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RuneScape - Interview With Lead Developer David Osborne

The Tensions And Joys Of Developing A 20-Year-Old MMO

Matthew Keith Posted:
Interviews 0

RuneScape is a Sandbox MMO that has been in operation for almost 20 years. A monumental feat by any gaming metric, this long-running MMO has won Guinness World Records, seen countless updates and revisions and still today beloved by people the world over. Developed and published by Jagex, RuneScape has continued to develop and innovate for over 19 years. With such an impressive resume the MMORPG team wanted to spend some time to see just how RuneScape has stayed so culturally relevant for such a long time.

Dave Osborne, the Lead Designer, graciously took some time to answer our questions about lessons learned, the tensions of creating content and the joys and challenges of managing an MMORPG as endearing and enduring as RuneScape. So grab that coffee, kick back and enjoy our interview with David Osborne, Lead Designer for RuneScape.

MMORPG:  Dave Thanks so much for taking the time to answer our questions. RuneScape has been live for almost 20 years. That is an incredible achievement. Looking back over your time with the game what has been the biggest lesson you've personally learned as a developer?

Dave Osborne: So much of what I’ve learned revolves around building With the audience in mind but knowing the limitations of where that gets you. Listening to players and understanding what they value is huge: if you’re not building content for particular groups of players that you’ve got clear in your mind, then you’re doing it wrong. But, equally, listening solely to players and designing to meet expectation, rather than exceeding it or finding the root problem, only gets you so far and will probably lead to diminishing returns. I find myself switching between the two modes regularly.

MMORPG: That is an interesting tension to manage but clearly it has served you well. Engagement over almost 20 years is a huge feat to achieve. What have been some of the keys to keeping players engaged in RuneScape? What strategies have you found have worked best over the years at engaging lapsed players?

Dave Osborne: We’ve been trying to bottle this for so long! Some of it has been a happy accident, some very much designed. There are a couple of big ones for me. ‘Community’ seems obvious and cliché, but there’s truth in it; there is nothing you can do in a game that is as strong and emotional as friendship and belonging. Also, more than most games, RuneScape only needs to be played on a single account – there are no classes, and no single piece of content is locked away from the player because they made a choice further down the line. That means the whole game is an opportunity space for you, and anything you do in the world makes meaningful and lasting progress on your character. Effectively, your RuneScape character becomes an extension of you, and you don’t get that with every MMO.

In terms of lapsed players, the biggest problem we face is that we update weekly, which can be daunting to a returner. What’s relevant now? Are my banked assets still valuable? We do as much as we can to reassure that your progress is still there, and we point you to the most relevant thing to get you going again.

MMORPG: So much is put into keeping players engaged, which as you mentioned its a pretty daunting but worthwhile task. However, I want to shift to talk about you and your team for a moment. With RuneScape being such a long-running MMO how do you and your team keep ideas fresh and engaging you as a team? 

Dave Osborne: RuneScape is an amazing playground. We have darkness and depth in our elder gods, gods, vampyres, demons and other factional storytelling. But we also have colour in our subversive humour, with things like penguin invading forces, seagull bomber crews and a Gower Quest that takes the player to a pub where all the cancelled content hangs out. That variety is vital to the players and us keeping interested. It might seem tonally as though it’s all over the place, but it’s all joined together by the thread of pushing against the norm and what is expected from a fantasy MMO.

MMORPG: Speaking of narrative I know you’ve mentioned in past interviews that you are passionate about storytelling in games. In the context of RuneScape what has been some of the most effective methods of storytelling in the context of an ever-expanding world?

Dave Osborne: The theme park spirit is important. When you dive back into RuneScape, you might have a horror story, a humorous parody, and a serious drama lined up to play since you last had membership. That mood shifting is important to RuneScape, as players can switch what they’re in the mood for at any time, and our storytelling adapts to that. We’re also keen to put the player at the centre of every action in our storytelling. That might seem odd within an MMO, but we have solo RPG sensibilities when it comes to storytelling, and that is again a mood-shift thing. We find players want to be solo occasionally, and the questing gives them that opportunity.

MMORPG: The idea of giving players specifically returning plays a lot of options in regards to the story must contribute a lot to having recurring and returning members. How does the team handle integrating returning players, who may be returning from a long period of not playing, back into the ongoing narrative?

Dave Osborne:  It’s a challenge, and we’ve certainly not perfected it yet. While we are varied in our storytelling, there is also a strong common thread between them. At the moment it’s the Elder Gods, and we’re halfway through a story about them. We call these ‘seasons’ internally, and it’s important to us that these seasons start at the lowest levels, are written so that any player can understand what’s going on straight off the bat, and we then prompt the players to get on board with the season arc. When the next season rolls about, we start the process over again. 

