All That’s Epic Speaks With David Osborne About the MMORPG RuneScape
Following on from our recent coverage of Transformers Universe we got a chance to sit down with David Osborne, RuneScape 3 senior narrative designer, and discussed his views on how studios can benefit from having an open dialogue with their community and how Jagex used this feedback to create the world’s largest free-to-play MMORPG with over 200 million registered accounts.
ATE: I wonder if you wouldn’t mind introducing yourself to our readers and telling us a little bit about what exactly you’re responsible for here at Jagex ?
DO: Okay so my name is David Osborne and I’m the senior narrative designer for RuneScape 3.
ATE: And what exactly does a senior narrative designer do?
DO: So traditionally a narrative designer is responsible for developing a game’s story, traditionally we either write the content ourselves or we just oversee the creation of content and it’s my job to make sure that everything we do makes sense in the universe we’re trying to create. At Jagex we expect each and every one of our developers to manage their own content because we like them to be able to claim ownership over whatever it is they’ve created.
ATE: So what are the main advantages of developing content in this way when compared to say, studios who are developing games with a fixed length narrative?
DO: So the good thing about it is it offers players a lot of diversity, I think because we like to make a point of allowing developers to express themselves within their work we are then rewarded with this really varied release schedule that then allows us to cater for a much wider audience. I think the most difficult thing is definitely just making sure that there’s always something for everyone. Is there something here for a high level player, is there something here for a low level player, is there something here for everyone in between? Without a doubt the most difficult part is just maintaining variety, but it’s something we’ve got really good at over the years.
ATE: I think your fans might say it’s something that you’ve got very, very good at over the years. So let’s quickly talk about what’s coming up in the world of Gielinor, what’s next for RuneScapers?
DO: Right now we have a very broad storyline which we’re calling The Sixth Age where all the gods who were not present in the game previously have now returned to our world and this has in turn lead to some friction. How this will actually play out we don’t know, we have this system called Power to the Players and it’s a polling system that allows the players to dictate what we commission in our weekly release schedule. What this means is that as a developer you need to know roughly where you want to be in say three to five years time, but everything in between is decided by the players.
ATE: So if you’re three to five years ahead what happens if two years into a four year story arc you suddenly see that the community is not responding to it in the way that you hoped?
DO: The best way to explain it is with what we call story beats. What we’ve done is we’ve created a scenario in which effectively all the gods are fighting each other for the right to gain an certain artifact; this artifact would allow them to cast out all other gods and take control of the world for themselves. What we’ve done is we’ve set up a scenario where by the players are very much aware of the beginning and they’re very aware of the end, but this gives us very broad remit for what can happen in between and we let the players decide that. The way I often describe it is it’s as if we’re in a ship sailing across the ocean, the players may blows us of course here and there, but eventually we will still get to our destination. Personally I think because we are able to be so involved with the community what we have is probably one of the most organic narrative structures in the whole of the industry.
ATE: Do you think that’s what keeps players coming back for more?
DO: Yeah I mean that’s probably our unique selling point because we can deliver new content each and every week so there’s this constant sense of, o I need to check in, I need to see what’s new and over time that’s established a community that’s integral to the continued evolution of the game. So say we release a piece of content, the players drop in, they see their friends, they play what’s new and they talk about if they liked it and then we collect their feedback and we can react immediately. Our turnaround is something like three to four months so if a player really likes a piece of content, three to four months later they can get the sequel to that content. Primarily I think that’s defiantly what keeps our players coming back for more, periodic serialised content.
ATE: Okay so if periodic serialized content is your unique selling point, why else should people be playing your game?
DO: Personally I really like the fact that in RuneScape we don’t ever force you into a class, we’ve got all this amazing content and its available to you no matter how you choose to categorise yourself in the game. You will never need to create another character just to access one specific quest and I think that players really respond to that. What we don’t want to do is lock a player in by front loading their game with restrictive character creation sequences that then determine what is and isn’t available to them later on in the game―that’s not our idea of fun.
ATE: So would it be fair to say that RuneScape is a prime example of games being sold as a service?
DO: Maybe, I think it’s more about developing content to match a player’s mood, if a player is in the mood to play some player vs. monster content then we have that. If they’re in the mood to socially engage with other players then we can provide that too. If they don’t want anything to get in the way and they just want to immerse themselves in some production quality, voice acted story content, without all the trappings of social engagement then they can do that. We provide RuneScapers with an outlet for play and its something we’re really proud of.
ATE: If you’re developing content which is able to accommodate any kind of player are you not worried about losing creative control?
DO: In a way yes, there is this argument that by constantly producing the content the players want you to produce you will eventually lose the discovery. At the moment we’re trying to foresee the problems that will come from Power to the Players because for example, if we poll the community and say what would you like this week they’ll almost always say combat. Combat, combat, combat; and so then each and every week it’s just combat, combat, combat and there’s no proportional representation and the minority is now not being catered for at all. What you have to do is you have to be aware of the problem and make sure that there is still diversity and variety in the updates. Plus players always like to be surprised; you can make it so everything is transparent and everything is designed by the players, but I think there is still real value in surprising the players and delivering things that they didn’t know that they wanted.
ATE: So in a way you’re sort of protecting them from themselves?
DO: I suppose so, we are still designers and so we have a pretty good idea of what a player might want even if they didn’t realise that they wanted it themselves.
ATE: This may sound like an odd question, but do you ever see a time when RuneScape is not a part of the Jagex portfolio?
DO: I think because we’re so heavily involved with the community it would be almost cruel to stop supporting them; as long as there’s a group of people who still want to play our game then we will continue developing for them. Old School RuneScape has taught us that you can still maintain a dedicated player base, update the game and interact with the community many years after the fact so I don’t see why you would stop doing it. I can certainly imagine us taking RuneScape and doing other things with it, but I think that the core experience will remain unchanged. We love our community, we try to meet up with them as often as we can and if anything we’re getting even more engaged with them through Facebook and Twitter and I just can’t imagine a time where Jagex is no longer developing content for the players who made all this possible.
ATE: That’s excellent I think your fans will be very happy to hear that; may I just ask, you mentioned that you could see Jagex, “doing other things with it,” are we talking about RuneScape coming to consoles or have I just jumped the gun?
DO: In some form I can absolutely see RuneScape existing on consoles, but in its current form it’s so perfectly suited for the PC. RuneScape has a certain amount of complexity to it and ultimately that means that the UI can get very complicated at times. In its current form I don’t really see how we could translate that core experience to consoles without losing something in the translation―certain things are just never going to feel at home on a console.