The Soapbox: RuneScape is a proper MMO

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The Soapbox: RuneScape is a proper MMO
The Soapbox title image
Most of us will remember RuneScape from its first incarnation: a tiny and blocky world with simplistic gameplay, no sound, and only a handful of quests. The product of two brothers operating out of their parents' house in Nottingham, the original version launched in 2001 and slowly carved out its niche as a game for kids that could be played in a web-browser. RuneScape has a special significance for me as the first MMO I ever played, and it's responsible for starting my life-long love affair with online gaming. A whole generation of gamers grew up with that primitive, blocky world and eventually left for more polished games. But RuneScape has grown up too -- and boy did it have a growth spurt!

Today's RuneScape bears little resemblance to the classic version many of us played as kids. The graphics are now considerably better, the world map is about five times the size, and it has features most people dream of getting in their favourite MMOs. RuneScape now has player housing, guild halls on huge floating islands, a full player-designed battleground system, procedurally generated dungeons, regular content updates, and 186 quests packed full of British humour. People sometimes say that RuneScape isn't a proper MMO like World of Warcraft, but I'd argue that it's actually more worthy of its "massively multiplayer" title than most of the MMOs released in the past decade.

In this editorial, I look at just how far RuneScape has come and argue that RuneScape may be more worthy of being called a proper MMO than some triple-A releases.

The Soapbox side imageTen years of updates

Back in January, RuneScape increased its optional subscription price by two dollars per month, and some of our readers complained that a 10-year-old browser game shouldn't be charging more money. I would agree if the game hadn't changed significantly in 10 years, but today's RuneScape makes the version I played as a kid look like Pong. New quests and areas are released every month, with smaller updates and expansions introducing new skills and gameplay. RuneScape may be 10 years old, but that's 10 years of new features, content, and graphical overhauls.

2010's massive Dungeons of Daemonheim expansion introduced the Dungeoneering system that drops individual players or groups into procedurally generated dungeons with random monsters, challenges, and goals. Last year's Clan Citadels expansion took things one step further and put players in the driving seat of content creation and game design. The expansion came with a full battleground editor that players can use to develop their own minigames, from ice rinks for social events to full capture-the-flag deathmatches. Clans also got the ability to build giant floating castles in the sky complete with party rooms, meeting halls, and skill-grinding areas. If content and gameplay are what makes an MMO worth playing for you, RuneScape has that in spades.

The Soapbox side imageRuneScape has real quests

Most MMO quests aren't really quests as you aren't undertaking a journey toward an important goal and encountering difficulties along the way. You don't unravel any mysteries, overcome great obstacles, or even travel very far in pursuit of your goal. Instead, you're fed some vague story that boils down to killing a list of monsters, bringing a package to someone, or escorting an NPC while bad guys periodically jump out of the bushes. That's not a quest; it's an odd job, and I don't play a high-magic fantasy game to be a janitor or delivery boy.

In contrast, RuneScape quests are stories that sometimes send players great distances in search of something or send them into unexplored new areas to uncover an ancient mystery. They typically have puzzles to be worked out, challenges to overcome, and very involving storylines. SWTOR and Guild Wars 2 both have central single-player storylines that are closer to a real quest than the MMO norm, but RuneScape manages to do it in nearly every quest.

Being able to run a new RuneScape quest shortly after it's deployed is a remarkably fun experience. The servers are filled with people just like you trying to figure out the puzzles and work out what to do next, and with no guides to follow, they work together and help each other. If the quest requires a bucket, you can be sure there'll be someone there selling buckets cheap or even giving them away. While every player does the quest individually, there's more cooperation in RuneScape questing than you'll ever find in World of Warcraft.

The Soapbox side imageBuilding a community

A lot of today's MMOs still use a sharded server model that ties each player to a particular server, fracturing the game's community into dozens of little micro-communities. This artificially limits the number of players you can interact with to just a few thousand, which makes individuals less anonymous but can stop friends from playing together. The main argument for sharding is that it we just don't have the technology to have 100,000 people logged into one server. Another valid concern is that areas of the game could become overcrowded if server populations aren't limited.

That'd be fine except that RuneScape solved both of these problems years before WoW launched, and it did so without shattering its community into a thousand little pieces. RuneScape has hundreds of servers that all share a single login service, so players can log into any server they want at any time. There's just one big massive community, with a single shared marketplace and a highly active community forum. Jagex has even taken the difficult step of banning hundreds of thousands of bots from the game at the cost of millions per year in subscription income because that's what the community wanted. Building a cohesive community is what MMOs are all about, and RuneScape has certainly done that.

The Soapbox title image
RuneScape has come a long way in the past 10 years, but it may never escape the stigma of its humble beginnings or the general impression that browser games are lower quality than desktop titles. For the generation of us that grew up with RuneScape's primitive ancestor, there's a temptation to think of it as somehow less than a full MMO. Ten years down the line, that tiny and blocky world that many of us remember is gone, and in its place is arguably one of the most content-filled and feature-rich MMOs on the market.

Players would kill for features like Dungeoneering and player-designed battlegrounds in other MMOs, not to mention quests that actually send players on story-filled journeys to explore new lands and solve mysteries. For putting all of its players together as one big community and actively battling bots, RuneScape deserves its "massively multiplayer" title far more than World of Warcraft and a lot of other MMOs on the market.

Everyone has opinions, and The Soapbox is how we indulge ours. Join the Massively writers every Tuesday as we take turns atop our very own soapbox to deliver unfettered editorials a bit outside our normal purviews. Think we're spot on -- or out of our minds? Let us know in the comments!
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