MMORPG: One of the strategies you’ve mentioned before to help keep players engaged over the years is the Diversions and Distractions Campaign. Could you give us a brief summary of the concept and how you implement it into RuneScape, what inspired or brought about the idea and how has the concept evolved over the years?

Dave Osborne: 12 years ago, we had events called anti-macro events which were basically walking captchas – designed to stop anyone who was looking to automate tasks in the game. We eventually didn’t need them, but players loved the randomness of them turning up and the feeling of life they created in the game world. We then came up with the concept of Distractions and Diversions: random things that turn up in your play session and make you question whether you want to be ‘distracted’ and play them. Penguin Hide & Seek, which we’ve just updated, was in the first batch of those. Over the years, we’ve also broadened the definition to include something the players call ‘weeklies’ and ‘monthlies’. These are distractions that reset over those periods, so you’ll want to pop in over time to make sure you play them. They’re crazily rewarding because of their limited nature, so they tend to be a favourite. 

MMORPG: Speaking of times past, backing up to 2013, We saw the release of Old School RuneScape. My understanding is that this version of the game is based on a 2007 release, gets regular updates and is maintained alongside the original game. Has there been a lot of collaboration between the two different versions of the game from a development standpoint? Have the two versions of the game influenced the other as time has gone on?

Dave Osborne: More than you’d expect! We don’t actually share a large number of players, but players of both games are acutely aware of the other. What we do share is a game world; while there are differences, 90% of the landmass is the same in both games, and the mechanical core is very similar. It means we share findings and ideas, and we often look to each other for what worked and then interpret it for the other game. In November we have an update to our Construction skill, for example, that was also launched in Old School RuneScape in August. We can iterate a wee bit based on how Old School players reacted, and then Old School can learn and update from what we do.

MMORPG: Speaking of different versions of RuneScape, the mobile version is currently in development and is available in early access on mobile devices. What have been some of the biggest lessons learned porting such a long-running title to a mobile environment?   

Dave Osborne: The biggest learning is that porting a 20-year old game with thousands of weekly updates and an active player base is no easy task! It constantly surprises us, and the challenges change on a weekly basis. There will be a compliance issue with one of the operating systems one week, then we need to adapt an upcoming piece of content for mobile on the next. As a team, we have decades of experience in a living PC MMO and bringing it to mobile as effectively a new iteration of the game (but in a shared world) is relatively new to us. 

MMORPG: Has there been a lot of techniques learned while developing on mobile that you've carried back to the desktop experience?

Dave Osborne: Doing it has been crazy useful, though. If you’re making a usability tweak or shortening the flow of a player getting into the game, it’s going to benefit PC as well. Most of the changes we make benefit both ecosystems, so that has been a long-term improvement to an old(er) game. 

MMORPG: How integrated is the desktop experience and mobile experience? E.g., Will, we see the same events happening on desktop and mobile?

Dave Osborne: We have also done our damnedest to ensure that mobile and desktop are ostensibly the same game. There might be concessions to the form factor of mobile, but ultimately a player on mobile who then switches to a PC should feel that they are the same game with the same interactions. From our beta, we are seeing a huge proportion playing cross-play, so this is vital. 

MMORPG: I’ve actually been dabbling a bit with the early access build on Andriod and have loved what I’ve experienced so far. For those still waiting to play on their mobile platform is there a firm date for RuneScape mobile to leave an early access state?

Dave Osborne: In terms of release date, we have nothing to confirm yet. RS Mobile is in Early Access at the moment, and we’re getting lots of great feedback. We’re certainly aiming for it to be out in the coming year.

MMORPG: Thanks so much for your insight as a developer and a fan as to what makes an MMO like RuneScape sustainable and engaging over the long haul. Before I let you go is there any news you can share in regards to what we can expect next from RuneScape in 2020 and beyond? 

Dave Osborne: On the topic of platforms, we just announced the launch of RuneScape on Steam today [Thursday 24th September], which shows a direction we will absolutely be going in the future. RuneScape is a game that feels great when you have a passing minute to make some rewarding progress, and that can and should happen on multiple platforms. I can’t tell you how excited we are about it! (editors note: RuneScape will release on October 14th on Steam. Dave was referring to the announcement of this release when referring the September 24th)

Thanks so much to dave Osborne for taking the time out of his busy schedule to share his thoughts and insights on RuneScape. You can add RuneScape to your wishlist over on Steam if your interested in jumping in when it goes live on October 14th. Be sure to check out our latest articles on RuneScape and everything MMO over at MMORPG.com.


Matthew Keith

Hailing from the Great White North, Matt's been playing games since the Sega Master System was new. About 20 minutes after picking up his first controller he discovered he had an opinion on the matter. Ever since he has been looking for ways to share it with others! Matt's a pastor, gamer, writer, geek, co-host of @Rollthelevel podcast, husband, father, and loving every minute of it!