RuneScape: Digital Garden of Eden
There is no way that Andrew, Ian, and Paul Gower could ever have predicted the cultural icon that their hobbyist passion project would eventually become. The ubiquitous nature of Jagex’s RuneScape is such that no matter where one grew up in the 2000s, there is at most one link separating them from RuneScape if they weren’t in the millions that played it themselves.
THE PERFECT TIME
RuneScape, for those not familiar, is one of the first communal gaming experiences on the Internet. While certainly not the first MMORPG by any means, it was the one that managed to take off because of a few key factors, with the most prominent one being its accessibility. If your computer could run MSPaint, it could likely run RuneScape. It didn’t even require downloading a separate client — bypassing lots of parental controls that prevented downloading programs from the Internet — because it was played almost exclusively in-browser for the peak of its popularity.
This was unheard of. The Internet was a very fragmented place in the late 90s and remained that way for much of Web 2.0, before the advent of mobile devices and social media. The web had not become an integral part of society in the ways that we experience today, especially for children. One could even cite games like RuneScape as one of the foundational bricks that lead us to where we are today, serving as an in-between stage for the early, more invested Internet and the interconnected global village that we live in today.
For most people my age (or at least in Alabama, where I am from), home internet was something that didn’t arrive until the late 2000s. Internet usage was primarily at school or a library, but the home computer was not commonplace yet. Most internet usage was completely topical and primarily focused on one thing: games.
Anyone who was a child in the 2000s would remember famous flash game portals like kongregate, addictinggames, and most importantly — miniclip.com. In 2004, Jagex partnered with Miniclip in order to platform RuneScape, and this decision would not only change the trajectory of their game, but the Internet as a whole. RuneScape quickly found its way at the #1 spot on the popularity rankings of Miniclip and soon new players were swarming in at an exponential rate. Player counts of relatively new to the Internet, curious onlookers quickly dwarfed the smaller population of already dedicated players and changed the landscape of the game completely.
In addition to its success on Miniclip, word of mouth was a huge proponent of RuneScape’s draw. The advent of home internet and low hardware requirements completely removed entry barriers that had prevented most online games from growing outside of their smaller, more devoted spheres. Not only was RuneScape readily accessible, but all of your friends were on it and playing!
The final piece of the puzzle was RuneScape’s cost: $0. There was a membership service one could subscribe to for $5 a month that gave access to additional content, but even the now-instantaneous act of electronic billing was more off-putting during the primetime for RuneScape, and most of its players were school children, so the game can be most accurately judged based on its free-to-play service during this period of time. With increasing access to computers, a quickly growing playerbase, very few technical barriers, and no cost to sign up and play, RuneScape went from a hobbyist project to a game hosting millions of players almost overnight.
THE PERFECT WORLD
RuneScape’s appeal is hard to describe to one who was not present, because it is not the type of game that would garner such widespread acclaim today.
The game that entranced American audiences for years was an incredibly unlikely combination of nerdy, retro RPG enthusiast homage and dry, british humor. With graphics that can best be described as “charmingly ugly”, incredibly cryptic quests, and a gameplay feedback loop that relies almost entirely on grinding to progress, it is truly a marvel of the times that such a game took hold. However, as I will discuss shortly, the game was more of a vehicle for the social interaction that occurred within the realm of Gielinor.
Despite all of the reasons why this game should have had difficulty taking hold, the staying power was incredible.
The primary answer to the question “Why RuneScape?” was simple. Aside from the lack of entry requirements, there were also very few competitors to RuneScape at this time. Club Penguin, another online game ranked high on Miniclip, was more of a dress-up simulator, while other games like World of Warcraft required money upfront that most players simply didn’t have access to and were decidedly inviting to casual players. Even comparable games like Maplestory were a bit too niche to take hold of the masses like RuneScape did, in addition to requiring its own desktop client. Even today’s free-to-play juggernaut, Roblox, was still in its infancy during this time period.
RuneScape’s in-game world was also a huge draw for players. While the gameplay might not have been very fleshed out, this actually worked in RuneScape’s favor. Simplicity was the name of the game. Every single skill in RuneScape available to free players was introduced in its iconic Tutorial Island, as well as the method to train it. The different methods or equipment for training were unlocked as players progressed, but the core mechanic was always the same, all the way to “completing” the skill at level 99. Lack of progression was also not necessarily punished, because there were little to no requirements to take part in most of the game’s activities.
