Inside the 'RuneScape' Demake That's More Popular Than the Main Game

Inside the 'RuneScape' Demake That's More Popular Than the Main Game

Based in Cambridge, UK, Jagex launched the 'Runescape' servers in January 2001. Last year, the game eclipsed 250 million accounts. Jagex

The UK-based MMO offers players the chance to play the game as it was in 2007

The UK-based MMO offers players the chance to play the game as it was in 2007

RuneScape is eternal. A browser-based continent filled with caves, kingdoms, mountains, and towns – all rendered in simple, construction-paper contours, perfect for the specs of candy-shelled Macs in every middle school across North America. Its accessibility made it a touchstone for an entire generation. RuneScape was there for you when you couldn't cough up the $15 a month necessary for a World of Warcraft account. The combat was rudimentary and the inventory system was arcane, but it lined up with our priorities. It was a way to kill dragons with your friends after school.

Based in the university city of Cambridge, UK, Jagex launched the RuneScape servers in January 2001. Last year, the game eclipsed 250 million accounts. To put that in perspective, that is three times the number of Hearthstone accounts, 20 times the 12 million active subscribers Warcraft peaked with in 2010, and more than twice the number active League of Legends players. We have all left ghosts in RuneScape. Some were abandoned a few paces outside the starting dungeon, some are still sentient and active to this moment. Jagex has expanded and elaborated on their design since those early days – the current version, RuneScape 3, is full of particle effects and ground clutter that would make those decade-old modems wheeze – but a huge part of the community is attracted to the part of the game that never changes. In 2013, Jagex asked their audience if there was interest in a version of RuneScape that replicated the game as it was in 2007 – effectively gutting it of the modernizations and graphical facelifts of the preceding six years. They received 491,000 votes, crushing the threshold of 100,000. A few months later, Old School RuneScape was born.

"It's almost like we brought back the version of RuneScape people have when they close their eyes and imagine RuneScape in their heads. It's part of that rose-tinted glasses nostalgia that a lot of games have, but RuneScape has it in spades," says Mark Ogilvie, design director on RuneScape and the 13th person hired at Jagex. "It's a very dated visual experience, and to those players, it's all about the gameplay, and that gameplay is so special to them, they don't want it to change. I think we were just brave enough to give it to them, really."

In a few months, Jagex will release The Golden City of Menaphos, the first of three expansions planned for RuneScape this year. Players will march across a brand new zone and discover freshly designed quests, items, and enemies. They will stand toe-to-toe with the corrupted god Crondis. They will enjoy a revamped non-combat training system. And Old School RuneScape will receive none of that. It is specifically positioned outside the flow of time; no meddling developer can disrupt your happiness.

Despite all this, Old School RuneScape has actually proven to be more popular than the mainline game. A live stat tracker routinely has Old School with anywhere between 10,000 to 30,000 more players than RuneScape itself. There is a shockingly large Twitch community that streams – exclusively – the same Old School dungeons over and over again. There is no new challenge on the horizon, but thousands of people tune in to watch someone else relive their glory years.

"These are players who've been playing the same game for six or seven years or more. They've grown up with the game," says Ogilvie. "They started as young adults, they went through college, they got a job, and maybe they have families now, and they don't necessarily want to keep relearning the game, even if the steps are minor."

Digital nostalgia is nothing new. If you look hard enough, you can find online spaces that illicitly immortalize long-forgotten MMOs like The Matrix Online and City of Heroes. But Jagex's willingness to dredge up its past is rare. The private servers that recapture World of Warcraft in its mid-decade youth are consistently shut down by Blizzard. Last year the company sent a cease and desist to Nostalrius – one of those "private servers" – cutting off 150,000 active players. Blizzard, of course, is entitled to absolute control over their intellectual property, but the company's complete lack of forbearance in the Nostalrius case was surprising.

"The way it ends up playing out is that the game wasn't as good back then as people remember it being and then when those servers become available, they go play there for a little bit and quickly remember that it wasn't quite as good as what they remembered in their minds," said World of Warcraft lead designer Tom Chilton in an interview with Wowhead in 2010. "They don't play there anymore and you set up all these servers and you dedicated all this hardware to it and it really doesn't get much use."

