"Not Ported, Not Truncated" And Bullish On Cross-Play: Our RuneScape Mobile Interview With Lead Designer Dave Osborne
RuneScape's mobile launch is almost here! The venerable MMORPG hits Android and iOS devices this Thursday, June 17, and we recently had the chance to quiz Jagex about the project that is, in a sense, two decades in the making. (And yes, I said "quiz Jagex" because I wanted to use q, z, j, and x together. I win MMOBomb Scrabble!)
Lead Designer Dave Osborne provided the replies, granting us insight into how he thinks the mobile version will fit into the RuneScape family (tl;dr: very well) and what he and his team learned from previous mobile incarnations of RuneScape.
MMOBomb: When RuneScape launched 20 years ago, smartphones and tablets wouldn't even be a thing for several more years. Could you, either as a player or developer, have even imagined that someday you'd be able to take the game with you in that fashion?
Dave Osborne: It wouldn’t have even crossed our minds 20 years ago. I remember arriving in 2006, and everyone thought RuneScape had a shelf-life. Games just didn’t last more than four or five years. It was why we were actively exploring “the next RuneScape”; other MMOs that could carry the crown. Nobody would have seen RuneScape lasting 20 years, and certainly no one thought of mobile. That’s not altogether surprising, as we were all on Blackberries and Nokia 3310s when I arrived.
MMOBomb: Old School RuneScape launched on mobile devices nearly three years ago. What was needed to get the main game to make the same transition?
Dave Osborne: RuneScape needed a lot more vacuum packing to get it to fit! Getting Old School onto mobile was no small task, but RuneScape has so many additions that make the transition more complicated. There’s the fully customisable interfaces, with a magnitude more options immediately available to the player. There’s the more active combat, with abilities and cooldowns to manage. It’s a bigger game, with more content and more expectations of the hardware. We needed to solve all of those to cram onto mobile.
MMOBomb: For that matter, what were the biggest lessons you learned from the OSRS mobile development that impacted the main game's adaptation?
Dave Osborne: From a design perspective, it was the way players interacted with OSRS mobile. So many were using it as a cross-play device, a means to pick up and continue what they were doing on desktop. It makes sense: Players have less and less time to dedicate to gaming, so finding time on bus rides and in other small, free periods is valuable to them.
RuneScape is also moody -- you can play it low intensity or high intensity -- so players were doing the hardcore play like bossing and quests on PC, while mobile was reserved for grindier elements like skill training. Once you know that, it unlocks a lot of design thinking. How can you make it easier for a player to play low-intensity content on mobile? How can you get out of their way?
MMOBomb: COVID-19 has obviously impacted all aspects of our lives over the past year, and we've heard all kinds of stories about how it's affected various game developers. How did it challenge you while developing RuneScape mobile?
Dave Osborne: From a business/RuneScape perspective, we have been incredibly lucky. It’s been a dismal time for so many other people or companies, but we work in the digital space, making worlds for people to escape to. So we are doing well, and players have found a place to belong in RuneScape.
From a team perspective, it has been a huge challenge. We are a creatively collaborative company: we like to prototype, turn around and get others to play. We’ve had to adapt, and we’ve used a lot of creative tools to get us there. Things like Miro have been an online whiteboard for a lot of us to come together. I’d be surprised if we didn’t adopt it fulltime. The team have really knocked it out of the park in terms of accepting this new normal.
We’ve also learned more about what players want from their game during this tough period. The heartbeat of RuneScape is weekly; players expect to check the website and see something new at that cadence. When things aren’t changing up that regularly, the interest wanes. We recognised this and tried to re-capture that weekly dynamism, and players have appreciated that, I think.
MMOBomb: If I'm a long-time PC RuneScape fan, what piece of advice would you give me for getting used to playing on mobile? In other words, what's the biggest difference or change I'll have to get used to?
Dave Osborne: The biggest gap between mobile and PC is in intensive bossing and PvM. It was always going to be that way, as our combat players are used to having dozens of interfaces open at one time, and some of our most exciting encounters have twitch-based elements baked in. You need constant and complete control over your character.
We have seen people take down these bosses in mobile, but it’s more a feat of endurance than something that felt natural. We want to shorten the gap between mobile and PC in this area, but that will come with time. While we are launching now, we will have many more months of incrementally improving these experiences, and we have plenty of ideas how to do it.
MMOBomb: Mod Warden said that you're “looking to break more records this year with the launch of Mobile.” Realistically, though, is there concern that mobile might siphon away some players from the PC version of the game?
Dave Osborne: We don’t think so. The way people have engaged with early access and beta versions, and the way that players have played OSRS mobile, has shown us that mobile is a cross-play platform, primarily. Players are moving seamlessly from one to the other, based on how it fits their lives. That can only be healthy for the game, rather than a detriment.
We want mobile and PC to be mutually beneficial. Any improvements we make will only improve the experience for the other. The community is shared across platforms -- a player choosing mobile is still playing with PC players, and is not segregated in any way. We might find that new players choose to try RuneScape on mobile instead of PC, and that’s fine too: we envision a future where there are multiple means of playing RuneScape, and it’s about choosing the right one for you.
MMOBomb: Finally, we know Jagex has other projects in the works; do you think mobile implementation will be something that you tackle earlier in their life cycles? You know, fewer than 20 years after launch!
Dave Osborne: I’ll leave that for the designers of our other games to internalise, but yes! You can be absolutely sure that mobile won’t be a 20-year journey! That one’s going to be unique to us. But while some may see it as a failing, we see it as a huge positive. We’re the first legacy MMO to arrive on mobile with all the trimmings -- not ported, not truncated -- and you are getting access to a huge community, thousands of hours of content, and a dedicated mobile version of the game, all on day one. That’s not something you see every day on mobile.
About the Author
Jason Winter is a veteran gaming journalist, he brings a wide range of experience to MMOBomb, including two years with Beckett Media where he served as the editor of the leading gaming magazine Massive Online Gamer. He has also written professionally for several gaming websites.
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