If you’re a fan of massively multiplayer online role-playing games, you’ve probably heard of RuneScape. If you ever gamed on a low-end PC or couldn’t afford a monthly World of Warcraft subscription, especially during RuneScape‘s mid-’00s heyday, you might’ve even played it.
But what do you really know about RuneScape? After all, despite surviving for around two decades and hosting hundreds of millions of players, Jagex’s homespun MMORPG still doesn’t get the same kind of respect as Warcraft, EVE Online, Final Fantasy XIV, and countless others.
That’s a mistake. Yeah, RuneScape might look rough compared to its peers (cut it some slack — it originally ran in a web browser), and it might’ve been free-to-play before that was even a thing. Don’t dismiss it. RuneScape is just as big, complicated, and interesting as its bigger-budget peers, and it’s spawned just as many controversies, memes, and stories. Sit back, relax, and check out this small glimpse of everything that RuneScape has to offer. You’ll never overlook it again.
All in the family
RuneScape started small. Really, really small. In the beginning, there were only two people working on it: Nottingham native Andrew Gower, a college student with a knack for game programming, and his brother Paul, who designed and wrote many of the game’s quests. RuneScape wasn’t Andrew’s first game, of course. As a teenager, he cut his teeth recreating games that he wanted to play but couldn’t afford, and later helped pay his way through university by making small games for ’90s dot-coms.
In fact, that’s basically how RuneScape started. Growing up, Andrew liked playing MUDs, or text-based online role-playing games that served as proto-MMORPGs, and decided to make his own. His first pass, DeviousMUD, was online for a mere week. Andrew took it down, started retooling it, and with Paul’s help RuneScape was born.
It didn’t take long for the rest of the Gower family to get in on the action. The third Gower sibling, Ian, produced the graphics. Their mother helped make some of the graphics. RuneScape‘s servers originally ran out of one of their parents’ bedrooms. When Andrew and Paul founded Jagex, the company that runs RuneScape, they put up a sheet and converted half of their parents’ kitchen into a makeshift office. Not only did that give them space to work, but it let them record some of RuneScape‘s sound effects, like the sizzling of bacon, live.
The biggest MMO of all time — with the world records to prove it
RuneScape didn’t stay small for long, of course. As Andrew Gower tells Engadget, at launch, the game had two big advantages over higher-budget rivals like EverQuest and Ultima Online. For one, it could be played in a web browser, making it easy to jump right in without an installation disc (back in 2001, those were still mostly mandatory). For another, while other games charged a mandatory monthly subscription fee, RuneScape was free. The Gowers were forced to add a subscription option when the game’s ad revenue dried up, but it was (and still is) optional.
Those factors, plus RuneScape‘s unique and compelling world, were enough to get the game off to a strong start. 5,000 players signed up in RuneScape‘s first week. Two years after launch, nearly 750,000 people had explored Gielinor, RuneScape‘s fantasy kingdom. The game kept on growing. In fact, according to the Guinness Book of World Records, RuneScape has more players than any other massively multiplayer online role-playing game ever made, with 254,994,744 player accounts created since the game’s launch — and that number is still growing.
That’s not the only record that RuneScape holds, either. As of July 2013, fans have spent more time in RuneScape than any other game, playing for a combined total of 443 billion minutes. RuneScape has received more updates than any other MMORPG (well over 1,000), has more pieces of original music than its peers with more than a thousand tracks, and holds the world record for the most number of fish in a video game.
When is a sequel not a sequel?
Compared to its contemporaries, RuneScape‘s never been a visual powerhouse. It was originally designed to run in a web browser, after all, and one of its biggest strengths is how accessible it is, even to players with a low-end gaming rig. That doesn’t mean that it hasn’t been updated over time, however. In fact, the current version of RuneScape is actually RuneScape 3 — or maybe even RuneScape 4, depending on what you count as a sequel.
RuneScape‘s first major update, dubbed RuneScape 2, started production in 2002 and launched in 2004 after a three month beta test. An entirely new engine paved the way for improvements like more detailed graphics, a revamped combat system, improved sound, and much, much more, and RuneScape 2 was quickly renamed RuneScape and replaced the original game. Really, the only thing that didn’t change were players’ stats. Despite RuneScape 2 being "new," Jagex decided to preserve players’ progress. Destiny this ain’t.
RuneScape 3 arrived in 2013, a full nine years after its predecessor, and brought with it better music, a streamlined user interface, and voice acting. However, RuneScape 3‘s signature feature, an HTML5-based game client, never made it out of beta. While the HTML5 version of RuneScape was supposed to make the game more accessible than ever, it was simply too slow to run the game properly. Jagex killed the project and started working on a new client, programmed in C++, instead. Jagex released the client, dubbed RuneScape NXT, in 2016. If you log in today, that’s the version of the game that you’ll be playing.
