our conversations with our players whether that's private first and then going public, and essentially remain open all hours to feedback. If it's something that players really want, it's something we'd look at, is essentially our approach.
MMORPG: Old School on mobile has gone live and by all accounts, it's been pretty fantastic. It's delivering a nice slick experience on both Android and iOS devices now, as well. How do you see the balance of players now between all of those old school Old School players on PC and potentially a new influx of players coming in from mobile?
Colgrave: You're absolutely right. It's been a fantastic year for us. Mobile picked up the fan vote at BAFTA and Develop:Stars awards, which is always nice because you've got recognition from not just our customers with the BAFTA awards, but from our peers in the industry as well with the Develop awards.
We've seen a lot of crossover, so you might be playing on your PC but it's summertime. You want to go outside. You just log out, log into your phone and keep doing what you were doing. We did see a huge amount of new players come in with mobile and we've done quite well to retain very much of them. We've done a lot of work and continue to do a lot of work in improving our first-time user experience, as well to help capture them and introduce the unique nuances of Old School to perhaps, your casual mobile gamer.
I imagine it's a bit of a culture shock coming into this 2007 game and it's on your phone. That's been a tricky balance because Old School is very much, it's a heritage experience. I think of it as a living museum of what desktop gaming used to be. To trying to balance the good bits of the old with the right parts of the new so you've still got that sort of nostalgia trip as you're going through the tutorial, but you're learning perhaps in a more modern way how to interact with the game. How the mechanics work, how to train your skills and that.
MMORPG: Absolutely. Apart from maintaining parity with the PC version, where do you see mobile going next, in terms of Old School?
Colgrave: We're certainly not done with mobile. There's still a number of features that we have in the works that we'd perhaps like to get done before we shipped it last year, but because there are technical restrictions it didn't make sense to hold up for.
Some of the features and mechanics that we're looking at actually are born from our relationship with Android and Apple. As both platforms continue to innovate, offering a whole suite of new features in terms of subscription offers, et cetera. You're seeing Google Stadia and Apple Arcade come to the forefront as well, so I think there's a lot of innovation happening in the mobile space. It's something we're watching very closely, and you'll have to watch us very closely to see how we interweave ourselves into that environment even further.