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Runescape: Talking Old School Mobile

By Gareth Harmer on October 18, 2018 | Interviews | Comments

Runescape: Talking Old School Mobile

Deep in the bowels of Runefest’s Mobile Mountain, there’s an air of nervous excitement. After two and a half years of development and ten months of player testing, Old School Mobile is ready for launch. With the 30th October date announced at Jagex’s annual Runescape festival, fans don’t have long to wait before the game hits smartphones.

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It’s taken the team significant work to get to this point, as producer John Colgrave shared. During an interview earlier this month we went through some of those steps on the road to launch, from using the original ‘early 2000s’ design approaches used by the original founders, to being surprised by how some tight-knit groups play the game (and changing designs in response). The result is a 100% complete Old School experience on a handheld device.

For those on older devices or limited data plans, there’s further good news. On the Android side, everything from a Samsung Galaxy S5 should be supported, while on Apple the iPhone SE is the starting point. And, because Runscape Old School Mobile is based on such an old game, playing uses mere kilobytes of data while content downloads are in megabytes, making it very cell network friendly.

Starting Out Old

Now that Old School Mobile is actually here, the buzz from Runefest attendees this year is significant. But the request isn’t new - players had been asking for a mobile version for a number of years. At the time, however, the climate wasn’t ready - both the smartphones and Jagex technology needed to evolve. “You have to consider things like your cell network changing if you’re on a bus, of fifteen years of legacy tech stack that totally relies on having a static IP, those kind of things.”

“We started building prototypes in 2015, and it was a couple of months of iterating on that to get to a place where we believed we could actually do this. We just had the core goal of ‘We don’t want to take 50% of Old-School or 20% of Old-School’, we want to take 100% of it and provide the experience that’s true and authentic to desktop.”

“And we’ve managed to do that in a way that’s totally interoperable between desktop and mobile, so your progress is saved. if you log out on your computer and get on the bus, just log in on the phone and everything’s still there. You’re sharing game worlds with the same people.”

We first checked in on Old School Mobile (and its more modern sibling) back in 2017 during last year’s London-based event. Development was already far along - the game was playable and work was already underway to update the user interface to work on the smaller screen. But, as Colgrave explained, the work was nowhere near finished.

“We had the game quite performant - obviously we’ve made a lot of efficiencies since then as well - bit nominally it ran and worked quite well on mobile devices. But the user experience wasn’t there. We hadn’t done the work to bring what makes Runescape fantastic in terms of user experience to mobile.”

Getting Old School Mobile ready for prime-time took the help of an army of players. From those early Runefest 2017 attendees, to those who participated in the beta cycles, Colgrave said the experience was crucial. “That entire process has just been a spiral of ‘Here, we made a thing, what do you think of it? Tell us what’s wrong with it and what else we need to do.’ That constant and transparent communication process with our players has helped us iterate on the product to get it to a place where we’re happy for it to go global.”

Even so, porting Old School to even run on mobile devices wasn’t easy. “We started with the old school game engine. It’s from 2007, so not only do we have limited expertise around the world, but trying to translate that into two new operating system universes in iOS and Android [...] has been an engineering challenge for the team. We’re very fortunate to have a very dedicated team that’s made it happen over the last two and a half years.”

Opening the Archives

Building the mobile client was one thing, but creating a compelling gameplay experience was something else entirely. For that, the Mobile team went back to the same principles used by Runescape’s original developers, and applied them to the new smartphone interface. “What the Gowers did way back in the day, because it was a browser based game back then, was just look at how you interact with the browser. You have middle mouse button to scroll up and down menus, left-click to do things, right-click to generate a menu of things to do.”

“We actually went back to basics. Look at a mobile browser. Swipe to move. The keyboard’s got to cover half the screen, so that’s why the chat box is in the top left, that kind of stuff. Our aim is maintaining that really authentic Runescape experience, but we still have to put a mobile lens on that, so It’s still got to feel intuitive on mobile. [...] So we have to make sure that someone who’s never seen or heard of Runescape before, they’re able to pick it up, understand what to do, interact with the game world without anyone physically telling them what to do.”

