RuneFest 2018: ‘RuneScape’ Is About to Take the World by Storm on Mobile

Last weekend I was lucky enough to be invited to the English countryside by Jagex to attend RuneFest, their annual fan festival for both RuneScape and Old School RuneScape. Usually I try to be pretty quick with my turnaround on event coverage, but the entirety of this festival was so unexpected that I’ve deleted and rewritten entire articles to try to best convey the experience. Third time’s the charm, eh? To truly appreciate RuneFest, first I need to set the scene that is the greater RuneScape universe, its fan following, and the fact that a game franchise that you potentially never heard of is a billion dollar business that holds three world records: The most users of a MMORPG, the most updated MMORPG, and the most original pieces of music in a video game.

To best explain the vibe of the whole thing, let me share a story: I bought my house in the Chicago suburbs almost exactly five years ago today, and inside of a few months I thought I had discovered everything worthwhile in the area- A great Chinese delivery place, a few good bars, a hipster coffee shop, and practically everything else you’d ever want within a short walk or drive. Then one night earlier this year we were looking for somewhere new to go to dinner, as living in a predominantly Hispanic area, we’ve got our choice of what feels like no less than ten million different equally fantastic places to get tacos.

I loaded up Yelp and on our local feed there was a review that was just posted for a place categorized as a “night club" only a few blocks from my house. This was particularly confusing, as again, we live in the suburbs, and I feel like I’ve walked my dog over every piece of sidewalk inside of a mile- Likely multiple times. There is nothing I’d even remotely describe as a night club here. It turned out I had been living next to a private social club with no signage that I’ve walked past countless times. They have a bar, restaurant, and loads of different activities from (American) football tailgate parties to bingo nights.

We quickly became members, and through just hanging out, eating, and drinking there have run into an absurd amount of our neighbors who are also members but never really mentioned it because they assumed we knew about it. The other members of the club are the friendliest, most welcoming people imaginable, and I really can’t believe this was right under our nose the entire time.

Getting involved in RuneScape, and by association, RuneFest, has been an eerily identical experience. When I started posting on social media about going to RuneFest and getting involved in the game, the amount of friends and acquaintances who have come out of the woodwork who either have been playing the game since they were a teenager or used to play and are still intimately familiar with the entire scene has been … completely dumbfounding. In fact, my mind is still blown by how popular a seventeen year old game still is that I’ve only ever heard about a few times over the years briefly mentioned in discussions surrounding Ultima Online, my absolute favorite game of all time.

RuneScape was originally released as a browser game all the way back in January of 2001. Looking at the timeline of my life, this would have put me closing in on the end of my senior year of high school, and splitting my time between being mad over the many changes Origin had made to Ultima Online since its launch in 1997, enjoying what might have been the peak of EverQuest, endlessly obsessing over the impending release of Dark Age of Camelot, and using whatever mental bandwidth I might have had left to focus on graduating. This all is particularly irritating to me, as like my local club, RuneScape is a game that pushes all my buttons that I only just truly found recently.

Currently, Jagex maintains two independent versions of the game. RuneScape, also known as RS3 is the third major release of the game. Like the previous releases, RS3 was also a browser game, but around a year later they released a full-blown downloadable client. RuneScape at its core plays a lot like many other MMO’s, which makes a lot of sense as Jagex was responsible for developing a lot of the things that have since become the “normal" features and foundations of modern MMORPGs. You create a character, and decide your own fate in the game. You can focus on crafting skills and play the in-game economy as your primary driver, you can focus on combat and work your way through an borderline unbelievable amount of quests, and really anything else you feel like doing inside of the open world.

The wild thing about RuneScape quests is that it’s hard to think of many other MMO’s that delve into the level of depth that RuneScape does in its quest system. It has felt like modern MMORPG’s have really, really simplified what they expect players to do to complete quests. While games like World of Warcraft might have a few in-depth quest lines, most of what you’re doing is quickly going somewhere, killing something, finding X amount of items, bringing them back, and repeating. Comparatively, in RuneScape, quests take hours and span massive, dramatic plot lines.

If you’re not into the fancier graphics and many modern conveniences that have been added in RS3, you can opt to instead play Old School RuneScape (or OSRS) which launched back in 2015. The idea behind Old School is to take RuneScape as it was in 2007, and then update and maintain it as a totally independent game from RS3. Depending on who you ask, OSRS is seen as a more “hardcore" experience, but there’s also heaps of nostalgia that attracts people to the game as it largely is as many remembered how they played it in the early 2000’s.

The really, really cool thing about OSRS (and I think why it’s my preferred flavor of RuneScape) is the way that updates are handled. By now, nearly everyone has gotten involved in a game that has seen “bad" updates that either added content that players didn’t really like, introduced something that was overpowered, or nerfed something that was already underpowered. These are just normal things that happen in game development, as the player base inevitably will disagree with the decisions of the developers eventually. Updates are often usually a surprise, with community feedback typically limited to bugs in brief beta tests or other similar processes.

Old School RuneScape flips all that on its head, as all changes or additions to the game are voted on by the player base, where each account gets one vote. You can take a look at some of the things that have been voted on in the past here, but everything – even minor UI tweaks – need to pass a supermajority vote where at least 75% of the players want to see it added to the game. These different votes are extensively broken down on developer blogs like this one. I’ve never seen anything like this. Even in the most openly developed video games, the final decision for what to do things ultimately lies with the developers.

