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RuneScape 3: colour your world

More than a decade on from its launch as one of the first browser-based MMOs, RuneScape is heading for big changes. Dave Owen checks in with the apparently immortal "Netflix of gaming" as it prepares to ditch Java.

With 12 years under its cloak and counting, and over 200 million players clicking into its medieval fantasy world of Gielinor, RuneScape is officially the world’s largest free MMORPG. This summer, developer Jagex will introduce the future of the game: RuneScape 3. I spoke to Design Director Mark Ogilvie and Executive Producer Phil Mansell about what changes players can expect in the update, why being the Netflix of gaming has ensured enduring success, and what the future holds for Jagex’s “glorified soap opera.”

Most obvious, of course, is that Gielinor is soon to be exponentially shinier. Graphically RuneScape has long lagged behind other major MMORPGs, but the new version will even the score, putting it almost on par with the likes of World of Warcraft. Improved visuals and draw distance promise the most immersive questing yet.

The improvement is largely thanks to Jagex breaking from the traditionally-used Java, instead developing in HTML5.

“The company was in some ways built on Java,” says Phil Mansell. “Everything used to support it, but that’s ebbed away in the last few years. We want to keep the game really accessible, and both accessibility and performance are better on HTML5 than on Java.”

Conversely, this focus on accessibility risks hindering players using low-spec gear. Fortunately, Jagex has them covered. “We think that 80-90% of players will get on really well with HTML5,” says Mansell. “For those with old PCs, we’re keeping the Java client around. So it’ll be fine at launch, and it can only get better.”

The last thing Jagex wants to do is upset its players – with over 200 million of them, it knows where its bread is buttered. All going well, players should experience minimal disruption when the update launches this summer. “RuneScape 3 supersedes the game, but it also continues it,” says Ogilvie. “So you don’t need to import your character. If you do log in with Java, it’ll still be RuneScape 3. We’re sort of rolling the whole thing forward.” To reinforce this, and in keeping with RuneScape tradition, the numeral will be dropped shortly after launch.

Jagex is aiming to do more than merely avoid disrupting players. They want to make the player central to RuneScape 3’s development.

“We’ve taken the stance that we should put players in the driving seat in terms of the direction of the content we make,” says Ogilvie. On its most basic level, this entails engaging with the community to discover what it wants added to the game. Recently, for example, players were polled on which of three storylines they wanted to see continued. This is only the start of increased player involvement.

Ogilvie and Mansell believe it is Jagex’s deference to players that has allowed RuneScape to achieve the rare feat of growing in popularity against the tide of a rapidly changing MMORPG market that has left a trail of casualties in its wake. As well as being the world’s most popular MMORPG, RuneScape is also the most updated.

“We have something significant coming into the game every single week, so it gives the product a really fresh feel,” says Ogilvie. “We’ve got such a long history, and such a wide range of player types. That motivates us to make a huge variety of content all the time.”

"Something like WoW, you still pay for the big expansion packs as well as your subscription. We like to think of ourselves as similar to Netflix – there’s something new every week."

This not only keeps players logging in to the free version of the game, but has also allowed RuneScape to keep subscription numbers high. “There’s a tonne more stuff if you become a member,” says Mansell.

“Players don’t just consider the subscription as access to a server with occasional updates. Something like WoW, you still pay for the big expansion packs as well as your subscription. We like to think of ourselves as similar to Netflix – there’s something new every week. You’re paying for a lot more than just access to servers. [Subscriptions are] still going to be our main source of finance for the future.”

Ogilvie quickly adds, “We’re still actively developing the free game too. We have no intention of abandoning our free players.”

Indeed, in RuneScape 3 all players will be integral to the development of Gielinor. It will launch globally with a new feature known as World Events. “Monumental changes are happening within the reality of the game world,” explains Ogilvie. “Through the players’ actions they’re able to shape the future of the world.”

Neither Ogilvie nor Mansell is willing to give away too many story details just yet. What they do tell me is that the opening events of RuneScape 3 will follow on from a recent quest that ended with the untimely death of the god Guthix, who protected Gielinor from other, malevolent gods. Without his protection, the world stands on the brink of destruction.

“The players have been given the role of world guardians,” says Ogilvie. “As a community they can get involved in gameplay that dictates the future of the game.”

So while players are busy saving the world, Jagex faces fresh challenges of its own. Once RuneScape 3 has launched on its familiar PC stomping ground, the first mobile and tablet version of the game will follow. Due to HTML5 RuneScape 3 will work on most Android devices, but it won’t immediately be optimised for touch control. “That’s our next big project,” confirms Mansell.

A market largely occupied by casual gamers, mobile and tablet devices have so far only played host to a handful of RPGs, and even fewer MMOs. Ogilvie acknowledges that encouraging casual gamers to engage with something as massive as RuneScape will be difficult. But he also believes that the game’s bywords of variety and accessibility make it a better fit than it might at first appear.

“The huge range of gameplay that we have in RuneScape is something I would describe as casual, in terms of the level of engagement required. A lot of our PC users will have multiple tabs open, and be on YouTube simultaneously, for example. It’s quite casual with the amount of effort that can be put into the game.”

Both men are confident that RuneScape is already well-positioned to continue going from strength-to-strength for many years to come. “A lot of the industry is looking at episodic gaming as the holy grail,” says Ogilvie.

“We’re already doing that with weekly updates. You can look at RuneScape as a kind of glorified soap opera – it’s something you want to go to every week to see what’s new and what’s changing in the world. I want to see that taken to the next level where the players feel like they’re not just passengers in how the game evolves; they’re actually directing how the game evolves.”

Thinking another 12 years ahead is therefore out of the question. “My plans are 18 months at the most, and that’s a loose plan! We really have no idea how players are going to react to the sort of power we’re giving them. I’m looking forward to seeing what they decide to do with it."

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