When We Made… Runescape Mobile

With RuneScape Mobile passing the one year anniversary of its release, Vince Pavey took the opportunity to chat with Matt Casey and Emma Hall at Jagex about their work on the portable version of the ever-popular MMO.

RuneScape Mobile has a tempting allure to it, being an easily pocketed version of the first MMO adventure that a lot of gamers of a certain age ever played. A fully featured window into the realm of Gielinor that you can take with you on the bus is likely to inspire more than a handful of lapsed adventurers to return, and as it turns out that was sort of the idea.

“RuneScape on mobile, it’s been a great way for a lot of people to reconnect with the game,” says Matt Casey, the venerable MMO’s product director, “Everybody’s since kind of got a bit older, got a good bit busier, got jobs, got families and stuff like that. It’s a game that people tend to drop in and out of, but it’s always kind of there. Part of the reason for bringing it to mobile in the first place was to allow us to reconnect with that kind of lapsed audience and so far it’s been really helpful in bringing people back to the game, just because it’s more convenient.” “If you can remember the password, you’ve still got access to it, then you should have your old character and everything intact.” says Casey.

Lead developer Emma Hall adds “It is the same game, you can log in on PC in the morning, mobile at lunchtime, and PC in the evening, and you will be playing the same character in the same game, in the same places.”

SAME GAME, NEW PLACES

Conventional wisdom would have perhaps suggested that putting a behemoth like RuneScape on phones may have been too much of a gargantuan challenge to even attempt, but in an era of online games like Fortnite letting players just continue their progress wherever they are on whatever platform they choose to, Jagex spoke to its player base and found that they wanted the same treatment.

“Everybody was saying the same thing, they didn’t want a cut down version of the game, or like a spin off, or a pocket version, they just want the whole thing in their pocket, like the whole 20 years of RuneScape. All its content and all its complexity and everything, bundled into a mobile game. So we tried to sort of keep that vision in mind when we built it.” said Casey, proud of their accomplishment, before adding “It’s been quite challenging in terms of how you condense something as big and complex as RuneScape. It’s a full PC MMO, desktop MMO, running on mobile. So that was really one of the challenges. But that was what our players wanted.”

The advent of RuneScape Mobile has of course changed how Jagex designs content for the popular game, but Hall points out that the majority of these changes were just those necessitated by the new hardware’s form factor, saying “If you’re playing on a mobile device, you’ve got a much smaller screen, a lot less real estate, than if you’re playing on a monitor. So there are a whole host of legibility and readability aspects that we need to take into account, like how big things are or how easy it is to click a certain button. This wasn’t necessarily a problem before. If you’re designing new content, you need to think about how to get the most important information to the player in the best way when they only have a small screen. If you’re playing through quests and you’re enjoying the story, you need to be fully aware of what the most important thing on the screen is at any one time. At the end of the day, it’s much smaller, it’s not as visible, so we work around that.”

GRAND DESIGNS

These changes in design methodology have also meant changes for RuneScape on new platforms led to a revamp of in-game cameras, other elements of older game content and even the underlying code, which understandably took a lot of work to get into a reliable state for mobile.

“It’s a 20 year old game, so a lot of content exists. A lot of content that isn’t best suited to be on mobile screen, because at the end of the day, it was made 15 to 20 years ago, when playing games like this on a mobile was, well a ‘no one could ever have dared to imagine it’ type thing” explains Hall. “What we focused on with first moving RuneScape over to mobile was a lot of the intractability of the game. From that point onwards, it’s kind of just been iterative changes and tweaks to content as we go, addressing the most important areas first, and then spreading out, because you can’t port 20 years in one go.”

Casey keenly points out this extra work also helps out development on the PC version, saying “Some of the changes made in the optimisations are kind of global. So things like camera positioning and controls and top level interface, those you can apply to whatever content you’re doing in the game. There are some corners of the game which are so old. The beauty is a lot of that content is stuff that the players, either our active players, or even returning players, have probably been through anyway. So we can kind of start from the more current stuff and the new bosses that we’re releasing and then work our way back from there.” Hall adds, “It’s actually a really great opportunity to go back and improve a lot of our quite old code now, especially to do with our top level interface and things that are many years old. We can just go back and reduce some of that technical debt, which has been, from my point of view, really, really fun. But, yeah, probably not many people would think that.”

Perhaps the first problem to solve from a design perspective was the transition from a mouse with a right click button to tapping a touch screen. Casey elaborates: “We solved that fairly quickly, and the solution was a click and hold. I think because of the way RuneScape is designed, it’s predominantly a point-and-click which is quite an old style of interface, but point-and-click actually lends itself quite well to a mobile environment because it’s equivalent to tapping. So you know, pointing and clicking on where to go, you know, on the screen, seems quite intuitive.” Hall explains that finding the correct timings for these new (or old) actions was still of the utmost importance, to avoid the game feeling laggy to players, saying “Yeah, it’s very much like the finesse of it as well, like things with tap and hold. If you make the delay on that a split second too long, it just doesn’t feel right. So quite a lot of time went into prototyping, trying out different things, you know, kind of figuring out what was actually gonna feel the best.”

