The future of Runescape: the combat upgrade and beyond

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Last week I looked at the history of Runescape – the move from student dream to the biggest game developer in the UK – and the present of Runescape – the 200,000,000 user accounts, the 200 servers, the 500 employees. Today (adopts heroic model stance, gazing at horizon), today, I look to Jagex’s brave future.

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In the classic British political comedy ‘Yes, Minister’, a brave decision was one that would lose you votes. A courageous decision was one that would lose you the election. When Runescape’s lead designer Mark Ogilvie tells me that he’s going to fundamentally change the combat system of Runescape, Star Wars Galaxies flashes in front of my eyes, and I mutter out “How… how brave!”

The changes he’s making are more than cosmetic. “The combat change we’re just making to the game is the biggest change we’ve made to combat.” says Ogilvie. “It’s changing everything about the game. It’s influencing everything in combat. Whether it’s equipment, or the engagement mechanic, or the interfaces, or NPC stats or risk-reward balances. It’s been a real challenge to make sure we’re changing the right things. That’s why we’re doing it as a beta launch first.”

“Brave”, I say again “Perhaps… courageous?” I tentatively raise the spectre of Star Wars: Galaxies’s Combat Upgrade and the flight of angry players afterwards. Ogilvie is confident he’s doing the right thing, though.

“One of the tricky things about Runescape is that it’s quite old and that a lot of the gameplay choices we made were more suitable for a game five, ten years ago than modern day users expect.” he explains. “I don’t want to change the guts of the game, I don’t want to change the core principles, I want to keep playerbase enthused; but when you look at the game from a design perspective there were some flaws that we introduced really early on, flaws that became gameplay. That makes the game too difficult and jeopardises accessibility when something’s so complicated a new user can’t engage with it.”

That seems surprising, but not unexpected; Legacy idiosyncrasies, like Planetside’s lag-shooting, are always barriers to entry for new users. I ask Ogilvie what these flaws are, that were destroying the game and I’m surprised. It’s the standard build he’s targeting, the build that many hardcore players use.

“The Pure build is a problem.” he says. “You see the calculation for our combat level, the number we display on a player’s avatar to indicate their combat potential, is fundamentally flawed. We have a defense skill that contributes quite heavily to the combat level, but the benefit of levelling defense is much smaller than the contribution would suggest. We have another skill in the game, called the Prayer skill, which allows you to put up a protection prayer, that’s far more effective than any level of defense that you could ever gain. Players found it was more useful to keep their combat level low, to appear relatively weak, especially in PvP. A lot of players have built characters around this flaw in the design.”

This meant that many gankers would build themselves ‘Pure’, which is creepy-sounding enough, and hang around the free PvP area of the Wilderness. Here they’d look innocent and weak, so that when an apparently higher level hero came along and initiated PvP… they’d eat him alive. Given that Runescape is played primarily by kids and teenagers, and given that death in PvP Runescape typically means your body getting stripped of all its possessions… you’d end up with a lot of very upset players. Because of a faulty level read-out. “You have the potential to gain huge amounts of reward, far more than any other part of the game, if you’re a really good PvPer.” says Ogilvie. “The idea that you can trick people with your combat effectiveness is just flawed.”

So this Defense Upgrade will bring the gankers out into the open, by changing both the rating system and the faulty defensive skill behind it. “It became too easy for people to completely ignore that skill, which made a really interesting challenge for me as a designer.” says Ogilvie. “If one of content updates was organised around the defense skill or gave defense experience, a large chunk of the player base would deliberately avoid that content.”

So they’ve changing combat in two ways. First, they’re moving away from the totally passive combat at the moment, by introducing active abilities, familiar to players of other MMOs. Many of these are specific defensive abilities that require a shield to be equipped, so will rebalance against the Pures. Secondly, they’re linking your armour rating to your maximum life points – so Pure builds simply won’t have as much health as anyone else.

Of course, that’s not everything that Jagex are working on for Runescape. They’ve got an average of 20 content projects – Mark indicated to me that it was currently 25. Of these only, a few are talked about at any one time, presumably because some of them will never see the light of Day. Adam Tuckwell, the PR Manager for Jagex, took us through some of them. “Once the RuneScape combat update has been fully launched we will be turning our attention towards another game changing expansion which will be announced soon. In the meantime, we will soon be releasing Player-owned Ports, where players can build their own port to attract sea captains, crew and treasures. We are also working on a new, yet unannounced skill, which will be added to the game next year.” On top of that, they’re attempting to make Runescape more social, so that players find it easier to use a chat room and to stay in touch with their friends.

Given Ogilvie’s coherent defense of his combat changes, I think it would be churlish to call him courageous. If these changes open the game up to new players and prevent the traumatising ganking that the non-hardcore players are suffering, then he’s doing a good thing for his community. A good, brave thing.