The One MMO That Ruled (Still Rules) Them All

In the world of massively multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPGs for short), there is very little, if any, room for error.

RS 2

In the world of massively multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPGs for short), there is very little, if any, room for error. There are many elements to creating a good role-playing game, and not too many RPG developers can confidently say that there game has all of them. Factors like graphics, difficulty, complexity, style, storytelling, affordability and community are all key to not only peeking new and old RPG players’ interests but also creating a world of loyal subscribers who won’t leave the game for another after reaching a certain level or finishing a few quests or getting frustrated because they believe the game is too tough or demanding.

Games that already succeed at capturing these elements include the cult RPG World of Warcraft, EVE Online, Guild Wars 2, Lord of the Ring Online, and a relative newcomer to the MMORPG scene, Elder Scrolls Online. There is, however, one RPG that seems to have left the main scene and found a new home. It was and still is the mother of all MMOs, and has silently retained its throne as time wore on. Still retaining the title of the world’s largest free MMORPG, this game is, Runescape.

The Old RuneScape Logo. Very vintage
The Old RuneScape Logo. Very vintage

I remember when I first played the game in 2006. I was 10 years old, and my friends encouraged me to broaden my repertoire of gaming experience by trying out this seemingly boring game called Runescape. Originally, I thought it sounded boring, but since the only other options were playing PlayStation, which they wouldn’t let me play (I was such a game freak back then they literally had to hold me down; nothing has changed), or play Club Penguin, which sounded (and was) 10 times worse than my alternative.

My thoughts when I first played it: This shit is complicated. This shit is confusing. This shit is tedious. This game is fun! Even though there were things my new-to-MMORPG 10-year-old brain couldn’t get around at the time (skill trees, rune combos, combat level, and I could go on forever about trolls when the wilderness was a thing), playing with my friends and figuring it out together made me want to play it more! That year, Runescape became the first (and not the last) MMORPG I would fall in love with.

So what happened to Runescape? You don’t see Jagex putting out aesthetically pleasing and overall awesome looking commercials like other developers? When and how did this massive MMORPG powerhouse become a silent giant? To find the answers to these questions, I had to do some digging, starting with the history behind the game.

Ye Old RuneScape History Lesson…

So what do we know about Runescape’s past? Well, the game was created by brothers Andrew, Paul and Ian Gower. These three brothers, patriarchs given there accomplishment, created every aspect of the game (programming, storylines, everything. Quite impressive). The first iteration of Runescape (the beta) was made public on January 4, 2001. The game made the big time, becoming extremely popular due to its immersive play and graphics (which at that time were considered good). In the wake of their success, the trio created Jagex Game Studios to help manage the game. On March 29, 2004 the next iteration of the game, RuneScape 2, was made open to the public.

Jagex Gaming Studios

However, six years later and after years of success, Andrew Gower left the Jagex Board of Directors in 2010. There may have been disagreements in the Board or bad blood between brothers, or just a legal issue (just a guess, I’m not a tabloid), but for some reason the Board felt it necessary to take Andrew’s name out of the game’s credits, even though he was one of the games original developers. He would go later go on to start his own gaming development and consulting company, called Fen Research. Three years later, Jagex would release the final version, RuneScape 3, on June 22.

The game originally, was created to be a fun, laidback RPG that players could use to kill time while also playing with friends. This was made even more convenient given the fact that the game was free-to-play (FTP or F2P) but still had all the qualities of a full RPG, an approach that not too many MMOs fully embraced at the time.

Initial reviews by critics ranged from applause to praise. In 2003, PC Gamer UK stated that while the “traditional RPG values of questing, slaying monsters and developing your character in a familiar medieval setting” will not “have the big boys trembling in their +2 Boots of Subscriber Gathering,” this is offset by the game’s accessibility through a web browser, “compounded by a version of the game that allows free adventuring player the opportunity to upgrade to a members’ account”, describing the game as “an unsurprising success”.

The Yahoo! 2006 Buzz Log stated that, “while it may not be as easy on the eyes as some other popular online RPG games, like World of Warcraft, City of Heroes, or EverQuest, RuneScape is still a lot better way to kill time than pushing around cells in a spreadsheet”.

A 2007 JustRPG review summarized RuneScape as “a fun, addictive game, and while the graphics may not be perfect, for a game written in Java, they aren’t bad. The skills are varied, the community is alright, and it’ll eat up your time if you aren’t careful”, giving it a score of 83%, and In its 2008 intellectual property profile of the game, stated that whilst Jagex’s changes to curtail real world trading resulted in “a wave of user criticism… growth is understood to have resumed since”. Its analysis stated that “RuneScape’s mass-market appeal lies in its simplicity and accessibility (both financial and technical). It has tapped into the vast market of games players unwilling or unable to spend premium prices on PCs capable of playing the latest, expensive, processor-intensive games. Its core gameplay concepts are very similar to its retail-distributed RPG and MMORPG analogues.”


So, back to our original questions. What did happen to Runescape? What went wrong? I recently began playing the game to see what impression I would take away after playing other MMOs, and I realized the answer is: Nothing. Nothing really happened to the game! While the creation of better looking MMORPGs with better graphics and aesthetically pleasing elements may have entered the arena, and stole some of RuneScape’s thunder, Games like World of Warcraft and Elder Scrolls Online always have and always will be there.