The past lives on
RuneScape might be constantly changing, but Jagex never forgets its roots. If you want to play an older version, you can. Old School RuneScape, which has been running since 2013, returns players to the halcyon days of 2007 and RuneScape 2, when the graphics were rougher and the game was much, much simpler.
Don’t log in to Old School RuneScape and expect everything to be exactly the same, however. Like the main RuneScape game, Old School RuneScape receives regular updates, although Jagex doesn’t make changes willy-nilly. Every time that the developer comes up with a new feature or piece of extra content, they put up a poll on the Old School RuneScape website. If 75% of the community approves the change, it goes in the game. If not, it’s thrown out. It’s a popular system. In fact, these days, Old School RuneScape has more players than the main game. Thanks to the game’s mobile client, expect that continue.
Meanwhile, if your nostalgia stretches all the way back to RuneScape 1, Jagex has an option for you, too — or, at least, it did. When RuneScape 2 launched, Jagex preserved the original game under the name RuneScape Classic, although only people who’d played the original RuneScape back in the day could log in. Eventually, most of those players faded away. With a dwindling population and cheaters running rampant, keeping RuneScape Classic running started to become more trouble than it was worth, and Jagex decided to retire the servers in August 2018, over 17 years after the game first launched.
Not every spin-off strikes gold
Not everything with the RuneScape name is a success, of course. Over time, Jagex has released a number of RuneScape spin-offs, and not all of them have had Old School‘s lasting appeal. DarkScape, for example, lasted for a mere six months.
Originally pitched as a more hardcore take on the RuneScape experience, DarkScape encouraged players embrace their absolute worst impulses. In DarkScape, certain items could only be bought in specific locations, and the only way to get supplies from place to place was to carry them back and forth on foot. That left you vulnerable to other players — see, in DarkScape, player-versus-player combat was available everywhere — most of whom were happy to mug you, steal all of your stuff, and leave you high and dry (and dead). DarkScape proved popular at first, but over time players went back to RuneScape and Old School RuneScape and Jagex decided to pull the plug.
Similarly, Chronicle: RuneScape Legends, a digital card game based on RuneScape lore, shut its doors after just over two years. RuneScape Idle Adventures, an idle (or "clicker") game, didn’t even make it out of beta.
In-game gold does some real good
Over time, Jagex grew from a two-man operation to a 303-person company. Remarkably, during that expansion, the company managed to hang on to its soul. Jagex regularly mobilises its large and dedicated community for the forces of good, hosting events like livestreams and online auctions that encourage RuneScape players to donate to charities like SpecialEffect, CPSL Mind, and the YMCA.
If you don’t have a ton of extra cash in real life, however, Jagex doesn’t want you to miss out on the fun. Occasionally, you can donate to good causes using RuneScape‘s in-game currency, too. In 2013, Jagex opened The Well of Goodwill. For every one million gold pieces chucked into the Well (or combination of items worth the same amount), Jagex donates a dollar to charity. For every Bond, i.e. the items that let you pay for RuneScape gold or subscription time with real money, Jagex puts $4.70 in the pot. The Well of Goodwill is only open at certain times of the year, but it’s proved to be remarkably successful. In 2013, the year that the Well opened, RuneScape players used it to raise $90,000. In 2014, they blew past that total, amassing a final tally of $160,158.
Of course, the Well of Goodwill isn’t all about altruism. As a side effect, it also helps balance RuneScape‘s economy. See, RuneScape‘s been around for a while, and veteran players have amassed fortunes, making it hard for newer adventurers to score top-tier gear. The Well of Goodwill drains some of that money out of the game, fighting inflation and keeping shops fair, while also benefiting some great causes. It’s a win all around.
Not a prideful moment
Players can make or break an online game, and while RuneScape has hundreds of thousands of dedicated players, they’re not always the most welcoming bunch. In 2017, the outside world got to see just how toxic RuneScape‘s community could be. After one Jagex moderator unveiled plans for an in-game celebration of Pride Month, players started to riot — and things got very, very ugly.
Ostensibly, the in-game riot wasn’t an anti-LGBT+ rally, but was framed as players taking a stand against Jagex’s trend of "sanctioning holiday events for every social/political cause under the sun." If you’ve spent any time at all on the gaming internet, you can guess what actually happened. When the actual riot took place, players donned frog masks in honor of infamous hate symbol Pepe the Frog, dressed their avatars like KKK members, and flooded Old School RuneScape‘s chat with homophobic slurs.
