On Wednesday, we looked at the history of Runescape. We saw how the game developed from two brothers’ desire to play games on university computers to a behemoth that has 500 people working on it. In the next piece, I’m going to be the ghost of Runescape’s future. But, today, I’m looking at its present.
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As I write this, the ticker on the game’s front page stands at 198,566, 867 registered accounts. If it was a country, it would be the fifth largest in the world. It’s likely only a tiny proportion of those accounts are active, of course, but it’s still a significant chunk of the world gaming population.
The developer itself is also huge. Jagex (originally so-named because the company considered themselves JAva-Gaming-EXperts) is based in the Science Park in Cambridge and is the UK’s biggest games developer. It’s a multi-award-winning studio, but the majority of those awards were for how nice a place it was to work at - Jagex has exceptionally low staff turnover . Walking around the studio, you find people playing board games over lunch break, programmers wandering over to chat to artists and community managers. Though a company of 500 employees is always going to be somewhat hierarchical and formal, it seems to have a quiet, casual atmosphere.
The New Projects
Despite this relaxed atmosphere, producing a follow-up to Runescape has been difficult for the studio. The company experimented for several years with a science fiction version of Runescape, called Mechscape then Stellar Dawn, but just couldn’t get it to a sufficiently high standard. Though the official line is that Stellar Dawn has been put on hold until after development has finished on the Transformers MMO, rumour has it that it’s been permanently canned.
Talking about the Transformers MMO, http://www.transformersuniverse.com/ that’s one of the bigger deals that Jagex has tied up. Though it’s due out this year, Jagex has been very cagey about releasing much about the game - we know that the game is team-oriented and features classes (including the Brawler). No-one’s seen any of the actual game beyond passable CGI trailers. It’s likely because the game is based on the next iteration of the Runescape engine - as that dates back to 2003, they might be holding back on revealing what the game actually looks like, because we, the press and public, are shallow folk who only like a game if it’s shiny enough.
A lot of Jagex’s energy goes into Funorb, a flash games portal with a small but hardcore audience. Here the Jagex developers get to upload the games that they wanted to make, which wouldn’t work as minigames in Runescape proper. The site feels a bit like Kongregate felt four years ago, though with many less new games.
Runescape itself is doing well. There are 200 servers scattered throughout the world, called worlds, scattered across the more stable nations, and new ones are set up as needed. They support four languages- French, German, Brazilian Portuguese and English - but they have played from over 150 countries.
As each supports up to 2000 players, and as players characters can be used on any server, we’d estimate that the maximum number of players online at any one time is around 400,000, and Jagex tell us that the peak concurrency on these servers has been 250,000; respectable for a modern MMO, but just 0.1% of their total registered accounts.
Though the game’s players started out as teenagers, the game has grown with its audience. “Although the majority of our players are teenagers and young adults,” says Tuckwell “RuneScape is so diverse that there is content that appeals to many various groups of people so whether it is families meeting up in game to do a spot of fishing, groups of 16 year olds taking part in some of the most intense risk vs reward combat in any MMO, or older gamers of the pen and paper RPG generation who play the game for its unique stories and quests.”
To handle these people, Jagex has always had superlative customer support. “We have eighty to a hundred people working on customer support.” says Adam Tuckwell, Jagex’s PR Manager. “It’s a lot less than it used to be, as we’ve automated a lot of our systems. And that’s not including our community managers, which is another 20-30.” That community support extends to organising the RuneFest in London, a fan celebration, as well as attending many fan-organised events.
All of that support is in-house, as well, as the Lead Designer Mark Ogilvie explains; “From the very beginning, the concept of outsourcing dealing with customers wasn’t something Andrew and Paul (the company’s founders) were interested in.” Indeed, that commitment to keeping stuff in-house extends to all design elements - they’ve only outsourced two elements in their history; the move to HD graphics and the voices for their first fully-voiced quest.
Keeping support in-house also means keeping bannings and dealing with gold farmers in-house. The team was forced to remove both Free Trade and the popular Wilderness PvP arena from the game to deal with real money transfer issues. Recently Jagex, took the step of introducing a new system called ClusterFlutter, which focuses on destroying bots, which has allowed them to ban 99% of bots and restore the Wilderness arena to the game. They’re not complacent though; “we’re due to launch our next phase of bot nuking imminently” says Tuckwell.
So that's the present of Jagex; a thriving empire employing more developers than any other company in the UK. In the next piece, I'll talk more about what they're working on next and their plans for the future - for Runescape, at least.