Interviews// Reinventing Runescape

Posted 8 Jul 2013 16:55 by
Andrew believes that Runescape has a distinctive artistic style that helps it stand out from its competitors - of which today there are many, many MMORPGs on PC and browser all vying for player attention. “It’s quite different to any other MMO, because we give the designers, developers and artists quite a bit of freedom to interpret what we want to do. Instead of being told about a quest and how it has to work, we’re given some high-level goals but it’s up to us as artists how we interpret those goals.”

An example of this departmental freedom was offered by Mark - a quest that involved creating a number of mermaid characters. Instead of the typical half-female, half-fish approach that is usually expected, the artists came back with urchin and shark-based creatures. The design director also believes that collaboration is a big part of office life at Jagex, and key to Runescape’s success.

“We believe very strongly in nurturing talent in the company. That’s not me coming up with HR crap, that’s genuine. So many of us have worked our way up through the ranks.” Mark is actually one such success story, starting at Jagex some ten years ago in QA and working his way up the food chain to his current high-ranking status. He now spends some of his day trying to encourage other employees to pitch ideas to the content directors, and to support those who he feels need to believe in themselves.

“I truly believe that if you’re passionate about the stuff you do, that passion is infectious,” Mark added. “And the players notice when you’ve taken on board those little bits of detail that makes sense to them, because they know and love the product. We actively hire people who play the game, so we’ve always got that talent and belief in the product within the company too.”

Bacon Quest, Runescape’s latest weekly content update, is an example of the talent nurturing and collaboration philosophy held at Jagex, Mark explains. “It wasn’t in our schedule, we just realised that now is the time to be developing something like this. We didn’t think we’d do this project a year ago because we simply dismissed it. But it just goes to show how passionate we are about these sorts of collaborative efforts.”

That collaborative passion appears to be paying off with all hands on deck to make Runescape 3 as real evolutionary step forward for the MMORPG. Phil believes that the move to HTML5 will allow the game to be a bit more future proof and to better evolve as new technologies emerge. He points to WebGL 2.0 and web audio features as examples of how Jagex can dynamically adapt as browsers become a more competent gaming platform.

“Obviously, we’d like to take this rewrite as a base [for greater expansion], and maybe port the game elsewhere - but as a direct port rather than anything else. That’s sort of where we’re heading.” Tablets, consoles and mobiles seem to be areas that Jagex is actively exploring. I asked Phil if that was the case. “I think porting the game to other platforms is fairly reasonable. Besides the technical aspect of porting it to consoles, TV or tablets... I’d say that’s a reasonable approach for us to take, I think, to get the game onto more hardware, reach more people and expand.”

Mark agrees, adding that a big part of Jagex’s future focus with Runescape 3 is adopting some of the philosophies of the past - that nature of a close-knit relationship between developer and community - whilst maintaining its status as a large, prominent UK studio. “We’ve changed our philosophy quite a lot recently. In the early days, there was a greater degree of collaboration between us, as developers, and the players.

“Then we got to a point where the business started to grow, and the player base grew with it. It became much more difficult to maintain that kind of relationship. A lot of what we’re doing with Runescape 3 is about bringing that back. Instead of us having, say, five years worth of content in our heads, I’d rather be planning a year ahead and seeing how players react to things we’re doing now.”

The twinkle in Mark’s eyes suggest that this is where the real evolution of Runescape is going to be. “Giving players the power to shape the way the game evolves. Rather than a passenger who’s just experiencing the storyline as it unfolds, it makes them the principle actor. In many ways, we’re relinquishing the power we have and putting it in players‘ hands.”

And it’s all been building up to this. Jagex hasn’t just been cleaning house in terms of its code, it’s also been tidying up a lot of loose ends that relate to Runescape’s expansive history.. “We’ve concluded some big storylines as well as things that have happened in previous ages. We’re starting this sixth age, and it’s truly the Player’s Age,” Mark added.

It’s a very bold plan, but can Jagex pull it off? Mark concludes the interview by pointing to the developer’s track record in content updates, as well as echoing Phil’s comments about the future expansion of the franchise. “If you think about the way our update strategy works, updating every week... that’s pretty close to the Holy Grail of episodic content.

And for me, that’s where I want to be. That sort of episodic content-meets-user-generated content. Not ‘user-generated’ like they’re writing the script, but in that the players’ actions are dictating how the game evolves. That’s something we can do while also looking after the veteran player base that we have. Hopefully, on multiple platforms that can move around with the player, so they can stay in contact with their avatar in the same way that they stay in contact with their friends on Facebook.”

Many thanks to Mark, Phil and Andrew for their time.
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