It wasn’t the first time that RuneScape had problems with LGBT+ representation, either. Reportedly, RuneScape‘s chat is regularly home to casual homophobia, and long-time players recall that the community wasn’t too happy when an in-game character, Armadyl, ended up being gay. Oh, and the quest that sparked all of this outrage? It simply involved hunting down rainbows to craft a multi-colored scarf. It only took up seven squares on RuneScape‘s sprawling map, and is totally innocuous. All in all, not RuneScape‘s finest showing.
The worst party in MMO history
Forget Lord British’s assassination, the Corrupted Blood plague, or Eve Online‘s uber expensive Guiding Hand Social Club heist. The Falador Massacre might have them all beat. At the very least, the 2006 slaughterfest will go down in history as one of the biggest, bloodiest, and most hilarious events in RuneScape history — not to mention the absolute worst party that anybody’s ever thrown.
It started simple enough. In RuneScape, you level up skills by using them repeatedly, so maxing out a skill can take a while. That’s why, when a player named Curse You became the first player to max out the game’s Construction skill, he decided to throw a party. A big one. Tons of people flooded into Curse You’s digital home, drinking and partying and partaking in duels via a special arena. Unfortunately, cramming all of those people into a single location made RuneScape lag pretty badly, and Curse You ended up kicking many of them out of his house.
Just one problem: while player versus player combat is normally limited to specific locations in RuneScape, players who were dueling when they were booted could attack anyone, anywhere, at any time. Even worse, the victims couldn’t fight back. Before long, the empowered players were running roughshod over RuneScape, slaughtering innocents and taking their stuff. It was a bloodbath. The carnage lasted for over an hour, and when the dust settled the worst offenders were banned for their crimes.
Oh, and by the way: all of this happened on 6/6/06. Yikes. Leeroy Jenkins, eat your heart out.
Digital crimes equal real-life jail time
If you’ve played an MMORPG before, you know what RuneScape is all about: go on quests, level up your skills, and, most importantly, collect lots and lots of sweet loot. Getting the best items, however, can take quite a bit of time. Why bother doing all that hard work when you can just steal ’em from other players?
Short answer: because that could land you in prison. In 2007, a 13-year-old boy from the Netherlands was attacked and held up at knifepoint by two other RuneScape teens, who forced the poor victim to log into the game and hand over a rare amulet and mask. The assailant’s lawyer argued that the crime wasn’t theft, since RuneScape items "were neither tangible nor material and, unlike for example electricity, had no economic value." The Dutch Supreme Court disagreed, saying that "the time and energy" that the 13-year-old put into acquiring the items gave them an intrinsic value. The mugger was sentenced to 144 hours of community service.
In 2012, it happened again. After a deal to swap some RuneScape gold for real-life cash went bad, one player pointed a gun at another and forced him to fork over the in-game currency anyway. The gun was fake, but the attacker was still charged with grand larceny and attempted robbery. He earned six months in jail for his efforts, as well as 3,000 hours of community service, a $3,300 fine, and five years of probation.
In other words, if you want the best loot? Stick to questing.
The tournament that nobody won
Like almost every other big MMORPG, RuneScape has a cheating problem. Bots, which automate RuneCraft‘s more tedious tasks, remain a major concern. Items like Bonds were designed to stifle the real-world trading markets, where players could (illegally) pay real money for in-game goods. However, despite Jagex’s best efforts (and many, many bans), cheaters continue to thrive.
All of this came to a head in 2017, when Jagex and RuneScape hosted the Deadman Invitational tournament in Old School RuneScape. During the event, Jagex invited the 2,000 best players in Old School RuneScape‘s Deadman Mode to duke it out on a brand new server. In Deadman Mode, player-versus-player combat is available everywhere. The final 200 competitors were divided among four in-game islands. At the end, each island’s victors fought each other in small-scale battles in hopes of taking home the $20,000 prize (plus an extra $10,000 to the winner’s favorite charity).
At least, that’s how it was supposed to go. During the final stage, seven players on one of the islands formed a Survivor-like alliance and refused to fight one another. Jagex accused the players of unsportsmanlike behavior and, after numerous warnings, banned them. That was just the beginning. Some players suffered random disconnects, and blamed their losses on DDOS attacks. Worst of all, after the tournament ended, Jagex discovered that the Deadman Invitational winner ran his very own bot farm. As per Jagex policy, that player and all of his associated accounts were banned too, leaving the tourney in shambles and the $20,000 prize unclaimed.