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Monday, 28 July 2014

Runescape Revisited


(This is part 2 of a two part post. For part 1 click here)

Over the last couple of weeks I have attempted to get back into Runescape. I've maybe sunk 6-7 hours into the game, which I realise isn't a whole bunch of time to put into an MMORPG - but as a parent it's all I've got. So, after my 5 year hiatus am I going to be picking up Runescape again? No. It's just isn't interesting enough to keep my attention. Don't get me wrong, it's not necessarily a bad game. And I can see why people still play it and why it remains popular. It's just not a game that I want to play. After spending about 3 consecutive hours playing Runescape on Saturday, on Sunday I plugged in my Sega Matter System and didn't look back.

Sir Masarius
That said, the game is still hugely nostalgic for me. As I said, it is where I first came up with the screen name Masarius (although I forgot the password to that account early on – most of my Runescape life has been with Sir Masarius). And to be honest I'm still amazed that Andrew Gower could take some JavaScript knowledge and basic artistic ability and make an extremely successful MMORPG that not only went toe to toe with MMO heavyweights UltimaOnline and EverQuest, but also held its own against the juggernaut of World of Warcraft.

But anyway here is my take on Runescape in 2014; a look at the current game from the point of view of a long time player who last played in 2010. But first a short disclaimer. My recent experience with Runescape was entirely on a free to play server, with comparatively little time invested. As someone who played on members servers for 2-3 years I'm well aware that I didn't attempt to play the vast majority of the game, and didn't give a whole lot of time to learn the new gameplay features. Consider the following to be a 'first impressions' rather than a review proper.


What I Like about Runescape 2014

 

Sensible Streamlining

It was good to see that Jagex had taken some positive steps to make the game more streamlined and over all less cumbersome. 

  • When on a quest the minimap now shows a boarder indicating the edge of the quest area, and often indicates the location of quest specific NPCs. This has the effect of reducing the ambiguity of some of the quests. 
  •  
  • Your character now has a tool belt for carrying skilling tools like farming gear, pick axes and hatchets - meaning that you can have these items on you all the time without having to swap them for your weapons or taking up a valuable inventory space (and therefore allowing for resource gathering). And no more made rush to the bank when you see a shooting star or evil tree. 

  • And they have changed the home teleport spell to allow you to teleport to all the major towns at will, with no cool down period. At first I was very lukewarm to this idea as I felt that getting access to teleport spells was all part of training the magic skill. But then alternative teleports are almost completely unavailable to low level players and people on free to play servers, so the load stones will go a long way towards eliminating the mindless backtracking between training locations and banks for low level players. Lobster fishing on Karamja suddenly seems like a viable idea.
 

Quests 

The quests, at least the free to play quests, have undergone a fairly major facelift. Several older quests have been removed and replaced with newer quests, while many of the others have been reworked to make them more fun and less grindy. And most quests also appear to have received new cut scenes, and some quests are fully voice acted.

Delrith (Runescape Wiki)
I didn’t even recognise the Demon Slayer quest. Demon Slayer is about trying to stop Zomorak cultists from resurrecting the demon Delrith and saving the city of Varrok from destruction. But the original Demon Slayer was a glorified fetch quest requiring you to do menial jobs for several NPCs before finally fighting the demon. The new quest is far more heroic, asking the player to beat three heroic challenges (physical, mental and faith) before drawing the magic sword from the stone, storming the Zamorak compound and confronting the demon. It’s just a way better introduction to the game, a way more entertaining quest, and far more in line with the idea of a medieval fantasy.


It’s clear that Jagex has really upped its game when it comes to production quality.


Path finding

The AI path finding has been improved like crazy. It used to be that you had to hold your characters hand around the game world, making sure he didn’t get snagged up on rocks, walls and trees. Now these problems seem to be gone. In the Varrok sewers I was able to click on the other side of the drain and my character ran through the entire sewer finding his own way through environment to reach the destination. Good work Jagex!


Combat

Jagex has completely reworked the combat system with the Evolution of Combat update. Although I haven’t spent a lot of time learning the ins and outs of the new system, I can see that it has huge potential. Combat felt more engaging. My character (I’m playing as a wizard) felt far more powerful, with access to special abilites and area of effect spells. Mind you, it’s not necessarily a unique system – hot bars and cool down periods have been done before – but it is a huge step in the right direction to making Runescape a far more involved experience. But, then, I seem to be in the minority with this opinion as Jagex has just released an update reinstating a version of the old combat system.  

