WarCry Interviews Jagex

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Jagex’s Director of Game Content, Henrique Olifiers, found a few spare minutes in his E3 schedule to have a chat with me about his company’s browser-based MMORPG, RuneScape – specifically the newly released and graphically updated RuneScape HD (High Detail) – about the game’s past, what they’re doing with it right now, and their plans for the future.

Olifiers began with a brief history of Jagex and RuneScape: how Lead Developer Andrew Gower and his brother Paul founded the company in Cambridge in 2001, bringing their love for classic MUDs into the visual realm. The original RuneScape (now referred to as RuneScape Classic) was simply and exactly that: a 2D graphical interface placed on top of a MUD. In 2004, the series made the jump into 3D, becoming the game players know today. With RuneScape HD, said Olifiers, Jagex intends to take another visual step, adding better graphics and more eye candy – and finally moving away from the small browser window to the full computer screen for a more thorough sense of immersion.

Of course, “better graphics” and “eye candy” are certainly relative terms. There’s no question that RuneScape HD certainly looks much, much better than classic RuneScape, and as far as browser games are concerned, it’s head and shoulders above the rest from a visual standpoint alone. That said, the blocky polygons and rudimentary particle effects of even the “High Detail” version of the game would have been less-than-cutting-edge even 10 years ago.

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This, of course, is completely intentional. RuneScape HD may look exponentially more graphically advanced than the original RuneScape Classic, but Olifiers stressed to me that it was Jagex’s intent for players to be able to run HD on the very same computers they used to play Classic back in 2001. Olifiers criticized what he felt was a folly of the modern PC developer – complaining about poor software sales compared to console titles when perhaps 5 percent of the possible playerbase (that is, anyone with a computer) has a machine with the system specs required to run the game in the first place.

Furthermore, Olifiers explained that with the game’s minimal technical requirement comes greater flexibility and adaptability. One of the features of RuneScape HD is that it comes with a full-screen option, no longer being limited to the browser window alone. The game’s full-screen mode works with any resolution imaginable: even after linking four monitors together to create one massive screen, the game upscaled in resolution without a hitch.

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Not only are the game’s minimalist specs a boon as far as graphical flexibility goes, they (along a clever bit of coding) streamline how the game works as well. When I started up RuneScape for the very first time, it took perhaps a minute – at the maximum – for the game to first load. Seconds later, I was creating my character. For a game with almost eight years’ worth of content to explore, this struck me as blindingly fast. This was another facet of Jagex’s philosophy of flexibility and accessibility: the team wanted to create the best graphics they could without requiring a long download or an installation off of a CD. So rather than go that route, the game uses specially-designed algorithms for a procedural generation of textures, creating them in real-time on the fly rather than installing them beforehand. It isn’t a perfect system – every now and then I noticed that a creature’s model would appear before the textures loaded on it, but there’s no question that it’s certainly much faster and more convenient. Olifiers stressed that, like the algorithms to render textures on the fly, there is technology behind RuneScape HD – just not prettier particle effects and higher polygon counts.

For a world the size of RuneScape‘s, being able to generate it all in real-time is no small feat. Rather than launch big expansions every six months or so, the team at Jagex – over 400 in number – updates the game every two weeks with a new quest, NPC, or skill. Literally millions of man-hours have gone into the game thus far, and the numbers tend to agree. Of the 6 million players that log in frequently, Olifiers mentioned that a million were paid subscribers, parting with $5 USD a month in order to access content limited to subscribers only, which he admits is the “coolest” content they create.

Graphics weren’t the only thing to get a boost with HD. The developers at Jagex wanted to streamline the way in which the game’s story is told to players, taking advantage of the new visuals to make the game more cinematic and, well, “MMO-ish.” Immediately after logging in for the very first time, the tutorial had me watching as a knight battled a dragon. My introduction to combat squared me off against a goblin trying to pilfer a nearby treasure chest – but an earthquake knocked a rock onto his head, dazing him and making him an easy kill. With HD, Olifiers explained that the developers were hoping to increase the amount of cinematic content throughout the game.

As for the future? With RuneScape HD, the playerbase has seen rapid growth, and Olifiers affirmed that Jagex intends to continue working on the game as they have been since 2001. While the game might receive further graphical updates in the future, the developers are committed to ensuring that machines that ran the first RuneScape Classic can run whatever iteration of the game they put out next, so the game will likely never become a graphical powerhouse.

He did, however, drop the name MechScape to me as a title that they’ve been working on for the past two and a half years. MechScape, said Olifiers, will take technology beyond what they’ve done with RuneScape, and is also aimed at an older, more advanced audience (if the “sweet spot” for RuneScape is early teenagers, MechScape is aimed at people in their 20s). Though he couldn’t tell me anything more about their new project, I’m a personal fan of giant mecha, so there are plenty of reasons to keep an eye on Jagex in the future.

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