In 2007, Jagex had a riot on its hands. In an effort to combat gold sellers in RuneScape, the Cambridge-based studio had removed Player versus Player (PvP) from the MMO’s deadliest area and placed stringent trade restrictions on players looking to buy and sell goods. Needless to say, the community wasn’t happy – players felt like they were being penalised for the actions of RuneScape‘s seedier side – and it wasn’t long before thousands of players were up in arms, rioting in the in-game city of Falador and co-ordinating mass log-off protests.
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Months of unrest followed, but nothing would change until 2011, when Jagex offered players a referendum to gauge interest in bringing back PvP and free trade. The community voted with a resounding ‘yes’, and Jagex upheld its side by re-introducing both features as they existed in 2007.
That was over a decade ago, but echoes of that referendum linger. Now, Jagex has its hands full running two versions of RuneScape – the normal version that has continued to evolve, and Old School RuneScape (OSRS): a separate build of the game that seeks to capture the RuneScape that fans would rush from school to play in 2007. Besides the graphics and content, the biggest difference between the two builds is that Jagex polls every Old School update with players – and if it doesn’t get enough votes, it doesn’t get added.
Giving the community the keys to your game’s future may sound like a bold choice, but Kieren Charles, who grew up playing RuneScape before becoming associate design director at Jagex, wouldn’t have it any other way.
“I love the fact that community is at the core of this game,” says Charles. “It’s been that way since 2013 – if it wasn’t succeeding, we would have stopped doing it! Players consistently say the polling system is a really important part of Old School‘s identity and we think it’s really important for the game going forward.”
Likewise, content developer Elena Nordmark says that although polling every update can be time-consuming, the community’s involvement “adds a level of quality to the product we’re releasing because we know this has to pass a poll, so we can’t get away with doing something halfway – it has to be good enough for [the community] to want it!”
The pair are incredibly passionate about Old School RuneScape‘s polling system. However, when Nordmark’s point about updates taking longer reflects one of several unique challenges that come with giving players that much power. For Old School RuneScape, one of polling’s biggest problems is in the name: players are attracted to this version of the MMO specifically because it recreates the MMO’s noughties magic, and adding anything new – on paper – runs counter to that.
“It’s certainly a difficult one, right?” asks Nordmark. “That’s the whole reason a lot of people started playing Old School – they want that feeling they had in 2007. The biggest part of it, when I’m designing something, I continuously ask myself: does this feel right? Does it feel like it should?”
Nordmark says that she often runs ideas past fellow developers and the community, and there’s a lot of “sanity checking” – which she says ensures an update “still matches our vision of what Old School is while still maintaining that golden era feeling”.
Charles agrees, claiming that although Jagex wants to be “ambitious” and acknowledge that “we’re in 2022 now, not 2007”, he understands that Old School RuneScape “should remain – at minimum – recognisable to those who do have the nostalgia element who played back in 2007”.
That sounds paradoxical, but Jagex – with players’ permission – has still managed to get plenty of new content into the game, including a whole new continent that didn’t exist back in 2007. However, Nordmark and Charles both say that the polling system has one arch-nemesis: PvP. While bloodthirsty players feel starved for content, pacifists at the wrong end of a Dragon Dagger don’t want anything in the game that could be used to batter them in the Wilderness.
“It’s fascinating, doing something like polling,” says Charles. “You really do see the different factions in the community come out and post all the reasons why this is great, and some people say ‘No, I don’t want this for this reason’. It draws a lot of parallels to politics, but the difficulty for us is when it comes to complicated ideas that are harder to explain to players in one sentence. When it’s bread and butter – adding a new quests or a boss encounter – it’s really easy to understand. It’s a lot harder when it comes to stuff that’s got a lot more depth to it. We’re trying to do a lot more video content and stuff like that, to really help get that out there more effectively than what we’re doing.”
Expanding on that, Nordmark explains that getting nearly any update into the game involves “selling” new content to players before it ever reaches the polling stage – bringing the concept up with players early, and gauging their response before jumping into development.
“We can get a feel for if the community wants this or not. If we get a feel for ‘no, this isn’t going to work’ after just two weeks of design time, then that’s not worth chasing – and we could be spending that time making cool updates that people actually do want.”
In the case of PvP, Jagex recently tweaked its poll so that only active PvP players could vote on a proposed update for new PvP-oriented gear. This proved divisive, when players argued that merely being on the receiving end of the gear should be enough to qualify for a vote.
“It’s quite hard, polling to specific groups of people,” says Nordmark. “What do you determine as a PvP player? It’s quite a difficult situation to be in.”
“I would be lying if I said we knew all the answers right now,” admits Charles. “As we’ve gone through the last nine years of Old School, one of the problems with the poll system is that 75 per cent [of players] have to say yes. So when it comes to smaller communities, particularly PvP where some players don’t want to be killed, there’s a direct conflict – most other content doesn’t have that, so it’s harder when it comes to passing. We’ve experimented with a few thing like restricted polling – trying to ask a question just for the audience it should affect, nobody else – but that has its own challenges. It’s worked well for some things like Ironmen restricted polls, but not PvP.”