(source: www.runescape.com)
And combat seems a little more balanced. I like playing as wizards. Always have. If given an RPG I will almost always roll on a wizard. Or a cleric. But magic users in 2010 Runescape were almost completely ignored. Updates tended to focus on melee weapons and armour, and over time melee fighters became supreme death dealers while magic users lagged behind a fair bit. But additional low-mid level wizard robes have been added to the game (even the free game) making wizard armour feel a little bit more fleshed out. And it can be crafted and traded, which is an additional bonus!

All the really good wizard gear is still locked behind grindy monotonous tasks mind you, like the mage training arena and treasure trails. But it’s a step in the right direction!


Graphics

The graphics (particularly around Lumbridge) look great, Jagex are obviously pushing every drop of awesome out of JavaScript that they can. Runescape's graphics have always been unique - a little rudimentary and rough around the edges, but interesting and and detailed. The graphics have retained this quality and are unmistakably Runescape, but at the same time have never looked better.

I am perhaps a little concerned that some aspects of the game art are starting to look a little like World of Warcraft, which at this stage could almost be considered cliché. But at the moment the game looks great.





Why I don’t want to play Runescape 2014

Ultimately the same stuff that put me off the game in 2010 is still valid today. In some cases even more so. But there are also several new things that I just find really off putting.


User interface

The UI has undergone a major upgrade – which on the surface looks awesome, but I found it overly complex and frustrating to use. Yes you can rearrange the UI as you like, which is cool, but everything feels like it is accessed through drop-down menus forcing you to dig through a cluttered UI to find what you want. I’m sure I could get used to it, but the old UI just felt so easy and intuitive.


Members Advertising

When I left in 2010 Jagex was actively trying to remove as many of the members references form the free to play game as possible. F2P had always been viewed as its own game running parallel to the paid members game. Now it’s the exact opposite, and the F2P games advertises members to you at every opportunity. There is a ‘subscribe’ button constantly in the top left of the screen. New skills (like divination) have been added to the F2P game – but you can only get to level 5 then the game constantly bugs you to get members in order to progress in the skill. Upon logging in the UI invites you to vote on Runescape updates, only to tell you to pay up once you get to the voting screen. Etc, etc...

(Source: www.runescape.com)
Divination is particularly nasty, in that if you start training the skill on a F2P server then you also start a task (mini quest) concerning that skill. While this task can be activated in the F2P game, it appears that it can only be completed on a members server. And every time you log into the F2P game it nags you to finish this task.

As a free player I found this to be really annoying, distracting and immersion breaking. Jagex, look, I already know about members – I’ll pay for it the moment I want it.


Micro transactions

Micro transactions are becoming a blight on gaming. I’m a firm believer that a game should be either completely free to play and funded by micro transactions or advertising (the previous Runescape F2P model), or be a paid for app that gives you all the games content for the purchase price. The stuff that you can purchase in-game with real world cash is admittedly limited mostly to cosmetic items. But this is a slippery slope. Just look at Real Racing 3.

This perhaps isn’t so bad for free players. But at the end of the day Runescape membership costs NZ$92.95 a year to play. That’s more than a standard AAA PC game release every single year. The cost of several steam sale games. And a dozen or more indie titles. And Runescape is a game where half of the content is in desperate need of updates. For the asking price, the entire game content should be available for paying members. Simple as that.

And that’s before we get to the Treasure Hunter minigame. This game rewards players with free items and experience in exchange for keys that players. Essentially you are provided with 5 treasure chests, each containing a different item – some awesome and powerful, some not, but all valuable in some way. You then choose which chests you wish to open with the keys you have earned, and get the prize inside. The contents of each chest appears to be randomly generated so there is no way of knowing beforehand what item each chest has. Powerful and expensive items are rare, minor prizes are not.

The give us money screen. (www.runescape.com)
But here’s the thing – extra keys can be bought for real world cash. I can’t possibly see how this is not outright gambling. In exchange for real money Jagex offer the chance to win big prizes in a one-arm-bandit style game. Treasure Hunter must be in a bit of a moral and legal grey zone – particularly given that Runescape is played by a lot of children. I could see this game stimulating gambling addiction. And I would rather just not see it in the game. Is Jagex actually that hard up for cash?

