RuneScape Mobile producer on 20 years of RuneScape: "The scary part for me is what happens next"
Executive producer Ryan Ward on cramming RuneScape onto your phone, keeping the game alive during lockdown, and the chances of a Nintendo Switch port.
When RuneScape first launched in 2001, few could’ve guessed that game would still be going strong in 2021, with a brand-new mobile version launching recently to mark its massive 20-year anniversary.
Ryan Ward, who works for the developer/publisher Jagex as an executive producer on RuneScape, explained to RadioTimes.com in an exclusive interview that the longevity of this free-to-play fantasy MMORPG still comes as a surprise to the people making it.
As Ward puts it: “I think it's a surprise every year that we get to do this. I've been with Jagex now for about 21 months and over the last couple of years we've gone to new records - so it's like this machine isn't stopping. That's the thing I think no one would expect a 20-year-old game to go through. It just simply isn't stopping, and so you've kind of got to step back and think about what's at the heart of that - and really it's community, it’s players, it's the demand, it's the interest.”
He added: “We're moving beyond just one generation of players and it's multi-generational right now, and we're trying to learn from that still, and this is why our mobile launch is happening - because there's a demand for it, and we’re like, ‘Let's test this out and see what we can do with it.’
“But the thing that we can hang our hat on is that we've been a very early adopter of cross-play gaming, and that is really the enabler for us to keep going. And what we have to do is, every time we do something new like this, is proving ourselves and proving value and proving commitment. And so we started out as a browser game, now were on Mac, Linux, PC, Android, iOS, and I'd say my mission is to try and get RuneScape everywhere that it makes sense.”
Like everyone, Ward and the team at RuneScape had to change the way they worked and lived in 2020. As Ward remembers it, “I started at Jagex in August of 2019, and then comes January and we're starting to hear mumblings of something happening worldwide. And then I'm getting ready to launch one of our biggest pieces of content, Archaeology, in March 2020. It was maybe 16th March where it's like, ‘Oh wow, we're locking down’, and we had no idea about what was happening, so you go into disaster mode at this point.”
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But RuneScape, like a lot of video games, has been a source of solace for its players during the lockdowns and uncertainty of the past year. Ward told us what it was like during that time “to have a form of entertainment or something that people can latch onto, maybe an outlet for all the crazy stuff that's happening in the world."
Ward remembers that a lot of work was involved in keeping RuneScape going through this period: “I needed to look at a bunch of things,” he says. “Is the world economic stage going to completely change? How many people are going to lose their jobs? You start thinking of all the permutations of this and where this game even fits.
“And so what we tried to do is, actually, really think about and double down on trying to give players an outlet on the things we believe that they care about. Just streamline it in a way that, rather than jumping from a couple of big tentpole releases in the course of the year, what if we deliver a headline and a secondary headline and a tertiary headline, right? Could we possibly pivot some of our plans to think of it that way? And we did that, we changed up our strategy a bit, and I'm trying to figure out how to provide a brighter, shinier future for the game, and so that part is going on as well.”
2021 is upon us now, thankfully, and with it comes the long-awaited release of RuneScape Mobile. But exactly how long has this phone-friendly version of the game been in the offing?
“We had always been keen on getting on the new platforms,” Ward says. “Some ideas and prototyping came about in 2016 and we were trying to figure out how to do it all, and then it was probably in 2018 that we got super serious about mobile.”
As for the thinking behind this move, Ward adds: “Our goal with this is, part of having a living world is that you need to fill it with citizens, and you need beating hearts to be able to do that. We need to reach out to new players and to our 300-million-plus existing fan base on top of that, and so these things have to take on new considerations. Now we have a first-time user experience in Davendale, that is going to be the entry point.”
Adapting the game for mobile did have some challenges, though. Ward recalls, “One of the hardest things about making a mobile game on iOS and Android is all the new hardware platforms. We have almost 9,900 hardware platforms that we are supporting, mostly driven by Android, and we are doing our best to support them all – it’s crazy town and takes a lot of work.”
The developers had to change character movements for mobile and create something called the Canopy X-Ray feature, which allows the player to see through buildings. This is a handy workaround for smaller phone screens that can’t support as many camera angles as a PC monitor.
Some of that work required brand new tools. Ward explains: “We made our own engine, we call it NXT, and this game engine is what allows us to do a 1-for-1 port onto the new platforms. We didn’t go all the way in on mobile - we started with early access, then soft launch, and this gave us an avenue to listen to feedback and to see what the sore sticking points were that needed to unfold in a particular way. This was no small feat to be able to do this – we’re pinching ourselves that we are launching it.”
Touching on the future of RuneScape Mobile, Ward adds: “This is a big deal for us, and the scary part for me is what happens next. We know we’ll be tweaking it and improving it weekly and other leapfrogging efforts will be needed. We have improved things like UI experiences, and now we are working out how do we bring this back into a PC space. We can take these learnings back to PC.”
And on the topic of whether he would consider bringing the game to consoles, particularly the Nintendo Switch, Ward doesn’t rule anything out. He tells us: “I would love to bring RuneScape to every platform that makes sense for us. You look at the audience and demand and the viability.
“There are many different elements that factor into those decisions. I’m particularly interested in the Switch for a couple of reasons. For us, something like the JoyCon is the next problem to solve, and you get to take some of the learnings from mobile for that – so it’s interesting. It’s definitely a possibility, but too early to tell just yet as we’re so focused on mobile.”
And so, 20 years on from the game’s original launch, Runescape is still going strong. It will be interesting to see where it goes next in terms of content, platforms and technical innovations. We’ll be sure to keep you updated as the next chapter unfolds.
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