The user interface for RuneScape Mobile ultimately ended up being very usable in the game that was released, but actually presented more of a development challenge to the team for a long time.

“We went through I don’t know, three or four different art styles just for like the UI, which took a lot of time. Like, at the end of the day, it took a lot of time to change. It would have been really nice to have a solid UI style that we would have stuck to throughout all of development.” says Hall, before Casey adds “One of the things we learned was don’t design top level interface buttons that are a nice sort of yellowy gold colour, when half of the game is set above a desert. We realised that we had to redesign everything so it actually stood out from the sand.”

Jagex has also considered console ports for RuneScape, but found that despite them being more than powerful enough to run the game, the primary input methods there weren’t really a great fit. “We’ve looked at other platforms. Consoles in general are a challenge mainly because of that issue with the controls. I know the Switch has a touchscreen, but, really, you need something that’s going to work natively with Joy-Cons and gamepad controls. It’s always a challenge for RuneScape, whether it’s mobile, console, whatever, to use that kind of method with a game that was designed for point and click. So I’d say, we don’t have any current plans to go into that space with RuneScape.” says Casey, before pointing out that it doesn’t mean there won’t be a console spin-off at some point in the future. “We’re always exploring opportunities to bring the game and the the universe of RuneScape to new audiences and new platforms. So that might take the shape of a different form, or a different genre, using the lore and the world of Gielinor, but in its current form, it works well on mobile, it works well on desktop, but I think when you’re looking at things like gamepad controls, it gets quite sticky and fiddly.”

HOLDING A CANDLE

Jagex has found that the player base for RuneScape Mobile has been a consistent one, despite slowing down a little bit after a somewhat frantic initial launch window. The move to mobile has therefore been a positive one, allowing the game to reach more players than it ever had before, sometimes in places it never has.

“We had that kind of great problem at the beginning, where so many people were trying to get the game on their devices. We had a really successful pre-registration campaign where players could pre-install the app and get some rewards for doing that. So on day one, when we launched it, a lot of players were really queued up for it. That then meant a huge amount of data being downloaded through our servers and we had to upgrade to keep up with the demand, which is always a great problem to have.” said Casey, “It did mean at the very first launch, some players found it a bit frustrating to get in. I think some of the other things that happened took us a little bit by surprise, right at the outset. We had players from territories that we’ve never really seen RuneScape be successful in playing the game and downloading it. But because we aren’t globally localised at this point, some players who were expecting the game to be fully localised, didn’t get that experience, which was unfortunate for them. We initially got a big surge of players, but that’s settled down a bit. We see about a third of our player base on mobile every day, either playing solely on mobile, or a combination of mobile and desktop, with some players taking advantage of cross play. It stays reasonably constant.”

In the last 12 months, MMOs have seemed to be getting popular again with the releases of New World and Lost Ark. People were shifting to new MMOs, and Final Fantasy XIV got a massive influx of new players, most of which seemingly emigrated from Azeroth, the world of Warcraft. When asked about the changing behaviours of the audience, Casey doesn’t shy away, saying “I’ll be honest, we didn’t feel it much last year. So very often these things happen, that there are big releases, or, AAA releases that come out, and we’re kind of like, ‘well did anything really happen?’ I think the last time we really felt it, when we noticed something in our data, was when Pokémon GO came out. RuneScape fans tend to be very dedicated. So when you see certain things, you think ‘well that’s gonna make a dent’, but then we’re fine. For us, it tends to be quite short-lived if we notice it at all.”

Has it been a success, porting RuneScape to mobile then? Casey believes so, saying “We measure our success by the amount of our players that are engaging. One of the key metrics that we put in place was crossplay. That was one of the goals that we wanted to have. So how many people are engaging, not just on desktop, but using our app as something that helps them play. That exceeded our expectations. The other part was what we said at the beginning about reactivating players that hadn’t played for a long time. That kind of lapsed audience of people that maybe hadn’t played for six months, a year, longer than that, we saw a big increase in players coming back to the game. Again, that was one of our main aims of trying to do this in the first place, as well as trying to reach new audiences, which we did. Bringing back those players that still hold a candle for it in their hearts somewhere, who are like, ‘Okay, I’m gonna give that a go now on mobile’. I think that made it a real success for us.”

About Vince Pavey

Vince is a writer from the North-East of England who has worked on comics for The Beano and Doctor Who. He likes to play video games and eat good food. Sometimes he does both at the same time, but he probably shouldn’t.

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