Jagex chose a different path. They embraced their community's nostalgia. "Old School was the high-watermark [for a certain community of players]. They just have a particular period of time where they think RuneScape was perfect in every way," says Ian Taylor, audio developer at Jagex and someone who's been working on RuneScape since the beginning.

"It's almost like muscle memory. To know where everything is, and where the most powerful things are, and the most optimal ways of doing things," says Ogilvie. "When you embrace that, and you realize that that's where your customer base is, why wouldn't you give them that?"

Alex (who declined to give a full name) is one of those players. Alex first started playing RuneScape 11 years ago and eventually left the game in late 2012 after Jagex implemented an substantial update called "Evolution of Combat." "It really didn't feel like the same game I started playing back in 2005 anymore," Alex says. "I was incredibly excited for the Old School RuneScape announcement back in 2013. Without it, I definitely wouldn't be playing today."

Shortly after the launch of Old School RuneScape, Jagex announced that they would start adding new content to the game by querying the community directly. The development team posts potential suggestions and improvements on a series of polls – "Should we add a toggle for making the left-click option on pets be 'Walk here?'" – and if the number of "yes" votes exceeds 75 percent, the suggestion is coded into the game. Sometimes even the most minor quality-of-life adjustments don't make the cut. The ability to rearrange spells and prayers in your spellbook is the sort miniscule change that's typically buried deep in patch notes, but in Old School RuneScape, it failed to even make the cut, with a mere 68 percent of the vote.

It's a great system for the hallowed, fragile territory of Old School RuneScape. The tastes and proclivities of this community are fickle, so it's smart to check with them before making any sudden moves.

"The main reason I believe that the polling system is in place is to stop any sort of update such as "Evolution of Combat" ruining the game again," says Alex. "It guarantees that most of the community will be happy with the update if it's implemented. Keeping it a game that is community driven and that the community enjoys is the key part of the polling system, if you ask me."

"It doesn't matter how good of an idea we think it is, if three quarters of the playerbase don't agree with it, we won't do it," says Ogilvie. "Giving a player that kind of power is kinda like giving someone keys to the car – you don't know where you're gonna end up."

Jagex knows what they're up against. This development team spends their careers cooking up new ideas and innovations for RuneScape. It's hard to keep your eyes on the horizon while tapping into all the human experiences that draw people to Old School. This game is a bundle of dated assets, mechanics, and sounds, but it's also balanced on a particular nexus of emotions. People lived here. People got married here. How do you design for melancholia? What do they have against a customizable spellbook? How do you account for the feelings evoked by a crude logo when designing a live game?

"It's quite scary, but it's also quite liberating," Ogilvie says. "Creative people get scared when other people are coming up with the ideas. But actually, it's quite an amazing experience because it puts you down paths you didn't expect you'd be on, and it forces you to think about things differently."

Ogilvie and Taylor both expected Old School RuneScape to be a brief fad – they figured players would move on after a few months of gawking – but now, they find themselves dipping into its aging code every month. The team was equally baffled when people started tuning into Old School Twitch streams, but it starts to make sense when you abandon the traditional ways you think about games. Sometimes, nothing you can do as a developer can beat out the longing your community has for an old, low-res longsword model. Your new ideas are up against nostalgia. Old School RuneScape markets a game you used to love, but, surely, also a certain carefree lifestyle that dissolves in adulthood.

"There's something quite therapeutic and relaxing about Old School RuneScape. There are so many YouTube videos of people popping bubble wrap, just menial tasks where everything lines up." says Ogilvie. "There is an order to RuneScape – chopping down a tree, filling your backpack full of wood, and repeating the process. I never thought for a million years that it'd be watchable for a passenger, but I am so wrong. I'm really surprised. But I like being proved wrong."

It's difficult to know how Jagex will nurture the growth of Old School RuneScape. How does progress work when the product is supposed to evoke 2007? How do you keep things from getting stale when a little bit of staleness is part of the appeal? But this company has kept RuneScape afloat for over 15 years; they're used to figuring things out on the fly. "I can honestly say I've never been bored working on RuneScape," says Ogilvie. "The game is constantly changing, there's always new challenges. I can't see how that would ever change." They've transmitted dungeons over dicey AOL connections, and they've returned those same people to the exact place they left their legacy. RuneScape is a dozen different things, and that's what makes it eternal.