As development progressed and the beta opened, that user experience got further iterations. Like many MMOs, Old School has a number of different ways that players engage with the game, and several different subcultures that have sprung up to support them. For Colgrave, it’s been these communities that have supplied some of the most interesting feedback in tuning the smartphone interface.

“Runescape is a vast, complex game, and there are hundreds of sub or meta games that players like. Being able to facilitate the needs of all of those has thrown up some really interesting feature requests, such as a button on the top of the interface that you can press to make the single-tap interaction on everything in your inventory be ‘Drop’. We found that for the high-level skilling community, the most efficient way for them to do their XP grind was quickly mining rocks, then quickly dropping them. With a mouse it’s quite easy to right-click in the right place and select ‘drop’ from the menu, but on the phone you’ve got to press down for 3 milliseconds, wait for the menu to appear, slide down, select ‘drop’. It’s not very good.”

“That’s one that’s very interesting for me because, as someone on the production team and design team, we hadn’t really considered this little nuance that makes Runescape enjoyable for those communities. Hearing those types of feedback and being able to deliver against them was really interesting for us. I like to think I’m fairly up to speed on Runescape - I’ve got 25,000 hours played across the franchise over the last ten years, and I’m still learning about how other people play the game, that these sub-communities exist, and they focus on doing things these ways. It’s really interesting.”

Pocket Multi-Tool

Even though Colgrave and team have ensured that the full Old School experience was available on mobile, I was still half-expecting players to settle into particular routines. Go out adventuring on the desktop, collect resources on mobile, that sort of thing. As it turns out, I was completely wrong when I asked Colgrave the same question. “I actually expected them to. But after having a look at the stats and user feedback, the experience is good enough that it doesn’t matter what platform they’re on, they’re still doing that they want, and that’s important to us.”

Jagex’s focus on Old School for mobile has also helped improve the desktop user experience, as it’s given the opportunity to run fresh eyes over every single interaction. “Having to deal with hundreds of interfaces in game, making them work without having to rely on contextual menus or text being up on the screen because you have much less screen real-estate. We’ve done a lot work on how that information is provided and how those systems are interacted with, and we’ve applied that to desktop as well.”

As for the backend infrastructure, even that got a tune-up to handle mobile. “You do have to be connected, but while you’re travelling your network IP will change. We’ve done a lot of work to improve the robustness of our network infrastructure so that when you do just have a blip then reconnects, you may experience a millisecond of the app reinitialising the connection, but the client does not drop and the game does not drop. If you lose your internet connection it’s a bit less graceful, but that’s true of any online game.”

And even when you’re connected, you won’t have to boost your data bundle to keep playing. “Once you have a strong enough connection to connect to the internet, it’s kilobytes. Even with our game updates being installed, it’s a couple of megabytes at most.”

The minimum specification for Old School Runescape Mobile is a Samsung Galaxy S5 or equivalent, running Android 5.0 (Lollipop). Step up to a more recent version, and the client will run at 60 FPS (that’s faster than the desktop version). On Apple, the team is pointing to the iPhone SE running iOS9 as the minimum specification. Tablets will work, but there’s not been any specific optimisation done for the larger screen size.

Still, with the studio making Old School Mobile work for both long-term veterans and mobile-based newcomers - and with it getting updates at the same speed as the desktop version - the community might be on the verge of an influx of new players. We’ll be going hands-on ourselves as that launch day nears to give you that full freshman experience.

Now, how about a Switch port?

Gareth Harmer / When he's not blasting or fireballing his way through a virtual world, Gareth "Gazimoff" Harmer can be found dissecting the mechanics of online games. Chua at heart, he's also our resident columnist for all things WildStar.
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