At the tail end of last month, RuneScape Mobile finally entered into early access on Google Play. The long-awaited mobile port of Jagex's classic MMO is an impressively faithful adaptation of the desktop original. And it really needed to be for the studio's ambitious crossplay approach to work.
Unlike many MMOs which make their way to mobile, Jagex's port aims to offer existing players the option to play when on the go without the need to start from scratch while simultaneously opening the RuneScape experience up to an entirely new audience.
Late last week, I sat down with Lead Designer David Osborne and Product Director Jason Mellina to discuss the newly released Ranch Out of Time, the upcoming Archaeology skill, and the many challenges of bringing a classic MMO to mobile.
A little intro.
JM: I'm Jason. I'm the Product Director for RuneScape. A few things fall under that remit at the moment which includes being the lead of RuneScape Mobile and a team called "Core Experience". What Core Experience does is look to better RuneScape for the future and make sure that we are on top of the technology we need to guarantee that we remain competitive.
DO: I'm Dave. I've been Lead Designer on RuneScape for 5 years, but I've been here for 13 years. I make sure the quality of the game is top-notch. I also oversee the storyline, a lot of the episodic content that we produce, and our weekly updates for the game.
In coming to mobile, many MMOs make arguably excessive concessions, not only to get everything working on touchscreens but also to appeal to a different kind of audience in mobile gamers. How did you go about striking a balance between keeping RuneScape Mobile feeling authentic while also opening it up to potential new players and making it more accessible?
JM: I feel like I've decided to pick up a bigger challenge, and that bigger challenge is not to cut anything away. Let's not trim down RuneScape, let's highlight the areas we feel are most critical for new players and make them more accessible. Keep everything there so that, at some point, a player can be as hardcore as they want to be on mobile without having to migrate to PC. For me, the balance wasn't about what we cut, it was more about working out how to give players what we feel RuneScape is and its best selling points.
How has RuneScape Mobile progressed since first launching into closed beta?
JM: What's funny is that when we look at an older version of the build, we see a lot of components that are very akin to the PC version of RuneScape. So when we created the initial port, we were trying to make sure it actually worked and was optimised for mobile, and we used a lot of the same assets. So one of the biggest things that we wanted to do since then was use refreshed, modernised assets that pull directly from the PC version, as well as change the layout to make it mobile-friendly. We were able to accomplish those things, and what you see in early access is the result of that. There are a lot of things coming down the pipe, but we felt that those changes were critical to implement before we went into early access. And that was the UI itself, in particular for the hub, the main menu, all of the interfaces, and a revised first-time user experience. What we had initially was a first-time experience that would take you to the Tutorial Island and drop you in the middle of the world. There was really no guide after that, and what we wanted to do was give players options and teach them how to play RuneScape step by step with the breadcrumb trail along the way.
In terms of core areas you're still looking to develop, do you think the world map will be revised?
JM: There are a few different things to consider with the world map. As it stands from a UX perspective, it's not the best experience I think we can deliver. For that in particular, it's about usability at this point. It's about looking to see what is the bare minimum we need in terms of options, just in case we have the opportunity to streamline. I think a big part of that is making it presentable. There are still some weird issues with it that we need to fix. From a tech perspective, the map itself is generated via the engine, so there aren't too many changes that we do have planned for the actual map. But we're definitely looking to update the layout.
To put it more in line with the sleek design of the UI?
JM: Yeah. So all those areas will continue to be made more flush. When you log into the game, what we currently have is the native login UI that we're using for PC. We plan to update all the assets for that, as well as make it a little more accessible. In the long run, we want to improve that flow to make it more native to a new mobile player.
Do you feel RuneScape's simplicity of design has translated well to touchscreen?
JM: With Old School RuneScape, we found that it translated a little bit better. And that's because it's generally simpler than current RuneScape. Current RuneScape is not what I would call simple; there are a lot of features to it, there are a lot of toggles. We had to work out how many of those toggles we actually needed in Mobile. Our experience working on Old School has taught us that streamlined experiences are more effective on mobile. The real question is how you go about that streamlining process.
Did you ever consider implementing, for example, auto-questing or some other more traditional mobile MMO features?
JM: This was something that weighed on my mind when I first started. I remember having a lecture in front of the team, showing them these modern mobile MMOs and how much hand-holding they do. As we looked at those, and as we demoed games like them, we would step back and think to ourselves, "how do we take what is great about this type of experience and add it to RuneScape Mobile while leaving it feeling like RuneScape". I think one of the great learning points of that was the usefulness of the breadcrumb trail and how it ensures that players have a guidepost to follow, at least for a certain amount of time. The breadcrumb trail is used throughout the whole of Tutorial Island. We realised we could take that breadcrumb trail and utilise it after the tutorial, and so we wanted to see how far we could take players using that same system.
Has the split between mobile and PC players surprised you?
JM: We're conducting market tests at the moment. These are important to help us gauge feedback from the perspective of a new player. There is one generalisation that we're making: We have to assume that it will be very difficult to acclimate a new user to RuneScape, especially on mobile. Early access has been doing fine, there are no problems or huge complaints, we're getting some great feedback. What I have to be prepared for is the polarisation between what new players want and what existing players want. Once we've learned more about what new players are looking for, we'll then decide what we need to build out for those guys while not negatively impacting the players on the other side of the spectrum.
What's the fan reaction been like to the release of the mobile version?
JM: They've actually been really happy. The only negativity comes out of people who are not able to play. For example, we are not available on iOS. While we're working to streamline the experience for the majority of our players, we've actually had to put a device blacklist in place. We did this because we were having issues with stability for some of the blacklisted devices. We're slowly opening that up, and those who are impacted are still extremely important to us.
