Few MMOs have been around as long as RuneScape. If they've survived, it's often because they've evolved with the times. RuneScape is different. Though it's changed dramatically since 2001, it's established historical markers along the way—one in 2001, another in 2007—where players can still, to this day, play the game roughly as it was then.
"Our game is 15 years old, and people's 'ideal' version of that game differs from person to person," said design director Mark Ogilvie. "We are very much driven by the desires of our community—they decide the fundamental direction of the content we add, and also the way we spend most of our development time. They told us that's what they wanted, so we did it."
Two years after launch, RuneScape developer Jagex wanted to revamp the game with a new 3D engine. Dubbed "the biggest update ever," it would also include basic features like allowing multiple players to fight an an enemy at the same time, and trading between banks. You'd think every player would be on-board with those, but some enjoyed the "purity" of RuneScape.
And thus, RuneScape Classic was born. Existing alongside modern RuneScape, Jagex suddenly found itself supporting two versions of the same game. Though most players moved forward, enough stayed behind for Jagex to keep RuneScape Classic around—even today.
"Whilst the core of each version of the game is very similar, the motivations of the players within each version can be very different," said Ogilvie.
Some things don't change, like the basic building blocks of the world itself. When the engine is updated, when the visuals are overhauled, it's built on the same framework as before. Here, for example, is a comparison of RuneScape Classic and the latest version of the game:
Today, less than 1,000 people play RuneScape Classic—the servers show 168 players on right now, as of this writing—and Jagex intentionally limits how many can participate. At the moment, you need both a RuneScape membership and have previously played RuneScape Classic to even log in. This is Jagex's way of keeping costs down for product with a passionate but niche fanbase.
"We are proud of our roots," he said. "Those versions of the game express who we are and where we have come from. It's as important to us as it is to our players."
The games industry is bad at preserving history, but with MMOs, it's particularly complicated. Their online infrastructure means it's not as simple as dragging a copy to your hard drive. Often, the tools required to make the games work are server-side, hidden away from players. Waypoint recently ran a story about a modder who's spent seven years trying to bring back The Matrix Online, and he's not alone; lots of fans wish they could revisit moments in time.
Remember the blowup about World of Warcraft's Nostalrius server this year? Nostalrius allowed players to experience what's called "vanilla" World of Warcraft, one of the first versions of the game. This was before Blizzard made sweeping changes to its look, feel, and balance. Nostalrius wasn't just a few players screwing around, either; more than 800,000 people had registered accounts for it and the servers often clocked in at 10,000 players simultaneously.
Blizzard allowed Nostalrius to exist for several years, before legal threats forced it to shut down. The studio acknowledged a desire for "vanilla" World of Warcraft, and said it was discussing options internally, but to date, nothing's come of it. As a result, Nostalrius is launching under a new name in a couple of days. It's unclear if Blizzard will take action, but its continued existence says something.
Jagex's past is important enough that RuneScape Classic kept going, even when the company was down to only a few people who understood its code. Jagex assigned a developer to, ironically enough, modernize RuneScape Classic so that development could resume. Just because it's older doesn't mean there aren't bugs to fix, or features, like player-hosted servers, to add.
"We are very much driven by the desires of our community—they decide the fundamental direction of the content we add, and also the way we spend most of our development time."
For more than a decade, RuneScape Classic and modern RuneScape existed side-by-side. In 2012, Jagex decided the game had, again, evolved enough to warrant a historical marker. The team wasn't sure which version to use. Since the game has updates weekly, there are theoretically over 700 "versions" of the game Jagex could use. But they ended up choosing oneby accident.
"We stumbled upon an old save file from 2007 and tried to boot it up—and it worked," said Ogilvie. "We knew from talking to our players that 2007 was a 'favorite' version of the game for many of them, so it seemed like fate had worked in our favor."
That version was called Old School RuneScape, and exists alongside everything else. Compared to the meager number of players running around the first version, Old School RuneScape is incredibly popular—tens of thousands are playing at any given time and more than 90,000 watched a recent player-vs-player tournament on Twitch. Thousands are watching right now. Unsurprisingly, there are active debates about whether Old School RuneScape is better, as evidenced by higher concurrent player counts than the latest version of the game.
As with RuneScape Classic, just because it's from another point in time doesn't mean it's stagnant; developers are actively making changes. The big difference, though, is that nothing happens without overwhelming approval from the players. When developers propose a change, at least 75% of the community has to approve it, or it doesn't happen—period.
"It's interesting when you talk to the players," he said. "A lot of them say 'I don't care about this, you're the developers, you're game designers, we're no game designers. You make it, you decide yourselves.' But a lot of players, that have played the game seven years or more, feel like they want to be able to guide the way that the game is made. Ultimately, we would be doing a disservice to our community if we didn't give them that ability."
It's unclear when RuneScape will evolve enough to warrant another historical marker. It's something Ogilvie and the team at Jagex are thinking about constantly. There's no scientific way to know when it's the time; it's something that feels right. There are also worries that, eventually, you'll splinter the community to the point of undercutting the whole endeavor.
Right now, Jagex is looking at mobile, VR, and gameplay tweaks to make sure hardcore RuneScape players have new ways to jump into their favorite world. One idea, for example, involves a five-minute daily quest that would give those light on time something to do.
"We know that our community have different demands in their life now," said Ogilvie. "We want to be able to bring them the world that they love in a way that's comfortable and meaningful to them. If that means mobile, or if that means five minutes a day, or some kind of VR headset, then so be it."