MMObility: Why a tablet version of RuneScape is so important

RuneScape 3 screenshot

If you have heard the news about RuneScape 3, you fall into one of two camps. You're either really excited and cannot wait for this new version of one of your favorite games or you really don't see what the fuss is all about. It's possible there is a third category for those who are interested but have played the game only once or twice. I easily fall into the first category, and I think the announcement of RuneScape 3 isn't important because it represents a new version of a long-running and very successful browser-based title; it's important because it will represent a massive shift in mobile technology and in how people perceive MMO gaming on a mobile device.

So many people seem to think that tablet or smartphone gaming is different from gaming on any other device. It is different in the way we interact with the game, in the way that we actually hold the tablet or touch the screen, but the device itself is just a smaller version of the ever-familiar PC, the personal computer. RuneScape 3 could prove that a tablet or smartphone is just as good as any other delivery system -- and in many ways, it might be superior.

RuneScape 3 screenshot

First, what is RuneScape 3? Essentially, it's a relaunch or re-do of the current game, concentrating on better graphics, sound, and experience customization. Jagex will achieve this (if it works, of course) by utilizing HTML5 and WebGL, which will not only help improve performance but allow the game to be enjoyed on tablets. Smartphones are a possibility as well, but Jagex has said that the cells would probably be more for an extended service, not for the core game experience. I'd like to avoid getting into the boring, nitty-gritty tech-speak to explain how HTML5 works and why it would not work across all devices and all browsers universally, so the easiest thing to say is that I will believe all of this when I see it.

RuneScape 3 will be fantastic for the desktop browser experience; this much I know. 'Scapers have seen just how many improvements have been made to the game in just the last few years while performance has generally gone up. The current RuneScape version utilizes Java, however, something that has set more than a few gamers' teeth on edge. Java is known for having security issues, even prompting Homeland Security to warn us to delete the installation! The move from Java to HTML5 is good not only for security reasons but for public perception. I have never had an issue with Java, but I'm relatively smart about my machines and keep them up to date and running with fresh security software. RuneScape's younger players might not be so smart about security, however, so anything that Jagex can do to help the situation is going to work out in the long run. The switch to HTML5 is a natural one.

Having said that, I think there is one main reason that RuneScape 3 -- running on a tablet -- is going to be monumental. If Jagex pulls this off, mobile fanatics like yours truly will finally have a major, known AAA MMO to show to those who just don't believe that mobile gaming is that powerful. As it is now, I come across opposition to the idea of mobile gaming based simply on the fact that mobile gaming is not standard PC gaming. Ask a console player about mobile and the reaction is usually more confused. "Oh, you mean like an iPhone?" is a typical response.

Mobile gaming, as in tablets and smartphones, is just gaming, period. There is no essential difference between a Nexus 10 tablet and your gaming PC or PlayStation console other than the strength of the processors. All of these devices can hook up to larger monitors, and all of them offer online connectivity. Luckily, some of the most popular applications and games do not require a massive gaming rig to run, but tablets and smartphones are becoming just as powerful as a gaming PC at a much lower cost. RuneScape 3 could help bridge the gaps between all of these.

The real difference comes from how we are able to touch and carry a tablet. It's textural and natural. Tablets are powerful, cheap, and intuitive. Despite the fact that I have listed off many true MMOs for the tablet or smartphone, I still have people ask me if I can recommend one. Many PC MMO players seem to think that the tablet is nothing but Angry Birds and Facebook. If RuneScape 3 pulls off a true MMO experience on the tablet, mobile fans will have a well-known and long-established name to throw into the mix. With one release, Jagex could shift mobile gaming from the "It works?" category to "It works."

Hobbit game screenshot

There are plenty of challenges ahead. The game will be utilizing WebGL, a browser-based graphics accelerator that taps into a graphics chip power, but not all browsers support it. Chrome (the current most popular browser), Mozilla Firefox, and newer versions of Safari all support WebGL, but Internet Explorer does not currently. At the recent Google I/O summit, Google's Senior Vice-President of Chrome and Apps Sundar Pichai showed off a game based on The Hobbit that runs on a Nexus 10 tablet the same as on a Chromebook Pixel, thanks to WebGL. The game even looked like RuneScape! Will we be able to go from RuneScape 3 on the PC to the same experience on a tablet?

I'm skeptical. If there is one developer that can pull off a tablet version of a massive browser-based world, it's Jagex, which has been working in the browser world for a long time. The tablet browser world is a bit different, however. Even though RuneScape's performance has gone up in recent years the game is known to give fits to all sorts of setups. Can we really trust Jagex to be able to pull off performance on a tablet, even if it switches to the smoother HTML5 and WebGL? Jagex has even said that performance in the HTML5 client might be worse for people who own older or weaker PCs, so Java will still be valid.

The new version of the game is currently in beta, but I will hold back judgment until it is being played on my tablet. Then, and only then, will I believe what I've heard.

Each week in MMObility, Beau Hindman dives into the murky waters of the most accessible and travel-friendly games around, including browser-based and smartphone MMOs. Join him as he investigates the best, worst, and most daring games to hit the smallest devices! Email him suggestions, or follow him on Twitter and Facebook.