The competition
The “competition”

I could try and say that the appearance of out of date visuals compared to the enhanced graphics of modern graphics and animations have affected the games popularity, but in a world of gaudy visuals, I believe that is part of the games appeal for casual players old and new. In my opinion, after looking over the evidence I found, there was no decline. Runescape never really left us or became some small game for noobs. In fact, it’s better than ever, and has accumulated some additional new shiny parts as well!

Out With the Old

So what were some of the old parts that may have made the game somewhat unappealing for more serious players than myself? Well, as stated before, the game was meant for more leisurely players. Not everyone hops on looking forward to slaying level 63 dragons and getting awesome loot. The game had many different playstyles. RuneScape was the original Farmville and Sims put together, in the sense that (and I’m being serious here), some players would join just to pass time by building a house, farming, hunting, fishing, and cooking (I actually was good friends with one who I called Old McDonald). A lot. The game won their Guinness World Record because there are a lot more casual players out there than there are serious dungeoneers. At the same time, games that promote the competitive vibe of guild wars, dungeon raids, and player vs. player (PvP) interaction just became more popular as time went on. Also, let’s be honest. The games graphics and animations weren’t too easy on the eyes. The clunky looking loot, items, and armor weren’t even appealing to Old McDonald (he quit playing and started found love in Farmville).

An example of the old RuneScape. Doesn't that just look ugly?
An example of the old RuneScape. Doesn’t that just look ugly?

In With the New          

In the years following the release of the first RuneScape. The Jagex developers realized that the game had A LOT of room for improvement. They wanted to add on to the game without taking away what made RuneScape unique. In the updated version of RuneScape 2 and 3, Jagex kept the simplistic nature of the game. They continued to use turn based combat, but sped up time between attacks so that it did not look clunky. Jagex, continued to hit the small but key details, only updating the graphics of the environment, PvE interaction, movement animations, and NPC animations and interactions.

New RuneScape graphics. Very beautiful
New RuneScape graphics. Very beautiful

They also updated the Quest Page, adding challenges, paths, beasts, and more while making it easily accessible. The developers saw the need for skills that made sense with these updates, but instead of replacing skills in the skill tree, they cleverly added more skills, generalizing them to cover the scope of the changes they made. They also updated the visual look of armor, items, and weapons, while also adding a dual-wield function (although it’s only accessible by members). Quest schemes are still complex, but now quests truly fit your combat level, and no one quest feels too hard or too easy.

New Quest Page
New Quest Page

You can still take higher level quests, but the game will warn you of the perils that come with the decision. Skill progression is was kept mostly the same. As usual, the more times you do tasks related to a skill (mining ores levels up Mining, smelting these ores and then crafting weapons and armor level up the Smithing skill, etc.). However, unlike the old game, even though leveling skills is easy no one skill can be left ignored, as each plays an integral part in the quests you can complete.

Beautiful new armor
Beautiful new armor

Some of the newly added skills include: Agility tier, upgraded Thieving tier (mostly members only), Summoning tier (member only), and the Hunting tier, just to name a few. An example of how essential the Agility tier can be found in my experience playing the game. Usually one would find jumping a small gap relatively easy. However, because my Agility tier was level 1, it took me five jumps and half my health points just to cross the gap, which was important to the task I had accepted. It was not a fun experience.


Membership, Membership, Membership

When RuneScape 2 was released Jagex revealed that the subscription option, which had been adopted by almost all major MMORPGs, had been added. Longtime fans had hoped that this wouldn’t happen, that RuneScape would be the rebellious uncle who gave the middle finger to all the relatives that were telling them to grow up and step in line. Unfortunately, money talks. Fortunately, the RuneScape developers made sure that the game was still fun if a user wanted to continue their F2P shenanigans. So while content such as dual-wielding, high-level skills, quests, abilities, and certain items and wearables are members only, the members’ only content is a minority and most other content is still available.

Is membership affordable? Honestly, it depends on who you ask. Some players have the money to spend and are willing to spend it, seeing as the membership is inexpensive compared to other MMORPGs. However, for some people, the answer is no, and others wouldn’t dream of spending such money (I fall in that category). The real question is if the membership is worth it. If you are a veteran MMO player or if you want to full immersive RuneScape experience, sure.

If you asked me membership: yes or no?
If you asked me membership: yes or no?

However, my most common answer, especially when talking about free MMORPGs (and with this being RuneScape), I would have to say no. Unlike games like World of Warcraft and Lord of the Rings Online, RuneScape gives its players more than just half or less than half of the games full experience for free. With this in mind, buying a subscription is not the most frugal decision.

At the End of the Day

I am extremely happy that RuneScape is still about the same as I left it 9 years ago. For a casual player like me who doesn’t enjoy many a RPG these days, it was good to know that there is always a place to go back to, especially a place where I still have a lot of good memories! Most of all, I hope this article helped those still looking for a quality RPG they can play. This article was written not only to inform those veteran RPG players who remember the RuneScape days, but to assist newer RPG players who want a softer introduction to RPGs that doesn’t restrict you from other features after reaching level 15 (I’m looking at you Azeroth!).

Feel free to leave comments or suggestions below. Even corrections are accepted (can’t catch every mistake at 1AM)!   (P.S. For those vet players that miss the old days of bad graphics, tedious gameplay, hardworking America (‘Murica) stuff, and the wilderness (Trolls! Trolls everywhere!), RuneScape has another mode called RuneScape classic, open to those who have accounts already created before the 2004 release of RuneScape 2. So, if you still remember your old account you can dust off those cobwebs and get back to where you left off!)