The Proto-MMO: RuneScape and Unstructured, Massively Multiplayer Play

The website of Jagex Ltd. says that I first logged into its seminal MMO Runescape over twelve years ago, on September 11th, 2005.  It also says that I’ve spent 827 hours playing the game since then, a number that does embarrass me, but not enough to stop me from playing it.  See, Runescape doesn’t have any of the qualities of the games I spend most of my time playing.  While most of the games populating my most played list of 2017 have gone all respectable, with coherent and gorgeous art direction, game systems that engage and challenge, and well-crafted narratives that finally made me stop feeling insecure

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God, how is that even possible?

about dedicating my professional life to games instead of literature or film or whatever, Runescape is…basically a clicker game with a prettier coat of paint.  So, I have a hard time explaining why Runescape is interesting to me other than the patented nostalgia excuse.  But I’ve spent a decent amount of those 827 total hours playing the game in the past few weeks, and I think I’ve come up with a rough idea of why I keep coming back.  My arc with most games is as follows: buy, binge, give up, move on to the next game.  I don’t usually revisit games to complete side content, and I rarely replay them.  However, I engage with Runescape differently.  In Runescape, I might play for a week here and there, then go back to playing other games.  I make a bit of progress, complete a quest, grind some levels, then move on.  So, what about Runescape’s design is different from other MMOs?  How does it structure its expected playtime to encourage a more casual engagement?  And can we still learn something from it when the contemporary MMO is moving closer to “shared world” that “massively multiplayer”?

“Player freedom” has become such an overused industry buzzword in the past decade that I cringe just to mention it, let alone to make it the core of my thesis, but yeah, Runescape offers the least directed experience of any MMO I’ve played (certainly any made since World of WarCraft).  Once the player leaves the tutorial, they are basically given the freedom of a Bethesda RPG.  The game is so good at this that it actually struggles to give new players a clear direction when they start playing, and I think this is a very good problem to have.  WoW popularized this “theme park” style of MMOs that gives the player an exact path to follow through the game, so the player rarely has to decide what to do next.  And while there is some benefit to this system (namely, it’s relaxing as hell), Runescape shows how good it can be when you design for the opposite sensibilities.

Here’s an example of a Runescape play session I had the other day: “Okay, I really want to complete the Recipe for Disaster quest because it’s goddamn funny, but in order to do that, I need to complete the Desert Treasure quest to unlock Ancient Magicks.  And that would be easy, except finishing that quest requires killing this vampire boss who has been giving me a lot of trouble, but it looks like he’s weak to air spells, so I’m going to train my magic level to 60 so I can use this awesome magic staff that will let me hit him with my toughest air spell.  Magic is kind of hard to train, so I’ll pickup some good magic gear and complete a few quests that give magic experience while learning how to use the new magic system.  And then I can complete this quest I’ve wanted to do since I was 13.”

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Completing this was literally on my bucket list

This is a chain of events that I planned out on my own, a decent amount of which could have been swapped out for other solutions.  I didn’t need to do any of it to advance in the game, I just wanted to.  Where an average play session for WoW is “I need to do this quest so I can unlock the next quest which unlocks the next quest…” ad nauseam, Runescape’s play sessions are much more dynamic; constructed by players, not developers.  The game allows the player to set goals for themselves and accomplish them however they see fit.

The world itself, fortunately, is designed around this.  As a kid, I loved that I could never know everything about it.  There were entire areas I had never been to and knew very little about, and they carried an air of mystery as a result.  For example, the game has this elven city far off to the west, unlocked by an elaborate series of quests that I was never able to complete.  However, one of my friends *had* completed the questline, and told fantastical and almost certainly exaggerated stories about how amazing the city was.  That story was specific to me, but the game’s world design generates stories like this regularly, and it’s a type of story that other MMOs struggle to generate.  In World of WarCraft, my second massively multiplayer love, I have been everywhere in that world.  Thanks to dungeon finder, flying mounts, and a hefty amount of time spent unlocking the Explorer Achievement, I have seen all of the secrets Azeroth has to offer.  I don’t know if it was always this way, apparently the game was less forthcoming about the details of its world at launch, but contemporary WoW has lost this mystery.  This could be part of what makes going back to WoW less engaging: every corner of that world has already been explored.

Runescape never felt that way.  There was personality packed into every bit of that world, always waiting for me to find it.  And it wasn’t because I didn’t explore the wikis and YouTube videos, I remember spending hours reading about the game and its various locations I never ended up seeing.  Runescape’s world was created specifically to be exploredWoodcutting_Tree, maybe not to the extent that Skyrim was, but closer to that than any post-WoW MMO.  Like Skyrim, Runescape walks a fine line between a present- and absent-feeling designer. I never feel like I am being told what to do, but I do see the designer’s personality packed into every corner of the world, from the tongue-in-cheek dialog of the quests (that borrow more from Shrek than Tolkien), to the flavor text provided when using a herring on a tree (which is, of course, a Monty Python reference).  The designer wasn’t giving me a list of options, they were just responding when I acted out what *I* wanted to do.  They felt more like a dungeon master than a chore-giver, a distinction that a great deal of contemporary games, MMO and otherwise, seem to be missing.

Runescape has many, many problems.  Its combat is still infuriatingly boring, there is still too much grinding, and the control scheme will never feel natural.  However, because it gives the player the choice of how to engage with its world, those problems are much less present than they would be in many other games.  The combat is bad?  Well, the majority of the game’s content is actually non-combat, drawing more from adventure games than action RPGs.  Combat is just something else you can do, not the primary driver of the game’s content.  There’s too much grinding?  If you feel like grinding, you can do that, or you can experiment with more interesting ways to grind, or you can experiences some of the wealth of content that doesn’t involve grinding at all.  The control scheme is bad?  Well…okay, that one you can’t really avoid.  I guess you kind of have to live with that.  Regardless, when the game fails, it fails gracefully and often avoidably.  That’s one of the advantages of not being laser-focused on one path.  It certainly doesn’t seem to be a design philosophy that will be adopted by AAA MMO developers any time soon, but, for students and fans of the medium, it is still wonderfully preserved, just as it was in 2007.

I still kind of prefer Runescape 3 though.

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