Perhaps more than any other MMOG, RuneScape’s climate is shaped as much by its users as its creators. Jagex understands that player agency is what sets RPGs apart, which isn’t surprising, since its flagship game was dreamt up by a team with extensive experience of tabletop roleplaying. RuneScape 3, rolling out this summer, draws from this heritage by giving players the chance to change Gielinor’s topography forever, asking them to side with deities in an ongoing battle for power. Design director Mark Ogilvie reveals the lie of the land.
As a Dungeons & Dragons player, which parts of tabletop RPGs do you feel are under-represented in their videogame equivalents?
One crucial ingredient that’s often forgotten is the role of the Dungeon Master, that individual ability to modify the story, to iterate and change the narrative’s direction in response to how players are engaging with the story in realtime. Boxed products don’t have that agility, and until the dawn of DLC and patches couldn’t respond to player feedback at all. With our browser client and commitment to weekly updates, I feel RuneScape is best placed to bridge the gap between the two [media]. That’s why we’re making a renewed effort to design content where players make meaningful decisions that dictate the next part of the story.
To make decisions truly meaningful they have to impact the game at both the individual and community level, right?
Our solution to that is to introduce a clock. Our world is currently full of quests that can be tackled anytime, anywhere, but we want to introduce finite content – stuff that can’t be recycled, that can only be influenced by players that are playing the game there and then. These come in the form of constantly evolving World Events that come round in a three-month cycle. These events allow players to redefine the world [according to] their vision, whatever the cost to us. By placing a time limit on such events, we hope to create an environment where the players who were there are remembered and recognised by future communities for the action they took and the way they shaped the world for the next generation.
How did the Wilderness controversy of 2007 affect the way that you engage with players?
That was a communication issue. The effect bots were having on the in-game economy affected the way players approached the game, and we didn’t have the tech back then to fight it properly. The only thing we could do was remove PvP battles. While this fixed the problem to some extent, the downside was that it removed a core interaction, and the fanbase were very vocal about that.
We’ve learned so much since then and nowadays spend more time in conversation with the community – either through message boards or at RuneFest events, where we actually pitch ideas to them. As an example, we recently reworked and expanded the combat system to make it more tactile. This wasn’t a change we could make lightly, since we learned most of our players engage with our game in a passive way. They’re almost like passengers, multitasking RuneScape with other windows, such as chat, YouTube, whatever. So we had to devise a system that was more involved without sacrificing low-level input.
Players can be resistant to change. How do you deal with that?
We find different players are motivated by different aspects – story, community, [completionism] – and it’s our job to ensure each of these motivations are stimulated at some point within the three-year cycle. We don’t try to make every quest appeal to everyone, though; we’d be foolish to do that. We have so much content coming thick and fast that our players know if they don’t like something [then] there’ll likely be something around the corner that they do like.
Freemium is a hot topic. Which rival business models impress you?
I love what EA are doing with stuff like FIFA Ultimate Team. The booster pack system evokes memories of the likes of Magic: The Gathering. It’s a different way of providing choice to the user – to allow them to augment their experience with microtransactions without feeling railroaded into it. It’s interesting that games seem to be moving away from subscription models, but it’s not something we want to do [while free to play, RuneScape also has a membership programme]. Although we’ve introduced microtransactions, I don’t think it would work if we started to paywall off critical content, such as quests. Players shouldn’t have to feel forced to engage with microtransactions. The subscription model is cleaner and clearer, and I think works better for us.