At least it isn't as immersion breaking as the Squeal of Fortune was.... but I still find myself being taken right out of the game every time I open the Treasure Hunter window...


Grinding

Oh yes, the thing that had more impact on me quitting in 2010 than anything else.

Runescape is still a grindfest of a game. Yes, steps have been taken to make it less of a grind – and it is – but it is still a way more grindy game than what I want to commit myself too. Jagex have tried to reduce the grind by offering double XP weekends, free XP through treasure hunter (which I found could give massive XP bonuses if you strike it lucky), and the divination skill. The divination skill is interesting is that it allows you to create divine resource gathering spot that can give you additional resources, and allows you to make ‘signs of the porter’ which automatically transport a limited number of items from your inventory to your bank account – essentially reducing the amount of mindless back tracking to the bank while skilling.

The problem with Jagex’s approach is that it addresses the symptom and not the problem. Grinding skills is boring, so Jagex gives you bonus XP and signs of the porter to make grinding go faster, rather address the actual problem – that the core gameplay for many skills is repetitive and monotonous. How about actually fixing the skills Jagex, and introducing some fun and engaging gameplay?

And the divination skill has the added problem that you have to grind out divination before you get its benefits to use with other skills. Grinding one skill for the privilege of grinding another... Why can’t the mining guild just have a bank deposit box?


Combat and the economy

In my previous post I described how the living economy was my favourite part of Runescape classic, but how that aspect of the game was eroded over time until it was basically nonexistent.

Runescape classic logo (www.runescape.com)
Runescape is still a massively combat focused game. Even more so than when I left. The economy hasn’t been fixed to be more like the 2003-2004 game that I’m nostalgic for. I guess that combat and farming mobs / bosses is just what Runescape is about now. But I am genuinely surprised that in the 5 years I have been gone combat could get two major reworks, the Pest Control mini game could get improvements, new boss monsters, weapons and armours could be introduced... but yet smithing still languishes as a totally useless skill that has not seen an update since, what, 2003?


Time Commitment

Ultimately I just don’t have the time to commit to an MMORPG. This is entirely my problem rather than Runescape’s. Even the skills which have received huge reductions in time commitment to train (and significantly less grinding) since I last played still require a massive investment of time to complete. Doing research for this post I found this reddit thread discussing Runescape. In particular this post by user To_Be_Frank discussing runecrafting;

[...]A skill that used to take around 500 hours and earned you hundreds of million [sic] of gp and a fair amount of prestige was reduced to yet another afk-ish skill that takes 100-150 hours to get to 99, with little to no reward.[...]

Quake - a game I'd rather play than grind runecrafting
150 Hours to grind runecrafting to level 99? Clearly To_Be_Frank sees that as being too easy – but damn. In 150 hours I could play every game in the Wolfenstien, Doom, and Quake series from beginning to end with time left over!

As a parent with a full time job I might have an hour a day to play games. At 150 hours it would take me about 5 months of doing nothing but runecrafting to get the skill to level 99 - whereas if I was playing FPS games I could just about complete an entire title every week. Who actually wants to spend that amount of time runecrafting when there are so many other games you could be playing?

Although, it is nice to see that me and To_Be_Frank appear to share similar views on the Runescape economy (as out of context as the above quote is).



Would I recommend Runescape?

So, would I recommend Runescape? Yes, it’s not a fundamentally bad game – just not the sort of experience that I am currently looking for. If the last 5 years had seen the return of the old economy, or the skills had been reworked to make them fun and rewarding, then I could see me returning to Runescape. But as it stands right now there are plenty of other games that I would rather be playing, and Runescape simply isn’t rewarding enough to keep me interested. At the moment Runescape feels like Diablo as an MMO, and that’s just not what I am after in a game.
 
But, if you are looking for a combat heavy game that you can play with some friends, that has reasonably good quests, don’t mind a bit of a grind, and have plenty of time to spare, then yea I absolutely recommend giving Runescape a shot.

If you are after something more deep and engaging, with a bit more of an economic focus over combat, I would suggest looking else ware.  Perhaps at the many other free to play MMORPGs now available....

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