The Game Archaeologist is a lazy adventurer-slash-professor who dons his trademark cap for a weekly expedition through some of the most famous MMOs of the past few decades. Each month he chooses a different title to examine its highlights, talk with its developers, and invite its fans to share their experiences.

I don't know about you, but when I first heard of RuneScape a few years back, it was sold to me as "the poor person's World of Warcraft." In fact, I knew several teens who couldn't afford a monthly WoW subscription and had to "make do" with RuneScape as an alternative, and so I mentally filtered the title as being outside of my sphere of interest and moved on with my life.

That was when I started to crochet. All adventurers should know how to crochet as a survival trait.

In retrospect, I should've ignored the stigma and checked it out for myself, because while the above may be true for some, RuneScape deserved a lot better than to be blown off by a dismissive comment. No matter how some have pigeon-holed it as being less than worthy of proper MMO status, RuneScape is a behemoth of a game in both size, features and playerbase. In fact, as of right now, RuneScape holds the #2 spot for players, boasting a population well into the eight digits.

So as of this month, we shall endeavor to put away any ignorant stances as we explore one of the most popular and longest-running MMOs of our time. Join me after the jump as I share RuneScape's greatest highlights -- and exactly why none of us should underestimate this game again.

1. It's in its ninth year... and still growing!


Since its 2001 beta release, RuneScape forged a path to greatness in a decidedly old-school way. What few MMOs were on the market back then typically had big name publishers behind them, yet RuneScape was whipped up by a pair of British brothers -- Andrew and Paul Gower -- who put the beta out on the net with little marketing or fanfare. Proving the adage that a solid game trumps a crappy game with good publicity, RuneScape took off exponentially as word-of-mouth spread.

A second iteration of the game, designed to be better and more stable, took over for the duties of the first version in 2004 (RuneScape Classic, as the first version was redubbed, continued to see service for those too attached to move on). Jagex has continually made improvements to the engine, graphics and content, and there is no indication that the company is slowing down. On the contrary, Jagex has worked hard to expand RuneScape's presence across the globe, with over 170 servers to date. Not too shabby for a game about to hit the big one-oh in 2011 -- and not too shabby for the Gower brothers, who have cultivated a sizable fortune from their efforts.

2. It's a mega-hit by the numbers

Let's talk numbers. After all, every game company loves to throw out whatever large, unwieldy number it can lay claim to if it makes the game look successful.

Jagex has some numbers to wing out. A lot of numbers, actually:
  • 156 million accounts registered as of 2009
  • 104 million active players who have spent time in the game
  • 10 million active players each month
  • 85 billion page impressions per day
  • 1/500th the operating costs of World of Warcraft
Of course, the caveat to all of this is that the majority of players aren't subscribers, which puts it in a different category than full-subscriber titles. Even so, in a field where MMOs with 100,000 to 300,000 active players are considered a solid success, RuneScape is so far above them that a single penny dropped from that height would be lethal. And don't take my word for it -- Guinness World Records recognized RuneScape in 2008 as the most popular free MMO in the world.

Since its inception, Jagex has grown to encompass two studios with 400 staff and is working on several future MMOs along with RuneScape.

3. It's completely accessible


One barrier that keeps several MMOs from reaching a broader audience are the stringent requirements on a computer's performance. While there are plenty of gamers with high-end rigs, far more folks have to make do with the basic computer they bought from Dell or Best Buy. This means that any MMO that runs under low system requirements is bound to see a bigger audience (barring any other factors such as gameplay quality).

RuneScape simply couldn't be more accessible unless Jagex created a port for the bulky old 1990-era Gameboys -- and even that I wouldn't put past the company. I'm not being too ludicrous here, as the entire game takes place right inside of your internet browser -- you know, that program every computer has? Because of this, RuneScape is capable of running on computers without expensive graphics card and can function with extremely low bandwidth (think 28k, the equivalent of mid-'90s dial-up modems).

Considering all of this, it's no surprise that RuneScape became the "gateway MMO" for millions of gamers.

4. It did the F2P/subscription hybrid model before it was the cool thing to do

From early on, RuneScape offered players two payment options: They could either play for free and put up with advertising, or cough up a modest monthly subscription to kill the advertising and have access to additional content. By giving players a choice between free with limitations or subscription with the full content, Jagex provided something for every budget and desire. On top of that, RuneScape's subscription fee is still a fraction of the $15/month industry standard, making this game even more attractive to fiscally conscious gamers.

It's all about casting as wide a net as possible to gather as many players as possible and hopefully tempt the moochers into paying once they're well and truly addicted. RuneScape proved long ago that this split business model works, and works darn well.

5. It offers skill-based leveling

Although RuneScape has plenty of mob grinding and typical questing, characters are encouraged to branch out in their studies by engaging in non-violent activities. Characters have over a couple dozen skills that can be worked on independently of each other, including cooking, fishing, thievery, planting and summoning. By diverging from the "one level track to rule them all" format and encouraging players to build well-rounded characters, RuneScape's gameplay feels different and more freeing.

6. It offers player housing

While player housing is a members-only feature, it's gratifying to see that RuneScape stepped up to provide the feature, even as plenty of AAA MMOs consider housing to be a waste of resources. RuneScape's player-owned housing -- or as it is hilariously called, POH -- gives creators a large toolset to not only craft the house of their dreams (or nightmares) but interact in the houses with friends as well.

What's your RuneScape story?

Enough about the features list -- I want to hear your favorite stories, experiences and impressions from RuneScape! Email them to The Game Archaeologist at justin@massively.com -- along with a cool screenshot or two, if you have them -- and I'll include it in an upcoming column as we continue with RuneScape month!

When not clawing his eyes out at the atrocious state of general chat channels, Justin "Syp" Olivetti pulls out his history textbook for a lecture or two on the good ol' days of MMOs in The Game Archaeologist. You can contact him via email at justin@massively.com or through his gaming blog, Bio Break.

This article was originally published on Massively.