With a mobile release on the horizon, could Runescape soon return to its former glory?
In 2007, aged eleven, I chanced across a free-to-play game called Runescape. It was my first real experience of online gaming; never before had I encountered a living and breathing world teeming with other players — real people — with whom I could talk, fight, and trade.
Before I’d even finished adding the obligatory ‘2k7’ to the end of my username, I was enthralled. Over the next few years, the game became such an addiction of mine that I genuinely feel shame when I look back on it — a sort of Runescape junkie, haunted by his dark past.
The unfortunate thing about addiction is that it never truly leaves you, which is why I received the news of Runescape Mobile releasing later this year with unbridled excitement – this time, I realised as I made a new account in preparation, I’ll be able to take Runescape with me everywhere I go. It can finally be played the way I always knew in my heart it was meant to be: everywhere and all the time.
Runescape, or Old School Runescape as it’s now called — a snapshot of the game in its 2007 form — is an MMORPG that became a worldwide phenomenon for its accessible and immersive gameplay. Because it had minimal performance demands and was played on browsers with no download needed, virtually anyone could play Runescape — and most, it seemed, did: the game won Guinness World Records for the most users of an MMO game, and the most popular free-to-play MMO.
For those who never played Runescape — a group I feel both pity and envy for — the question of “What do you do in Runescape?” is best answered with “Pretty much whatever you want”. Players have 23 different skills, all of which can be trained up to level 99.
There are combat skills — melee, ranged, magic, and prayer — which can be levelled up to wear better gear and fight monsters and bosses, and there are non-combat skills like fishing, smithing and woodcutting that allow you to make money by selling resources to other players. There is even a central trading system called the Grand Exchange which players use to buy and sell items from each other, creating a dynamic in-game economy where the prices of items rise and fall depending on supply and demand.
The real pull of Runescape comes from the way it provides a steady stream of rewards, keeping players hooked with a sense of progression and achievement. Levelling skills often triggers satisfying positive feedback loops; for example levelling up the mining skill comes with the slight increase to resource gathering (which provides money and XP) that every level brings, but also might unlock the ability to equip a better pickaxe which increases this speed further, or the ability to enter the Mining Guild which provides a more convenient location to mine.
You quickly become obsessed with these constant, incremental gains in wealth and power — especially as you are constantly surrounded by other players. Those sporting stats and equipment far beyond your current reach serve to tease what could be yours if you keep grinding, whilst the lower-level players that surround you are a satisfying reminder of how far you’ve come.
This brings me to the other addictive quality of Runescape — the fact that, whilst progression of skills is the name of the game, it is in no way easy. Like most games which feature a numerical progression through a skill, each level requires more XP than the last; though in Runescape, this increase is brutal. So brutal, that when reaching level 92 in a skill, in real terms you are only half way to reaching 99.
Runescape is undeniably a grind. To reach level 99 in all 23 skills would take – at a conservative estimate – over 6000 hours. I don’t think it’s unfair to call Runescape a game of time and not skill — in fact, you could replace the entire page of numbers each player has in their skills tab, and all the money they have in their virtual bank, with a single number: hours played. For ultimately, in Runescape, spare time is the only statistic that sets players apart.
This simple realisation was the driving force for my decision to quit the game all those years ago, but it’s also the reason I think it will thrive as a mobile experience. Old School Runescape Mobile will offer the quintessential structure of a mobile game — a simple and repetitive yet rewarding experience — situated in an immersive open world that offers a level of freedom and choice I don’t recall ever seeing in a mobile game.
Couple this with the nostalgia-factor that will surely bring droves of veterans back to experience the game in a fresh new way, and we have all the components needed for a Runescape renaissance this year.
The other day I saw a player walk through the Grand Exchange with a ‘max cape’ — a cape only attainable by achieving this 6000 hour grind to 99 in every skill, a cape that only 2,601 players worldwide currently own. As I watched dozens of players crowd around to watch him perform the emote that comes with the cape, I realised two things: that the Runescape subculture still thrives in 2018, and that I hadn’t spoken to my family or girlfriend for twelve hours.