Interview: Frances Keatley and Matt Casey discuss The Year of Combat and adding new skills to RuneScape

Interview: Frances Keatley and Matt Casey discuss The Year of Combat and adding new skills to RuneScape

RuneScape is looking to introduce a host of changes over the years to help keep the game enjoyable for new and old players alike. Achieving that is a difficult task for a game that's over 20 years old, and we were intrigued to find out how the developers approach it.

We recently chatted with Frances Keately, Product Manager, and Matt Casey, Product Director, about how they approach overhauling different aspects of the popular MMORPG. Together, we discussed responding to player feedback, the recent death rework, and how they try to ease new players into the experience.

Could you please introduce yourself and your role on RuneScape to our audience?

Frances Keatley: Hi, I’m Frances Keatley and I’m a Product Manager on RuneScape. I look after the content releases and make sure we’re making the right game for our players.

Matt Casey: Hi, I’m Matt Casey, Product Director for RuneScape and I work with Frances and the others on our team who are involved in planning our roadmaps and key updates.

Death has recently been reworked to reduce the number of items players lose. Can you talk to us about the decision behind this move and what changes you hope it will bring to RuneScape?

FK: A few years back we ran what we like to call a ‘player advocacy group’ where a group of players highlighted some of the game that they’d like changed or improved. One of the top items in that list was death costs: a penalty payment to get your items back when you’ve fallen in battle to one of the many bosses (or those pesky dark wizards when you’re only level 3). This death cost was a chunk of the gold you have in-game, making it pretty unfriendly to try out more challenging content due to the risk. It wasn’t just from the PAG either, but a common struggle for regular players that we heard about across feedback channels.

So here we are a couple years later, and death costs have been addressed - the penalty you pay for dying has been reduced and players can go forth and die to their bosses or dark wizards for a more reasonable sum. I’d still not necessarily advise dying if you can avoid it, it’s a bit of XP waste, but you can feel more confident in getting back quicker if you do.

MC: And just to add to what Frances said, listening to our players is an important part of our process, so we can understand where the biggest issues are with the game and decide what to prioritise. Lowering Death Costs was important as it put some players off playing the game.

Did you face any challenges adding a new skill to the game? (Such as balance or any unexpected effects)

MC: Having a 22-year-old game always comes with its challenges. We’ve come across a few interesting technical challenges with Necromancy that were one the reasons we didn't do it before. I can’t go into the specifics but we wanted to take a look at how some of the NPCs in the game behave and this lead to some improvements that will help the game, in general, feel more believable.

Matt Casey, Product Director

  Are there plans to add any new skills? Or is it a case of seeing what makes sense?

FK: We’re always looking to grow RuneScape with weekly updates and new content to enjoy every month, so there’ll be new things to do in Gielinor. Our new season of content ‘Fort Forinthry’ began this month, with more quests and updates planned throughout the rest of the year. For new skills, we’re all eyes on Necromancy at the moment and making sure it’s the best skill it can be.

MC: We also have to consider the overall balance of the game – I mean if we only worked on new skills it could get too confusing or might lead to longer gaps between key updates. We are always looking for new and inventive ways to keep RuneScape fans coming back for more so sometimes we’ll go back and polish older skills (like the 2019 Mining & Smithing rework) increase level caps or add new training methods to existing skills.

You have dubbed 2023 as The Year of Combat. Can you tell us what that means for RuneScape and what plans exist for making it more approachable?

MC: While ‘The Year of Combat’ is an unofficial term since combat is just one aspect of RuneScape we’re working on this year. Yes, it includes the Death Cost rework which is heavily rooted in combat but we’re also developing a lot for the skilling community in our current Season, Fort Forinthry, where players build a fort that they can grow into a convenient skilling hub by the end of the season.

With any popular game, there is always a backlash when making changes, particularly to something as integral as combat. How do you approach negative sentiment towards changes?

FK: Keeping an open dialogue with players is always the most important thing to keep a good rapport. We find a lot of success in talking about any controversial changes before we make them; explaining the why and what’s led us to make these decisions. One example of this is the Death Cost rework, a brand-new initiative which has made combat challenges far more approachable.

Likewise, how difficult do you find it to balance appeasing players versus carrying out tweaks you believe are best for the game? And what is your approach to try and keep as many people as happy as possible?

MC: RuneScape has always been a very community-driven game. We listen to feedback, we engage with our community and ask lots of questions. Our developers and community teams have a close relationship with our players via our social media channels, so we are constantly monitoring and looking out for trends in the conversation.

How much of an influx of new and returning players has the game enjoyed since the Fresh Start Worlds event?

MC: We got a huge amount of interest in Fresh Start Worlds from new players, people coming back to the game and members of our current active player base as well. It was such an interesting idea to play on new turf with everyone starting from the same point. We saw players sticking around for the whole event and getting as much out of it as possible. We’ve been running some surveys with these players to see where we go next with the idea so watch this space in the future!

Frances Keatley, Product Manager

I imagine joining a game that is 20 years old can be intimidating for new players. What steps have you taken to ensure the onboarding process is as smooth as possible for those with no experience in RuneScape?

MC: We’ll we’ve certainly tried a few different variations since the original ‘Tutorial Island’ way back in the day and whenever possible we try to tailor the experience to the audience. A good example is the very mobile-friendly Davendale content we launched in 2021. This was designed to show players how to get used to playing with a completely different type of control scheme and even changed the order in which you would normally do things in an RPG like creating your character. We try to be as data-driven as possible to see where the drop-off points are, then test that against a control version to see what gets the best results.

Similarly, how do you balance creating content for endgame versus newer players?

MC: Again, experimentation is the order of the day and trying out new ideas with all our players in mind. For instance, when we launched the Glacor Boss as part of the Elder God Wars saga we allowed players to choose their own difficulty, effectively customising the combat mechanics in the encounter. We also brought in a ‘Story Mode’ option with last year’s Zamorak boss so new players could still get in on the action. We usually design quests in the game into storylines that have discreet jump-in points that avoid high-level requirements or completion of previous quests and we’ll use these to attract newer players into the game throughout the year.

In our current Season, Fort Forinthry, we saw a huge boost in week one player numbers since the content was accessible by low-level players. We’re also trying to find new on-roads for new players and anyone returning after a one (or 15!) year break.

RuneScape Mobile icon
Download now!

Stephen Gregson-Wood
Stephen Gregson-Wood
Stephen brings both a love of games and a very formal-sounding journalism qualification to the Pocket Gamer team.