Developer: Jagex / Publisher: Jagex / Platform: PC / Release date: Late July, 2013 / ESRB: Rating Pending
It’s probably one of the widest known little secrets in the videogame industry. Over 200 million accounts have been registered since its launch in 2001. It heralded the free-to-play revolution before it was clear what that meant. Some 60% of its massive raft content is available to those non-paying “customers.” Its core fan base is passionate and enfranchised by the developers, and they’re about to get the proverbial keys to the narrative kingdom.
Runescape is unleashing its first major update since 2007 (though it has consistently updated virtually every week) to push it back to the forefront of the fantasy MMO realm, as broad and wide as that genre spans the industry, not just within its own special lair: the browser-based game.
Words like free-to-play and browser-based cart with them an unhealthy load of baggage. Can they really be deep, involved, and worth the time investment if all you need to play is your browser? Several million active accounts suggest that they can, and with the HTML5-powered update to Runescape 3 prepping for release later this year the landscape of MMOs, not merely those residing in browsers, could be changed for the positive, and the inclusive.
Runescape publisher, Jagex, has not been prolific in its promotion of the game over the years. Preferring to allow word of mouth to spread the gamer love, the team has hit on a success that has seen the studio expand to around 550 employees (with some 89 job openings advertised at press time). That alone makes the studio significant in the subdued British games industry.
But the team finally wants to tell a story, and they know how to do it in style.
Welcome to Penkforton Castle in rural Cheshire, England. This 19th century folly castle is a little smoke and mirrors in its medieval stylings carefully crafted and erected long after the need for such a defensive structure. It is, on a shockingly glorious early May Day in England, a spectacular setting for the unveiling of Runescape 3, but the game itself shared top billing with the location.
The shift from Java-based to HTML5 is as significant as that from PS2 to 3 or Xbox to 360. Currently in beta for Chrome users, the browser technology has afforded a significant visual overhaul, which is the first feature former Runescape players would recognize. Greater draw distances and improved textures are most of the immediate story (the most obviously significant upgrade), but regulars will likely notice much how load times are virtually nil. Around the world, in towns and the wilderness, Design Director Mark Ogilvie points to the softer shadows and water effects elicited from this new tech will add a richer visual flavor to each environment. Again, this is where the limitations of the browser-based model suddenly appear less prohibitive.
Another area of significant overhaul that doesn’t immediately strike as being crucial, but can actually impact each player’s relationship with the game quite significantly is the user interface. It’s totally customizable in a very broad way, with your map, inventory, skills, and abilities, as well as the action bar all unanchored and ready to be placed however you choose.
Thoughtfully, Jagex is providing a number of presets shaped to provide immediate access to different functions depending on what you feel like doing today: you can be in a sit-by-the-lake-and-fish mode, then you can set it up so the crafting skills are available, and then slip into the combat preset when you’re ready to dive into some Castle Wars action, which is Runescape‘s capture-and-hold/capture-the-flag style game mode. UI flexibility has been a key upgrade in many MMOs, from EverQuest to WoW to SWTOR, and in this upgrade Runescape 3 keeps up with the MMO Jones’s in an effective and intuitive way.
Throw in some audio upgrades including full 44KHz audio in a browser game that allows the team to stream CD-quality music straight to the player’s desktop and once more the gaps between fully installed client-based games and the potential within-browser diminishes.
But for all the HTML5 jiggery-pokery, it wouldn’t mean a damn thing if the gameplay didn’t hold up, and this is where veterans, lapsed players, and newcomers could all find fresh impetus in Runescape 3. For veterans, Jagex has always made a point of including them in the discussion to the point of holding referendums on contentious issues and only passing the measure if over 75% of players agree. But with this update design director Matt Ogilvie is teasing that the players will make key, world-changing decisions themselves.
The story backdrop pitches the players as the decision- and god-makers in a plotline that sees the return of Runescape‘s gods. But the who, the how, the how powerful, is, allegedly, dependent on player interaction. Ogilvie, insisting on keeping the details of this mechanic secret for fear of spoiling the depth of involvement available to the audience, merely suggests that the impact of this dynamic will be significant, and we simply have to take his word for it.
What he did reveal was that each major world event will evolve over three months, will evoke a different theme, and will require different skills from the players involved. What those details mean is being held back so the players discover the terms of their path to glory in real-time.
Of course, for those more casual players, the game’s low-intensity options of fishing or performing mini-games remain, with the theory that they entice casual players to be involved in the game world while chatting with friends or even browsing elsewhere. The more casual player still has what’s estimated at 60-70% of the game world available to explore without paying a dime, ensuring you can explore this world for free, whenever you’re at a browser, for a long, long time.
For the total newbie, the setup is actually quite straightforward; every player is a human in Runescape so you’re not dealing with race and class distinctions out the gate. But you do have to be careful in combat since death invokes memories of Everquest as it requires a corpse retrieval run to pick up all your lost gear. It’s a pain and a penalty, but it does enforce smarter consideration of each encounter so you don’t overextend yourself and waste time just finding your grave.
What was surprising in our playtest of Runescape 3 was still the diversity of the quests available. While some fetch-and-carry options seemed familiar to the MMO landscape, I spent three hours on a murder mystery, questioning sisters at a temple, solving a few puzzles, and never once swinging my weapons in anger… even in the final boss encounter, when a manipulation of an object in the environment was more powerful than my sword.
And it’s still packed with that distinctive, unabashedly English comedy style. Blending wannabe Monty Python with traditional sarcasm and punnery, Ogilvie was proud of the fact that some quests are designed to end with a punch line. This symbolizes a growing team having fun with their creation and their fan base, which is probably easy when those people may not have to pay (or pay too much) to play with a large and committed community.
I mean, for any gamer who may have dabbled with an MMO or an adventure game, what do you have to lose? Launch your browser, log in, and find out what the fuss is all about. The HTML5 visual upgrades will quickly dispel any notions of a low-rent experience, and let’s face it, over 200 million players can’t be wrong, right?