In a world where 'Warcraft' is hemorrhaging players, a free browser-based MMO continues to grow with confidence.
On January 4, 2001 brothers Andrew and Paul Gower launched the beta version of RuneScape. Andrew, a keen programmer and recent Cambridge graduate, began with one goal in mind: to attract more simultaneous players than he had on any of his previous projects. 30 players logged in during RuneScape's first day. Much to the Gowers' amazement, 245 million more have since followed suit.
It is hard to convey the game's overwhelming scale in relatable terms, but if its medieval fantasy world of Gielinor were a real country, it would now boast the fifth largest population in the world. It also holds six Guinness World Records, including the prestigious honor of 'Most fish in a videogame' (8 billion are caught every year).
This January marked RuneScape's 15th anniversary and, incredibly, the game shows no sign of slowing down. While Blizzard struggles to offer persuasive reasons for renewing World of Warcraft subscriptions (paid players have fallen to a nine-year low of 5.5 million), RuneScape's community has remained steadfast in its continued commitment to the game. Partly due to the core experience being free, but also because of a broader, more intangible allure. So what's RuneScape's secret? What exactly has kept players coming back to its fantastical world for days, upon weeks, upon years?
Press On To Start A New Game
Preventing the user base from leaving was the last thing on the Gowers' minds back in 2001, instead consumed with keeping up with the relentless influx of new accounts. “I was frantically struggling against the clock and trying to reengineer it to keep up with the number of players," Andrew remembers. "I didn’t want to turn anyone away."
At the start of the game, players are dropped into a server where they're free to interact with other adventurers, embark on eschatologically pertinent quests, or work on their wood chopping skills.
RuneScape's initial growth was spurred on by one of its biggest appeals: accessibility. Because it ran in a browser, the game could be played anywhere on practically any machine, including your mom's old dust-ridden desktop. Andrew says:
"The fact that you could play it without having to install any software meant it got a big following in schools, people could play it in their lunch hours, play it when they got home, play it in libraries, and I think that really helped the spread."
I vividly recall RuneScape sweeping across my own high school, hijacking IT lessons and eating into valuable free time. During those primitive early days of the Internet, many used it as a glorified chat client. You'd log on first and foremost so you could talk with your friends, if you happened to slay a dragon or two while doing so then all the better.
A year into RuneScape, after having successfully built a solid player base out of technologically constrained school boys, disaster struck. "Advertisers pulled the plug," Andrew recalled:
"I suddenly got to the point when the amount of advertisements wasn’t even enough to cover the hosting costs and, I was like, I can’t afford to run this game."
"Making games was my hobby, but I also knew I wanted it to be my career," he notes. RuneScape was a chance to make that happen, so the brothers did what all siblings in peril do: they turned to their parents. The Gowers moved back to their family home in Nottingham and turned the kitchen into an office.
To stay afloat they introduced a paid subscription model and worked out that they needed 3,000 members to cover hosting costs and food. "The aim was to make a living, survive," Paul confessed with a nervous chuckle. They got 5,000 within a week. "We thought okay, this is going to work."
Fighting For Digital Democracy
Here's a few remarkable statistics: 20% of RuneScape players have been playing consistently for 10 years or more, some since the very beginning. And if you don't play for a year there's still a 50% chance you'll return at some point.
You might now be wondering what exactly keeps people coming back to this visually dated, old game. Don't let appearances fool you. While graphically crude, RuneScape's mechanics are infinitely complex and constantly expanding. The game has been updated every week for over 15 years. The infectious appeal lies in the game's constant willingness to reinvent itself and to do so with the guidance of its most important critics: the players.
Jagex — the company founded by the Gower brothers, which is now in charge of the game's continued development — has adopted a practice of community-led design. Players turn out in their thousands to vote on key decisions that genuinely affect which parts of the game get worked on. In 2013, a poll was opened allowing them to decide whether to bring back the 2007 version of the game. It was quickly passed and RuneScape Old School was born, letting players relive their nostalgic memories of early RuneScape by resurrecting its former state.
Every vote needs at least 75% of the community to approve it, at which point the feature in question is added via an update. The game has now gone through so many iterations that it's evolved to the point where the fictional world has become nearly unrecognizable from its humble origins. More importantly, it has been changed with the players, by the players. By honoring this notion of online democracy, Jagex has let its fan base take ownership and pride over their creation in a way few other developers have.
Making Friends (And Family)
Even more enchanting than the game's tangible malleability is its social ecosystem. The freedom to engage with other humans is obviously a major appeal in every MMO, and RuneScape is no different. As Paul Gower observes:
"The logistics of running an MMO, the problems the community gets up to if left up to their own devices, things you'd never even thought about in terms of how they're going to interact with each other online."
Paul himself is testament to the potential for meaningful real life relationships to form in game. He himself met his wife in Gielinor, and he wasn't the first. These emotional bonds built through RuneScape are the greatest defense against people who argue that the enormous amount of time players sink into MMOs are wasted hours. The game's lead designer David Osborne says:
"To sit there and say that I'm just sitting there with a solo mindset, pumping hours into a game that gives me nothing back is dismissive of the social aspect. RuneScape will always be that comfy warm glove, or gauntlet, that you can slip on whenever you want to and just return to old friends."
Belonging to a living community is reason enough to log on.
What About the Next 15 Years?
So, what adventures lie ahead for RuneScape? Now that Jagex has grown from three staff members to 300, the Gower brothers have taken a back seat when it comes to development. Andrew — inspired by bedroom programmers he himself inspired — is currently building his own game engine to make it easier for others to create multiplayer experiences, while Paul is busy finishing his first novel. The game, too, continues to evolve.
A brand new engine called NXT enters closed Beta on February 19 and will improve the game's draw distance, quality of textures, and water effects that will allow players to enjoy RuneScape’s world with a much greater degree of fidelity. Check out the stark graphical difference below:
The franchise will also see the launch of two spin-off titles. Chronicle: RuneScape Legends offers a unique spin on strategy card games, whereas RuneScape: Idle Adventures will introduce mobile users to Gielinor.
The game has also inspired a documentary, set for release later in the year. You can watch the trailer below:
It's fair to say that RuneScape's record-breaking achievements comfortably surpassed the Gowers' wildest imaginations, becoming a 15 year phenomenon that's managed to stay relevant by respecting its fans, listening to the community and offering a play space where everyone is welcome. I'll let Andrew have the last word:
"When I made this game, I thought it was just like any other – it would go online, a few people would play it, and then that would be it. I certainly didn’t expect it to be running 15 years later. It’s quite unbelievable just how big the game became and I still can’t quite believe it."