DO: If you're making improvements that will benefit mobile, you have to bring them to desktop as well and make sure that they don't intrude. It's about making the case that these new features are beneficial to everybody or finding a nice middle ground.
JM: It's funny because I just put out a tweet the other day that asked about the walk marker. So in RuneScape Mobile, every time you tap the ground a little yellow circle comes up, and that's very specific to Mobile. But there's been a lot of players that are like, "it'd be great to have it on PC... but put a toggle for it". Something like that ends up being that middle ground we're going for. Ultimately, though, what I want to do is build an experience where people don't ask for toggles all the time, where we can all agree, based on feedback, that it's basically the right way to go for both platforms.
How far along is the iOS version at the moment, and have you considered offering an iOS beta?
JM: An iOS beta has absolutely been considered. Because of the platform limitations we have, there's only a certain number of players we can expose the build to. The question for us is whether a closed beta for a limited number of players would be worse than giving it to everyone when we actually end up going to full commercial launch. Those are the things we have to think about. What I want to do is make sure the build is available to everybody. At the moment, we can try to make it available to as many people as possible, but I don't know if that number will accommodate. As far as development goes on the iOS version, both versions (iOS and Android) are running in parallel. There's really nothing on the iOS build that needs to be too different from what we're developing on the Android side. It's just a case of making sure that version is stable.
Could you tell us a little bit about the recently released Ranch Out of Time content?
DO: In roughly September last year, we put together the player-owned farm, and it was superbly popular. Players gained the ability to collect creatures then breed them, grow them, get the produce from them. They loved this; it was a lovely asynchronous mini-game that they kept coming back to and checking in on. You can see how this works so well for mobile, in that a lot of our players who are interested in crossplay are checking in just to see if their dragons are fully grown or if their mushrooms are playing well. The player-owned farm went down so well that we felt a dinosaur farm, a Jurassic park of some kind, would be stupendous. And so Granny Potterington has pushed her franchise further and delivered a Ranch Out of Time.
What big content is coming up in 2020?
DO: The hype one, the one that we're really looking forward to, is the Archaeology skill. How you represent your progress, how to achieve in RuneScape is largely through skills. It's not through total levels like you'd get in a number of other MMOs. Everything is about your avatar and how it grows through taking on new skills. Archaeology is both sides of what you'd expect; you've got the Time Team Tony Robinson side, getting in the dirt, brushing some pottery off. Then it's the dream of going on expeditions which is a little more Indiana Jones or Lara Croft, delving into a tomb and trying to find something that has been lost to time. That's coming in January. In the summer we've got Elder God Wars Dungeons. These are a recognised brand with our players; they're kind of Rogue-like in that you've got a huge arena full of monsters, you've got a number of boss rooms, you've got to kill a number of creatures to get into those boss rooms. People will pile in and fight the bosses together. This one features our Elder Gods who are the creators of the world, so we're zooming out and going a bit more interstellar.
How do you approach storytelling when your quests are so varied tonally?
DO: We are happy to be both mundanely heroic and heroically mundane. We try to make things like sheering a sheep fantastically adventurous. We turn bringing a penguin home to his iceberg into a massive adventure with all sorts of subversions and unexpected events. Equally, when you go to do a world-spanning quest, we'll subvert that a little bit as well. We always offer that throughline of humour, an unexpected bit of vibrancy; I don't really get that in my other MMOs. You often get your gritty experiences or you've got your fantastical high-magic MMOs that still take themselves a little too seriously. We'd like to do something different, something a bit more British.
It's also interesting that so many of the game's quests are associated with individual developers. You don't necessarily have a writing team that oversees all these storylines.
DO: Historically, that was very true. We had individual developers who were owners, auteurs, creators of storylines. We've become a bit more collaborative than that, but it's still there. We love to see the fingerprints of our developers on the content; that's important to us. Players still have their favourite developers, and that's good because it means there's a diversity of storytelling. It also fits our "every developer is a community manager" appeal.
Danni Amos, PR Manager at Jagex: All of the developers at Jagex are on Twitter and they're all very involved in talking to the community, so you have people who attend RuneFest specifically to talk to the JMods.
DO: It's not as if it's a cult of celebrity, it's that they genuinely like the craft of the individual.
When at RuneFest, I was surprised to see the variety of people there, especially in terms of age. What do you think unites the playerbase and has kept RuneScape popular for 20+ years?
DO: If you look at the average account age, we're far beyond what other MMOs will have. The cliche answer, but I think it's true, is the community aspect. They come to RuneFest because they have formed groups, they have formed friendships. They can be reassured that they'll all be there ready to play RuneScape. One of the joys of RuneScape is that you don't always have to be intensive when you play. You can be training or playing while there are other people near you; you can be chatting away, checking each other's progress. And because there are no classes, we're all on the same track: How's your farming? How's your fishing? How's your combat? They mean the same thing to all of us; there's a shared language.
You can also watch our livestreams and take part in the expanded universe of RuneScape. It always feels like something's going on, and that's important to me for any entertainment service. You feel like you want to chat about the game, its storyline, what's going on with the updates.
JM: I think Dave hit on it with the discussion of how many characters are in the game. And when I say characters I'm not even talking about the NPCs, I mean the characters we have in this building that are instilled inside the game. The game has so much to it; there are so many ways to level up and play. Though it doesn't even fit the genre, it is by definition this sandbox thing that I think gives the "Scape" part of its name life. I think that has given it this allowance to be whatever it wants to be but also leaves it open to interpretation for whoever's playing the game. I think that freedom of feel is important to what it is at its core which is this eccentric thing that just has fun.
RuneScape Mobile is now available for download in early access over on Google Play.