There’s an undeniable magic to taking your first steps into a new MMO. Running around cluelessly, auspiciously trying to follow players who look like they know what to do, and making punching bags of woefully weak wildlife in the hopes of levelling up. For many gamers that went to school in the noughties, their first MMO – short for massively-multiplayer online game – was likely to be RuneScape: a vast fantasy world where players can try their hand at everything from dragon-slaying to fly fishing.
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Launched in 2001, the game has won the hearts of many Millenial and Gen Z players over its two-decade journey. Now, Jagex – the Cambridge-based developer behind RuneScape – is trying to recapture the magic of the MMO’s earliest days, with Fresh Start Worlds. These are servers that are completely separate from the rest of RuneScape, and wipe away all of the progress that players have made in the last two decades: the player-led economy, which has been chugging along since 2001, was restarted; and anyone looking to play on one of the servers needs to create a new account and start again from scratch. After several months, players on Fresh Start Worlds will be moved into RuneScape‘s standard servers – and in theory, be ready to mingle with RuneScape‘s wider community.
“The crux of the idea was to get our new and returning players into a place where they could really feel comfortable playing RuneScape, and kickstart them back into the game,” explains Frances Keatley, a product manager for RuneScape.
However, Tim Fletcher – RuneScape‘s lead game designer – acknowledges that there was some initial pushback from the community. “One of the questions we were asked was ‘What’s the point of this? I could just create a new account’ – and our players do create new accounts,” he says. “The point of Fresh Start Worlds is to start together – it’s almost a pretext, an event to make it a fun social environment for everybody.”
On a more practical note, Fletcher says that Fresh Start Worlds – and the increased experience rates they offer for levelling up faster – are necessary to help new players catch up on two decades of content. Fletcher points out newcomers have more to tackle than veteran players did in their day, and the sheer size of RuneScape can be intimidating for those who haven’t been keeping up with the MMO for years.
“The older things have to get easier over time, otherwise the total work in the game just becomes astronomical and impossible – the game becomes inaccessible for most of that time,” explains Fletcher. “We have to make goals easier to achieve over time because there are simply so many more. In that context, the experience bonuses that Fresh Start Worlds provide are nowhere near significant enough to destabilise or threaten the integrity of the game.”
Before Fresh Start Worlds, Jagex had already found success in replicating the game’s early-days charm. Old School RuneScape (OSRS), a spin-off built from the MMO’s 2007 days, has been hugely popular since launching in 2013. For many, OSRS offers the purest hit of Runescape nostalgia – and for that very reason, Kieren Charles, associate design director for OSRS, has fond memories of its launch.
“I remember joining in 2013 – I remember the exact day, it sticks in my memory so much,” grins Charles, who recalls “crowds of people” running through the game’s beloved Tutorial Island together. Like Fletcher, Charles acknowledges that merely making a new account on RuneScape‘s standard worlds lacks “the same spirit” as jumping in with thousands of other new players.
Along with OSRS content developer Elena Nordmark, the pair are excited for Fresh Start Worlds to let new players experience the moments they themselves experienced long before coming to work at Jagex. Nordmark is keeping an eye out for players’ infuriated reactions to One Small Favour – a deceptively elaborate quest, despite the name – while Charles is looking forward to seeing new players try and equip Goblin Mail, a set of chainmail that’s too small for players to wear – though it doesn’t stop them from trying.
“You’ll see these posts on Reddit, people will post about their early achievements – and people love to celebrate with them, because they relate to it so much,” grins Charles. “You lose sight of it sometimes, when you play for 15 years or whatever – you forget how significant some of these moments are. Seeing new players go through RuneScape is awesome.”
While the modern version of RuneScape (RS3) launched Fresh Start Worlds in September, they didn’t launch in OSRS until October. Charles points out that despite both being branches of the same game, each version of RuneScape is inherently different. Old School is slower-paced with more of a grind, while RS3‘s graphics have long since evolved since 2007.
Accordingly, both games have very different playerbases, which Charles describes as an “interesting dynamic” to tackle. While Fletcher and Keatley’s vision of Fresh Start Worlds offer a way for players to tangibly catch up with bonus experience, Nordmark and Charles remain focused on the community aspect – and as a result, Fresh Start Worlds launched without bonus experience in OSRS. Nordmark says that the team had a “few discussions” about its inclusion, but ultimately decided against it.
“We wanted to give fresher players a realistic expectation of what the game is about,” explained Nordmark. “So if you get used to this double experience, and then you move to normal servers and it’s not like that, maybe you got a false sense of what you were getting into. We’ve established Old School is a bit of a grindy game, so setting that expectation from the beginning is just respecting players’ time.”
Yet despite the differences in the RuneScape branches, both teams are clearly passionate about getting to work on an MMO that’s been around for so long – Fletcher and Keatley giggle at the prospect of new players struggling through some of the game’s more challenging puzzles, while Nordmark and Charles are delighted that a whole new audience will experience the game they spent their teenage years playing. Likewise, both teams acknowledge that working on a 21-year-old game has its own challenges – Fletcher admits that RuneScape‘s map is now so packed it can be a challenge merely finding free space for new content, while Nordmark says she feels a lot of extra “responsibility” to the game since she played it for so long before coming to work at Jagex.
But for all four of the developers, ensuring that RuneScape continues to thrive and attract new generations of players – even after 21 years – is a task they relish.
“I think myself, [Nordmark], the rest of the team – it’s like we’re custodians of this game, we owe it to the community to do right by it,” reflects Charles. “OSRS is ten-years-old, RS3 is now into its third decade of life, and that’s an incredibly long time. Not many games make it that far – so it’s right for us to make sure the next 10 are just beyond amazing – and the 10 beyond that? Who knows how far we go.”