This scheme meant that there was, however, always some simple task one could do, whether it be cutting logs or catching fish, that would give an immediate turnaround with experience and exchangeable resources for the player. This dogmatic approach to gameplay, which has been remedied as years pass, was actually helpful to retaining players in that no matter how far one was from maximum efficiency for a task, there was always a way to chip away at the mountain that stood between one and the finish line. Younger, inexperienced players were not punished for lacking the rigor that most games reward one for now, and progression as a whole was really pretty optional. With an exponential curve in leveling difficulty, one could get pretty average stats with little effort while the upper echelons required hours and hours of dedicated grinding.
While the gameplay was simple and easy to jump in and out of, the world of RuneScape itself played a big part in keeping players entertained. Despite most of it being locked behind membership, the world of RuneScape was enormous. If the mechanics of the game left something to be desired, the scope of the world did not. Whether by chance or by design, the team at Jagex created a very fleshed out and expansive world that allowed players to simply wander in any direction for huge spans, stumbling upon new things at every turn.
The free-to-play world was more centralized in comparison to the world of members, and the accessible areas mostly revolved around Lumbridge and Varrock. Lumbridge, the starting town, was a castle surrounded by forests, a swamp, and many farms you could find players congregating at and slaughtering livestock at any given time. Varrock, on the other hand, was a commerce and social hub that could be found bustling with players. Even the routes between these and other places would have dozens of players walking from one to another. NPCs were numerous within cities, and even on the outskirts of civilization there were plenty of characters to talk to that kept even remote areas feeling purposeful, rather than deserted.
Because RuneScape put such little emphasis on progression, many players of all levels could be found even in the starting areas and their surroundings. This, while perhaps unintentional, made the game feel alive at every turn. To a new player, this gave immediate engagement and encourages one to explore or engage with fellow players. By contrast, one of the biggest problems that present day RuneScape faces is the feeling of the world being a ghost town outside of one or two specific areas because everything has been so streamlined.
In addition to other players, the quest system was so difficult to parse without an explicit guide that most quests aside from the most simple stayed half-done for years. No, really, Jagex specifically wrote a rule into the game that fan-sites couldn’t write a walkthrough for a quest, only give “hints”. While eventually this would be overturned due to the massive growth of fansites, this attitude towards quests coupled with the low age of the average player made them much more of a dedicated endeavor than reading a walkthrough and performing the tasks. As a result, it was far more common to have a large number of half-done quests, mostly a result of simply talking to NPCs and starting them while exploring.
And if one was to attain the much-coveted membership, there was almost nowhere a player couldn’t reach simply by walking in one direction. Once you left the central area of the world, the population began to thin out and it truly felt like exploring an entirely new world as you found yourself at stranger and stranger places, such as Ardougne, the plague city, or Pollinivneach, the bandit town in the middle of the desert. Even if you went somewhere that you were clueless about, you could investigate or just watch other players doing tasks, observing the world as an intrepid explorer. Though many years have gone by, I still have been hard pressed to find anything that stacks up to the child’s wonder of roaming the larger RuneScape world.
THE PERFECT PEOPLE
Ultimately, when it comes to attracting the most players, gameplay falls behind. Even if a game has perfect mechanics or feedback loops, the most important aspect of any game is the experience. And in an MMORPG, the players are key.
RuneScape, at its peak, was perhaps the best player experience a new internet-goer could ask for. It’s important to remember that this predates even the most primitive social media aside from MySpace, and even that was inclined to a slightly older age demographic than most RuneScape players. For most people my age, RuneScape was the first place that you ever connected with anyone online, whether it was somene you knew from school or someone who lived on the opposite side of the world.
This tantalizing prospect was the greatest draw for users, especially in a game as simple as RuneScape — it was not just a game, but a social experience that had not existed on such a scale previously. While you were likely to begin playing because of the recommendation or mutual curiosity from a friend, most of the people you would interact with ingame were complete strangers. Most multiplayer games at this time were still limited to who you could fit on your couch, even console gaming was still finding its way with online services at this point in time. Entering RuneScape for the first time at this period was tantamount to entering a completely different world.
RuneScape, at its core, was a game that was only made possible by the contributions of many. Before a centralized marketplace, players would have to stand outside a bank and announce their wares and prices in the chat, and all commerce (aside from the forums) was player-to-player exchanges in an economy with very young users. Wealth was difficult to attain for newbies and carried a lot of status. As a result, RuneScape was most players’ first experience with scamming online as well.
Anyone who played RuneScape with more than a passing interest will recount to you the tale of the first time they were scammed by another player. It was a ruthless world, and the scams were as numerous and varied as the players.
Inevitably, it would happen to you. Whether you were beguiled by a trader who promised to trim your armor (not possible) or lured into the Wilderness (the pvp area of the world), eventually you would end up on the receiving end of someone’s ill intent with your hard-earned gold or equipment. You may even be reduced to begging, players could regularly be found outside of banks dancing for money. Some were even reduced to changing their characters to girls and trying to find players buying girlfriends.
