Preview: Developer Jagex Wants MMO ‘Runescape 3′ To Be All Things To All Gamers

With this summer’s release of “Runescape 3,” the Jagex team wants to create player engagement in “a constantly evolving world” generated by player decision. Jagex design director Mark Ogilvie says that browser games, have gotten short shrift by the rest of the industry, but with “Runescape 3,” the studio plans to show the genre can compete with AAA titles. With an updated interface and developed using HTML5, Ogilvie says that the MMO will offer plenty of player-centric benefits like community tools and a “tear and share” system (essentially, you can drag, resize, and snap-to menu elements and share your customizations with other players).

But will a revamped interface and a flood of content be enough to hook new gamers (and keep the old ones around)? That’s what Jagex believes.

Ogilvie stood in front of the assembled journalists in a Manchester cathedral, holding a hymn book (presumably containing his notes) while boasting that “Runescape” has racked up over 450 million hours of gaming since the launch of “Runescape 2″ back in 2004, a leader in the “freemium” MMO market.

Okay, so looking at the game, you don’t get the impression that Bethesda or BioWare will have much to worry about in terms of competition on the MMO visuals front (much less Blizzard), but like “WoW,” “Runescape 3″ appears to leverage bright, exaggerated character designs to do a lot with little detail.

Describing the original story, Ogilvie says the world of “Runscape” is thrown out of balance after the death of a self-proclaimed god. He cautions that “Runescape” is a difficult game to communicate to players with screenshots, given the breadth and depth of its non-combat abilities and skills.

“’Runescape’ is more like life–it’s about the journey,” Ogilvie says, rather than actively attempting to complete the endgame. “We’re giving up the driving seat, and letting the player take the wheel,” he says. I wanted to ask him exactly what that means, “player control” one of those phrases that sounds cool on a list of bullet points but is usually hard to articulate even in a lengthy preview.

In “Runescape 3,” the gods have returned, each vying to gain control of the world of the game. The player is tasked with being guardians for the new gods, player choices ultimately deciding which of the gods will take control. The story will be developed over three month events, but Jagex is keeping these plot elements under wraps. But potentially, players will be able to ascend to levels of power that exceeds even that of the gods.

Although HTML5 won’t officially go wide until next year, Jagex wanted to leap into the engine early, hoping to exploit immediately loading areas, longer draw distances, improved lighting, softer shadows, and all without additional plugins or downloads–“you can just play,” Ogilvie says. Google Chrome is, for now, the recommended browser given its complete support of HTML5 (about 80% of “Runescape” users prefer Chrome). Jagex plans to continue supporting the Java version of “Runescape” for the forseeable future, but the studio is also looking to get the MMO onto tablets after this summer’s launch. The game is technically playable on mobile devices, but the pointer-based interface needs to be iterated for touch and tap-enabled devices.

“Runescape” features a weekly release schedule for its episodic DLC (Jagex received a Guinness record for the sheer number of updates), and Ogilvie believes that the developer offers both hardcore kill-the-dragon events alongside gag-centric quests with more in line with adventure games.

Dave Osborne, lead narrative designer talked to us aout developing quest structures that can accomodate multiple branches for the ending given that players will be able to determine the direction of the three month events in “Runescape 3.” He somewhat addressed my question about Jagex’s ambitions for “player control,” comparing “Runescape 3″ to “The Walking Dead” in terms of available options and branches available to a user with an instance-based system. World events are based on global choices, Osborne says with a very definite end result based on the community’s choices–the narrative team, in term, is reacting dynamically to the community choice (he hints that these would be large, world-changing events).

A player isn’t locked by any class they adopt in the game: Jagex leaves the progression system open to players who want to sample a variety of options to develope their character for either deep, tactical combat or a more casual, upgrade path for the gamer who’s playing while fooling around in a Facebok chat window. The goal seems to be to exist as something for every type of gamer in the context of Jagex’s bright fantasy universe.

So that’s the vision for “Runescape 3.” But how does it play? Tomorrow, I’ll walk you through my hands-on experience with the game and tell you if I was enchanted or if the magic is simply gone.

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