Maybe I’m just looking for rationalizations to my newest obsession, but I like how “safe" this makes getting super involved in Old School RuneScape feel. I have the worst luck in online games in that I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve sunk a lot of time into something that then gets nerfed into oblivion- Making all that time effectively wasted. In OSRS for that to happen, Jagex would need to pitch the change to the community where it’s then discussed on places like the RuneScape Forums, reddit, and other places where players who are either for or against the change discuss how they’re going to vote. I love how open and democratic this all is. If I’m playing something that after a proposal from the devs, and a discussion with the players that results in a supermajority saying it should be changed, I can’t be mad about that. That’s exactly how live games should be run. If 75% of the players don’t like something I do, it needs to be changed.

Another super neat thing about both RuneScape games is how low the spec requirements are for both games, with OSRS taking even less digital horsepower to run than RS3. You’d be hard pressed to find a computer that still runs in 2018 that can’t play RuneScape. Better yet, because their foundations are so old, the connectivity requirements couldn’t be more minimal. The heart of RuneScape’s netcode is from the dialup days, which when it comes to the mobile port means it’s completely playable in even the worst cellular network conditions. This all comes together to create a game universe that would be difficult to have fewer requirements to play.

The unexpected (to me) side effect of this from talking to folks at RuneFest was that quite a few of the people who play RuneScape these days are playing in part to stay connected with friends and family all over the world. One story in particular I heard was super cool, in that because of the minimal connectivity requirements, soldiers stationed in the most remote places with the worst internet connections are still able to play and keep up with friends. The same can’t be said for most modern games that require things like a computer with a video card, a reasonably low ping, and other things that are just normal for most gamers.

RuneFest was a celebration of all this and more. The festival kicked off on Friday night with a performance by the Royal Philharmonic Concert Orchestra who played an entire orchestral arrangement of popular songs from both RuneScape and Old School RuneScape. I enjoyed the music, but it was also accompanied with all sorts of other things happening on stage which as far as I could tell were primarily based on inside jokes and other game references which were totally going over my head, but the audience really, really got into.

The following day, I got back to the convention center bright and early where there was already a ton of people in line waiting to get in- Or more accurately, get in line for exclusive RuneFest merch. I figured, “Eh, I’ll wait until the line dies down to pick something up," but the line existed until nearly everything was sold out. Instead of standing in line, I made my way into the same auditorium area that had been set up for the orchestra performance the following night.

Again, I had no idea what to expect of RuneFest, having never been before, but found it to be fairly odd that by this time all I had seen was this auditorium which was walled off by floor to ceiling black curtains. As the opening ceremony started, I figured maybe this is all there was to the event? …Then at the end of the opening ceremonies, they raised the black curtains walling off the auditorium and in one massively dramatic reveal welcomed attendees to this full, blown-out fantasy world- It was as if the events team at Jagex built an amusement park, inside of a convention center, for one day, just for fans of RuneScape. I’d never seen anything like this before at a video game event, and I’ve been going to these kind of things for a decade now.

The cadence of the day for attendees involved watching different panels and presentations on the main stage, hanging out and doing different game-centric challenges in the fantasy land setup, mingling with players and what seemed like an army of Jagex staff, and heading upstairs to a enormous room setup with hundreds of PCs to try out all the new things that were announced at RuneFest. In a way it felt like a more intimate Blizzcon, and I never really was able to figure out if everyone just knew everyone else there, or if the RuneScape playerbase was just that friendly- Either way, the vibe was infectious and only pushed me deeper down the rabbit hole of falling head over heels for a 17 year old MMORPG.

Most relevant to me was an extensive demo area with loads of mobile devices set up showing both the mobile clients for RS3 and OSRS. Of course, these aren’t just sitting out in the open, instead, to play the mobile versions you had to make your way across a bridge, through a market of artisans making things like plate and chainmail armor, across a faux forest, passed some steaming lava pits, until you came to a snowy mountain which you could enter. Inside, there were long tavern tables, and flickering lanterns setting the scene.

As far as playing the actual mobile clients are concerned, they work about as well as you expect if you’ve ever played a game designed for a keyboard and mouse that’s been adapted to mobile. The interfaces of both RS3 and OSRS are pretty extensive, and all the different in-game widgets, menus, and other functions are represented by tiny buttons on screen. Tapping on things is the same as left clicking on the PC, while tapping and holding brings up the context menu that you would get from a right click.

It’s incredibly faithful to the desktop experience, which I can see as both a good thing and a bad thing. Good in that if you’re playing on your computer at home you can log in on mobile and be exactly where you left off, completely seamlessly, and do everything you’d ever do on your PC. Bad in that some things can be fairly clunky, even in the early game. Of course, Jagex is quick to point out that both mobile clients are in beta right now, and they’ve got things to work through. I’ll be very curious to see what balance they manage to strike between having this complete seamless experience while having a mobile UI that goes beyond just being completely functional and starts edging into being a great way to play the game for extended periods of time- Or maybe even the way you only play the game.

It’s crystal clear that Jagex is an incredibly player-focused company, so I do not have a single doubt anywhere in my mind that the mobile RuneScapes will eventually be amazing experiences for all players. And, who knows, maybe folks will be so hardcore about playing RuneScape that they’ll be willing to completely overlook any UI awkwardness. Inside of a couple hours of playing, I definitely fall inside of that camp. I’m super anxious to see where everyone else lands. The mobile client for RS3 is currently in beta, and OSRS is hitting both the App Store and Google Play on October 30th.

I personally can’t wait for this game to hit iOS, as I’m playing it on my Android device tethered to my iPhone… Which really just goes to show how bad my RuneScape obsession has become. I can’t think of a time I’ve rocked two phones just to play a game, ever. My main regret is taking this long to get into RunScape, but, as they say-

Better late than never.