On the positive side, however, most places to gather resources like fishing spots, groves of trees, cow pens, were always full of players doing the same activity that you were. Many times you would walk into the area in the middle of other players talking and just join into the conversation while you worked away at your task.
There were no phones, YouTube in its current state as chief time waster was almost non-existent, so almost all players were actively engaged at the keyboard and would chat to ease the tedium of the grindy nature of the game. Some might have been preoccupied with private chats to friends, but for the most part the public chat was always viable and full of other players talking.
This low-stakes introduction to the global village was something that doesn’t exist today (or if it does, I’m old and don’t know of it) and most players would befriend one another with little introduction. But while the advent of social media and total connectedness were still a few years off, RuneScape became a place for the masses to congregate in their free time. The bridge that formed between real life and digital life allowed many to experience online friendships for the first time, a stark contrast (and ultimately, more truthful) to the well-intentioned boomer naivete that everyone online was a serial killer.
We can see now that there are consequences to the complete merger of the real world and digital world, but this is more of a consequence of the transition from Web 2.0 to Web 3.0, where anonymity took a backseat to interconnectedness pioneered mostly by bad actor corporations looking to tie you to an ad profile stamped with your real name and social security number.
This is why I view the now seemingly prehistoric world of RuneScape as an “Eden” of sorts, with most of the idea of “perfection” being mostly irony, and more of a focus on the way that RuneScape served as a shaky first step from the analog world to the digital world that we now live in. Games like RuneScape lose their footing as social experiences when social media is the “experience” that most seek — this is not a good or bad thing inherently, just an observation on the decline of games in this sector as the Internet changes.
A good example of this is the continuation of the classic RuneScape experience, Old School RuneScape (OSRS). This version, still running and ironically more popular than RuneScape 3, the natural evolution of RuneScape over the years, exists on a completely different frequency, towing a fine line between nostalgia and enjoyment of the original. The closest we saw to a revival bearing the same circumstances that made RuneScape such an interesting phenomenon was the release of OSRS Mobile.
With this, the “barrier” of PC gaming being far less accessible than mobile gaming was removed, and there was a massive influx of players who once again, through mostly word of mouth exposure, logged in for the first time. The game briefly hit #1 on the App Store, even surpassing giants like Fortnite. Despite this similar burst of activity to its initial rise, because the Internet had already evolved to almost completely cover the social experience in other ways, there was no equivalency to the social drive for players of yore to connect with others online in the same way. While the short term nostalgia was powerful for returning players, the “magic” of the game was absent through no fault of the players or Jagex, but instead a simple causality of a world progressed. Much like Adam and Eve were vacated from Eden, we can now only look over our shoulders and admire the garden for what it was on the way out.
While my early days on RuneScape were primarily spent just ambling around, playing alongside my childhood friend, I would be omitting if I left out that I met one of my closest friends from this game. Around 2008, RuneScape’s popularity started to wane with questionable decisions from Jagex and the Internet’s general growing popularity and ease of access. Soon, there was more than just RuneScape for people looking to find games to play with friends, and that large playerbase seems to dissipate to new places on the exciting digital frontier.
I stuck around for a few years longer, playing off-and-on around school and other interests. While cleaning my room on summer vacation in 2012, I found a prepaid membership card from Gamestop stowed in the pages of a book of mine and decided to redeem it. By chance, after a few days of wandering around and seeing the drastically different landscape of my childhood home, I met a user named Bean Barrage. We hit it off immediately and played almost every day with a small community of players. Eventually, summer was ending, so we exchanged phone numbers to keep in contact.
We stayed in close contact over the years as we both made it through high school and into college. Even though I had never met her in person, she was one of my best friends and as things changed in our own lives, our friendship remained constant. We floated the idea of meeting up a couple times, but things never seemed to line up well since we were both in school, her in New York City and me in Alabama. Eventually, however, towards the end of 2016, she invited me to come stay with her at her family’s home for a week. I was completely terrified of traveling alone, going to a city, and meeting a friend from the internet above all.
However, despite my anxieties, I went, and it was one of the most fun trips of my life. As soon as we met in the real world it felt as if every single day spent gaming together had just been a lead up to this event. Sometimes I have to laugh that one of my best friends was literally a stranger I ran into on the game I grew up playing. We are still close friends to this day and try to make the long trip every other year or so. This is the magic of the Internet though: the person you are talking to is just another human being sitting in another chair. Spend enough time with them and eventually you will have a friend.