How Jagex plans to entice new players into its 12-year-old MMO
"For years I was one of the people saying we should talk about how much content we've got, how big it is etc. You know, we've got tens of thousands of hours of content - who else has got that?"
Jagex CEO Mark Gerhard was always the
person championing everything that the world of RuneScape
had to offer. The game receives weekly updates, and has for many years now -- consider that the game has existed in some form since 2001, and you begin to understand the breadth of content that Jagex has to offer its players.
But there was one angle that Gerhard hadn't fully considered: While having plenty of content to dive into is great in many respects, it can also be hugely daunting to newcomers.
No doubt many people reading this will have never touched RuneScape
before, in part because they don't see how they can possibly compete with players who have been chugging away at the game for 12 years now.
"I never had a simple answer for it," he admits. "The team looks at it from a number of different perspectives. There's probably a meta-question of 'Is the game too big for me?'"
"I think we just need to get around the idea that you don't have to consume it all. Yes it's a buffet, but you don't have to eat everything. Just eat the stuff you like."
RuneScape Version 3
That's part of the reasoning behind RuneScape 3
-- more a number than anything else. To an outsider, it would appear that RuneScape 3
is a brand new game, but this is far from the truth.
In fact, RuneScape 3
is not a new game, but rather a huge update to the current game that switches it over to HTML5 from Java, allowing for boosted visuals and a better draw distance. It also adds in a new, more powerful audio engine, upgrades the UI dramatically, and tinkers in various other aspects too.
The main game itself, however, remains the exact same, from the characters to the game world to the gameplay features -- but the average consumer would have to do a little digging to discover this fact. As you might expect, making RuneScape 3
vaguely out to be a brand new game rather than an update was intentional.
"Every week we're putting new content out and major upgrades, but sadly it means you never really have a big event to shout about," explains Gerhard. "If someone was to play the game today versus six months ago, it's dramatically different - but we don't get that tent-pole event."
With next-generation tech coming in, and the Jagex team preparing major interface improvements, audio upgrades, and user-generated content, the studio realized that something on a larger scale than a regular update was necessary to really get across to players both inside and outside of the game just how important this upcoming content truly is.
"Yes, we could have called it RuneScape Next Age
if we wanted to," says Gerhard, "and part of my thinking was, for people who haven't played this game in a year, it's going to be night and day. It's not a completely new game, but it's certainly a new experience."
The plan is to keep the RuneScape 3
name for a few months, maybe a year depending on how player numbers are looking, then drop the 3
and simply call the game RuneScape
again -- much like what happened with RuneScape 2
back in 2004.
And Gerhard is hoping this will lead to "new players coming in, thinking 'I'll give it a chance.'"
"Worst update ever"
Of course, it's never as simple as putting out a new version of a popular online game and hoping that everything is hunky dory with the existing players.
Whenever a studio puts out a new version of an online game, you can expect it to be met with a huge vocal resistance. The fact is that some players hate change, no matter whether it is for the better or not, and will make sure that their voices are very much heard.
As I begin to suggest to Gerhard that RuneScape 3
will no doubt be hit with this sort of resistance, he begins to laugh knowingly.
"You're right - you're really right," he says. "We've actually all got company t-shirts that say 'Worst Update Ever' on them. No matter what you do, someone will hate it."
Gerhard is all too aware that Jagex has upset a number of players with its various updates to RuneScape
, but he notes that his team has significantly altered how it updates the game over the many years it has been running.
"Initially we used to say 'The team knows best, everything we do is for the long term, the players will see that in time, and if they don't they're not smart enough, and they don't deserve to be our players,'" he admits. "That's now changed, and we'll have a conversation with the community in which we say 'Guys, we're thinking of doing this.'"
Having this dialogue with RuneScape
players can completely shifted the sentiment that the fanbase has towards updates, says Gerhard, and made a massive difference to how Jagex approaches any alterations it's planning to make.
"The reality is that you're still repainting someone's clubhouse," he reasons, "and when you do, they like it the shade that it was. That's why the top-level system includes classic presets, so that it can be as familiar as possible."
Indeed, the Jagex team has found so much resistance to updates in the past, that it has provided players with the ability to boot up older versions of the game that they felt most comfortable with.
Here's one incredible example: When the HD upgrade for RuneScape
was released in 2008, a huge number of players complained that they didn't want extra textures or fullscreen functionality.
In response, Jagex made the previous 2007 build available to download if players so chose. Seven years later, and there are still hundreds of thousands of RuneScape
subscribers who are using that 2007 build.
And when it comes to RuneScape 3
, Jagex will once again provide back versions -- players will be able to switch to the current Java edition of the game whenever they want.
"So yeah, we try to have as much dialogue as we can," says Gerhard. "A lot of the stuff we're doing now is around user-generated content, and the community determining narrative. So that should be far better received, as it's their decision. But equally, there will always be one guy who says 'I didn't want that!' You manage your community the best you can."
Are subscriptions here to stay?
With the shift to RuneScape 3
, and Jagex's recent move to implement a small number of microtransactions in the game, one has to wonder whether the company is planning to follow the game industry trend of killing off subscriptions in favor of large-scale microtransactions.
Gerhard assures me that this is never going to happen with RuneScape
. "We've introduced some microtransactions into RuneScape
, but only cosmetic items and some resources that can help you a bit in-game," he says.
"Yes, there's a strong movement in the industry towards free-to-play, but I don't think necessarily running with the pack is always the right thing," he continues.
Jagex already has a general idea of how free-to-play with full-on microtransactions can work -- the studio is currently working on Transformers Universe
for Hasbro, and this is set to be a microtransactions-only free-to-play title.
The studio also worked on Ace of Spades
, a "buy once" game that was released recently via Steam. "It's what's right for the game," says Gerhard. "For RuneScape
, it's still very much 'this is the buffet service.' I think there's a comfort with the dependency of 'For my £5, I get this content each week.'"
Although the team doesn't divulge subscription numbers as a rule, I was told that the number of subscribers who voted on a recent narrative poll in-game -- around 450,000 in total -- was "only a small fraction" of the total number of subscribers that RuneScape