Charles says that getting new content to PvP players is something Jagex is actively looking to “get to the bottom” of in coming month, and says it’s important that the polling system works for all aspects of the community. “Old School is greater than the sum of its parts. An MMO has a huge variety of different people – people who love bossing, people who love the quests, people who just want to fight other players. The game seems best when all of these parts are healthy because they all compliment each other.”
Though these issues present a challenge to adding new content, Charles says that keeping the community so heavily in Old School RuneScape‘s development process is integral to the MMO’s success.
“Polling keeps us in check. It stopped us making a couple of mistakes at times. We’re not perfect, we’re humans, we can miss something. [Maybe] we haven’t talked to the right people in the community, or missed the mark. It’s great that we have this process that stops us early rather than us launching it six months later with a load of effort put into it and then find out players don’t like it. It catches us and it’s proven healthy.”
Having those pre-release hurdles to jump through also makes the feeling of a successful launch even sweeter. A beaming Nordmark recalls successfully leading development on Group Ironman, while Charles is particularly proud of his work on the MMO’s game-changing Leagues mode, which allowed players to create different characters on self-contained and modified servers. On the topic of separate modes, Charles expands on the fact that Jagex is currently exploring some “theoretical” game modes – including easy and hard mode servers for RuneScape.
“There’s nothing concrete yet, but our core belief is that we want to innovate – we do want to keep creating these different experiences for Old School – but we don’t want to rush them all out. There’s no point in us releasing one every single month because that would be overburdening for players and we don’t want to distract too much from […] that core Old School game. Based on [easy and hard modes] being quite popular it’s probably more likely it’ll be that than Merchantman mode if we do another one in the future, but nothing’s concrete right now.”
Though the future seems promising for new game modes in Old School RuneScape, one of the realities of player-voted content is that not everything Jagex wants to add ends up happening. While Nordmark and Charles say the team typically takes content that doesn’t pass as a learning experience, it can be difficult to see an idea you’re passionate about falter in the polls.
“If you really believe in something and you see that it’s failing, that can be devastating,” says Nordmark. “I haven’t experienced that myself, but I’ve certainly seen people in the team quite upset about stuff that’s not passing. Usually when we look at it in hindsight we can see why that is, but in the moment it can be…people can be invested in what they’ve been working on, of course.”
For Charles, there’s one particular feature that he’s always hoped would make it into the game – despite the community voting against it in several forms.
“I would love to do a new skill. I’m disappointed that the last one didn’t result in that, but I think we know why it didn’t work […] We have brought three new skills forward across the years – artisan, sailing and warding – and none of them passed their polls. The closest was sailing on 72 per cent. But to be honest, I look back in hindsight and think we were a bit overambitious back in 2015 when we pitched sailing, it was probably a bit too soon. Old School was still in its infancy, really. The dev team has grown and it’s a lot more impressive today than it was back then so nowadays, I think we’re far better equipped when it comes to new skills. A skill touches the fabric of the game, it should be spread across and intertwined with the rest of the game systems to really live up to the name of being a skill – so rightly so, players have high expectations on what they expect from a skill but it also increases worries on how it might affect different stuff across the game. That’s what we have to respect.”
Charles says that to get a new skill into Old School RuneScape, Jagex’s model for selling the idea and discussing it with players needs to be “the most refined it ever has been”. On that, Nordmark says Jagex will “involve the community way more from day one” and ensure any new skill wouldn’t mess up anything already in the game.
“There’s definitely space for a new skill [but] it’s hard because every time we’ve brought it up to the community before, you see a lot of people want it but you also see a lot of people want different stuff. Some are yelling ‘Dungeoneering’, some ‘Sailing’, and these are both very popular – but it makes me wonder, how can we get everyone to agree on one skill when people want 50 different things? That begs the question – how do you get the first one to pass? I think that if we got one skill to pass, we can more easily do a second one – and maybe a third one eventually. It’s just that we need to get over that initial bump of getting everyone to unite.”
Regardless of the challenges that polling brings, Nordmark and Charles wouldn’t trade it for a thing. Nordmark “would love” to see more studios follow Jagex’s community-centric approach, though acknowledges it may not work for larger companies. For Charles, polling is something that’s uniquely RuneScape.
“The community will outlast all of us. RuneScape has been going for 20 years so far – I won’t be here forever! All of this dev team has joined midway through this game’s life. RuneScape started as just three brothers working together to make this game 20 years ago, now all of us have come onto it […] in 20 years time, I want this game to still be in a really good place, even if some of the dev team aren’t here anymore. The community will outlast us – so we’ve got to really pay attention to what they want to see for the future.”
“The fact that we can almost categorically say the players have a direct say on what goes into the game is wonderful […] to me, it’s just embracing everything that’s been consistently great about RuneScape since it came out two decades ago. RuneScape, at the end of the day, I don’t think would be anything without community – so embracing that, and putting it at the core of our development? It’s a wonderful story.”